A united front

by Harry Sheff

The heavily unionized men’s tailored clothing factories of the U.S. are enjoying the popularity of American-made products.

Despite some fierce battles and a divided public, unions representing tailored clothing workers in the U.S. are optimistic.

As this issue goes to press, more than a thousand men’s tailored clothing jobs were saved when Authentic Brands won the bid for HMX, with the blessing of the union.

Noel Beasley, leader of Workers United, sounds calm. “The men’s tailored clothing industry is heavily unionized,” he says. “I would say well in excess of 80 percent of these workers are in unions.” Fortunately, he says, there’s been relatively little acrimony between union clothing workers and the companies they work for.

Ethan Snow, a spokesman for the Unite Here New England Joint Board, emphasizes that unions have played a vital role in keeping factories in the U.S. “The manufacturers where we represent workers are in the U.S. because we helped them: we sat down with them and figured out what we can do to keep these jobs here.”

With a few exceptions, the unions seem most comfortable talking about traditional issues, like comparative margins on garments made domestically and overseas, the high quality of American manufacturing and how much safer American facilities are than Asian sweatshops. But quality and safety (despite some high profile tragedies in Asian factories) are less tied to country of origin anymore, and high margins aren’t the only reason for outsourcing. The most compelling reason for buying American isn’t about style, fit and quality, either. It’s the loftier ideal of American self-sufficiency and skilled craftsmanship. It’s our longing to return to a time when, as Beasley says, men wore hats and suits to casual events, when garment workers could support families.

Has the increased awareness of American-made products at retail had a positive impact on union workers? Beasley, whose union represents workers at IAG, Hart Shaffner Marx, Hickey Freeman, Hugo Boss and Martin Greenfield factories, says yes, but he’s focused on larger issues of patriotism and politics. He recalls victories for the Hugo Boss factory in Cleveland in 2010 and the Hickey Freeman factory in Rochester in 2012, but he’s concerned about the economy in general.

“In the industrial heartland of the U.S., there are political forces that are doing what they can to undercut the rights of workers,” says Beasley. “All of the legislation and political conflict in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio recently, along with the passage of Right to Work laws in Michigan, all represent reactionary, regressive political forces that are trying to drag the working people of this country backwards to the 19th century. The country is divided on these issues, but more and more, we’re remembering what unions have produced in this country, and what we have to lose.”

Snow, whose union represents workers at factories for JA Apparel, Southwick, Sterlingwear and New England Shirt Company, says union workers must be part of any expansion in American manufacturing. “If the industry is coming back to the U.S., it has to involve workers, otherwise we’re going to get the same problems we see in developing countries where the worker is just a cog in the machine, not valued as a craftsperson.”

Skilled labor may be tough to come by, but so are jobs. “In the 1980s, there were still 10,000 tailored clothing jobs in the Chicago area,” recalls Beasley. “That number’s probably down to fewer than 2,000 now.” Much of that existing workforce is immigrants. “For example, at our Hart Shaffner Marx factory in Chicago, close to 40 percent of the workforce there is immigrant Chinese women. They’re very supportive union members and they’re doing a terrific job. If you think about it, the garment industry was always where immigrants started their lives in America, and we’re seeing that here.”

The issues facing union clothing workers are the same as those facing many other Americans: job security in the face of low-wage outsourcing and the rising cost of healthcare. And then there’s the recession. “All working people were hit hard by the events of 2008 and 2009,” says Beasley. “Garment workers were damaged by short work weeks and the instability of the companies they work for, like many other manufacturing workers in this country. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the depth and enormity of the economic crisis. It created a very deep hole that’s taken a long time to climb out of. But in certain sectors, like men’s tailored clothing, we’re climbing out of that hole faster.”

The outlook, according to both unions, is good. “We’re seeing a number of our factories expand operations, hire new people and delve into markets they hadn’t been involved in before,” says Snow. “For example, Sterlingwear of Boston, where we represent about 200 workers, is known as the Navy’s supplier of peacoats. They’ve historically had a lot of military contracts. Now that there’s uncertainty about military budgets, Sterlingwear is building up their civilian market. And with all the ‘buy American’ publicity, factories like JA Apparel have seen a spike in orders for suits and have had to hire more stitchers.”