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Just Garments Closes; Forced to End Effort as Sweat-free Producer
May 15, 2007: The closing of Just Garments a few weeks ago marks a sad end to a valiant effort to establish a unionized maquila in El Salvador producing for the sweat-free market in the North. Despite Herculean efforts by the union and the plant administration that have come at great personal and professional cost, Just Garments was not able to overcome the opposition of local forces, the cut-throat nature of the apparel industry, the lack of development of the sweat-free market in the North, and its unique approach of essentially operating as a unionized cooperative.
September 2007: To support Just Garments workers still waiting to receive severance and backpay, visit our Donation Page. Be sure to write "Just Garments" in the comments field.
A Short History of Just Garments
Just Garments traces its roots to a maquila union organizing campaign at a Taiwanese firm, Tainan Enterprises, in El Salvador in 2001. The union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Industrias Textiles (STIT), won legal recognition in July 2001 but nevertheless faced typical anti-union reaction by the company, including the firing of union leaders. From the beginning, the STIT union at Tainan was supported internationally by the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF), the AFL-CIO, and USLEAP, as well as by the Salvadoran NGO CEAL.
At the time, Tainan’s clients included Kohls, Target, and Gap. While Kohl’s and Target proved unresponsive to requests for intervention, Gap engaged Tainan once it was requested by the union and its allies. While Gap accounted for a small part of Tainan’s production in El Salvador, it was one of Tainan’s biggest customers globally. Tainan was eventually persuaded to reinstate the fired union leaders in late 2001 and agreed to meet with a “labor committee” to resolve problems. But the union’s troubles were just beginning.
On April 18, 2002, the union asked for contract negotiations. A week later, Tainan shut down its Salvadoran operations, quickly prompting a vigorous international campaign that was eventually joined by many members of the anti-sweatshop movement. The campaign was characterized by close and an unusual tri-national coordination between Salvador (STIT and CEAL), the Taiwanese NGO Focus on Globalization, and groups in the U.S. (USLEAP). The tri-national campaign began targeting all of Tainan’s major customers, several of whom agreed to intervene with the manufacturer. The campaign culminated in a tri-national day of action led by the Campaign for Labor Rights, USLEAP, CEAL and Focus on Globalization on June 13. In the U.S., Foot Locker was the day’s target.
Shortly after, Tainan agreed to send its top-level management to El Salvador to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. Negotiations were facilitated by the ITGLWF and accompanied by the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, USLEAP, Focus on Globalization, and UNITE, among others. A resolution was not immediately reached, however. UNITE took up the campaign for a resolution, focusing on Gap as part of a broader campaign against the brand.
A second round of negotiations between STIT and Tainan subsequently took place in San Francisco, leading to a resolution in late 2002 that was witnessed by the Solidarity Center, Focus on Globalization, and Gap.
The resolution marked a significant, if incomplete victory. For the first time, Central American workers won the reestablishment of a maquila factory that had been shut down in the face of union organizing. Tainan agreed to the establishment of a new company, with a board of directors comprised of one representative from Tainan and one from the worker side. Tainan also agreed to provide machinery and initial capital to get the unionized factory off the ground and to provide technical support. In April 2003, the new venture was launched as Just Garments. UNITE and Gap later reached an agreement under which Gap confirmed it would place orders at the new factory, issuing a press statement declaring the Just Garments victory as “the country’s first independent and fully unionized apparel export factory.”
Just Garments was hailed as a major victory by the anti-sweatshop movement, especially important in El Salvador where independent unions had until then been unable to win a collective bargaining agreement despite numerous efforts, many of which were supported by international campaigns.
The enthusiasm and support of the workers, the union, and CEAL was tempered by difficulties that Just Garment began to face from the beginning. For example, local businesspeople refused to rent Just Garments its preferred space and the government refused for months to release Tainan’s sewing machines to Just Garments. Salvadoran employers and the Salvadoran government had no interest in seeing Just Garments succeed.
