Guess Again: Revisiting the Last Major US Apparel Union Campaign at 25

In: Journal of Labor and Society
Justin McBride Department of Urban Planning, Luskin School of Public Affairs, University of California Los Angeles, 337 Charles E. Young Drive E., Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA,

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the last major union organizing drive in the United States apparel sector. unite ran a difficult five-year campaign against Guess jeans, the largest apparel label in Los Angeles’s then powerful apparel industry. Though the union used a complex web of strikes, boycotts, and employment law suits, victory eluded unite. This article recounts the multi-year fight through interviews with key union-side figures, supplemented with an analysis of contemporaneous press clippings and legal documents. Findings challenge existing scholarship on the campaign. The union was more innovative in fighting Guess than is often acknowledged, but failed to follow up on its efforts in the la sector, abandoning apparel workers to a race to the bottom. The piece also finds evidence that the core strategy of Guess might have been successful in mitigating effects of globalization on sectors with extensive supply chains.

1 Introduction

In late July of 1999, denim giant Guess1 announced the global settlement of a wage and hour lawsuit for violations at sixteen Los Angeles area sewing contractors. Although the firm denied any responsibility, Guess was willing to pay out $1 million to former apparel workers for past wage theft.2 The settlement ended a multiyear fight between the firm and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (unite), though the settlement pointedly did not include recognition for the union. The bitter four-year long struggle had spilled into the streets, shopping centers, and courtrooms across Southern California. Although Guess perhaps did not realize it, the settlement also effectively ended more than a century of apparel worker union organizing in the United States.

Twenty years after the settlement, this paper revisits the understudied Guess campaign, a pivotal moment in American unionism, and tries to re-evaluate lessons. Only limited scholarship has explored the Guess campaign. The successor union to unite, Workers United, also speaks little about the campaign, unsurprising given that it ended in a stinging loss. Yet the campaign was a key part of a unique moment in US labor history. Though now mostly forgotten, Guess was one of the major immigrant-based organizing campaigns in Los Angeles in the 1990s, a time and place noted for extensive organizing. It deserves a closer look for this reason alone.

Long before such tactics were widely used, the Guess campaign involved minority strikes, joint liability arguments through a multi-layer chain of production, and ample use of wage and hour enforcement strategies. All of these tactics have become prevalent in low-wage worker organizing in la and across the country; all were innovative for the time. Arguably most importantly, although the campaign was a failure from a union organizing perspective, it may provide a roadmap to future victories for a strike-based organizing effort throughout a chain of production. Finally, the core motivation of the Guess campaign, to find a place for US unions in a globalizing (or globalized) supply chain, was not necessarily flawed, although in the case of Guess it did end in a setback. In the current era of global supply chains and broad logistics, tackling firms with heavy US footprints and holding them responsible for working conditions across the world remains a key problem.

More importantly, many of the core issues and strategies from the Guess campaign are still very salient in labor organizing today, and not just in the apparel sector. Through elaborate contractual relationships between labels and manufacturers, the apparel sector of the 1990s involved fissured workplaces that regulators were (and for the most part still are) completely unprepared to combat.3 Guess campaigners aggressively raised issues of joint liability throughout Guess’s supply chain, both in moral and legal terms; this issue is still being debated in policy circles 25 years later. At the time of writing, the National Labor Relations Board (nlrb) is actively moving the benchmark on who is responsible for labor law violations across supply chains, and jurists across the country are debating questions of ultimate responsibility for wage theft in contract-based workplaces.

The Guess campaign also dealt with the effects of free trade legislation, which undeniably created pressure on easily exportable work. In the intervening quarter century, apparel manufacturing has become the posterchild for footloose capital. Some critiques of the Guess campaign paint the loss as a casualty of free trade and a poor analysis of the industry’s direction. These critiques ignore that many unions were able to continue organizing production workers after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta). Far from being ignorant of the risks, some Guess organizers thought their strategy would have actually filled gaps in free-trade policy if it had been successful—a potential remedy for nafta, not a casualty. A victory at Guess could have been a pattern for establishing power in other easily exportable industries, as well as for a more humane and less degrading apparel industry.

The Guess campaign unfurled during a broader reckoning within the labor movement around organizing new members. When John Sweeney became the new president of the afl-cio in 1995, his New Voice campaign had promised to organize the unorganized and grow the labor movement. An immense wave of organizing swept the country, and in particular California, during the time. Bruce Raynor, the vice-president of unite, was the front-person for Sweeney’s vision for organizing across the movement.4 Guess campaigners participated in several key afl-cio organizing programs of the era, including housing Union Summer interns and sending Guess workers to various solidarity actions throughout California.

unite was itself a new organization at the time of the campaign, founded in a merger of two apparel unions. The merger unfurled right as organizers and workers went public against the jeans firm, and at the time the apparel industry across the US was unsure what a new and more powerful apparel union might mean for their production networks. Yet the merger also carried some liabilities, as two vastly different organizing cultures converged in 1990s Los Angeles (and other parts of North America). The conflicts between these unions, though sometimes overblown, absolutely played a role in the Guess campaign.

The apparel industry continues on in Los Angeles today, essentially union free. The ‘no sweat’ moment of the 1990s, when it was de rigueur to question where our clothing came from, is a distant memory. Today’s apparel labels traffic in public-relations based self-policing to justify the most horrendous labor conditions imaginable both here in the US and around the world. We all clutch our pearls when a tragedy like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse occurs and briefly demand answers, and quickly return to ignoring the inevitability of exploitation in a zero-margin zero-liability industry. Was another world possible, one where apparel organizing still held a pivotal place in the US labor movement as a counterbalance to globalization?

There may be no way to paint the Guess campaign as a success for labor, but the campaign had successful aspects. An exploration of the campaign’s strategies, successes, and failures still have significant value and may be instructive for current organizing efforts. After a brief discussion of methodology, this study sets the stage by revisiting the conjecture of the union, the firm, and the labor movement in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, followed by a history of the campaign itself, with a focus on the strategies involved, and closing with a discussion of what we can learn about Guess from today’s perspective and what it can teach us about organizing in fissured or globalized industry.

2 Literature Review and Background

The Guess campaign unfurled during the New Voice moment in US Labor history. In 1995, the same year the Guess campaign began initial tentative public steps, John Sweeney was elected as head of the afl-cio in a progressive challenge to the incumbent. Several progressive labor academic thinkers lined up with new labor leaders to help them improve their chances of winning.5 While most unions of the era continued to build organizing committees and seek nlrb certification votes, the corporate campaign took on increased importance in union organizing. Essentially, corporate campaigning involves an intense focus on the corporation itself, through actions directed at management, shareholders, funders, or other aspects of a firm not directly tied to the workplace itself. Frequently, corporate strategies are combined with other aspects of struggle, including but not limited to shop floor actions, strikes, nlrb certification votes, or wage and hour action. In combination, these comprehensive campaigns allowed unions to seek a neutrality agreement or a contract.6 A study of campaigns from the era showed that comprehensive campaigns which included multiple approaches combined with an nlrb election provided the best outcomes for organizing drives.7

In recent years, some scholars have begun to argue that, during the Sweeney era labor came to rely too heavily on corporate campaigning at the expense of worker organizing on the shop floor and in the community in the comprehensive model. McAlevey, in particular, has criticized this conjecture as being elitist and straying from authentic member-focused unionism.8 This vein of scholarship has called for a return to the strike as the paramount manifestation of worker power.9 The recent wave of teachers strikes has inspired many to revisit the strike as a key organizational tool for uniting membership, above and beyond its power to disrupt production processes.10

Still, there is little consensus what to do about low-wage workers in fissured workplaces—industries where the firm setting conditions of work is not the employer of record, and is typically insulated from legal liability by multiple intervening layers.11 In this context, where labor is easily replaced, the strike poses some challenges. These types of industries have bedeviled the labor movement over at least the past forty years, as fissured work became increasingly common in the 1980s. Wage theft is rampant in fissured industries,12 and workers who want to stand up for their rights face significant challenges in pursuing legal claims.13

In some low-wage immigrant industries which are spatially fixed by the nature of the work, unions have been successful with the comprehensive campaign model of a combination of bottom-up organizing and top-down corporate campaigning, particularly in the property services and hospitality sectors.14 These strategies have even been useful in workplaces where there are multiple layers of employers.15 Sweeney’s afl-cio, arguably, was a champion of this type of campaigning, through such efforts as Justice for Janitors, the Building Trades Organizing Project, and the United Farmworkers strawberry campaign.

