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Sender: o-imap@webmap.missouri.edu
Date: Tue, 14 Jan 97 11:30:34 CST
From: Weekly News Update <wnu@igc.apc.org>
Subject: NY Global Sweatshop Conf Report
Article: 3808

"The Global Sweatshop: Alternatives and Resistance"
New York City, Dec. 7, 1996

Organizers' Report and Evaluation, 28 December 1996

"The Global Sweatshop" was a one-day conference which a number of local New York activist groups organized to focus on the global economic policies (widely known as neoliberalism) that drive workers into sweatshops, and the dynamic and creative resistance that these policies have encountered throughout the world. The immediate goal of the conference was to give a broad range of groups an opportunity to discuss the connections between different aspects of the neoliberal program, to consider various models of resistance from around the world, and to develop and debate strategies for activists here in New York.

The following report is based on notes various people took at the conference, on evaluation forms turned in by participants and on an evaluation meeting the conference organizers held on Dec. 19. Full notes from the workshops are available (212-674-9499 or nicadlw@earthlink.net). In addition, WBAI-FM, New York's Pacifica station, taped the entire conference.

1. Participation

"The Global Sweatshop" was initiated by CREED (Campaign for Real Equitable Economic Development) and the Learning Alliance. CREED is a two-year old coalition of local international solidarity groups, including the Colombia Multimedia Project, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and the Nicaragua Solidarity Network. The Learning Alliance organizes classes and other educational events in the New York area, with an emphasis on building networks among local grassroots organizations. Several other groups sponsored the event: the Brecht Forum, the Disney/Haiti Justice Campaign, the Immigrant Workers' Association, the Latino Workers' Center, and the Columbia Student Labor Action Coalition. The groups held weekly meetings from late October until the first week of December to plan the conference, publicize it, and try to involve other groups in the planning.

The conference organizers projected 40-60 participants. As it turned out, 58 people registered at the door, and at least 10 more (mostly conference organizers) failed to sign in. Of the 70 or so participants, about 30 were women. To judge from the surnames on the sign-in list, 20-25% were Latino or Haitian in origin, but less than 10% were Asian. (Translation was available for English and Spanish but not for other languages.) The vast majority were longtime activists. Many were connected with the sponsoring organizations, and many had been involved in Latin American solidarity or immigrants' rights work. There were also a number of organizers from various unions or rank-and-file caucuses, including AFSCME Local 1707, the Transit Workers Union and the UNITE Garment Workers' Justice Center; many of the union members also had a long history of work in international solidarity.

The participants were generally quite serious and focused on concrete proposals and organizing strategies. What was especially important, given the conference's goals, was people from different organizations spoke very openly with each other--and listened to each other. Several participants remarked afterwards that there were more points of agreement between the organizations than they had realized before the conference.

2. The Panels

"The Global Sweatshop" was somewhat experimental in its format. The organizers tried hard to avoid the sort of conference where the emphasis is on big-name experts lecturing to a more or less passive audience. At "The Global Sweatshop" the panelists themselves were best known as organizers and activists (which doesn't mean that they weren't experts); their brief presentations were intended to stimulate discussions both during the two panels (held in the morning) and during the workshops (which took up the entire afternoon).

The topic of Panel 1 was "The Impact of Neoliberal Economic Policies and Sweatshops." The panelists were: Cesar Ayala (Latino Workers Center), "The News Wave of Attacks Against Immigrants"; Silvia Federici (Hofstra University), "Neoliberalism in an Historical Context"; Christian Lemoine (Disney/Haiti Justice Campaign), "The Impact of Neo-Colonialism on Haiti--A Case-Study in Sweatshops."

Panel 2 was on "Fighting Back: Experiences and Strategies." Ellen Braune (National Labor Committee), "Media and Organizing Strategies"; Miguel Maldonado (Immigrant Workers' Association), "The Garment Industry and Strategies to Organize Garment Workers"; Ana Maria Romero (Gabo Workers Union, El Salvador), "Organizing Conditions and Strategies in El Salvador."

3. The Workshops

The workshops were organized by groups and individuals with a focus on their own ongoing activities. The groups were encouraged to use the workshops to publicize their campaigns and involve more people in them; the workshops were also intended as brainstorming sessions where groups and individuals could make concrete proposals that would be circulated to a wider audience. The conference organizers couldn't put together two of the workshops, the ones on corporate campaigns and on workfare, but hope to address the topics in the future.

