Monthly Archives: April 2009

Exploiting My Sister to Dress on a Dime: Social Class Intersections within the Clothing Industry

It seems that high-end spending among America’s affluent class has gone underground in response to the current economic recession.  In particular, some wealthy women shoppers are asking cashiers at high-end stores to put their purchases in plain white paper bags so that store and clothing labels are hidden.  Other wealthy women want their expensive clothes shipped home so they can walk out of posh stores without any bags at all.  Still willing to drop $10,000 on a shopping spree, the women say covert spending is “the right thing to do” during a recession. Now isn’t this socially responsible spending and consumption?  Or is it?

Sarcasm aside, it’s too bad these women are thinking only of their own image, not the exploitation of those who make America’s clothes.  Consumer polls suggest that few Americans consciously seek to oppress women in low-wage jobs within the clothing industry.  And many Americans report they would pay more for clothing to ensure that garment workers are treated fairly and outside of sweatshop working conditions. On the other hand, there is the Harvard University study that found that concern over sweatshop labor flies out of the window if people desire a product strongly. (See “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Jeans are Cute:  Motivated Moral Disengagement.”)  Thus, what people say versus what they do may differ.

Some people may not know or fully understand the ramifications of their purchasing decisions. This includes upper-middle class shoppers who flock to designer outlets stores, such as Saks Off Fifth, Nordstrom Rack, and Neiman’s Last Call. So, here are some things for us to consider the next time we head out the door in search of another great steal and perfect outfit:

§  Many of the 2 out of 5 women who work in low-wage jobs are employed as sales persons and cashiers in retail clothing stores. Earning $8.00 less per hour than the average worker in private industry earns, these women often live at or below poverty level, work inflexible or unpredictable work schedules, lack health insurance and retirement pensions, and have little opportunity for career advancement.

§  The cost to the consumer for low- wage employment in the retail industry is reportedly higher taxes for food stamps, Medicaid, and other poverty relief programs. Therefore, over the long run, we all “pay” the cost of low- wage employment in the retail clothing industry, and it would seem that few people realize true savings from purchasing clothes at bargain basement prices.  We might also consider how failing to demand better wages and working conditions for low-wage workers contributes to their exploitation. And because the “cost” of low-wage employment is passed to the consumer, we exploit ourselves when we exploit our “sisters.”

§  As many as 50% of all U.S. garment factories are reported to be “sweatshops” that violate labor laws and workers’ human rights. For example, in what has been described as “one of the worst sweatshops that [New York] state inspectors have visited in years,” workers routinely worked a 66 hour, six-day work week at $3.79 an hour, far below the states’ minimum hourly wage.” The factory, which produces clothing for Macy’s, Gap, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret, did not pay for overtime and reportedly fired a worker for taking off one Sunday to see a doctor. This report mirrors documented reports of long work hours, mandatory (unpaid) overtime, starvation wages, constant pressure to meet high production orders, restricted bathroom breaks, verbal and physical abuse, and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions (e.g., poor ventilation and broken toilets) at other garment factories. Not surprisingly, given their sizeable immigrant populations, New York and California are notorious for sweatshop abuse.

§  About 90% of all sweatshop workers are women. Most of the women are young Hispanic and Asian immigrant women, who often do not speak English, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. These are the women behind the labels of the clothes that we wear.  Their exploited labor allows us to “dress on a dime.”

At what point will we consider the moral dimension of our spending and consumption? And when will we address the systemic problems that lead to sweatshops and low-wage employment in the retail clothing industry? For example, the lack of a livable wage, the reduction in middle-class jobs, the unchallenged, unregulated consolidation of power among a few retailers in the global economy (oligopoly), gender subordination, and social class subordination/social class privilege. When?

Denise A. Narcisse

The Real Future of the Working Class

As the economic crisis deals another blow to American manufacturing, I’ve been wondering about something my brother-in-law asked me last fall:  the good working-class jobs seem to be disappearing, so what will become of the working class?

It’s a good question, and the answer is pretty discouraging.   Between the mid-1940s and the early 1970s, strong contracts negotiated by industrial unions, national policies such as the GI Bill and National Highway Act, and several decades of growth by American industries created what many thought would be the permanent reality: working-class jobs that could fund middle-class lives.  Three decades later, some still equate the “working class” with blue-collar industrial workers, and we still believe that working people deserve a chance to achieve the American dream.  Even as unions have accepted reduced wages and benefits and retirees have struggled to survive when the promises of earlier contracts are abandoned, we still see manufacturing jobs as good jobs.  Globalization and technology have allowed manufacturers to make more – products and money — with fewer workers, or at least with fewer workers here.  But even as reality shifts, we can’t let go of the ideal of the good manufacturing job.

All of that is coming to an end, leaving the working class with two options.  The one we hear about most is education.  That college is the path out of the working class has become received wisdom.  And yes, many of the occupations that are projected to grow over the next two decades require college degrees.   While attending college can mean piling up debt and offers no guarantees, education will help some working-class people find their way to new middle-class jobs.

But college isn’t an option for everyone, and about two-thirds of jobs do not require a college degree.  Indeed, some of the fastest-growing occupations require little training.  Manicurists, skin care specialists, fitness instructors, and preschool teachers need only a certificate or license.  Other growing fields require even less.  On-the-job training is all that’s necessary for security personnel at casinos, janitors, or home health and personal aides.