Others have been more likely to point to worker center organizing as a remedy for conditions in exploitative or low-wage industries.16 As 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, worker centers cannot solidify victories into collective bargaining agreements, though some independent worker centers do partner with unions and some unions have provided seed money for prominent worker centers. While worker center models are successful in helping individual or small groups of workers create change in their own workplaces, perhaps winning wage claims or disrupting exploitative business models, they sometimes struggle with building consolidated industry power or scaling up big enough to threaten entrenched industry power structures. This problem is not insurmountable, however. Some organizations, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida or the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, have been able to negotiate significant changes across entire sectors.17

Other scholarship explores policy change as a tool to further worker interests when workplace organizing is unlikely to make meaningful change due to a lack of structural power.18 Some have argued for sector-specific laws to regulate industries which over-rely on low-wage immigrant labor to improve the organizing climate.19 Others suggest the only solution is improved enforcement by the state, to level the playing-field before any true industry change can occur.20 Giving workers a role in the enforcement process can drastically improve outcomes.21 Los Angeles in particular, around the time of the Guess campaign, became a model for involving immigrants in the political process to improve a climate of state oppression of workers.22

Yet, despite all of these efforts and approaches, wages remain shockingly low in many fissured industries, including apparel. A 2008 landmark survey of over 4000 low-wage workers in the three largest labor markets in the US and found that one in four respondents earned less than the minimum wage in the week before they were surveyed.23 The problem was even worse in Los Angeles.24 All of the above strategies—corporate campaigns, comprehensive approaches, strikes, worker center models, policy change, and legal advocacy—have had successes, but no recipe for low-wage precarious work has emerged as a one-size fits all model.

The apparel sector presents some unique challenges for organizers and workers. Two conditions, the sweatshop and runaway production, have long plagued garment production in the US. The term ‘sweating,’ dates to at least the turn of the twentieth century. This system of production relies on contracting jobs to small shops, where the work is accomplished with dirt-cheap labor.25 The quantity of sweatshops in the US has fluctuated widely with trends in apparel production and with union activity, but has never fully disappeared.26 Sweatshops in the US have relied on immigrant workers, particularly women, since the practice became widespread over 100 years ago.27

Whenever workers organize for better conditions and fight back against the sweatshop, garment labels have usually been quick to move production. Because apparel manufacturing requires relatively little fixed capital, the site of production itself is highly mobile. Work, or even the employer itself, can settle in a new site and avoid worker dissent, a runaway shop. In the past, this may have meant leaving New York City for New England, Pennsylvania, or the South; in the late 1980s, the favored destination became Los Angeles. Today apparel production crosses the globe in search of sweat labor.28

In some ways, the Guess campaign occurred at the nexus of all of these trends—the debate around globalization and its meaning for unions, the question of worker activism or strikes versus corporate campaigning, the shifting relationship between unions and immigrant workers, and the role of labor unions in mitigating the depredations of workplace fissuring and wage theft—all played out against the backdrop of one of the most vibrant labor communities in recent memory, Los Angeles of the 1990s. The campaign displayed a multitude of strategies and relied on several types of union power throughout its run. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ilgwu), the apparel union which began the fight with Guess, initially relied on strikes and supply chain disruption—manifestations of workers’ structural power.29 The union later shifted to the pursuit of collective wage claims against Guess—pursuing economic damage as well as wage restitution through a tactic which would be wholly familiar to today’s worker center advocates. The third bite at the apple consisted of corporate campaign against the firm through displays of symbolic power at key company locations and events.30 In the aftermath of the Guess campaign, organizers in the California apparel sector, primarily the Garment Worker Center, have opted to pursue sectoral policy change.

Edna Bonacich and Richard Appelbaum wrote the first scholarship on Guess during the campaign itself. Their work explores the Los Angeles apparel industry at its height, when it seemed like la embodied the future of apparel production.31 Both authors were directly connected to the campaign. While on leave from her job at the University of California Riverside, Bonacich worked closely with a community organization which supported the campaign and assisted the union with sectoral research. At one point, Guess even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times specifically criticizing her support for workers. For his part, Appelbaum was involved with a faith-based group interested in improving working conditions in the la apparel industry, and eventually participated in a fact-finding tour investigating Guess’s maquiladoras in Mexico after the firm moved production out of the US.32 In their work, Bonacich and Appelbaum explore the early Guess campaign, but also examine the apparel industry as a whole, using anecdotes from the Guess campaign interwoven in a sober analysis of industry trends and conditions. Since they published in media res, they can only speculate about how the campaign might end.

By far the most definitive academic recap of the campaign comes from Ruth Milkman’s landmark book, L.A. Story. Milkman is highly critical of the campaign and the union, accurately pointing out many flaws in the strategy and execution. Milkman correctly situates the Guess campaign in the moment when immigrant organizing became widely accepted in the la labor movement during the conjuncture of the 1990s. Though rarely remembered as such today, Guess was a core part of this movement. Since she is looking at the movement as a whole, Milkman’s take on Guess is relatively brief—less than ten pages of her book.33

Later works which mention the campaign tend to draw heavily from Milkman’s narrative, and mention Guess in passing. One key exception is a legal analysis of organizing tactics in the apparel industry by legal scholar Scott Cummings.34 Cummings delves deeply into the myriad legal tactics employed by unite during Guess, comparing them to strategies from the El Monte Thai Slave Shop incident, another key la sweatshop case of the era.35 The latter campaign was arguably no more of a victory than Guess in terms of lasting change on the industry, but occupies a much more important role in the collective popular imagination about the era today.

The present study provides a different take on Guess than previous scholarship. The campaign here lies on its own merits, rather than in a comparative la setting, where Guess will always come up short against contemporaneous victories like Justice for Janitors. Though its impact on its own sector was less important, to be sure, the workers and organizers behind the Guess campaign innovated several strategies to mitigate the effects of free-trade laws, innovated the idea of joint liability in wage and hour cases, and explored the use of minority striking to disrupt production, though not all of these strategies were successful. This paper argues many of these strategies continue to have value for labor practitioners today.

3 Methodology

This paper primarily relies on interviews with nineteen people36 to get their perspectives on the Guess campaign and what it means for them today. Research began with personal acquaintances,37 moving through snowball methodology to identify other potential interviewees. Interviewees included union organizers, union management, labor academics familiar with la in the 1990s, and one community activist with experience in the apparel sector.

Articles from Women’s Wear Daily, the primary apparel industry trade publication, articles from the Los Angeles Times, Guess financial documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and union financial documents from the US Department of Labor’s (dol) Office of Labor-Management Standards supplement these interviews. Thousands of pages of legal filings from the Los Angeles County Superior Court system and hundreds of pages from Unfair Labor Practice (ulp) filings from the nlrb also provided core data.

The core argument here focuses on strategy, and does not dwell on working conditions, although one easily could. Heart-wrenching demands for justice from the women and men who labored in inhumane conditions sewing hems and pressing denim for Guess, in the firm itself and at over a dozen subcontractors, make up hundreds of pages from affidavits in the wage and hour lawsuits. Guess never admitted any wrong-doing in the campaign, and courts never ruled on this question since the company eventually settled litigation. For the purposes of this paper, the workers’ claims are accepted at their face value. Every single interviewee who had firsthand knowledge verified that myriad wage and hour violations and conditions of immense disrespect towards workers were prevalent in Guess subcontractors and at the firm itself. ulp filings and rulings certainly confirm the latter.

Bolstering these worker testimonials from the legal archive, an investigation by the dol before the campaign found Guess contractors had forced workers to take work home with them, paid workers less than the minimum wage, avoided overtime, and forced children to work in their factories. Guess never took responsibilities for these conditions, either, though they did make restitution payments in a settlement.38 In addition, the apparel industry itself at the time was noted for its predations against workers. In a 1994 survey the California Employment Development Division reportedly found that 98% of apparel manufacturing firms had committed at least one type of employment law violation in five Southern California counties.39 Since Guess had the biggest and most widespread production footprint in la at the time of the campaign, it is unlikely their contractors were exempt from this trend.

4 The Union

The Guess campaign was the brainchild of the ilgwu, one of the two major apparel unions in the US. Founded in 1900 in New York City, the ilgwu was a storied union on the east coast throughout much of the twentieth century. This is not the place for a full recounting of the union’s well-documented history, which involved major organizing drives in New York and other parts of the nation for over a century. However, a brief primer on its presence in Los Angeles is in order.

Unlike other apparel unions, the ilgwu expanded into California early following runaway work, establishing its first la local in 1904 long before the city was a key site of apparel production. The ilgwu sporadically engaged in militant organizing on the West Coast, including multiple industry-wide strikes throughout the early part of the century in la. By 1950, the ilgwu represented over half of la’s estimated 19,000 apparel workers.40 Enjoying high union rates, apparel work was the second most highly compensated form of manufacturing labor in the country by this time.41

For a variety of reasons, the union collapsed in Los Angeles. Most importantly, apparel manufacturers began to routinely outsource work to contractors to avoid paying union wages, long before other industries turned to this logic. In the terminology of the industry, the primary designer became known as the ‘jobber’ or ‘label,’ and would be responsible for making patterns and, usually, cutting cloth. The jobber would contract out sewing work to other shops which relied on low-wage sewers to complete the production process.42 Labels had used this strategy from the earliest days of the apparel industry to meet tight deadlines, but in the 1970s began to use it as an ordinary course of business and to counteract the power of organized workforces. The strategy allowed labels to avoid unionization twice over: at home, their own staff was cut to minimal levels; and if a contactor chose to organize, the label could cut the contract in favor of cheaper labor elsewhere. The trend picked up steam in Los Angeles by the 1970s, and the union was unable to keep up with the newly fissuring industry on the west coast. By 1979, the ilgwu had only 3700 members in la. Meanwhile, the industry had grown to over 40 000 workers.43

4.1 New York and New Strategies

New York, the ilgwu’s traditional stronghold, was a different story. In response to increasing reliance on subcontractors, rank and file Chinese apparel workers self-organized to create significant change in the city’s apparel industry, culminating in a major 1982 strike.44 The amazing story of this industry-shattering strike is beyond the scope of this study, but it is important to explore how workers took advantage of a quirk in US labor law which became a core apparel organizing strategy.