Session A-1: "Exploring Different Sweatshop Organizing Models" The workshop featured two speakers, and then was opened up for discussion. The first speaker was Bertha Morales, a former sweatshop worker now organizing with the UNITE Justice Centers. She said the union started the centers three years ago (there are now 10) in part as a means to attract garment workers who may not be union members or who may be afraid to join unions. Workers come to the centers with a common set of problems: immigrant status, the need to learn English, and ignorance of their legal rights. The centers help new workers learn organizing and leadership skills, and try to open the lines of communication of the workers, who are generally from Latin America but come from different countries. The centers try not to foster the illusion among participants that the union is a "superhero"; all participants need to assume the responsibility to fight for their rights rather than depend on the center to protect and defend them.

Ana Maria Romero, from the Gabo Workers' Union, El Salvador, said that union leaders in the Free Trade Zone where she works are subject to constant bribery by management. When a union leadership is elected, management follows the leaders to their homes to offer them money in exchange for leaving their union posts. Many leaders are weak and accept the bribes, and this inspires disillusionment among the rank-and-file. The "clean" leaders try to win the ranks over in spite of this difficult situation. They hold meetings in the union federation, and also attend and organize recreational events to encourage people to become more involved: birthdays, parties, excursions, etc. It is difficult, but not impossible to organize in the free trade zones.

While no specific followup strategy was developed, all involved thought there was clear progress in all the different solidarity groups and unions present having gotten together, sharing mailing lists, etc. Several suggested meeting next time at the Justice Center or the Latino Workers' Center with the hope of involving NYC sweatshop workers in the discussion.

Session A-2: "Corporate Campaigns" Cancelled.

Session A-3: "Gender Issues in the Workplace and in Workers' Organizations" There was a major focus on why many women weren't at the conference, or at the workshop. One important obstacle was the lack of dependable childcare, that comes from valuing the work of childcare and prioritizing it within progressive organizations, as well as within the community/at the workplace. Other issues that affect women and inhibit potential to organize are privatization of healthcare, lack of low-income housing/no rent control or rent stabilization, language barriers, and especially new welfare and immigration laws affecting women, especially single mothers. The Latino Workers' Center has programs addressing: 1) work on weekends, 2) creating informal spaces for general discussions on various topics, 3) workshops on health, self-esteem, 4) scheduling meetings among women who live or work near each other, 5) the need for bilingual organizers.

Followup: Plan a conference for women, organized by women, with a concerted effort to reach out to women in many organizations and different communities that we know. To do this, the workshop scheduled a planning meeting for Sunday, January 19 at 2:00, at the Learning Alliance (324 Lafayette Street), with child care (hopefully by men) that is well-organized with interesting activities. The goal of the conference would be to provide information on specific topics such as health care, housing (section 8), immigration laws, child care initiatives, that would also look at possible strategies for organizing and the need for women to do this.

Session A-4: "Confronting Structural Adjustment at Home and Abroad (by Targeting the IMF, World Bank & World Trade Organization" The workshop came up with eight goals: 1) educating working people in the US about the connections between their declining standard of living and the policies of supra-national institutions; 2) resisting union-busting and supporting unionizing efforts; 3) applying the term "neoliberalism" more often to the US context, so that it will be easier to make the connections between the policies in the US and in the Third World; 4) supporting and publicizing fair trade efforts, rather than just being negative about international trade; 5) giving presentations in high schools and colleges; 6) not forgetting the role of the US government in setting up the international institutions (WB, IMF, WTO), which are supposed to be accountable to us; 7) improving communication between organizations that are working on confronting structural adjustment at home or abroad (domestic and international solidarity) in the New York City region, possibly with a regular newsletter to act as a resource for exchanging information between groups; 8) educating ourselves more about what is happening through self-determined study groups.

Session B-1: "Designing an International Campaign to Defend Working People's Rights" The workshop focused on the examples of international solidarity campaigns that try to take direction from the sweatshop workers organizing within the countries affected, specifically CISPES' "Defending Working People's Rights" and the Disney/Haiti Justice Campaign. Groups have found that support for labor organizing in countries like El Salvador can result in employers retaliating against workers; many people in the US oppose corporate power, but the tactics we use sometimes have negative consequences. It is important to develop direct ties with workers' organizations before calling for boycotts or other actions, since maquiladora workers in Haiti, for example, are against boycotts; working closely with unions can help avoid solidarity tactics backfiring.