Perhaps most importantly, Tainan’s technical support was virtually non-existent. USLEAP and others urged Tainan to send an experienced maquila manager to El Salvador to assist Just Garments in its effort to establish a maquila factory from scratch but Tainan refused to do so. Just Garments, effectively Gilberto Garcia (who had helped to organize the union at Tainan and later agreed to serve as the union’s representative on the Just Garments board when other candidates declined to do so) and STIT, were thus forced to take on a task for which they had no prior experience: setting up a maquila factory. While it was a challenge they tackled with vigor and commitment, it was not surprising that Gap declared initial samples produced by JG to fall short of acceptable quality. (While some thought that Gap’s rejection of JG samples was motivated by an effort to sink the factory, quality problems subsequently appeared when No Sweat placed an order for pants for the holiday season in 2004.)
Gap worked extensively with Just Garments in an effort to increase the technical abilities of the factory, financing an assessment of the factory and its needs, identifying companies that could assist Just Garments in developing a productive operation, even assisting in the purchase of a key piece of equipment. However, deep-seated suspicion between Gap and the union hindered communications and the ability to develop a business relationship based on sufficient trust. Finally, in the fall of 2004, Just Garments and Gap agreed to a proposal, which essentially amounted to a buy-out of Gap’s engagement with Just Garments. Gap agreed to provide $124,000 as a business development grant, intended to secure technical support and provide investment capital. Under the terms of the agreement, Gap would not place orders in the future.
Additional help for Just Garments came from the Workers Rights Consortium and the United Students Against Sweatshops. A campaign against Lands End over the use of a supplier, Primo, that blacklisted union supporters was resolved when Lands End agreed to provide Just Garments with technical assistance and material. The blacklisted workers were then employed by Just Garments. Over the course of the short life of the Just Garments factory, many more groups and individuals, in addition to those mentioned in this statement, pitched in to support the Just Garments dream, campaigning especially in support of efforts to encourage the placement of orders at Just Garments.
In the fall of 2004, Just Garments made the decision to produce for the burgeoning “sweat-free” market, essentially stating that it would and could not produce for major brands and still operate as a “sweat-free” factory. The new business plan was launched with renewed enthusiasm but, in retrospect, it proved to be an idea ahead of its time. Despite the growth of the sweat-free market in the U.S., the market remains small and fractured. Securing “sweat-free” orders from the U.S. proved to be not so easy. Sweat-free Communities, a crucial component of the anti-sweatshop movement in the U.S., has noted the importance of understanding and addressing the nature of the still-emerging sweat-free market in analyzing the Just Garments experience before launching a similar effort in the future.
During all this time, Just Garments was incurring debt while trying to pay workers, rent, electric bills and more, with only small bursts of income. Through the sheer force of the union’s commitment and Gilberto Garcia’s will and optimism, Just Garments kept itself alive with occasional orders, creativity of the workers, and efforts to create new initiatives to get the factory on its feet. Several initiatives were explored that could have produced the increase in support that was necessary for the factory to get on a firm financial and productive footing, but none of the initiatives succeeded. Just Garments was forced to take up subcontract work, which pays the least and offers no security for long term business survival. (This “strategy” had originally been rejected by the union in its first round of negotiations back in July 2002). Every month it operated, Just Garments went more deeply into debt. Several appeals for funding support were made, simply to pay for basic costs, including electricity and, in December 2005, salaries and a holiday party.
In December 2005 STIT initiated a campaign directed at the Superior Uniform Group, a U.S. company that was using a local Salvadoran company as a contractor that in turn had sub-contracted to Just Garments. The campaign sought a resumption of orders and a better price for the subcontracted work. The campaign was successful in securing a resumption of orders but the orders were insufficient, both in terms of quantity and price.
In the same time period, the plant manager at Just Garments resigned from his position. He had worked tirelessly and believed in the Just Garments vision, but was unable to sustain his efforts given that he too was not earning a stable salary. Since his resignation, the factory has been managed essentially as a worker cooperative.