In the post-war era, the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act (nlra) ended several tactics which had helped unions grow so rapidly during the 1930s. One of the most important revisions limited workers’ ability to engage in boycotts or strikes of outside companies which engaged in business with their employers as a part of a labor dispute (these outside firms are called ‘secondaries’).

Because of the highly integrated nature of apparel manufacturing, however, the apparel manufacturing industry is one of only two industries in the country covered by the nlra which are exempt from this ban.45 The provision was rarely used until a 1974 court ruling in Danielson v. Joint Board of Coat, Suit & Allied Garment Workers’ Union overturned a nlrb ruling and expressly permitted apparel unions to use secondary picketing to force a label to sign an agreement to only contract with firms that use union labor. These contracts came to be called jobber agreements.46 In other words, apparel workers who wanted to organize still had access to arguably labor’s most powerful weapon of the New Deal era.

Chief strategists of the 1982 New York strike aggressively used this apparel exemption and sought new tri-partite agreements between the union, the label, and contractors to regulate conditions in New York’s apparel industry, starting in Chinatown.47 After the strike, the ilgwu national leadership, in particular organizing director Jeffrey Hermanson, shifted strategies away from nlrb certification elections, instead using the strike weapon and the jobber agreement as key pathways to re-establish the union within the apparel sector. The union innovated garment worker justice centers (arguably precursors to today’s worker centers) in key markets like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to find and activate workers in strikes, and began to run jobber strike campaigns in New York and in El Paso.48 Despite (or perhaps due to) some gains by the union in nyc, by the 1990s apparel runaway production had shifted away from its traditional stronghold towards a new frontier of low-wage immigrant labor—Los Angeles.

4.2 The Los Angeles Labor Movement

During the 1980s, the apparel industry in Los Angeles exploded in size as the workforce more than doubled. By 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 90 000 people worked in the apparel industry in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale msa, eclipsing New York City for the first time in history. New York’s apparel districts began a long, slow decline; Los Angeles’s continued to grow. By the time the Guess campaign went public in 1996, the number of la apparel workers had reached almost 105 000.49

The early 1990s were an incredibly vibrant time in Los Angeles working class history, but to fully understand the moment it’s instructive to go back a little further. In the previous decade, several unions began to re-evaluate their approach towards la’s immigrant working class population, mostly Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America, particularly following the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (irca). The ilgwu was among the first unions to work with and organize immigrant workers in la.50

In 1986, union leadership appointed attorney Steve Nutter as director of the Western States Regional Joint Board with a mandate to pursue this renewed commitment to organizing. ilgwu organizers essentially ran hot-shop campaigns51 at sundry manufacturing plants both inside and outside the apparel industry. Although many of these campaigns were unsuccessful, the union built up a tough team of mostly Latinx organizers, a crew of men and women who had fought hard-nosed fights in the nativist and anti-union climate of 1990s Southern California.52

Around this same time in la, the Service Employees International Union (seiu) engaged in dramatic successful simultaneous organizing drives with immigrant workers in the homecare worker and janitorial sectors.53 The janitors in particular led a series of high-profile strikes in the late 1980s and 1990s that shook the entire city of la, culminating in a wild display of police brutality when lapd officers viciously beat striking janitors in Century City in 1990. The city as a whole was shocked by the excess violence against peaceful hard-working immigrants, and the industry settled with the union.

Meanwhile, an ilgwu organizer, Maria Elena Durazo, left the union to run a contested election at the moribund Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (here) Local 11 in 1986, campaigning to the largely immigrant base that the union should expand and organize. Shocked at her victory, here’s International sent a trustee, Miguel Contreras, out to reassert control. Instead, Contreras aligned himself with Durazo’s movement; under their joint leadership, Local 11 grew into one of la’s most powerful unions through aggressive organizing in the hospitality sector. In 1995, Contreras himself went on to lead the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, turning the federation into a political powerhouse which pursued pro-immigrant policies.54

In this context, the ilgwu reassessed the rapidly growing la apparel industry with an eye towards the successes in New York. Nutter appointed David Young as organizing director for the district council, and sought to reorient the union to its apparel roots. Several interviewees recalled that Young was a controversial choice, as the ilgwu had a mostly Latinx membership and staff, and was especially looking to organize immigrant women apparel workers. Some research has argued that the organizing staff, primarily made up of women of color, had some friction with the white leadership of the council around this time.55 Other interviewees stressed that Young was a good choice for the job, unafraid to engage in the kind of tough tactics often necessary in apparel organizing. One organizer described Young’s very hands-on approach to campaign management and demands on progress from staff. The general tenor of working with his team in la was “inspiring… and a little scary.”

Young’s primarily Latinx team began attempting to organize shops in the apparel industry by using the hard-nosed strategies of nyc’s apparel campaigns—building committees, striking the workforce at strategic moments, and attempting to either force a settlement or put the contractor out of business. Their tactics were very militant; in one example, ilgwu staff and workers who had lost their jobs blockaded a factory demanding owed wages, disrupting a bankruptcy equipment auction.56 While the organizers learned a lot about the industry, in particular how to disrupt supply chains, they made little progress in improving union density since they mostly ignored the role of label firms. Young, working in consultation with Hermanson, began to look for the right label for a jobber campaign. One organizer put this change in focus succinctly: “If you want to take on an industry, you need to take it all on.”

Around this time, the notoriously unlawful working conditions in la’s apparel sector increasingly became a stain on the city’s reputation. In 1995, the problem eventually grew too big to ignore when enslaved Thai workers escaped from a factory in la suburb El Monte and told a highly public story of physical and emotional abuse within the plant, the same year the Guess campaign went public. The El Monte Slave Shop story became, and in many ways still is today, shorthand for the excesses of the industry which was focused on tight margins and squeezing money out of immigrant workers.57

In this context, the ilgwu wanted to identify a single label where a large campaign could make an impact on apparel working conditions. A relatively new and highly aggressive firm which was making waves in la’s apparel industry jumped out as a key player—Guess Jeans. Although the firm had only been founded in 1981, by 1994 it was the largest jeans producer in Southern California.

5 The Firm

The Marciano brothers, four Franco-Moroccans from Marseille, reportedly moved to the US dodging taxes from the socialist Mitterrand government, eventually settling in la’s apparel district and founding Guess. The label exploded in popularity during the late 1980s. Although the brothers would probably attribute Guess’ innovation to the quality and design of the apparel, the primary niche Guess created was simply selling denim for what were at the time incredibly high prices. Through iconic advertising and fashionable cuts, Guess jeans retailed at three times what other jeans could command—possibly the industry’s first luxury denim product.58

The Marciano brothers were larger than life in many ways. They each purchased their own mansion, all within a few blocks of each other in Beverly Hills, and commuted together every day to the garment district in a limousine. Paul Marciano in particular was a striking figure. In an ownership dispute with early investors, Paul Marciano was accused of bribing an irs official to attack his opponents.59 Paul also personally designed the firm’s iconic advertisements, which included mercurial black and white images and racy photographs of young women—but rarely any actual Guess jeans.

Through a blend of high retail prices and sweatshop labor costs, the Marcianos made money hand over fist. By 1994, Guess had over $507 million in annual sales and over $255 million in profit.60 This made the firm far and away the biggest apparel label in la by sales volume, larger than their next two competitors.61

The firm worked with 80 contractors worldwide, but 74% of its inputs (including labor) came from the United States. The largest Los Angeles-based contractor produced ten percent of Guess’ total output, and had approximately 100 workers.62 Several hundred cutters and distribution workers labored in the firm’s la headquarters.63 Guess’s image was wholly tied into its status as a Los Angeles institution, and the company openly advertised its la roots as a key selling point.64

The firm’s influence made it an appealing target for the union. Organizers believed that a jobber agreement with Guess could shift power dynamics in the entire la apparel industry because of the firms’ sheer size and the big shadow it cast over local denim sewing shops.

Guess was also an appealing target because of its history of wage and hour violations at its contractors. Under Labor Secretary Robert Reich, the usdol had caught Guess contractors violating federal wage standards by paying less than the minimum wage, forcing workers to do homework,65 and abusing child labor. Guess committed to pay over half a million dollars in restitution and signed on to the usdol’s new voluntary responsible label program.66 The key component to this settlement, though, was Guess’s voluntary acceptance of joint liability across their supply chain—the firm committed to be responsible for ensuring future contractors would follow the law. Yet many within the union suspected that Guess was still producing garments in sweatshops, since they primarily contracted out work in la, and la was full of sweatshops. As one person put it, “We knew they weren’t living up to it (the dol order).” Interviewees revealed that this agreement made Guess an attractive target for expanding the meaning of supply chain liability.

