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Against Sweatshops


Union members here and in western Pennsylvania have responded to repression of labor rights in Nicaragua with protests at Kohl’s department stores. Kohl’s is among the major U.S. retailers that purchase clothing produced in Central American sweatshops.

Five maquila assembly unions in Nicaragua have been destroyed this year. Companies have targeted the largest and strongest union, which represents workers at the Chentex factory.

The 1,850 Chentex workers produce jeans for J.C. Penney, Kmart and Wal-Mart, as well as the Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s. Chentex also makes clothing sold under the Gloria Vanderbilt and Bugle Boy labels. The plant produces 35,000 pairs a day.

Kohl’s pays $7.15 per pair for the jeans. Workers get about 20 cents for each pair.

Chentex workers organized a union in 1998, and successfully concluded collective bargaining. For the last several months, however, the company has refused to bargain in good faith. When workers called a one-hour work stoppage in April, management responded by firing nine union leaders, hiring thugs to terrorize the workers, putting up barbed wire and surveillance cameras and forming a company union.

Workers, who are paid by the piece, want a wage increase, real negotiations and reinstatement of the fired workers. The minimum wage in Nicaragua is 30 cents an hour, or about $65 a month.

Meanwhile, a law signed by President Clinton on May 18 (Caribbean Basin Parity with NAFTA) will reward U.S. retailers and their contractors with a $200 million a year windfall profit by lifting all quotas and tariffs on clothing made in Central America with U.S. fabric.

In August, protests at a Kohl’s store on Milwaukee’s South Side resulted in the arrest of Local 1172 member Tom Dunne.

On Sept. 23, some 60 trade unionists, students and other activists from UE District Six, PLANTA, Students in Solidarity, the Fourth Congressional District Labor Coalition, Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) and the Western Pennsylvania Living Wage Campaign took a message to the Kohl’s department store in suburban Cranberry.

Protestors signed the bottom of a large sign containing a letter to Kohl’s CEO Larry Montgomery demanding that he "immediately contact Chentex and insist that they reinstate the fired workers, drop all charges, deal with the union with respect and in good faith, and raise wages by eight cents." They then marched across the parking lot towards the store, led by UE with flags flying, and with chants and drum-playing. Marchers carried signs with a variety of messages.

A delegation met with the store manager, who promised to convey the group’s concerns to Montgomery.

The activities nationwide to convince Kohl’s to force Chentex to stop violating the rights of its workers have been coordinated by the National Labor Committee and Campaign for Labor Rights.

UE News - 10/00

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