Levi Strauss and the Price We Pay
The cost of apparel has declined for a quarter century, helping make
Americans the best-clothed people in history. All is right in the world,
unless you ask how it happened.
By FRED DICKEY
December 1 2002
Brenda Pope sits at the kitchen table and stares sadly at her work-hardened
hands. Inside one wrist is the purple welt of a surgical scar that runs halfway
to her elbow. Twenty years at a sewing machine gave her the carpal tunnel
injury. That scar and $15,000 in severance is what she has to show for those
years. Near the edge of Blue Ridge, Ga., the Levi Strauss plant where she
once worked now sits empty, a glass-and-brick shell overlooking acres of
empty parking lot. Bored security guards stroll the grounds to protect what
no one any longer values. A factory dies an honorable death when it falls
apart from hard work and time. This one was cut down in full productivity.
For a half-century, this apparel sewing plant was a wellspring that pumped
life into the town. The workday was switched on by the gathering of 400 workers,
mainly women, chattering as they punched the clock. Hour after hour, they
created a cadence from clacking sewing machines, generating wealth for their
bosses and modest wages for themselves.
The plant was shut in June, one of six Levi plant closures that left the
San Francisco apparel giant with just a tiny U.S. manufacturing presence--a
plant in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to quick turn-around products that have
deadlines overseas plants can't meet. At the end, the Blue Ridge workers
stood in small knots, tossed about by a maelstrom of emotions. Some were
in shock. Some muttered that they would never again wear Levi clothing. Most
worried about the future. Brenda Pope was one of those.
Blue Ridge is a town of nearly 2,000 in north Georgia, just south of the
Tennessee and North Carolina lines. Blue-green hills rise sharply a few miles
south of town and provide a gateway to the Appalachians, gaining loveliness
as they gain height. Residents are mostly Scots-Irish, descendants of the
hard-edged people who broke the Cherokees, and then broke the soil. Today,
many here, like Pope, are working poor.
Measured against what most of us feel we need, the 44-year-old single mother
asked little. She wanted to live among familiar pines and trustworthy people,
create value with her hands and raise her child in the old ways. She did
not think she needed a college degree to do these things. She was right,
until she made the mistake of pricing herself out of the labor market--a
feat accomplished by earning $14 per hour putting zippers in Levi's famous
When Levi moved Pope's job out of the country, she became one of hundreds
of thousands of American workers who have lost jobs during the past six decades
as the garment industry seeks lower wages in underdeveloped countries. In
that context, the decision to close the Blue Ridge plant was hardly unusual.
Levi had clung to its last U.S. manufacturing plants long after most of its
competitors had fled.
Yet when a company like Levi, with a reputation for good management and
strong relations with employees, finally turns out the lights in the United
States, it might be an occasion to measure the human toll, here and abroad,
of the flight of garment industry jobs--and to remember that it's happening
so that American consumers, who buy more clothing than any people in history,
can get a shirt for $20 instead of $25.
In 1950, 1.2 million Americans were employed in apparel manufacturing. By
2001, that figure had fallen to 566,000. In the same time span, the U.S.
population almost doubled. Jobs went out of the country, and finished products
came in. In 1989, the U.S. imported $24.5 billion in apparel; in 2001, $63.8
billion. In the last quarter of 2001, 83% of all apparel sold in this country
The migration of these jobs is seen as the natural result of globalization,
the economic process that melds the technology and finance of the developed
world with the vast labor pool of the underdeveloped. This trend is especially
attractive to the apparel industry because, basically, all it needs are sewing
machines and low-paid workers.
Globalization has crept up so stealthily that it wasn't generally recognized
until full grown. It accelerated around the end of World War II, when the
industrialized world was reshuffling, says Charles Derber of Boston College,
author of "Corporation Nation," a book that views corporate power through
a populist filter. As American corporations witnessed the economic rise of
Japan and other foreign competition, they started looking for an edge, and
they found it in cheap labor abroad. "They realized that more money could
be made by using those billions of workers as producers as well as consumers,"
Many corporate executives view this sea of cheap labor as an attractive
profit center, or, if they find it predatory and distasteful, as a competitive
necessity. Economists say globalization will be the platform for Third World
countries to build their own free-market economies, and that low wages are
part of the growth process.
Michael M. Weinstein, a New York economist who has studied the job-flight
phenomenon, says of the plight of Pope and others like her: "Any policy you
give me for saving that person's job is going to threaten somebody else's.