Perhaps most importantly, the firm intended to go public. ilgwu organizers saw opportunity in this key moment, but did not have much experience with corporate campaigns. The ilgwu, however, was about to undergo a major change of its own. In 1995, the ilgwu merged with the nation’s other main apparel union, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (actwu), to form unite.67

6 unite!

actwu was an aggressive organizers’ union, routinely taking on Southern textile mills in company towns deep in right-to-work environments, and routinely winning. The union was also famous for its corporate campaigns, an early innovator of the strategy that would later become a hallmark of organizing in the 1990s and 2000s. They perfected the strategy at JP Stevens, eventually beating the firm in 1980 after a multiyear fight which was immortalized in the film Norma Rae.68 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s actwu had built up a crack team of organizers burning through Southern apparel and textile shops from small town to small town.69 The model was simple—come to town, identify leaders, build a committee, run an nlrb certification vote, and win it. If the company would not sign a contract, actwu’s formidable Comprehensive Campaign department would hammer at them until they came to the table. Most interviewees, including many from the ilgwu, felt that actwu was in general a much stronger organizing union. actwu had very little presence in la, however, and no stake in the on-going broader movement of immigrant organizing in the region. They also had little experience with the jobber agreement strategy favored by ilgwu national leadership.

However, actwu had issues of its own which it brought to the merger. Perhaps most importantly, the union was essentially broke. In contrast, the ilgwu had significant financial resources from its heyday as a New York powerhouse.70 The merger seemed like a good idea—with actwu’s organizing expertise, and the ilgwu’s finances, the union would be well positioned to combat nafta and wage an aggressive organizing program in both the United States and Canada.

There were tensions between staff on each side throughout the merger and the first few years of unite’s life, as might be expected when two nearly 100-year-old organizations come together. Most tensions played out at the New York headquarters and in other parts of the US and Canada, not in Los Angeles. But as former actwu leaders came to have increased prominence within unite, some ilgwu staff felt sidelined.

Interviews with actwu-side managers, who came to dominate unite’s organizing department and thus eventually the Guess campaign, reveal that they did not believe in the ilgwu’s jobber organizing strategy. actwu had a clear and successful pattern of organizing, and did not see value in digging into a local industry and building power over multiple decades in a specific city as the ilgwu had done in New York—in short, they did not have faith in the la model of organizing which other unions like seiu were then pioneering. Multiple interviewed people from the actwu side of the union expressed that at the time they further did not believe that strikes in the apparel industry could lead to success in organizing, calling the ilgwu model “arcane” or based on a “mythology of the jobber” (most still believe this to be the case today). actwu leadership generally preferred to rely on nlrb election processes to mobilize workers.

Interviewees from all sides of unite universally expressed that they knew nafta, then still in the works, would pose a major challenge to the stability of the union in its’ core apparel and textile sectors, but here too there was a lack of consensus. One camp within the union, led primarily by actwu-side leaders but including some ilgwu leaders as well, were convinced the apparel sector was doomed, but that garment distribution would necessarily have to continue in the US. Guess provided an opportunity for capturing an organized distribution hub in a major apparel city, and increase the union’s presence in California. The other smaller camp within the union, centered around Hermanson and the ilgwu’s former organizing department, argued that jobber agreements could actually help channel the effects of nafta and free trade for the union, providing a bulwark against the worst effects of globalized trade. If jobber agreements could require union labor in the US, this camp argued, they could also in theory require union labor abroad (something nafta pointedly did not require) and guarantee a minimum domestic production footprint. In this way, a contract with a US-based apparel label might have served to protect the interests of workers both at home and throughout their entire global supply chain.

While there was no consensus on this question, both sides agreed Guess could be a key piece of their vision for the future of the union. Putting aside the far-off question of settlement for later, the newly combined unite leadership agreed to back the ilgwu’s original plan for Guess and adopt it as one of the new union’s major campaigns.

Some scholarship has argued that unite leadership intentionally understaffed and under-resourced the Guess campaign, having never truly bought into the fight.71 Yet, almost everyone interviewed for this paper, including many former ilgwu-side staff, vehemently denied this assessment. Those who did feel the campaign was under-resourced were vague about how, and generally pointed to a lack of willingness to expand the fight when things turned sour later in the campaign—not under-resourcing per se, but an unwillingness to exceed campaign budgeting. All interviewees acknowledge the campaign began with roughly fifteen organizers, including several staff who were sent from New York to Los Angeles, at a time when the union had many other active campaigns in the US and Canada. In 2000 (the earliest year where data is available), the union had only 93 organizers on staff in both countries.72 Assuming a roughly constant staffing level, unite assigned about one in six organizers to Guess—a major commitment. Besides on-the-ground organizers, the union assigned members of the New York-based Comprehensive Campaigns department to Guess, and eventually involved its anti-sweatshop staff as well. The union also eventually spent untold sums in legal fees funding the extensive legal components of the struggle.73 These findings make it hard to question the quantity of resourced dedicated to Guess.

7 The Guess Campaign

Throughout 1994 and 1995, unite organizers began the painstaking work of building committees at key Guess contractors in Los Angeles and at the headquarters itself. Several interviewed people reported that conditions were ripe for organizing. Less than ten years after irca, many people were furious that their new-found legal status had done nothing to improve their working conditions. Several interviewed organizers also recalled that many workers from El Salvador were veterans of community organizing who had fled internal violence, and thus had extensive experience in organizing and collective action. Sweatshop working conditions were simply abysmal, with Guess contractors exposing workers to wide varieties of wage theft, and routinely forcing workers to labor off the clock. The union intended to strike several plants at once to shock Guess’ supply line and force the company into talks and began outreach to workers at multiple Guess contractors.

Like many best laid plans, things started off on the wrong foot. In 1995, workers at Song of California and Goodtimes, two major Guess contractors with a common owner, struck their companies over a wage and hour dispute before other shops were ready. Interviewees could not explain why these two factories struck early and gave conflicting accounts. Some believed it was a part of a broader strategy to have a trial skirmish against Guess before the firm’s planned initial public offering (ipo) in 1996. Only one interviewee recalled the action as a wildcat strike in one plant, which led to the union calling a strike at the second, and coverage in Women’s Wear Daily also refers to the strike as a wildcat.74 Multiple interviewees confirmed that the union had underground committees in place in each shop at the time of the strike, so the union would have had an obvious incentive to back the workers if they chose to strike early on their own accord. Yet perhaps surprisingly, no one interviewed for this study placed great importance on these early strikes.

Whatever the reason, Young and his team set up pickets at the plants, but also leapt directly into aggressive secondary picketing the Guess flagship store on the world-famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Guess responded with fury, immediately filing for an injunction against the union in court.75 They also ceased contracting work to the two sewing shops, both of which closed their doors after losing their largest label. Everything was settled within a month, and the union went back to building support within Guess and at other contractors.

If anything, the campaigns at Song and Goodtimes had revealed how Guess would respond to union efforts at contractors—cutting and running to new production outlets, a perennial problem in supply-chain dependent industries. The actions in Beverly Hills also haunted the union; as discussed below the company was eventually successful in turning these actions into legal liability.

Guess planned their ipo to issue stock at $22 per share in 1996.76 The day before a key investor conference, unite began its corporate campaign against the company in earnest. Upon receipt of information from the union, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (dlse) inspected fifteen private homes and found evidence that Guess clothing may have been manufactured there.77 The following day, unite activists crashed an investor event at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. Hermanson led a picket outside the hotel, while a small group disguised as investment bankers snuck into the event. The inside team was led by Mark Fleischman, an actwu-side official who was notorious for fearless direct actions at such events. They began passing out a white paper detailing the dlse investigation and further allegations against the firm and its supply chain to potential investors, and generally creating trouble until they were forcibly removed by security guards.

In response to this one-two punch, Guess balked and delayed its ipo by over a week, eventually selling shares at $18 each on August 7.78 The exact same day, unite-backed attorneys filed a massive wage and hour lawsuit against the firm, alleging joint liability for potentially millions of dollars of wage theft at sixteen Southern California contactors.79 Within a week, the firm’s shares were trading below $8,80 creating a huge personal loss of wealth for the Marcianos.

Simultaneously, union activists in the main plant and in several contractor shops engaged in job actions. Guess responded by immediately terminating twenty union supporters.81 The union filed ulp charges and engaged in minority strikes at several contractors, with around 100 workers in all walking off the job.