There was also discussion of ways to show how the international issues relate to the lives of ordinary people here in New York, and also of ways to reach out to other groups. Considerable debate followed a proposal for some method of certifying products by companies that comply with labor rights standards. Another concrete proposal was for a special conference to educate and organize students around international labor issues.

Session B-2: "Campaigning for a New Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants" The Latino Workers' Center is pushing for a new amnesty law for undocumented workers on the model of the law passed 10 years ago. The law's supporters argue that there are 3-4 million undocumented workers who have been here for over a decade: they're here to stay, but they live in fear. Supporters think the existence of undocumented workers hurts legal workers by dividing the two groups. Supporters feel a new amnesty is feasible because Clinton won due in part to a significant Latino vote and many Latino Congressmen need the Latino vote.

Others argue that a new amnesty law won't solve the problem in the long term because there will always be new waves of undocumented workers coming in, and that it is most important to get undocumented workers to see themselves as workers, rather than get bogged down in the amnesty issue. But the Latino Workers Center feels that while the solution is imperfect, it is important to swing the tide away from a situation in which many Latinos are repressed by the police, whether or not they are citizens. A discussion will begin in January about how to tackle this campaign, and the Center invited all involved to participate.

Session B-3: "Getting the Word Out: The Media and the Public" The street theater and alternative television people who were invited were unable to attend, making the workshop small and unfocused. However, a number of strategies were discussed: 1) making an inventory of resources for alternative media that we have in the New York City area so that we can consider more efficient ways to utilize them; 2) promoting street theater; 3) promoting a poster project, similar to Vermont's Resistant Strains project; 4) getting unions to fund a weekly newspaper again, as 1199 did during the state budget battles two years ago; 5) organizing workshops with sweatshop workers which would allow them to produce their own art; 6) producing programs through community access cable; 7) organizing participation at the Learning Alliance's Jan. 31-Feb. 1 conference, "Freeing the Media: an Independent Media Teach-In/Speak-Out."

Session B-4: "Organizing Workfare Workers" Cancelled.

4. Evaluation

"The Global Sweatshop" was intended, among other things, to gauge the level of interest among local activists in resisting the neoliberal agenda, which until recently most people considered esoteric, remote from everyday life and impossible to organize around. It was significant that some 70 people turned out for an all-day conference on the issue, without the draw of celebrity speakers, and in a time when most activists are complaining about demoralization and the "rise of the right." It was even more significant that the participants were activists who had proved their commitment in the past, that the discussion was serious, concrete and strategic, and that such a wide range of groups were represented, including some that haven't had great success in working together in the past. In its much smaller way the conference indicates what the October immigrants march and the public outrage last spring over the Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshops already suggested: that resistance to neoliberalism is a live issue in the US and one which will grow in importance over the coming months as the real meaning of welfare and immigration "reform" becomes more obvious.

The conference also showed significant gaps that need to be addressed in future work. As the gender workshop participants pointed out, the conference organizers had failed to make adequate provision for childcare, or even publicize its availability; this is an intolerable omission when organizing around economic policies that especially victimize women. Another problem was the failure to get more participation from Asian groups, since Asians are major targets of the neoliberal program, both in Asia and in New York City. The organizers--whose background was mostly in Latin American solidarity work--had made efforts to involve Asian groups, but clearly much more work needs to be done. Finally, future organizing has to include workfare workers. New York's workfare program already involves some 35,000 workers and is slated for massive expansion; it is also considered a model program for other US cities. Any New York organizing around neoliberalism has to have strong participation from workfare workers and other victims of welfare "reform."

5. Followup

The conference's organizers feel that the real test of "The Global Sweatshop" will come in the followup. The planning for the conference and the event itself pointed the way towards greater cooperation among a number of grassroots organizations--whether in more ambitious forms such as coalitions and joint actions or in more limited ways such as networking or sharing resources. A number of concrete proposals came out of the conference, including a women's conference, a student conference, a newsletter, a study group, a campaign for a new immigrant amnesty law, joint media work and many others.

There will be a public meeting to discuss these and other followup proposals. This will be on Saturday, Jan. 18 at 2 PM, at the Latino Workers Center, 191 E 3rd St (bet Ave A & B). The agenda for this meeting will be discussed at the monthly CREED meeting, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 PM at NY CISPES, 19 W 21st St, 5th fl.

There will also be two other meetings dealing with issues brought up at workshops:

Weekly News Update on the Americas * Nicaragua Solidarity Network of NY 339 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012 * 212-674-9499 fax: 212-674-9139 http://home.earthlink.net/~dbwilson/wnuhome.html * wnu@igc.apc.org