Who’s Your Daddy?
By Jim Straub
Even by the standards of today’s sex-as-marketing culture, American Apparel’s ads stand out. “Meet Melissa. She won an unofficial wet T-shirt contest held at the American Apparel apartment in Montreal.” The words are draped over a soaked sexpot showering in a white shirt.
Another, a billboard, features a woman apparently preparing to fellate some lucky T-shirt wearer (with a caption hurrying her to open up wide). Intentionally resembling 1970s porn, with women appearing either incredibly young or perhaps caught in the sweaty throes of sex work, the ads seem to offer a subversive alternative to the usual plastic, airbrushed hot-babe ad – while still selling sex, sex, sex! . . . and clothes. But the strangest visual disorientation comes in the advertisement’s upper left-hand corner, where normally a brand-name tag line would exhort buyers to live extreme or buy hard. But here, the sober type says simply, “American Apparel: Vertically Integrated Manufacturing.”
“Vertical integration” is an economic term referring to a business that encompasses all aspects of producing and selling a product; and in today’s globalized and sub-contracted economy, companies that both manufacture and retail are increasingly rare. Presumably, to most hip consumers who are not economists or commodities exporters, these words on American Apparel’s billboard are just another anachronism in an already edgy ad. But American Apparel is persistent about peppering their ads with blurbs about their economic structure (“Made in Downtown LA”) that the stodgy competitors at Hanes or Fruit of the Loom aren’t moved to share. Indeed, some of the company’s billboards in downtown Los Angeles do away with the soft-core hard bodies altogether and consist simply of large type reading “American Apparel supports the legalization of LA’s workforce.” A rare public statement by a company that benefits from the downward pressure on wages exerted by undocumented workers in the United States – that those workers deserve human rights – but what’s the sales angle?
What other clothing company mixes trashy sex and manufacturing information in its ads? Like everything else about its business, American Apparel’s marketing showcases the bizarre contradictions of postmodern consumer capitalism. The company possesses a downtown textile factory straight out of the ’40s, a sexploitation ad campaign from the ’70s, and a marketing strategy so sophisticated it almost seems to come from the future. Old-world manufacturing paternalism meets sexy transnational marketing: has American Apparel vertically integrated different eras of capitalism?
Get the Hipsters Buying, and Start Counting the Cash
Today, Dov Charney is the glamorous “cool capitalist” who founded and runs American Apparel, the stylish clothing company whose explosive growth topped $250 million in sales last year. But back in the ’90s, Dov was just a kid attending prep school in Connecticut who bootlegged trash bags full of K-Mart T-shirts home to Canada for pocket money. His first real job as a youth began by crossing a picket line to serve as a replacement worker during a postal workers’ strike in Quebec. But Dov had bigger dreams than simply being a scab or prep – he wanted to be a clothing manufacturer. He dropped out of college, borrowed $10,000 from his father and moved to South Carolina to become a real textile magnate. But Charney arrived just as the clothing business was shifting en masse to low-wage Asian production. The earth’s T-shirt forges moved from Danville to Dhaka, ruining scores of small industrial southern towns – and young Dov too.
Armed with an appreciation of the new global economics of textile production, Charney moved to Los Angeles and started a new garment company in 1998, training his sights on a specific target market. In an age when corporations obsess about marketing to “early adopters” (ad-speak for the young urban sophisticates whose tastes prefigure bigger consumer fads), Charney’s strategy – get the hipsters first, and then start counting money – was not unique. But his success at cornering the market by selling undershirts has been. Last year, a Business Week article fawned over Charney, claiming he is “connecting with an emerging youth movement, an underground network of urban hipsters from Brooklyn to Berlin. These twenty-something consumers don’t mind being marketed to as long as the images look real, unvarnished, and match their own casual attitudes toward sex.” American Apparel, digging into the hipster niche of the retail clothing market, has been rewarded with a meteoric business success in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a potential future as a billion-dollar company.
American Apparel has cornered this most targeted of consumer markets with a slew of sophisticated, ironic public poses. From Charney’s populist speeches to the ad campaign reminiscent of DIY porn, everything about American Apparel is geared to appeal to the ideal trend-starting shoppers Charney calls “young metropolitan adults” – including the company’s sweatshop-free manufacturing ethic. The widespread misgivings by left-leaning young people that everyday commodities like coffee, clothing, and oil are inextricably linked with global exploitation has created a huge potential consumer market among the very “early adopters” all marketers love to pander to. Like Starbucks and Whole Foods, American Apparel has hit a niche market with a message about its business ethics – and carted off cash as fast as it can carry it.