Previous scholarship has argued that there was no strike at Guess,82 yet all interviewees confirmed that multiple strikes did break out throughout the supply chain. These Guess strikes were minority strike efforts, meaning a majority of the workforce did not walk off the job at any given plant. Several organizers have vivid memories of engaging in actions with striking workers at multiple plants, and of taking striking workers to boycott actions at several Guess outlets throughout Southern California. Though minority strikes have come under fire in recent scholarship,83 several experienced apparel organizers reported in interviews that they felt minority striking in the apparel industry could disproportionately disrupt production. Key skilled employees could exploit chokepoints in the production process due to their unique structural power. To these organizers, minority strikes were thus a more viable strategy in apparel production than in other industries where the tactic has been critiqued. At any rate, the disruption to Guess’s supply lines shook the company deeply. Guess tried to move work around to other la-based contractors, but union strikers followed production as well.84

The firm reeled from the triple attack of the strikes, the corporate campaign, and the lawsuit. Multiple interviewees, both from within and outside the union, reported that several of the Marcianos held a clandestine meeting with high-level unite representatives at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel sometime in the fall of 1996 to explore a possible settlement. According to several people who were present at the discussions, the Marcianos told the union they had reduced their decision to either settle with the union or move production abroad. One person who attended the meeting claimed that, when one of the brothers threatened to move the work to Mexico if the union did not ease up, the firm’s lawyers nervously silenced him. The two sides never reached a deal, but this meeting speaks to the possibilities for a crisply rolled out, aggressive, multifaceted attack against a label.

Ultimately, Guess pulled the trigger on moving production out of the country. Just days after the nlrb ruled Guess had to reinstate most of the twenty workers they had fired, the firm publicly announced that they were cutting their US production footprint from 75% to 35% within six weeks. A few days later, on January 14, 1997, Maurice Marciano admitted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the firm was moving production to Mexico, despite quality issues there, because of the union’s campaign,85 at the time a controversial decision with the apparel sector. Several sewing shop owners complained to the Los Angeles Times that they would be forced to move as well to compete with Guess’s new lowered production costs and that the move would make la’s regional sector even more cutthroat.86

Interviews indicate a debate unfurled within the union at the time. Interviewees from unite management felt the Guess outcome confirmed their belief that apparel production in the US was essentially doomed. For them, the union should focus efforts on apparel-adjacent sectors, especially laundries and apparel distribution, rather than chasing runaway garment shops around the world. Since Guess had a large distribution center in la and a key role in the apparel sector, the union should continue to focus on the firm through comprehensive tactics focused on this site of labor.

In a second camp, some ilgwu-side staff, centered around Hermanson, strongly felt that chasing the runaway shop and continuing pressure on the label was the best chance for success at Guess. One interviewee put it thus: “‘Follow the work’ had been an ilg(wu) slogan for 100 years. It’s why the ilg (had first come to) la.” Hermanson wanted to expand the campaign into Mexico, following Guess’s work there and again setting up committees and strikes as the union had done through the firm’s la-based production network. This camp argued that the union already had a robust organizing program in Canada; there was no reason not to build one in Mexico in a post-nafta world.

A third position, centered around la-based ilgwu-side staff also emerged in response to the strategy. For this group, Guess’s decision to scale back production in la was actually a sort of pyrrhic victory. Guess’s setback could serve as a warning to other la firms about the costs of resisting jobber agreements with the union. In turn, these agreements could ultimately prove key for mitigating the complications of free trade and reduce industry flight. Thus, a renewed focus on la’s apparel sector as a whole and a new campaign against another label was the best way to move forward.

unite did send staff, including Hermanson and several organizers, to Tehuacán Puebla, to investigate possibilities at the plants. But ultimately the distribution center camp won out. Union leadership declined to establish a full-time organizing presence in Mexico, opting instead to support a fact-finding trip by faith leaders in support of the domestic corporate strategy.87 Meanwhile, the campaign in la would focus on strengthening the wage and hour lawsuit, renewed secondary actions, and organizing distribution workers, but would not expand to other labels. Ten days after Guess’s announcement to scale back production in la, Young and the core of his organizing team, frustrated with unite, suddenly quit.88 It is not clear if there was a specific catalyst beyond the clear setback to the campaign and the shift in strategy. Several organizers from Young’s team argued that Guess had always been intended to be an initial foray into a longer-term effort in apparel organizing in la. One member of this camp argued, “They didn’t understand what we were doing, and they weren’t able to understand.”

Legal liability presents another possible cause for Young’s departure. Young’s team brought tough tactics to the boycott picket lines at Guess stores, particularly in Beverly Hills. Courts ended up citing the union with a contempt of court for their store actions, although this may be as much due to Guess’s propensity for litigation as anything which occurred on Rodeo’s sidewalk.89 Several organizers who worked on the Guess campaign after Young left stressed they had to be very careful not to violate restrictive court orders during secondary store actions through the remainder of 1997, and one union manager claimed to have boxes of hundreds of hours of footage from pickets which the union took to avoid further legal complications. Whether fallout from the store actions and subsequent negative rulings in court had anything to do with Young’s departure remains unclear.

Although a small minority of interviewed people expressed a belief that the union cut campaign support once production moved abroad, in fact unite continued to assign considerable resources to fighting Guess throughout the coming year. Far from cutting resources, unite re-affirmed their commitment to the campaign in 1997 when they sent one of the best actwu-side organizing directors to la. Carla Naranjo, who had been managing actwu’s barnstorming Texas project, was a veteran of multiple years of tough organizing drives along the US–Mexico border.90 Naranjo was highly respected within the union as an excellent organizer and manager. unite leadership also assigned Katherine Kirsch to the campaign—an organizer and corporate campaigner with a reputation for highly creative and effective direct actions. The two women, both stars within the union, headed to la with a mandate to organize any contractors they could and try to re-establish a committee in Guess’s distribution center.

unite had difficulty mobilizing distribution workers after Guess cut its ties to la production plants, however. The firm began a truly horrific and often unlawful anti-union campaign, even forcing workers to attend rallies against the union with Guess management. The union put a heavier emphasis on a wage and hour litigation strategy as a practical necessity, since real committee building became nearly impossible in the face of intense and unlawful employer activity. The change was not, however, due to a lack of faith in direct worker organizing from actwu-side leadership, a common complaint levied by some of the people who left the campaign. On the contrary, actwu had been highly effective at doing precisely that in order to win nlrb certification votes, which was almost always a mandatory precursor for the union before starting one of their trademark corporate campaigns. Naranjo in particular had been selected for the project because she had been highly successful in mobilizing shop-floor workers toward nlrb victories in difficult situations in Texas. The new organizers and several hold-overs from Young’s days did what they could to salvage some kind of distribution committee, and expanded the legal and secondary battles.

In what was eventually the greatest legal legacy of the Guess campaign, the union filed ulp charges against Guess for moving the work to Mexico. The union alleged that Maurice Marciano had violated the law when he had admitted in the Wall Street Journal that avoiding the union campaign was a major reason the company was leaving the country. unite argued the move was thus retaliatory in nature and as such constituted a ulp.91 This innovative charge was the first case to test the limits of nafta by arguing firms could not use free trade policy to stifle employee collective action.

Naranjo’s team were successful in attracting many more plaintiffs for the wage and hour action. They expanded the consumer boycott far beyond anything which had been accomplished before, engaging in intensive actions throughout Southern California. Of particular note, the la-based musicians Rage Against the Machine (ratm), then at the height of their popularity, assisted the union in a variety of public actions against Guess. unite also became closer to key afl-cio organizing programs in California, sending a bus of Guess activists up to Watsonville for the ufw’s landmark strawberry march in April of 1997 and welcoming dozens of Union Summer college students to engage in direct actions at Guess outlets throughout Southern California in the summer of the same year. The year culminated when 33 people, including ratm guitarist Tom Morello, were arrested at a Christmas-themed action outside a Guess outlet in downtown Santa Monica.92

Guess never came back to the table, however. The company instead engaged in hard-handed union busting within their warehouse, forcing workers to protest outside the union’s garment district office on multiple occasions and firing more supporters.93 The company also sent representatives to contractors where they forced workers to sign opt-out agreements for the wage and hour suit.94 When even these drastic efforts failed to quell the union, the company moved its distribution center to Louisville, Kentucky in 1999, abandoning the la market entirely.95 The union and Guess were by then intertwined in dozens of legal actions, many of them spurious ones filed by Guess specifically to tax the union’s resources. Both sides ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on litigation before the end of hostilities. In 1999, Guess settled the wage and hour suit for $1 million, which it paid out to former sweatshop workers who had by this time mostly lost their jobs.96

The final nail in the campaign’s coffin was when the nlrb ruled that Guess had not violated national labor law by moving its work to Mexico in order to avoid the union. The nlrb had initially ruled for the union that the move had been unlawful.97 However, the Board itself changed position in late 1998. This conclusion, which may seem the obvious choice today after 25 years of free-trade hegemony, was by no means a certainty at the time. Many industry players were shocked. Women’s Wear Daily, for example, accidentally initially reported that Guess had lost at the board and had to issue a retraction three days later.98 Guess’s lawyer bragged “Companies have the right to take full advantage of the policies and laws effectuated in nafta. Just because labor unions don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s unlawful.”99 Out of options, the ruling convinced union leaders that the game was up and further legal action would only lead to more sunk costs. As one unite manager stated, “At some point… there’s a practical side.” The union quietly wound down the campaign.

unite never again attempted to organize in the US apparel sector.