I don't mean to sound callous, but there are plenty of low-end jobs [in the
U.S.] that need filling. If we bar low-cost goods from abroad, it would be
the poorest among us who depend on these products who would be punished most
In other words, it is the poor who would suffer most if, say, clothing at
Wal-Mart suddenly cost more. Weinstein adds, "We don't need garment jobs
to have full employment for Americans. It's a good thing when these jobs
go to the worst-off people in the world. I regard it as unconscionable to
clamp down on sweatshops that are making these people's lives better than
they would otherwise be."
The search for the worst-off people in the world means the garment industry
is looking for a target that's always moving. As soon as wages rise in one
country, work can be moved to another. Charles Kernaghan, director of the
National Labor Committee in New York City, calls this long-distance shuffle
a "race to the bottom" of the wage scale. The committee has a list of hourly
apparel wages in Third World countries, including: Guatemala, 37 cents; China,
28 cents; Nicaragua, 23 cents; Bangladesh, 13 to 20 cents.
In addition to low wages, manufacturers in many countries benefit from child
labor and long workdays as well as the absence of health plans, environmental
protections, workplace safety standards and efforts to organize workers.
In fairness, some U.S. apparel makers, Levi among them, have taken steps
to police conditions in plants overseas, and to pay fairly. But those efforts
are far from universal.
"American companies make showcase visits to these offshore plants, but they
always get the VIP tour and are maneuvered to talk only to employees who
have been coached for such occasions," says Kernaghan, an old-style, angry
labor activist who knows his enemy, doesn't trust him and never gets too
Levi Strauss & Co. has taken on the role of dressing people to look
sexy and cool, but the company began in 1853 as a wholesale dry goods business.
Its first garments were work pants made of canvas-type material to serve
workers in dust-clogged mines and on docks. As the years passed, Levi grew,
its sales reaching $4.3 billion by fiscal 2001, and the company expanded
its manufacturing to other parts of the country. Levi became a paragon of
corporate beneficence. It provided benefits, fair wages and even helped employees
earn diplomas. It donated ball fields to the small towns where it operated.
Even unions liked the company.
Ann Woody was a management employee at the Blue Ridge factory. She remembered
when Bob Haas, a descendant of the founders and Levi's president and CEO,
visited the plant about a decade ago. Workers planted a tree in his behalf
to show their affection. It was a touching moment of mutual fidelity.
Company fortunes faltered in the mid-'90s in the face of competition from
goods made overseas. When the time came for Levi to close Blue Ridge, Haas
had become chairman of the board, replaced as president and CEO by Philip
A. Marineau, who was recruited from Pepsi-Cola to "turn this thing around."
To reduce labor costs, Marineau had to break the paternal mold that the
Haas family had formed over many years. Journalist Karl Schoenberger wrote
in his 2001 book, "Levi's Children," that "Levi Strauss is one of the very
few major companies in the apparel industry that has not been indelibly branded
a scoundrel by human rights critics. . . . It has the distinction of trying
harder and far longer than any other multinational corporation to do the
The new boss was tough enough to say to the workers: Sorry, but this is
Marineau doesn't do fireside chats. He's all business. Asked why the company
closed Blue Ridge and turned out faithful workers, he says: "To be competitive
in the marketplace required us to lower our cost of goods. It required us
to go offshore. Apparel prices have gone down for the last 25 years, and
it continues unabated, driven by an aging population that wants to spend
less on clothing."
In announcing the six plant closures, Levi said it was becoming a "marketing
company," and that future production in almost all cases would be by contract
manufacturers. That would take place in 50 countries, including Mexico, Bangladesh
To author Derber, that explanation is code language that actually says:
We're going for the cheap labor, and we don't want the dirty hands of ownership
that go with sweatshops. The goal is to have "plausible deniability" about
labor conditions. He said that foreign plant owners are rarely steeped in
touchy-feely management techniques and operate with the backing of powerful
politicians who can impede whatever government oversight might technically
be on the books.
Asked why Levi contracts out its manufacturing, Marineau gives several competitive
business reasons, then he pauses and acknowledges, "The apparel industry
is chasing low-cost labor."
For Levi, the advantages became obvious this year. In the third quarter,
which ended Aug. 25, Levi's sales were up 3.5%, its first increase since
1996. Five weeks ago came an agreement to sell a new line of lower-priced
jeans through the vast Wal-Mart Stores chain. Marineau predicted that the
new Levi Strauss Signature brand would generate hundreds of millions of dollars
in sales each year--all from garments made abroad.
To its credit, Levi has been a pioneer overseas, creating a corporate code
of standards for every manufacturer with which it contracts. Levi also pays
inspectors to enforce the standards. Writer Schoenberger acknowledges Levi's
effort, but says, "How well they have managed to enforce that code is probably
very debatable," given the serpentine twists in Third World countries.
