A growing number of N.Y.C.’s garment workers are coming forward saying that the union they believed would protect them, the Union of Needletrades, Indus. & Textile Employees, has failed them. While most of the garment factories are unionized, advocates for the workers allege that pay and conditions in those shops are no better than in nonunion shops. “The union has a closer relationship with the boss than the worker,” says Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff & Workers’ Ass’n.
Worker Oi Kwan Lai told CSWA that UNITE failed to protect its members against abusive conditions. “It felt like being in prison,” she told the association in a complaint. “We had to keep our heads down at all times once we started working. No looking up. No talking to anyone.”
As more and more manufacturing work is taken abroad and N.Y.C.’s garment industry declines, “the union is afraid to enforce its contracts,” said Ken Kimerling, Asian-Am. Legal Def. & Edu. Fund attorney. “They’re afraid the work will go overseas or go to nonunion shops.” AALDEF recently filed three federal suits against unionized factories and others for a wide range of abuses.
A recent report by the Ctr. for Econ. and Social Rights, a Brooklyn-based “human rights group,” quoted two Donna Karan workers who criticized their UNITE attorney. The workers alleged that the factory where they worked was closed after they complained about working conditions. “We thought he was a DKNY lawyer, not the union lawyer, because he kept saying that DKNY wasn’t responsible for any of the conditions and the union couldn’t do anything to help us get our jobs back,” said one of the workers, who asked not to be identified.
UNITE blasted the dissents; UNITE boss May Y. Chen, said,”They say the union is no good, that the union is not going to do anything. That is extremely counterproductive.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who recently met with CSWA said he plans to look into allegations that the union is not enforcing its wage agreements. “That’s certainly one of the areas we intend to look into….[W]e certainly intend to…bring it up with the Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao.”
Criticism of UNITE surfaced in 1998 congressional hearings. Federal agents searched the offices of UNITE Local 23-25. The search was related to the indictments of Luchese crime family operatives on charges of extorting money from garment factories to buy labor peace. A UNITE business agent pled guilty to receiving a bribe. The probe was subsequently closed. [Newsday (N.Y.) 5/6/01]