8 Guess at 25

When asked why the Guess campaign is often overlooked, one person interviewed for this paper responded, “Losing campaigns don’t make a lot of history.” Yet the interviews for this study argue otherwise—lessons from Guess still matter today, because the issues behind the campaign are arguably still as salient as ever. What can we make of the last major unionization effort in the US apparel industry? Was the loss a question of timing, federal policy change, internal union politics, or just picking the wrong company? Was a loss inevitable? And what, if anything, can we make of the nlra’s proviso for apparel organizing today?

Some positive aspects of Guess are often overlooked. One interviewee argued that the Guess campaign was an experimental campaign, albeit a failed one, but that there was nothing wrong with that. “I think we’re (the labor movement) still in a period of experimentation.” As one such experiment, the Guess campaign marked an innovative use of joint employer liability in a wage and hour lawsuit, an early attempt to attach liability to a firm on top of a chain of production in a fissured sector. This Guess lawsuit, as well as the lawsuit from the El Monte Slave Shop scandal, both paved the way for future litigation in the apparel industry. California policymakers enshrined apparel joint liability into state employment law following the Guess and El Monte campaigns when they passed AB633 in 1999. Although there are still significant challenges for California apparel workers who seek restitution, they have tools to address fissured workplaces which other low-wage workers lack.100 Organizers continue to push the limits of joint liability, in industries as diverse as logistics, fast food, couriers, and ridesharing. This tactic can be traced back to Guess, although the campaign is rarely credited for being a pioneer in the area. Organizers in many other sectors have also embraced the idea of sector-specific regulation. Many organizing efforts in low-wage sectors, both led by unions and worker centers, have embraced this tactic and continue to use it amply today in sectors as diverse as farm labor, ridesharing, domestic work, carwashes, and fast food.

There is no doubt that people who worked on Guess have continued to have a major impact on the labor movement. Guess veterans continue to help workers organize in dozens of industries nationwide. David Young eventually landed at the Writers Guild of America—West (wga-w). True to his vision of a struggle-based movement, he led writers on an inspiring strike in 2007–2008 which shook the industry and was ultimately successful. He is also one of the architects of the fight over agent packaging fees which is roiling the entertainment industry at time of writing.101 Several Guess veterans are with him at wga-w. Everyone I interviewed who had a direct, on-the-ground role at the Guess campaign argued that it had been an impactful, though difficult, experience for them as organizers and campaigners. When asked why so often the campaign is forgotten, one organizer pithily countered: “I’m not gonna forget about it.”

unite stuck to its no-more-apparel decision after the Guess campaign. The union hemorrhaged members for years, as textile and apparel shops left the US; at the end of the day, whether they had organized under jobber agreements, nlrb elections, or corporate campaigns made little difference. In the end, while actwu leaders may have been correct in critiquing the jobber agreement gambit, most of the other shops they organized left the country as well. One such manager said, “For Jeff Hermanson, the world passed him by, but the world passed us by too.”

For a while, unite focused on apparel distribution centers and had major wins at Brylane and H&M.102 The union also led a very successful series of laundry organizing drives which roiled that industry nationwide. But in the end, the gains could not offset the losses in the union’s dying core sector. The successor to America’s once powerful apparel unions merged with here in 2004, less than ten years after its founding. The merger collapsed within four years for reasons beyond the scope of this study,103 and several breakaway locals changed affiliations to seiu where they now constitute a semi-autonomous division of about 84 000 members nationwide called Workers United (wu). Still based in Los Angeles, wu’s Western Regional Joint Board reports about 7000 members across California and the Southwest.104

There can be no doubt that the comprehensive Guess campaign was highly effective at disrupting the firm long beyond the end of the campaign. Guess’s share prices did not fully recover from the campaign until 2006—eight years after the height of the boycott, seven years after the wage and hour lawsuit closed, and two years after the union itself ceased to exist. While corporate pressure tactics do not build unions alone, Guess exhibits that they can have drastic effects on a firm.

The question of worker organization is harder to answer. There was never an industry-wide strike in the la apparel sector to match the one from New York, which some ilgwu organizers had initially hoped the Guess campaign might spark. There was also never an nlrb petition for an election at the distribution center, which unite had avoided given the firm’s extensive unlawful attacks on workers. If the union had sought an election, it is hard to believe the Marcianos would have ever signed a contract with the union, corporate campaign or not. Several interviewees said that the company would never have negotiated in good faith. One highly placed unite official with decades of experience in bargaining, argued: “Even if we’d had 80% support at Guess, we never would have gotten a contract.” It is impossible to know for sure, but Guess was certainly very comfortable with violating the nlra in dozens of other ways; it seems hard to swallow that they would have felt an obligation to suddenly obey a weak statutory obligation to bargain.

Some organizers believe there are employers who dig in their heels and come hell or high water will never settle with a union. As a highly placed unite official said, “In the end result, we didn’t take into account that the Marcianos were fucking crazy.”

actwu-side unite leaders did not place any faith in apparel recognition strikes. The decision to eschew this tactic, which is admittedly risky in most industries but which provides special benefits in the apparel sector, was short-sighted. However, unite was not alone in this conviction. For most of the 1990s and 2000s, strikes were viewed as risky, expensive tactics with little payoff by many in the labor movement. Strikes are risky, and they are expensive to wage—both for the organization and for the workers who put their jobs on the line. But they are also risky for the employers, who ultimately depend on labor for all of their profits. Because secondary targets are fair game in apparel, setting aside the strike is setting aside a key weapon, one which the labor movement relied on heavily during the largest period of union growth in our country’s history. From today’s vantage, where strikes have made such important gains in a new wave of worker activism, this near consensus of the era is difficult to understand.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the union was not to continue the campaign from an industry perspective. The actwu model of running elections at large plants, while highly effective at the right time and place, clearly could never organize an industry like Los Angeles’s apparel sector. Although the union supported the Guess campaign, unite did not understand the conjuncture of what was going on in la at the time—a wave of immigrant organizing which crossed multiple industries and eventually reshaped the city’s political, social, and cultural essence—and did not have the patience to give the sector a multi-year commitment of staff and resources. Short-term commitments of even the most highly qualified organizers and campaigners (the labor movement has seen few as talented, hard-working, and qualified as Naranjo and Kirsch) for a year or so could never address an entire sector in a long-term way. One interviewee put it thus: “Labor can be really bad at long-term strategies… ‘hey, this will take us ten years.’” Organizing unions which have enjoyed the most success, by contrast, have dug into sectors here in la and established themselves in a long-term commitment to the region. seiu and here (now unite here) both continue to have strong presences, active members, and powerful influence in the region. Although a counter-factual is by nature speculative, a powerful la-based apparel workers union is an intriguing possibility. One interviewee argued this point: “If we had won, we might have changed garment organizing in la.”

Despite the losses in production, Los Angeles still has the largest and most stable apparel sector in the United States, now specializing in fast fashion and swimwear.105 Sweatshop conditions also continue to thrive. Without a major union policing the industry, conditions now are at least as bad as in 1995. Wage theft continues to be prominent in the sector,106 and workers labor under highly dangerous conditions.107 Despite calls to reexamine this sector as a potentially viable one which could even sustain relatively decent jobs,108 improved working conditions have eluded workers, advocates, policymakers, and bureaucrats alike.

Hermanson’s still unexplored argument that a jobber agreement might have mitigated the worst tendencies of nafta and other free-trade agreements by contractually obligating labels to guarantee union labor throughout their supply chain, or at least in their production network, remains a provocative one. After Guess, the union never sought such an agreement again, and as such there is no real way to know how things might have panned out if the union had pursued this avenue further. Whether a tactic that worked well in New York for labels with production throughout the Garment District would have translated to a global network of production and logistics is certainly debatable; many of the people interviewed for this paper felt it would not at the time of the Guess campaign. Whatever might have happened, the US labor movement has instead mostly tried to deal with nafta by seeking policy solutions. Unions have eschewed direct transnational shop-floor organizing against specific companies in favor of bigger picture solutions around problems like immigration, environmental, and trade.109

Most interviewees argued that nafta played a major role in the loss, and some felt it made victory impossible. The Guess campaign began at the height of la’s apparel sector, though the collapse of la-based production was in sight. The sector shrunk drastically in the years between 1995 and 2000. Even if Guess had settled with the union, within a few years they would have likely moved some part of their production anyways—although perhaps a jobber agreement could have managed or mitigated this move, as some unite officials argued they could. However, intriguingly, not all interviewees felt that nafta itself doomed the campaign, arguing that instead the firm’s intransigence and internal union conflicts played a much larger role, and that there was in any event nothing new or noteworthy about runaway apparel shops. “I don’t think nafta (not passing) would have mattered,” argued one of these interviewees. Certainly, unite was not the only union affected by free-trade policy, and other workers have successfully organized under nafta.