In fact, enforcing the codes of various private groups and international
organizations is not achievable, Weinstein says. Groups such as the World
Trade Organization, NAFTA and the International Labor Organization have no
real leverage to control American multinationals because the United States
has such vast economic clout. "Say the Philippines has a beef against American
trade practices," he says. "What are they going to do, refuse to do business
with the U.S.?"
That segues into a main Kernaghan point. The labor activist says that the
most effective step against globalization abuses would be to pass legislation
in the United States prohibiting the entry of goods from countries whose
products fall short of acceptable standards. In other words, the U.S. would
be saying to multinationals operating offshore: We can't stop you from making
clothing in sweatshops, but you can't sell it here.
"We have the power to determine what comes into our country," says Jay Mazur,
retired president of Unite, the union that traditionally represented most
American apparel workers. "We say cocaine can't come into our country; so
we can say that goods produced in sweatshops can't either."
Kernaghan and his allies (human rights advocates and some labor unions,
but thus far not many politicians) believe that such legislation would eliminate
the common explanation companies give for abusing humane standards--we do
it because our competitors do. Opponents argue that the law would send clothing
prices higher in the U.S.
Karen Collis was the president of the Unite local in Blue Ridge. When Levi
announced the closure, there was little the union could do except negotiate
severances. Collis, 31, is luckier than most. She's bright, young and ambitious.
She has a supportive husband and plans to use her $11,000 severance to pursue
an accounting degree. She may be one of the few for whom being laid off will
be a blessing.
Collis, though, knows her former co-workers do not need severance packages.
They need employment. She is upset--at the union she believes gave up on
the Blue Ridge plant, at Levi for turning its back on loyal workers, and
even at Mexico, which is where she and other workers heard their jobs are
So in the race to the bottom, is Mexico the next stop?
In the sand-blown Mexican border town of Piedras Negras, two hours southwest
of San Antonio, a mother of five prays that Collis' prediction comes true.
It won't. The woman, who did not want her name used for fear of reprisal
at work, lives in a two-bedroom crumbly stucco house so narrow it seems you
can't open the back door without closing the front. The tiny front room is
filled with rows of family photos, religious symbols and a snowy old TV that
is always on and seemingly never watched. Even the furniture coverings are
threadbare. At the moment, the room is festive and crowded as several relatives
have gathered for the momentous occasion of this interview. Her children
are almost awkwardly polite and listen as attentively as if this were pay-per-view.
She says she earns about $55 a week sewing cloth bags at the local factory.
Two years ago, she earned twice that much working on Levi jeans at a large
factory, but it closed and the jobs moved to Central America and the Far
East. The closure left her and her husband, whose own job is spotty, with
far more bills than money.
Today, she worries that she will fall behind on her sewing quota. She is
not as nimble as she once was. She holds her bladder until lunch or quitting
time to avoid slowing down. She knows that 100 people would line up for her
job, and would gladly take the latest starting wage of about $35 per week.
There is no job security and no one to appeal to because the union in her
plant is as answerable to the company as she is.
This year's economic downturn in the U.S. has hurt the Mexican apparel industry,
but most jobs were lost because companies moved to countries with lower wages,
says Julia Quinonez, head of CFO (Border Committee of Women Workers) in Piedras
Negras. She says that 4,500 apparel jobs have disappeared from that small
city in the past three years and that wages have gone from $4 per hour 10
years ago to an average of 80 cents today. Quinonez says the jobs are going
abroad, or farther south in Mexico, where wages are about 60% of those along
the border and labor protections are rarely enforced.
Martha Tovar, president of Solunet-InfoMex, an economic research company
in El Paso, Texas, says that 68 textile plants closed in Mexico last year,
depressing conditions in the border area, including the poor woman's family
in Piedras Negras. Prices are so high, they cross the border to buy beans
and rice, and occasionally--very occasionally--some chicken or cheap beef.
When told that some housekeepers in L.A. earn her weekly income by lunchtime,
the mother's eyes widen and she says, "How can that be?"
Her ambition is to gather her family and slip across the border, where she
wishes to find out if such stories can be true for her. Asked how she would
do that, she shrugs. "I'll just use a guest pass to cross over, then not
She has little curiosity about the companies responsible for her wages.
She would, however, like to ask them--whoever they are--"Why is it that you
can't pay me enough so I can live decently? So that I can feed my family
chicken even once in a while?"
