The return of Striketober and why consumers should care

By Eden Iscil, Public Policy Manager

The National Consumers League has a long history of fighting for both consumers and workers alike. Founded 124 years ago, NCL’s first major policy accomplishments included the establishment of minimum wage laws and protections around child labor. In support of these goals, much of the League’s early years were centered around consumer boycotts of companies that treated their employees unfairly.

Today, NCL’s support of workers’ rights remains just as critical as we find ourselves in another October with truly historic labor action. Two years after “Striketober,” 75,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente walked off the job in the largest healthcare strike in history largely due to low pay and understaffing. At the same time, 160,000 actors belonging to SAG-AFTRA and 25,000 members of the United Auto Workers continue to strike. The Writers Guild of America recently secured significant gains after a months-long writers’ stoppage, and UPS agreed to better contracts for drivers after 340,000 Teamsters threatened to withhold their labor.

Beyond the benefits for all workers that the presence of strong unions provides, it’s also in consumers’ self-interest to support workers agitating for better employment terms. As consumers, we rely on these employees to safely fly passengers across the country, provide critical healthcare services, and raise the alarm over unsafe food production. In addition to the harm that results from jeopardizing workers’ safety, poor working conditions can lead to indefinite closures, potentially reducing the amount of product on the shelves. In all of these cases, unions help consumers by advocating for adequate staffing levels to prevent worker burnout, securing healthy workplace environments, and ensuring robust whistle-blower protections.

Even for less perilous industries (i.e. not flying a plane or driving a truck), consumers should support workers fighting for better employment conditions if only to safeguard the continuation of their favorite products. The arts—including television, movies, and music—provide invaluable comfort and entertainment, in addition to awakening us to new perspectives, ideas, and values. Despite consumers’ intense love for these forms of entertainment, writers, actors, and musicians continue to struggle in their fields for fair compensation, something that can threaten (or at the very least, doesn’t promote) the future creation of high-quality art.

Industry has always threatened to raise prices if they are forced to pay their employees more. Consumers should understand that this is a choice corporate executives can make—but it is not the only possible outcome. Rather than price gouging consumers, companies can reduce executive compensation to offset the costs of fair wages. General Motors, one of the targets of the UAW strike, pays its CEO 362 times what it pays its median worker. Starbucks, a company infamous for its illegal union-busting, paid its former CEO nearly 1,400 times what it paid its median employee in 2022.

For this year’s resurgence of Striketober, consumers should do their part in supporting workers. Try purchasing union-made goods, shopping at worker-owned cooperatives (a directory of local co-ops can be found here while a list of large chains is viewable here), and supporting non-profit news organizations.

Guest Blog: The FABRIC act will address garment industry workplace concerns

By Rebecca Ballard

Last year the first ever federal fashion bill, The FABRIC Act, was introduced in Congress, and it will be reintroduced this September. However, the intersection between labor rights, legislation, and the garment industry is far from new. The industry has been tied to labor abuses since before our country’s founding; it was cotton that enabled the United States to reach global economic prominence, and issues with forced labor in fashion continue to this day. And it is not just labor concerns linked to fashion, but key labor achievements as well. Many of the labor laws that govern our lives and workplaces took root in the garment industry.

As a guest blogger for NCL and a longtime partner with the organization, I am excited to briefly share the fascinating history linking the garment industry and labor movements, some of the present-day issues in the industry, and even an opportunity to advocate for change this year.

The Industrial Revolution and the U.S. Fashion Industry

The industrial revolution gave rise to the fashion industry as we know it today, bringing innovation and affordable mass-produced items as well as widespread workplace labor abuses, sweatshop conditions, and pollution. In fact, the beginning of the U.S. industrial revolution is often cited as the opening of a textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1793. During the Industrial Revolution we saw women, including recent immigrants, and children take jobs in textile mills to supplement family income. Many of these workers were exploited, toiling sometimes for 16 hours a day during high demand periods, for a subsistence income; all too often they were subject to wage theft.

But through this work, many women garment workers also achieved a measure of independence, leaving homes and families, and some used that newfound independence to join social activist movements and advocate for improved labor conditions. Female workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, formed America’s first women’s union in the 1830s, which focused on maximum hours laws, including a 10 hour work day and higher wages, and they conducted one of the first major labor strikes in this nation’s history. Workers in New York’s sweatshops were victims of harassment, wage theft, and terrible conditions, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America unions formed to demand labor reforms there in the early 1900s.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Subsequent Labor Reforms 

Just as unions were gaining strength, the United States saw a devastating example of the incredible harms that can take place in the garment industry. Near closing time on March 25, 1911, the factory fire that broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 workers, many of whom were immigrant women and girls. The building’s only fire escape building had collapsed during the rescue effort. Machinery and tables crushed workers, while locked doors trapped them, and there were only a few buckets of water to douse the flames. Firefighter ladders were too short to reach the 9th floor and safety nets ripped. The survivors from the 500-plus Triangle Shirtwaist Factory recounted the horrors they witnessed, including their fellow workers leaping to their deaths from the 9th floor rather than being burned alive. Some victims were as young as 14 years old.

In New York state, this tragedy prompted the transformation of the state’s labor and fire codes, thirty-six new state laws, and increased labor funding. The New Deal era under President Franklin Roosevelt saw adoption of similar legislation at the federal level nearly 20 years later with the support of some of these same reformers, like Frances Perkins who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire herself and later became the Secretary of Labor under President Roosevelt. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, country-wise fire and safety laws, and the Fair Labor Standards Act could be said to have arisen from laws enacted in New York after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Following the lead of women’s suffrage groups, and often in concert with women’s rights leaders, a number of trade unions formed to support the rights of garment workers. Roosevelt’s New Deal offered legal protection to unions, and through union gains and New Deal programs sweatshop conditions lessened and wages increased. However this brief period of reforms for workers in the US garment industry did not continue when the industry expanded and much of the industry moved abroad.