Guess was one of the first major campaigns to reckon with the effects of globalization on workers and their organizations. Unions frequently argue that policy itself contains insufficient protection for workers, most recently in the nafta renegotiation called the US Mexico Canada treaty.110 It is still possible to imagine a world where a jobber agreement could fill gaps in free trade treaties. As Hermanson argued a quarter century ago, an agreement with a label could dictate what percentage of their product they would source abroad, and under what conditions—including a commitment to contract with union firms when they shift work abroad. Even if such an agreement covers very little domestic production, it could have widespread ramifications worldwide. With such agreements, much like any union contract, the law becomes a floor for employment conditions, not a ceiling.

Hermanson in particular has long argued that unions need to take an international approach to organizing, following supply chains instead of national boundaries. As one ilgwu-side manager lamented the state of the US labor movement’s approach to globalization: “Our greatest weakness, in my opinion, is that we deal with global companies, but we do it locally.” Many US labor unions operate in Canada, but do not have formal relationships with unions in Mexico. Promising partnerships between US and Mexican unions and several US based unions are good,111 but joint bargaining is a potentially better source of strength than mere dialogue.

A new type of jobber agreement regime in apparel, negotiated with labels in the US or in other headquarters companies by US unions, could create the conditions of joint liability where labels are accountable for conditions in their supply chains—and perhaps not just in the apparel sector.112 In the meantime, apparel workers organizing abroad have continued to rely primarily on community supporters in the US to further their campaigns against labels.113

Until the labor movement rediscovers the jobber agreement as a tool for governing supply chain conditions, it seems union-led apparel organizing is dead. Approximately 36 000 apparel workers still labor in Los Angeles County.114 This total may only account for one third of the industry at its height, but many people still make their living manufacturing clothing in la, often for pennies on the dollar of what they are owed. Despite all the extra tools in labor’s arsenal for organizing (secondary boycotts; hot cargo; joint wage liability; joint employer status for ulp s; a very progressive labor commissioner and extra protections for immigrant workers in California generally and specifically in the apparel sector), worker efforts to affect permanent change continue to come up short. Who will address this challenge, if not the labor movement?


The author would like to thank Chris Tilly and Goetz Wolff for comments on early drafts of this paper.

Author biography

Justin McBride is a PhD Student in Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles. Justin was a labor organizer for fifteen years before entering the program at unite, seiu, and the afl-cio, where he worked on the clean Carwash Campaign in Los Angeles. In addition to worker movements, Justin researches labor policy, public sector bargaining, and municipal finance.


While the firm is formally called “Guess?, Inc.”, for simplicity sake this paper will refer to the firm as “Guess” without the punctuation.


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Gleeson, S. “Brokered Pathways to Justice and Cracks in the Law: A Closer Look at the Claims-Making Experiences of Low-Wage Workers.” Journal of Labor and Society 18 (1) (2015), 77–102.


Waldinger, R., C. Erickson, R. Milkman, D. Mitchell, A. Valenzuela, K. Wong, and M. Zeitlin. “Helots No More: A Case Study of the Justice for Janitors Campaign in Los Angeles.” In Organizing To Win: New Research on Union Strategies eds. K. Bronfenbrenner, S. Friedman, R. Hurd, R. Oswald, and R. Seeber (Ithaca, NY: ilr Press, 1998), 102–119; Milkman, R. L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the US Labor Movement (New York, NY: Russel Sage Foundation, 2006).


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Fine, J. “New Forms To Settle Old Scores: Updating the Worker Centre Story in the United States. Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations 66 (4) (2011), 604–630; Cordero-Guzman, H. “Worker Centers, Worker Center Networks, and the Promise of Protections For Low-Wage Workers.” Journal of Labor and Society 18 (1) (2015), 31–57.


Drainville, A. “Present in the World Economy: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers.” Globalizations 5 (3) (2008), 357–377; Gaus, M. “Not Waiting For Permission: The New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Twenty-First Century Bargaining” in New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement, eds. R. Milkman and E. Ott (Ithaca, NY: ilr Press, 2014), 246–265.


Meyer, R. “Precarious Workers’ Movements and the Neoliberal State.” Journal of Labor and Society 19 (1) (2016), 37–55.


Sugimori, A. “State and Local Policy Models Promoting Immigrant Worker Justice.” In The Gloves-Off Economy: Workplace Standards at the Bottom of America’s Labor Market, eds. A. Bernhardt, H. Boushey, L. Dresser, and C. Tilly (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), Chapter 9.


Weil, D. “Enforcing Labor Standards in Fissured Workplaces: The US Experience.” The Economic and Labor Relations Review 22 (2) (2011), 33–54.


Fine, J. and J. Gordon. “Unpacking the Logics of Labour Standards Enforcement: An Alternative Approach.” In Are Bad Jobs Inevitable? eds. C. Warhurst, F. Carré, P. Findlay, and C. Tilly (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 193–207.


Frank, L. and K. Wong. “Dynamic Political Mobilization: The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.” WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society 8 (2) (2004), 155–181.


Bernhardt et al., Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers.


Milkman, R., A.L. Gonzalez, and V. Narro. Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The Failure of Employment and Labor Law for Low-Wage Workers (Los Angeles, CA: Institute for Research of Labor and Employment, University of California Los Angeles, 2010).


Howard, A. “Labor, History, and Sweatshops in the New Global Economy.” In No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers, ed A. Ross (New York, NY: Verso, 1997), 151–171.


Ross, R. Slaves to Fashion: Poverty and Abuse in the New Sweatshops (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2004).


Waldinger, R. “Another Look at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union: Women, Industry Structure, and Collective Action.” In Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of US Women’s Labor History, ed. R. Milkman (Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 87–109; Howard, “Labor, History and Sweatshops in the New Global Economy.”


Ross, A. “Introduction.” In No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade, and the Rights of Garment Workers (New York, NY: Verso, 1997), 4–8.


Wright, E.O. “Working-Class Power, Capital-Class Interests, and Class Compromise.” American Journal of Sociology 105 (4) (2000), 957–1002; Silver, B. Forces of Labor: Workers Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


Chun, J. Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (Ithaca, NY: ilr Press, 2011).


Bonacich, E. and R. Appelbaum. Behind The Label: Inequality in the Los Angeles Apparel Industry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).


Cross Border Blues: A Call for Justice for Maquiladora Workers in Tehuacán (Chicago, IL: National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, July, 1998).


Milkman, L.A. Story.


Cummings, S. “Hemmed In: Legal Mobilization in the Los Angeles Anti-Sweatshop Movement.” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 30 (1) (2009), 101–184.


Su, J. and C. Martorell. “Exploitation and Abuse in the Garment Industry: The Case of the Thai Slave-Labor Compound in El Monte.” In Asian and Latino Immigrants in a Restructuring Economy: The Metamorphosis of Southern California, eds. M. Lopez-Garcia and D. Diaz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 21–45.


Interviewee names are omitted from direct quotes to maintain privacy.


The author worked for unite from 2002–2005 as a staff organizer, several years after the Guess campaign ended, and later spent 10 years as a labor organizer in Los Angeles, where many people who had been involved with the Guess campaign still live and work. Some findings or assertions in the text concerning organizing or Los Angeles more generally are based on the author’s personal experiences.


Memorandum of Understanding Between United States Department of Labor and Guess. (Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor, 1992). Located in Docket for Figueroa et al. v. Guess? Inc et al. (1996).


Ross, Slaves to Fashion.


Laslett, J. and M. Tyler. The ILGWU in Los Angeles: 1907–1988 (Inglewood, CA: Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, 1989).


Quan, K. “Evolving Labor Relations in the Women’s Apparel Industry.” In New Directions in the Study of Work and Employment: Revitalizing Industrial Relations as an Academic Enterprise, ed. C. Whalen (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2008), 194–210.


Quan, “Evolving Labor Relations in the Women’s Apparel Industry.”


Laslett and Tyler, The ILGWU in Los Angeles.


Bao, X. Holding Up More Than Half the Sky: Chinese Garment Workers in New York City, 1948–1992 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001).


Winefsky, H. and J. Tenney. “Preserving the Garment Industry Proviso: Protecting Acceptable Working Conditions Within the Apparel and Accessories Industries.” Hofstra Law Review 31 (2) (2002), 587–631. The other industry is construction, though through a different proviso in the nlra.


The targeted firm, based in New York, was named Hazantown; jobber agreements are sometimes called Hazantown agreements.


Quan, K. “Strategies for Garment Worker Empowerment in the Global Economy.” UC Davis Journal of International Law and Policy 10 (1) (2004), 27–38.


Hermanson, J. “Organizing For Justice: ilgwu Returns to Social Unionism to Organize Immigrant Workers.” Labor Research Review 1 (20) (1993), 53–61.


US Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Milkman, L.A. Story.


A ‘hot-shop’ is a workplace where workers are highly agitated and ready to organize.


