Blogs > HNN > Robert D. Parmet: Review of Daniel Soyer's (ed.) A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005)

May 28, 2006 9:32 pm

Robert D. Parmet: Review of Daniel Soyer's (ed.) A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalization and Reform in New York City's Garment Industry (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005)

Robert D. Parmet is professor of history at York College of the City University of New York. He is the author of"The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement.”

A friend of mine in Manhattan’s Garment District, whose business was suffering, recently complained to me that the area’s decline was so severe that a book to describe it should be written. Daniel Soyer has edited a collection of essays, A Coat of Many Colors , that achieves that goal, and much more. This volume, a product of the Sweatshop Project, a Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Institute sponsored by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and UNITE, covers New York’s needle trades from the nineteenth century to the present. Soyer’s introduction includes a concise narrative history of the needle trades, but the book mainly follows paths laid out by such scholars as Nancy L. Green (one of the contributors) and Roger Waldinger and focuses on geographic and ethnic dynamics, small entrepreneurs (“cockroach capitalists,” according to Soyer), and global competitors. These essays discuss workers rather than union leaders, with scant mention of the latter.

Intensely human, most of the essays discuss ordinary people. Soyer pays particular attention to the contractors, the universally despised entrepreneurs who were at the heart of the industry, and were those most closely identified with the sweatshop. Contrary to Jacob Riis and other contemporary critics, Soyer notes, the Jewish contractors and the Jews who worked for them in the 1890s were not culturally mendacious or filthy; the sweatshop arose from “the economic structure of the industry,” where levels of an “industrial hierarchy . . . ‘sweated’ profit from the level below.” In embracing industrial unions, Hadassa Kosak adds, the Jewish immigrant community adopted principles of “fairness, social responsibility, and social justice.”

As this rich volume demonstrates, the needle trades workforce was increasingly diverse. Though many Italians worked in clothing factories at the turn of the twentieth century, according to Nancy C. Carnevale, “Italian women and their children represented as much as 98 percent of all home [garment] finishers in New York City.” In later years, as Ramona Hernandez notes, Dominicans entered the industry, often as entrepreneurs, in part as a result of a Jewish and Italian exodus. To complete the picture, Margaret M. Chin describes how Mexicans, Ecuadorians and Koreans created their own niches in the garment industry, each group addressing its own economic and cultural concerns.

In the book’s third and final section, following ones on the industry’s geography, entrepreneurs and workers, Eileen Boris describes the activities, into the twenty-first century, of the National Consumers League, organized in 1898. “A champion of fair labor—an ally of, though separate from, trade unions,” the NCL has sought “to push corporate ‘social responsibility on a global level.’” “In the 1990s,” it became “a major player in the fight against the global sweatshop.” As such it collaborated with several organizations, most notably UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, and in 1998 helped forge the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP), which aimed at the self-regulation of United States firms. The greater problem, though, is in organizing the new global garment industry. By tracing the NCL’s attempts to raise international labor standards, Boris provides insight into some of the difficulties of that task.

A Coat of Many Colors serves as a guide to New York City’s garment industry. Its essays reveal that change, as well as the desire and ability to deal with it, have been constant. Today’s problems are real, as is the industry’s resilient heritage.

comments powered by Disqus