At first glance, then, it would seem that today’s displaced workers have reason to be hopeful for the future.  23 of the 30 jobs projected to produce the largest job growth over the next decade don’t require a college degree, and many don’t even require special training.  Who needs factories?  Beauty salons, medical offices, and casinos will provide the working-class jobs of the future.

But there’s a catch.  The pay is lousy.  The average annual salary for a beginning steelworker (assuming that such a position exists) is $35,590.  After five years, that steelworker would bring in over $50,000.  The starting salary for a manicurist is $21,280, and it tops out at about $32,000.  For home health and personal aides, the #2 and #3 fastest growing jobs, the salary hovers around $20,000 a year.

It’s not news that the American economy is shifting away from manufacturing and towards service.  Nor would anyone be surprised to hear that while service jobs are sometimes safer, cleaner, and less physically-taxing than working in a steel mill, they don’t pay as well.  But let’s think about what this means for the future of the working class and the future of America.

If nothing else, this will clear up all that confusion about who is working class.   As the majority of working-class jobs become low-wage jobs, we won’t have to worry about how to determine the social class of a high-school graduate working on an assembly line but earning over $50,000 a year.  Income, education, and social position will line up neatly, as they did before the 1940s.

But it also means saying goodbye to the American dream.  Home ownership and saving for a child’s college education are beyond reach if your salary hovers around the Federal poverty rate of about $22,000 for a family of four.  True, some families have multiple wage earners, and many working-class families will be able to earn about $45,000 annually – a good $15,000 below the suggested national livable wage.  And many households struggle to survive on one low income.  As the working-class moves into these low-income jobs, the ranks of the working poor will grow, and the proportion of the working class who are comfortable and financially secure will shrink.

Some will suggest that the working class deserves its economic difficulties.  Want a decent life?  Go to college.  Too “lazy” or can’t afford to go to college?  Tough.  So much for the idea of valuing hard work, much less our moral and social obligation to ensure that anyone working full-time deserves a living wage.

Yet having a large proportion of the population living on the economic edge increases demand for governmental and charitable support, creates a cycle of poverty that’s difficult to escape, and undermines the broader social fabric of American society.

I don’t have a solution beyond the obvious: raise wages.  The only way to get there is to recognize the emerging reality: even if many more people attend college, we will still have a large and growing, hard-working, low-paid working class.  All the discussion about education as the key to stabilizing the economy ignores the real future of the working class.

Sherry Linkon

Hoop Dreams and Bootstrap Journalism

Sports and class go way back.  Sports writers often talk about teams, coaches, and players in terms borrowed from the language of class.  That was evident last week as the NCAA basketball tournament drew to a close.  As many commentators noted, the final match between Michigan State University and North Carolina was more than simply a game,  especially for MSU whose team was described as having blue collar, rust belt values and carrying the hopes and dreams of a deindustrialized region.

Popular culture often relies on misrepresentations that reinforce negative stereotypes of the working class.  In his documentary Class Dismissed, Pepi Leistyna outlines how television especially stereotypes the working class as both unintelligent and lazy and often reactionary in their political beliefs. The working class is only valorized during sporting events. Both teams and individuals are lauded for their commitment to hard work, attention to detail and task, and their toughness.   While television sitcoms often lampoon the working class, in sports working-class people – especially men — are often heroes.

A similar pattern applies to communities.  As we’ve found in studying representations of Youngstown, deindustrialized communities are often described as survivors.  They are seen as tough, proud places where hard work and commitment to others are valued.  In case of the NCAA championship game, the commentary and references to the working class and to Michigan as part of the “rustbelt” assigned extra significance to the tournament.   MSU’s success, some suggested, provided hope for workers in the region who had been displaced by disinvestment and deindustrialization.  The tournament also offered psychological relief from the pain and anxiety of unemployment, as well as an economic boost to a struggling city.

Talking about the team and the tournament in these ways falls into the category of what I call “bootstrap journalism” – reporting that emphasizes the ways that people and communities are “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”  It focuses on survival and hope, but that often, unfortunately, excludes serious analysis of the causes and effects of the economic problems associated with deindustrialization and unemployment.  In other words, it ignores the real experiences of people in the region.

I’m not suggesting that sports writers shouldn’t use working-class imagery to talk about sports, or that the excitement of seeing an area team make it to the finals isn’t real.  Indeed, sports success matters.  A successful team can give a struggling community a new identity, both locally and nationally.  As British sociologist James Rhodes has recently argued in a study of how boxer Kelly Pavlik has become a new symbol of Youngstown, winning athletes can help create positive images for their hometowns.

And I’m all for the idea that winning something, whether it’s a boxing match or a new factory contract, helps people feel hopeful, and hope counts.  Hope can give people the energy to work through difficulties.  We see that in the success of Barack Obama’s campaign.  Hope is audacious.  And  powerful.

But it isn’t enough.   It can’t address the underlying economic realities that have given Michigan among the highest unemployment rates in the country.  It can’t in itself provide jobs or clean up abandoned properties or reduce crime.  It will take more than a positive attitude to do that.

So, yes, we should respect and appreciate the strong values of working-class culture and the way economically-displaced people and deindustrialized communities keep on struggling to survive.  And we should also analyze the causes, effects, and most important solutions to the problems they face.  That means we have to look beyond stereotypes. We have to stop blaming either workers or their communities for causing what is in fact a global economic change.  We must also develop more realistic expectations for what it means and what it takes for people and communities to recover from economic hardship.  Recovery often isn’t simply a matter of positive attitudes and hard work.  Our bootstraps are broken.  America’s working class needs serious attention, better policies, and real change.

John Russo