She is not an economist and she has never heard of globalization, but her
instincts tell her that the job that allows her barely to survive is soon
going the way of thousands of other jobs in her town. In the race to the
bottom, it turns out, Mexico is in the rearview mirror.
Lisa Rahman would consider that Mexican family blessed with riches, because
$1 an hour far exceeds any amount the 19-year-old garment factory worker
would dare dream of when asleep in her family's shack. Her closer-to-earth
ambition is to double her income to about 30 cents per hour. That would mean
chicken in her rice maybe once a week.
Rahman lives with and is the main support for her parents and two young
relatives in the vast slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. All she can afford is one
room, and during the rainy season, the family collects the bedding and moves
to the one dry corner so that they don't get soaked. She has never gone to
school, ridden a bicycle or seen a movie. Her wages allow the eating of chicken
maybe once every two months. She describes the neighborhood: "Ninety to 100
people in my neighborhood all use one water pump, one outhouse and one stove
with four burners."
Rahman has worked in garment factories since she was 10, the last three
years at the Shah Makhdum factory. She says she often works from 8 a.m. until
10 p.m. seven days a week, with a day off maybe once a month. Her take-home
pay is the equivalent of 14 cents per hour. The factory is hot, and the drinking
water is dirty. If she gets sick and can't work, she doesn't get paid. If
she gets sick very often, she'll be unpaid permanently.
Rahman is waif-like--about 5 feet and 110 pounds--and has round eyes that
float in her still-young brown skin. Everything about her begs for a protective
arm around her, but that draws her no slack on the job: "If we fail to meet
[production quota], the supervisors yell and curse at us. They curse our
parents and call them filthy [names]. Sometimes they slap us."
One product that Rahman worked on most recently was for the Walt Disney
Co. of Burbank, a contract purchaser from the factory. It's a Winnie the
Pooh shirt that retails for $17.99. Asked to guess the shirt's retail price
in the U.S., Rahman says, "About 50 or 100 taka," which is 86 cents to $1.72.
Rahman had never heard of Disney, Disneyland or Mickey Mouse until a labor
dispute broke at the plant recently over working conditions. The Disney licensee
promptly suspended its work there--forcing Rahman and others to reverse field.
They are now trying to have the manufacturing resume.
Rahman says she hopes to work at the plant until she is old.
And what's old?
A spokesman for the Disney company, Gary Foster, says of Rahman's allegations
about the Shah Makhdum plant: "We have visited that plant 12 separate times,
and everything she says about it is untrue." Asked if Disney garments are
still being produced there, he says, "As far as we know, there is no Disney
licensee making products in that plant." Asked why he isn't certain, he says,
"That is the licensee's decision."
Bangladesh is a desperately poor nation of 134 million that needs a lot
of Lisa Rahmans to staff its 3,300 sewing factories. The country provides
garments for most major American apparel manufacturers, including Levi. In
2000, Bangladesh companies made 924 million garments for U.S. companies with
a wholesale customs value of $2.2 billion.
Recently, however, the Bangladesh minister of commerce complained that wages
in other countries, such as China, were undercutting laborers in his nation.
That is not surprising to labor activist Kernaghan. He says that fickle multinationals
have found new low-wage destinations, and China heads the list.
Richard H. Dekmejian, an international relations expert at USC, makes a
judgment on where globalization is leading us: "Third World countries have
no choice but to let these companies operate so their teeming populations
don't die of hunger. People take what crumbs they're able to catch. But the
overall impact of globalization is that the rich get richer and the poor
starve. That will eventually lead to an explosion. It's inevitable."
Union veteran Mazur is more sanguine. "The world sees us as the great economic
engine, and they just want it to work for them, too. By giving the world
fair wages for labor, we would create social stability, and make peace more
Sitting at the table with Brenda Pope is her 11-year-old son, Brian. He's
a chubby, pleasant boy, well-mannered in a "yes sir, no ma'am" way that sounds
almost quaint to a Southern California ear. Brian was found to have lupus
a year ago, and he has red splotches on his face and arms caused by the disease,
which can kill if it's not carefully--and expensively--controlled. He can
do nothing about his face, but he reflexively tries to cover his sleeveless
arms. When I ask if he would mind playing outside for a while, he complies
without a murmur. When he's gone, I ask his mother how he's doing.
"Lots of kids give him a hard time. They call him pizza face and stuff like
that. It just breaks my heart. He once asked me, 'Momma, are you ashamed
of how I look?' When the doctor told him about the lupus, the only question
he had was, 'Am I gonna die?' "
Pope has been pushed around by life, but some of it was her own doing, and
she knows it; to wit: the two men she married, including Brian's father,
whom she divorced 10 years ago. The look on her face as she discusses them
tells me I could write the familiar script. "I dropped out of school; figured
I could live on love. I was stupid, I reckon," she says with a hollow laugh.