While Southern California is now a relatively friendly place for immigrants, such was not always the case. Several interviewees, particularly those coming to la from out of town, commented on the negative climate in la during the Guess campaign, with racist and nativist epithets frequently thrown at striking union activists.


Waldinger et al., “Helots No More”; Delp L. and K. Quan. “Homecare Worker Organizing in California: An Analysis of a Successful Strategy.” Labor Studies Journal 27 (1) (2002), 1–23; Milkman, L.A. Story.


Frank and Wong, “Dynamic Political Mobilization.”


Gutierrez de Soldantenko, M. “ilgwu Labor Organizers: Chicana and Latina Leadership in the Los Angeles Garment Industry.” Frontiers: A Journal for Women Studies 23 (1) (2002), 46–66.


“Central Los Angeles: Workers Picket Sale of Firm’s Equipment.” Los Angeles Times (18 January 1996).


Su and Martorell, “Exploitation and Abuse in the Garment Industry.”


Byron, C. Skin Tight (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992); Brown, A. “The Epic Fall of Guess Jeans and the Marciano Brothers.” Forbes (1 July 2015).


Byron, Skin Tight.


Guess Form S-1. Filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, May 24, 1996.


Bonacich and Appelbaum, Behind the Label.


Farr, L and L. Stanek. 1995. “unite Says Guess, Worker Discord Settled.” Women’s Wear Daily (23 July 1995).


Guess Form S-1. Filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, 24 May, 1996.


Milkman, L.A. Story.


In the apparel sector, homework refers to forcing workers to take work home with them so they can continue to sew after hours or on days off. It is generally unlawful in US women’s apparel. See Fact Sheet #24: Homeworkers Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. July, 2008).


Memorandum of Understanding Between United States Department of Labor and Guess; Bonacich and Appelbaum, Behind the Label.


Much like Guess?, in its early days unite often stylized its acronym with an exclamation point—unite! For simplicity’s sake, the union’s name is spelled here without the punctuation.


Minchin, T. “‘Don’t Sleep With Stevens!’: The JP Stevens Boycott and Social Activism in the 1970s.” Journal of American Studies 39 (3) (2005), 511–543.


The Southern Regional Joint Board continued to make waves throughout the South under unite, winning multiple huge nlrb votes in a very tough organizing climate with an astounding tenacity. Turner, J. “Rank and File Participation in Organizing at Home and Abroad.” In Organizing To Win: New Research on Union Strategies, eds. K. Bronfenbrenner, S. Friedman, R. Hurd, R. Oswald, and R. Seeber (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 123–134.


Meyerson, H. “Disunite There.” The American Prospect (27 February 2009).


Milkman, L.A. Story.


unite Form lm-2 Labor Organization Annual Report. Filed with the Office of Labor Management Standards, United States Department of Labor, 29 March, 2004.


Cummings, “Hemmed In.”


Farr and Stanek, “unite says Guess, Worker Discord Settled.”


Guess Inc. v. unite et al. Los Angeles Superior Court Docket bc174752. Filed 17 July, 1997.


Guess 1996 S-1.


Ellis, K. “la Labor Probe Uncovers Homework Items for Guess.” Women’s Wear Daily (31 July 1996). Under complaints from Guess, the dlse quickly clarified that they did not technically find Guess clothing at the homes. Rather, they had found clothing, and they had found Guess labels. The firm attempted to hang much on this distinction, arguing that the presence of Guess labels in a home garment workshop did not necessarily mean the firm’s clothing was actually being manufactured there. There was a lot of jousting in the press about what the evidence meant. Guess later sued a group of a dozen or so women, including Bonacich, for defamation around the homework. The firm claimed that the defendants had permitted a poem to be read during an open-mic poetry reading in a Santa Monica café which referenced Guess clothing having been sewed in the homes without clarifying the labels had not actually been sewed into the clothing. Bonacich and Appelbaum, Behind the Label.


Ryan, T. “Guess ipo is Still On, But It’s Scaled Back in Shares and Prices.” Women’s Wear Daily (7 August 1996).


Figueroa et al. v. Guess et al. Los Angeles County Superior Court Docket No. bc155165, filed 7 August, 1996; Cummings, “Hemmed In.”


Yahoo Finance, ticker symbol ges. The firm’s shares did not close at $22 until 2006.


Cummings, “Hemmed In.”


Milkman, L.A. Story.


See McAlevey, No Shortcuts for one such example.


Rundle, R. “Guess Shifts Apparel-Making to Mexico From Los Angeles Amid Labor Charges.” The Wall Street Journal, (14 January 1997).


Rundle, “Guess Shifts Apparel-Making to Mexico From Los Angeles Amid Labor Charges.”


Silverstein, S., G. White, and M.B. Sheridan. “Guess Inc. to Move Much of la Work South of the Border.” Los Angeles Times (15 January 1997).


Cross-Border Blues.


Ellis, K. “Young Quits unite; Ran Guess Campaign.” Women’s Wear Daily (27 January 1997).


“Garment Union Ordered to Pay Fine.” Los Angeles Times (21 January 1997); “Three unite Protestors Found in Contempt by la Judge.” Women’s Wear Daily (9 July 1997).


“Director Named for Guess Union Campaign.” Los Angeles Times (13 February 1997).


Retaliation against workers for organizing a union violates para. 8(a)(3) of the nlra.


“33 Are Arrested at Guess Protest in Santa Monica.” Los Angeles Times (14 December 1997).


The nlrb issued complaints that workers were coerced and unfairly terminated; Guess and unite entered into a stipulated agreement to settle the matter prior to a hearing.


Cummings, “Hemmed In.”


Guess For 10-K, 1999 Fiscal Year. Filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, 24 May, 2000.


Cummings, “Hemmed In.”


Kearney, B. Advice Memorandum, Office of the General Counsel, National Labor Relations Board. Addressed to Victoria Aguayo, Regional Director, Region 21. Cases No. 21-ca-31807 and 21-ca-31859. 17 April, 1997; Brooks, N.R. “nlrb Issues Complaint Against Guess.” Los Angeles Times(19 November 1997).


“Guess: nlrb Rules Mexico Shift Unlawful.” Women’s Wear Daily (20 November 1998); “A Correction: nlrb Vindicates Guess.” Women’s Wear Daily (23 November 1998).


“A Correction: nlrb Vindicates Guess.”


Seville, M. Reinforcing the Seams: Guaranteeing the Promise of California’s Landmark Anti-Sweatshop Law—An Evaluation of Assembly Bill 633 Six Years Later (Los Angeles, CA: Asian Pacific Legal Center of Southern California and Sweatshop Watch, 2005).


Littleton, C. “One Year Later, Big 4 Talent Agencies and wga Still Miles Apart in Packaging Battle.” Variety (13 April 2019).


Hannah, R.W. UNITE, Brylane, and Gucci: A Case Study of Key Relationships in a Global Comprehensive Campaign (Unpublished manuscript, 2006).


Meyerson, “Disunite There.”


Workers United Form lm-2 Labor Organization Annual Report. Filed with the Office of Labor Management Standards, United States Department of Labor, 1 April, 2019; Workers United Western States Regional Joint Board Form lm-2 Labor Organization Annual Report. Filed with the Office of Labor Management Standards, United States Department of Labor, 29 March, 2019.


Green, C., H. Liu, C. Ovando-Lacrous, G. Paciuto, and G. Peterson. The Garment Industry: Sewing Together the Apparel Manufacturing Industry in Los Angeles. Report for Urban Planning 237A: Sectoral Analysis (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Los Angeles Luskin School of Public Affairs Department of Urban Planning, 2012).


Milkman et al., Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles; Hsu T. and C. Kirham. “Getting Stripped of Pay: Garment Industry Dominates US Probes of Wage Theft.” Los Angeles Times (15 November 2014).


Shadduck-Hernandez, J, Z. Pech, M. Martinez, and M. Nuncio. Dirty Threads, Dangerous Factories: Health and Safety Conditions in Los Angeles’ Fashion Industry (Los Angeles, CA: Garment Worker Center, University of California Los Angeles Labor Center, and University of California Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2016).


Wolff, G. “Low Wage Manufacturing: A Neglected Policy Arena in California.” UCLA Policy Options (1998), 85–103.


Kay, T. “New Challenges, New Alliances: Union Politicization in a Post-nafta Era.” Labor History 56 (3) (2015), 246–269.


Long, H. 2018. “Who Are the Winners and Losers of the ‘New nafta’?” The Washington Post (1 October 2018).


Kay, T. “Labor Transnationalism and Global Governance: The Impact of nafta on Transnational Labor Relationships in North America.” American Journal of Sociology 111 (3) (2005), 715–756.


Anner, M, J. Bair, and J. Blasi. “Toward Joint Liability in Global Supply Chains: Addressing the Root Causes of Labor Violations in International Subcontracting Networks.” Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal 35 (1) (2012), 1–43.


Kumar, A. and J. Mahoney. “Stitching Together: How Workers are Hemming Down Transnational Capital in the Hyper-Global Apparel Industry.” Journal of Labor and Society 17 (2) (2015), 187–210.


US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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