Not only is the company’s clothing “Made in Downtown L.A.” as the billboard says, but the predominantly immigrant workforce of thousands earns $12 an hour on average, according to American Apparel. In an industry that is shifting production to places where workers earn well under a dollar an hour, at a time when 97 percent of apparel sold in the U.S. is made in other countries, Charney’s company stands the business model on its head. Indeed, with perks ranging from a health care plan to English classes to free massages, as well as its “one big family” élan and charismatic patron, American Apparel’s factory (now the largest sewn-garments facility remaining in the United States) hearkens back to a bygone, paternalistic era of textile manufacture in the United States.
Ever since a general strike of textile workers in 1934, employers in garment factories have been at such pains to keep their workers from forming unions that they would create a family-like, miniature welfare state, providing employees housing or Christmas dinners and, in more recent times, sports leagues or night classes. This old-school management emphasizes workers’ status as the children in a family with the employer as a benevolent father figure who provides a good life but expects obedience. The idea was that spending money – on more-than-minimum wages and parties and classes for workers – in order to make much more money, would be far cheaper than the costs that would accrue if the workers were to organize and make their own gains through collective bargaining. If workers in these paternalistic enterprises did attempt to organize, however, the carrot of good benefits could quickly be swapped with with the stick of real employer power. Indeed, workers attempting to unionize in textile plants usually face harassment, intimidation, firings, threats to close the plant, and all manner of manipulation or creation of division among and between workers and their organization.
Paternalistic management techniques like these live on in updated “team” jargon in a thousand U.S. industries, from Wal-Mart to Amazon.com. However, the off-shoring of hundreds of thousands of textile jobs has made the issue a dead letter in garment-making: in the time that American Apparel has hired 2,000 workers, the industry at large has terminated some 500,000 jobs in the United States. American Apparel has bucked this trend, as its marketing campaign of getting socially conscious consumers to pay extra for more tailor-fitted clothing has forced the company to keep jobs in downtown Los Angeles. and pay workers more than the minimum. But being a “rebel company” doesn’t translate to respect for workers’ rights to organize. The plant’s workers have no union, and in 2003 American Apparel fought a union-organizing drive with the same sophisticated savvy they bring to advertising.
The Anti-Union Workers’ Utopia
There is no denying that American Apparel’s textile workers in Los Angeles are among the highest-paid workers remaining in U.S. basic-clothing production, and this has led some supporters of American Apparel’s ethics to conclude that their workers would not benefit from unionization. On the other hand, high-wage skilled workers have frequently been at the forefront of the unionization of their industries. In, say, the 1920s, non-union Ford autoworkers were among the best-paid manufacturing workers in the world. But the cyclical nature of automobile employment meant a Ford worker’s life was punctuated by periodic layoffs, re-hiring uncertainty, and a constantly accelerating pace of work. These concerns, relating to issues of job security and power in the workplace, led autoworkers to attempt to unionize in the face of a sophisticated and intransigent anti-union battle by their patron, Henry Ford – and many of these same issues brought a trickle of American Apparel workers to the Union of Needletrades and Industrial Textile Employees (UNITE) in the summer of 2003.
“A couple [of] workers had contacted us about going union,” says Isaura Lucero, an organizer with UNITE in Los Angeles. “People were worried about layoffs and job security and the speed of work.” UNITE, which was later to merge with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), is known as one of the most aggressive organizing unions in the country. The union takes pains to form political and community coalitions that pressure employers to limit the intensity of their fight against unionization, having concluded that the inevitable harassment, threats, intimidation, and firings with which employers resist unionization can be insurmountable obstacles unless muted by outside pressures. Following that model, UNITE assembled a coalition of support and hit the gates of the plant at shift changes with union cards.
“In our first two days of talking to the workers when they came on and off shifts, there was a lot of support and interest, and a lot of people signed up on union cards,” says Lucero. “However, most people were interested and unsure, and they didn’t ever get to talk about it. Pretty soon after we started talking to people, management started fighting, and everyone got real afraid.” In the interest of making space for workers to talk freely with each other and union organizers, UNITE appealed to American Apparel’s much-advertised ethics, asking for neutral access to the facility. But these overtures were rebuffed by Charney, whose enlightened personal philosophy (touted on the company’s web site as a “hyper capitalist-socialist fusion”) dwells more on liberating his sexuality than on union discussion as a civil right. Immediately after denying the union access or neutrality at the factory, American Apparel’s stylish management executives began what the union calls a very traditional anti-union campaign of misinformation and fear. “People were intimidated and told things that weren’t true by the bosses, and soon nobody would talk. We couldn’t get to the parking lot, either; the boss said they’d arrest us.”
