BOOKS & THE CULTURE Sweat vs. Equity BY BARBARA BELEJACK Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights by Jennifer Gordon Harvard University Press 384 pages, $27.95 y ears ago when I lived in the Rio Grande Valley I used to go to a mom-andpop caf in downtown Harlingen, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, but whose menu I remember as exceptionally long and ambitious. Whenever you went for lunch, you would page through the listings with great anticipation. But inevitably, no matter what you ordered, the waitress would smile sweetly and announce, “Si, lo tenemos, pero no hay.” Yes, we have it, but there isn’t any. I know a metaphor when I see one. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that caf. In between all the stories about disasters natural and unnatural, the imploding White House, and the quagmire of Iraq, there also has been a recent spate of stories about work and workers: GM workers have been asked to absorb a billion dollars’ worth of health care costs; workers at Delphi auto parts have been asked to take a two-thirds cut in pay. “There used to be a kind of floor for worker welfare,” Leon Fink, editor of a journal called Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,” tells the Los Angeles Times. “But we’re now living in an age in which all those old standards have come unglued.” In the October 31 issue of Time, a 6,515-word piece titled “Broken Promise” details the myriad ways that corporationswith assistance from Congresshave abandoned or will abandon millions of workers when they retire: “a wholesale downsizing of the American dream…. [that] began in the 1980s with the elimination of middle-class, entry-level jobs in lower-paying industriesapparel, textiles and shoes, among others,” and has “spread to jobs that pay solid middle-class wages, starting with the steel industry, then airlines and now autoswith no end in sight.” Si, lo tenemos, pero no hay. Maybe that’s why Jennifer Gordon’s Suburban Sweatshops is such an important and intriguing book to be reading at this time. Gordon writes about people who’ve been promised a different kind of American Dream, with no floor for worker welfare and endless opportunity for disillusionment. Now a professor of labor and immigration law at Fordham University, from 1992 to 1998 she founded and directed the Workplace Project, an immigrants’ rights center on Long Island. In 1999 she received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and began working on Suburban Sweatshops. The book combines labor and immigration history with a painfully earnest critique of the role of lawyers in efforts to organize day laborers and other low-wage immigrant workers. It also offers an assessment of the successes and failures of the project that she founded and which continues to function as “a base from which to carry out some noteworthy experiments in challenging the conditions of work in the underground economy.” Those experiments, she writes, have “changed lives in ways that are more than individual, developing leadership among immigrants who are at once deeply committed to this organization and well positioned to lead future organizing efforts there or elsewhere.” Before graduating from Harvard Law School, Gordon had worked with Central American refugees and had also spent two years visiting factories, restaurants, and other worksites in the Boston area, talking to employers and employees and advising them of their rights with respect to INS. Frequently, the conditions that she saw appalled her and influenced the kind of law she was determined to practice. After securing a modest grant, she arrived in Long Island in time to experience the effects of a dramatic demographic shift. According to the 1970 U.S. census, 95 percent of the population was white; by the time 2000 rolled around, 25 percent were people of color, according to the census figures that in all likelihood were too low. Most of them were foreign born and the majority were Latino. Equally significant was the shift in employment patterns as the numbers of defense industry and other “traditional” factory jobs declined. The International Ladies Garment Workers percent of its membership during the 1980s. Meanwhile, “suburban sweatshops” blossomed. When Gordon uses the term she’s referring not to sweatshops as in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire or sweatshops in the meatpacking or poultry processing industries, but in construction, auto repairs, home renovation, domestic work, restaurants. Some of those worksites are of the mom-and-pop variety; all of them employ immigrants, many undocumented. Working solo out of a oneroom office in a social services agency, Gordon set up shop and began listening to workers and handling their legal problems. What she heard from them has an all-too familiar ring to it: Jorge Bonilla was hospitalized with pneumonia after sleeping all winter on tablecloths mounded on the floor of the Long Island restaurant where he worked, the heat capped at 50 degrees. He had been evicted from the room where he had been living because his wage of 30 cents an hour was so low that he could not pay his rent, even working 80 hours a week. As a live-in domestic worker, Yanira Juarez cared for two children and cleaned house in Suffolk County. Duped by her employer’s claim that 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 4, 2005
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