When Pope switches attention to her lost job, she says she anticipates drudging
trips to the welfare and unemployment offices, and endless job hunts that
promise little for her limited skills. She could flip burgers for about $6
an hour--if they'd hire a middle-aged woman with a G.E.D. and an old-fashioned
work ethic--but that wouldn't be enough to save her house and pay the costs
of treating her son's sickness. "I'd dig ditches if the pay's good," she
Helen M. Lewis, who also lives near Blue Ridge, is an author and authority
on the familiar Appalachian struggle to make a living. She doesn't know Pope,
but she has known thousands in the same situation. "I'm sorry to say it,
but she'll probably lose her house and move onto her parents' property with
a trailer home. It's an old pattern. There are millions of people in this
country like her who want to be productive workers and who are content to
live marginally middle-class lives; instead, they become dependent on society
because large corporations tromp on them chasing more profits from sweatshop
No one in Blue Ridge, currently, is looking for a woman who has sewn a couple
million zippers into pants. In fact, not many in Blue Ridge are looking for
anyone. The town is rapidly turning into a mountain resort of antique shops,
summer houses for rich Atlantans, and retirement and convalescent homes.
In job-availability shorthand, that comes down to bedsheets and bedpans serving
those low-paying industries.
The state of Georgia has set up a job agency for the former Levi workers.
State employees eagerly staff job banks, but for far too few positions. They
encourage people who can't type to learn computer skills, and provide some
funding to go back to college or trade school. That's of marginal value to
middle-aged people conditioned to manual work and who, in any event, can't
afford to stop working while going to school.
Brian is invited back to the kitchen table. He listens to his mother vent
at her ex-employer. Levi was part of the Pope family. Her mother worked there
for 26 years before retiring, and three other members of her immediate family
were let go with Brenda. "Four of us are out of a job." It's as though another
husband took off.
"They said they was going to give us a commemorative denim bag." She pauses
for the irony of that to settle. "Twenty years, and I get a denim bag made
out of the same damn scraps I threw in a basket?" She laughs. "I just can't
wait to get that denim bag." Brian chuckles, too, but isn't sure why. Asked
about his mother's situation, he responds with a child's heart. He smiles
at her proudly and says he wants to give back his allowance to help out.
She hugs him tightly. As I walk down the driveway, I look back and see Brenda
and Brian Pope standing on the step holding hands.
American consumers are blessed in many ways. As the nation's standard of
living has risen and the cost of clothing has dropped, homes have grown bigger,
as have closets. Shopping for clothes has become a pastime for millions of
people because they can afford to do it regularly. Thanks to this Levi closure,
we can buy, say, five shirts for $100 instead of four.
The cost of having that fifth shirt? Higher welfare, health-care and job
retraining costs for hard-working people like Brenda Pope, the shrinking
lives of people like Lisa Rahman and the family in Piedras Negras, and perhaps
the explosion forecast by Dekmejian.
It is part of the American character to believe that things will always
get better. However, many poor countries are mired in the depression that
says bad things never change. Both are often right.
On March 25, 1911, 275 young immigrant women who sewed garments for six
bucks a week were about to go home. It was quitting time in the cluttered
Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in Manhattan. A fire broke out and spread
quickly through clutter on the floor. The rush to get out turned to panic
as they realized they were trapped on the upper floors, where the doors opened
inward. Many leapt onto pavement from eight stories up. At the end, 146 died.
Photographs of their bodies laid in an orderly line on the sidewalk shocked
America. In response, laws were passed establishing workplace safety standards.
Wage laws eventually followed, decreeing that apparel workers should not
only not die, but their lives should be worth living.
Ninety years later, on Nov. 25, 2000, a fire broke out on the fourth floor
at the Chowdhury Knitwear factory in Narsingdi, Bangladesh. It darted across
the factory floor and enveloped tables piled with shirts. A can of solvent
exploded into a fireball. Someone grabbed an extinguisher. It was broken.
The 1,250 apparel workers panicked. Some dashed to the roof, where they were
cornered and jumped to their deaths. Some raced down the stairs to the main
exit, where they discovered the metal gate was locked. As their pounding
went unanswered, others piled up behind them. Fifty-two workers died, mostly
young women and children. The factory was soon back in production. No new
laws were passed and nothing much changed, except about 50 new faces at the