Through Strength and Struggle - A Victory for Garment Workers in Boston

reprinted from East Wind, Spring/Summer 1987)

By Therese Feng and Shirley Mark Yuen

In a national atmosphere that is increasingly anti-women, anti-minority, and anti-worker in sentiment, Chinese women and other ethnic immigrant garment workers in Boston recently earned a victory that is significant for women and non-English speaking minorities. Setting a precedent for all workers affected by plant closings, they fought for their rights as displaced workers, including the right to decide how retraining programs and benefits will be designed, implemented and evaluated. 

P&L Sportswear of East Boston, the largest garment shop in Boston, closed its doors in December 1985, laying off its 300 plus workers, 60 percent being Chinese immigrant women. The shutdown of a plant that once employed 1,000 workers is a reflection of the general decline of the garment industry in the Northeast. 

Presently, 75 percent of Chinese immigrant women workers are employed by the garment industry. The seasonal and piecework nature of the work limits the average annual income to only $4,000. Yet, this employment contributes substantially to the household income and oftentimes provides the only source of health insurance for these families. The closing of the P&L Sportswear plant would gravely affect the entire Chinese community. 

From the beginning, racial discrimination and class oppression have been the major issues. Under Massachusetts state law, workers displaced by plant closings can obtain benefits, which would retrain them in new job skills. The P&L workers, however, found out about these provisions only when their English-speaking children observed local news coverage of the closing of a local meatpacking plant. In that situation, the plant closing received both major press coverage as well as a strong organizing effort from the union. Three days after the shutdown of the Colonial Company meatpacking plant, a workers' assistance center had been established. 

The government, however, had made no attempt to similarly contact or consider the P&L workers even though their plant had shut down three months earlier. It was in March 1986 when the workers approached the Chinese Progressive Association, which quickly organized both students and community activists to form the Garment Workers Support Committee. 

After several requests for information and action were made to city and state agencies, the Workers Committee and the Support Committee organized a rally in front of the Massachusetts State House to apply public pressure. Over 200 workers and their supporters demanded 1) the immediate release of funds for retraining programs, 2) extension of health insurance benefits, and 3) decision-making power over choice and implementation of retraining programs. 

The unity among the workers and the staunchness of supporters from Chinatown and throughout the city was clearly evident that day. Representatives from the Asian American Resource Workshop, Chinese Progressive Association, the Colonial Company workers, the East Coast Asian Student Union, political leaders such as Mel King, and labor leaders such as Domenic Bozotto, president of Local 26, spoke in support of the P&L workers. More important, it forced the state Industrial Services Program (ISP) and the Mayor's Office of Jobs and Community Services UCS) to address the workers' demands. By late May, a workers' assistance center was established, $350,000 was allocated for retraining programs, and health insurance coverage was extended for six months. 

This initial victory won gains for other displaced garment workers, such as those of the Beverly Rose Company, which had also closed earlier that year. However, this victory, while significant, simply represented securing workers' rights provided for -at least in theory - by Massachusetts state law. 

During the summer, the campaign focused on the demand for worker decision-making power over choice and implementation of language and occupational retraining programs. JCS and ISP, for the most part, ignored the workers, claiming to know "what is best" for them, and even tried to bar the workers from attending meetings. In fact, they and the ILGWU Local held an attitude throughout that the workers did not know their own needs. Not only did these agencies repeatedly avoid discussion of substantive issues, they also clearly indicated their intention to let the issue die by failing to present a sound plan for retraining. 

In July, the city called a meeting to discuss a workers and support committee's counterproposal to the city's retraining plan. They insisted that only support committee members attend. Instead, they were met by 50 workers and supporters. Worker Lan Ng demanded, "How could you call a meeting without us to discuss issues affecting us? Nobody should speak for us." 

Stunned by the unity between workers and supporters, the city and state agreed to a series of meetings, which led to an historic agreement. Under the agreement, workers will determine guidelines and funding for their retraining programs, monitor the programs' progress, and receive sufficient unemployment and health insurance during their retraining. The workers' representatives summed up the victory as "a victory for ourselves and for the Chinese people." 

Throughout the campaign, the workers fought for the future - they fought not just for themselves and their families, but for other garment workers who would be displaced. The victory, however, extends beyond the agreement. The women have developed their own leadership capabilities and assumed primary responsibility in dealing with government agencies. They formed new alliances with community activists, students, labor leaders, and political figures to present a strong, organized front. These women, faced with racism from the government, the unions, and in the workplace, have shown what it takes to demand what is rightfully theirs. By bringing the issue before the public's attention and demonstrating their determination and unity in fighting for equality, the workers are changing the public's perception of Chinese immigrant women, and Asian peoples as a whole. 

The P&L Workers have also set a precedent for other workers in creating a mechanism to secure benefits, retraining, and now, direct decision-making power. This victory is especially significant at a time when workers' rights have frequently been compromised in the settlement of labor disputes. 

More struggles lie ahead. The workers continue to monitor the implementation of retraining programs, as well as fight to secure 100 percent job placement, in order to obtain rights for future displaced workers. They have no illusions as to the interests of the city and state, who prefer to regard them as a case of unavoidable "structural unemployment," even during a time of supposed economic growth in Massachusetts. But they are prepared. Lan Ng says, "We are not going to be silent anymore. We will fight to get what is our right!" 

Therese Feng is a member of the Garment Workers Support Committee. Shirley Mark Yuen is the education director of the Asian American Resource Workshop.