In addition to labor issues, the modern garment industry continues the environmental degradation that started during the industrial revolution. The industry today is playing a role in climate change and not on track to meet key climate goals and operate within planetary boundaries in its current form. Overproduction as well as over-purchasing are both extreme, and there are presently enough clothes on our planet to clothe six generations of people. Waste is often exported to other countries, hurting local economies and climates through waste colonialism. The industry continues to be powered by coal and uses toxic chemicals that are dangerous for workers, wearers, and our planet. Water usage is also highly problematic. For example, it takes over 2,000 liters of water to make just one t-shirt, around as much as one person drinks in three years. The water used in clothing creation, as well as clothing use, is often filled with microfibers that reach even the depths of our oceans and cause great harm to planetary ecosystems.

California Legislation

Sweatshops reemerged in the 1960s due to a range of forces in the U.S. and abroad: the changing retail industry, the growing global economy, increased contracting, and a large number of immigrant workers in the U.S. In the 1970s, manufacturers began outsourcing production to other countries to lower labor costs and employ a more compliant, non-union worker base. Despite increased consumption and a growing population, the number of U.S.-based garment workers dropped 37 percent, from 1.2 million in 1970 to 760,000 in 1995.

When sweatshops reemerged on U.S. soil they brought with them many horrific practices.  In California in the 1990s, the El Monte sweatshop, was subject to a raid that uncovered workers held behind fences surrounded by razor wire. These modern-day sweatshops exposed brutal conditions, with many tricked into accepting U.S. employment while living in other countries and once here being subject to debt bondage, threats of harm to them or their families, and violations of wage and hour codes. 

The 2021 California’s Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62) enacted many statewide reforms for the industry in the state with the greatest number of garment workers. This landmark law aims to end wage theft and the payment of less than a minimum wage to garment workers by ending the piece rate of payment and creating liability for contractors for the full amount of unpaid wages and reimbursement of expenses, no matter how many layers of contracting are used. It also aims to enhance workplace safety by having garment workers no longer need to work at unsafe speeds to complete as many items as possible each day to reach a fair rate of pay.

The FABRIC Act

On the federal level, promising reforms include the first federal fashion industry bill, The Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institution Change (FABRIC) Act, which was introduced in 2022 and will be reintroduced this September. A federal Lobby Day on September 12th is planned in partnership with national worker rights and sustainable fashion NGOs. The FABRIC Act follows in the footsteps of California’s SB62 by eliminating the piece rate and creating joint and several liability for violations of the law.  The FABRIC Act also creates a national garment manufacturing registry and incentivizes domestic production through a $40 million garment manufacturing grant program and reshoring tax credits. Anyone is welcome to be a part of the Lobby Day, and can sign up to volunteer here.

National Consumers League supports the SAG-AFTRA strike

August 4, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, 202-823-8442

Washington, D.C. – The National Consumers League supports the SAG-AFTRA nationwide strike announced on July 14, 2023 against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. After a union wide vote authorized the strike with 97.7% voting yes, more than 150,000 movie, theater, and streaming actors have gone on strike.  AMPTP represents over 350 American television and film production companies, including Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, Netflix, Apple TV+, and Amazon.

SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher has been outspoken about the union’s frustration with the studios and networks.  “The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ (AMPTP) responses to the union’s most important proposals have been insulting and disrespectful of our massive contributions to this industry,” Drescher and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland have said.

The strike started after negotiations with AMPTP failed, despite SAG-AFTRA’s very reasonable demands:

  • Residual payments from streaming services based on viewership numbers
  • Streaming services won’t release statistics on streaming numbers to the union.
  • Protections and restitution for studios using Artificial Intelligence to reproduce an actor’s likeness
  • More regulation on “Self Taped Auditions” in which actors film their own auditions instead of within a casting studio. SAG-AFTRA says this creates an unfair burden being placed on actors
  • Increased contributions to pension, health and welfare funds.
  • Increased pay across the board and a living wage for those who work in the industry.

This strike coincides with the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the AMPTP; NCL also supports that group of writers who are striking. This marks the first time in 63 years that that both of these major unions have been forced to simultaneously go on strike.

The issues facing SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America are almost identical: workers in this industry have seen their pay slowly diminished by inflation during the last several years, they face a reduction in residuals, less working time for shows, and the threat of artificial intelligence to replace actual writers and editors.

Sally Greenberg, NCL’s CEO, explained the reason for her organization’s support. “We have always been pro worker and this strike is no exception, except that the disparity in pay between industry executives and performers is more shocking than ever. Disney CEO Bob Iger’s board of directors handed him a two-year $27-million-per-year contract extension the day before the vote. Other studio executives make many millions as well, and yet they expect performers and writers in the industry – whose creativity is responsible for the success of these shows – to work for diminishing salaries and reduced benefits such that many cannot earn a living wage. The AMPTP refuses to even consider ideas like a plan for actors to participate in streaming revenue, for example.”

NCL also recognizes the strong solidarity that these striking performers have shown. For weeks, hundreds have kept the picket lines active at major AMPTP locations. Several major Hollywood SAG-AFTRA members have given generous donations in the millions to support striking performers who may not be able to afford rent or food due being shut out of their occupation by the AMPTP. Some of these individuals include Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Matt Damon.

We also include below the statement of AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler in support of the performers represented by SAG-AFTRA.

AFL-CIO Statement on SAG-AFTRA

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About the National Consumers League (NCL)
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.