Throughout these trials, the Just Garments legal representative, Giberto Garcia, and the union (STIT) conferred and jointly made strategic decisions about the direction–and survivability–of the factory. More than once they came close to deciding to close the factory. Under these circumstances, that Just Garments survived as long as it did was a small miracle, but it was a miracle borne on the backs of the remaining workers and Gilberto Garcia.
Just Garments was close to folding when SEAC International LLC, a new company created to import products for the sweat-free market in the U.S., entered the picture in February 2006. Though SEAC was viewed at first with great optimism when it agreed to provide a large loan to implement a new business plan, relations between SEAC and Just Garments turned sour with recriminations from both sides after Just Garments was unable to repay the bulk of the loan, much of which was secured by individual pledges from anti-sweatshop supporters in the U.S. Just Garments has asked for mediation to resolve the dispute but SEAC has so far declined and instead pursued legal options. As this could be a matter subject to litigation, we will make no further comment other than our regrets that this has become a campaign matter.
Reduced to a workforce of just three dozen workers, the factory was forced to close when the landlord padlocked the building on April 2, 2007. Since that date, Just Garments has been forced to cease operations and seek legal recourse to gain access to the plant to carry out final proceedings for bankruptcy and closure.
Some Workers Dissent
Not surprisingly, the idealism of a unionized cooperative producing for the sweat-free market was eventually punctured by the continuing economic difficulties of the factory. Some workers wanted to continue the difficult struggle, others wanted to give it up, and some quit in protest over the lack of consistent work and wages. Employment fluctuated according to whatever jobs Just Garments could arrange, often with the help of campaigns in the North to encourage buyers, like Superior Uniform.
Some of the dissatisfied workers have sought and received the support of local Salvadoran human rights and women’s groups (some of which have previously been accused of being antagonistic to unions). These groups recently and publicly denounced Just Garments as a sweatshop. That is not the view of the STIT union, which represented the majority of the workforce at the time of the closing and has issued a statement of protest against the characterization. Nor is it the view of the national labor center, the Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (CSTS), to which to majority of legitimate labor unions in El Salvador are affiliated.
As the union has publicly stated, the factory has promised to meet its legal obligations with respect to severance and the costs of closing. Efforts are underway to help Just Garments secure the funding necessary to close with dignity. These efforts include a legal process initiated by a group of STIT members and a negotiated mediation to determine compensation for the Just Garments workforce. At this point in time, support for these legal efforts is necessary to ensure that Just Garments has access to the factory’s remaining assets to make good on its obligations. Many of the same tri-national organizations that were involved in the creation and sustaining of Just Garments are supportive of these efforts.
Whatever the factual basis of the charges cited by these groups, what is clear is that Just Garments was a qualitatively different operation than any other maquila in Central America. It was not operating to profit big brands or its local management but had a mission and vision in which it sought to provide a positive experience for a unionized workforce (indeed, one of the outside criticisms of Just Garments, from the industry, is that workers failed to work at the rapid pace considered normal for sweatshops). In the end, Just Garments could not overcome the enormous obstacles it faced.
Lessons from the Just Garments Experience
The lessons from this experience certainly need to be examined and discussed, but this is the subject for another, broader forum. We know that the history of unionized worker cooperatives is mixed and this is not the first such effort to have failed to survive as an oasis in the capitalist marketplace.
The fight for worker rights in the Central American maquila sector has been characterized by courageous workers but few tangible victories in the form of unionized maquilas with collective bargaining agreements. The closing of Just Garments is a loss to all of us who have a vision of an alternative to our current global economy in which most workers are denied respect, decent wages, and a voice at work. For a period, Just Garments offered hope, inspiring thousands of anti-sweatshop activists and maquila workers throughout the world. Those who struggled so mightily at Just Garments to realize an alternative vision deserve our support, and gratitude.
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