According to signed affidavits in an unfair-labor-practices charge filed by the union and settled by American Apparel, the company’s management campaign included surveillance of employees, captive-audience anti-union meetings, interrogation of workers about their support for the union, and a campaign of misleading information and intimidation. But the true blow came when workers were made to attend, on paid time, an anti-union rally that management staged for reporters in the building’s parking lot. Charney, however, saw the beauty of workers’ self-organization in the scene: “Workers organized other workers to write letters to the union, sign a petition and demonstrate against the union in front of our building,” Charney wrote in a letter to the Nation magazine in September 2004.
Although Lucero and other organizers remain in touch with a handful of union supporters at the plant, intense fear and pressure around the issue make a successful unionization campaign unlikely anytime soon. Charney, however, is quick to point out that he too has suffered from the whole incident, opining to the San Francisco Chronicle that his company’s “sweat-free” tag has made it a target of activists and unions. “‘Is it a cooperative? Is it unionized? Are you objectifying women?’ Of course we’re objectifying women. You want a smock? Go to the Middle East.” In the wake of negative publicity around the union fight, Charney has decided to “de-emphasize” the sweatshop-free part of American Apparel’s image. Backing away from his boasts about keeping production in the United States at high wages, Charney now makes more modest claims: “If we open a factory in China, we will sell our T-shirts in China, and we will pay at least the U.S.-dollar minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. It is a new U.S. imperialism.”
Cool Capitalists Gone Wild
So, is the metro, forward-looking American Apparel really just a throwback to anti-union paternalism in its manufacturing practices? Without question, the company’s internal corporate culture seems to present Charney as the old-fashioned patron with some cool sideburns painted on. Indeed, besides his anti-union factory tactics, Charney presents another parallel to this persona: a recurring sexual-harassment theme. One of the ugliest sides of employer paternalism has always been the likelihood of such unequal power relations giving rise to sexual abuse, and Charney has been sued by multiple former employees for sexual harassment. He maintains his innocence, and many in his white-collar workforce defend the environment at American Apparel as an updated, pro-sex take on feminism. But the fact remains: Charney has had more people sue him for sexual harassment than, say, Joe Francis, the young entrepreneur behind the Girls Gone Wild video empire. Negative publicity around these recurring sex scandals at the company has caused Charney even more grief than have his anti-union tactics and has led him to make bizarre statements on gender equality like “women initiate most domestic violence.”
Sexual-harassment scandals as liberated feminism? Workers spontaneously organizing other workers to carry out an anti-union management campaign? A wealthy prep-school kid who, in two decades, went from scabbing on striking workers to stopping his own workers’ unionization today being lauded as having created a “hyper capitalist-socialist fusion”? The contradictions that underlie American Apparel certainly go deeper than the incongruous messages of their ubiquitous advertisements. But a certain consistent logic is evident, not only with Charney’s business, but in all companies that have staked their brand image on socially conscious consumption and ethical trend-making. Companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods have also climbed their first few rungs up the ladder of corporate success by appealing to liberal professionals on the basis of a hip image and social responsibility – but both have fought unionization drives with the same grim gusto as American Apparel.
This is possible because, at least so far, the new niche market of liberal consumerism is primarily concerned with workers’ rights if the workers in question live far away, in an exotic locale where adding a fair-trade sticker costs a corporation pennies. Deciding to not buy a product because the company that makes it is fighting its own workers’ unionization efforts is not something Charney’s “young metropolitan adults” really do. And as long as progressive consumer standards apply only to workers’ rights in other countries, Dov Charney’s factory is unlikely to supplement the free massages with job security or a voice at work.
Jim Straub is an organizer with SEIU Local 1107 in Las Vegas, NV — although a move to nicer, colder Minneapolis is in the works. He is researching a book about the rust belt, and so is eager to hear from anyone who grew up in de-industrializing Ohio, West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Email Jim at rustbeltjacobin_at_gmail.com.