In Bangor, Maine, a coalition of shop owners, activists, and elected officials are airing their city's dirty laundry. Their Clean Clothes Campaign aims to draw attention to the exploitation of overseas apparel workers.
Led by Paul Cormier, proprietor of Cormier's Clothing in downtown Bangor, the group last spring began pressuring American clothing manufacturers to make sure their goods are not produced by child labor or poorly paid workers under sweatshop conditions, reports The Progressive Populist (Dec. 1998). Participating shop owners researched the origins of clothing and shoes sold in their stores and developed “clean clothes” inventories from goods manufactured under humane conditions. The campaign picked up steam in June when the Bangor City Council passed a nonbinding resolution of support. Now some 500 area consumers and 19 local retailers are participating.
Cormier says he was inspired to call one clothing manufacturer after learning that the company had moved some of its operations to Taiwan. Even though the company was paying the Taiwanese workers far less than their American counterparts, it still charged Cormier the same price for the shirts he sold in his store. “I said, ‘Hey, who's taking a profit here?’ ” he recalls. “I asked them to just ship what's made in the USA.”
Once the center of Maine's apparel, textile, and shoe industry, Bangor in the past two decades has seen the industry's workforce decline by more than half, as Timberland Shoes and other companies have chased cheap labor south of the border. Employees in Timberland's new factory in the Dominican Republic, for instance, earn $1.50 an hour; Timberland's Bangor workforce once earned $8.30 an hour.
Still, organizers say the goal of the Clean Clothes Campaign is much more than a grudge match against former employers.
“This is not a boycott campaign,” says coordinator Bjorn Skorpen Claeson. “We don't want to hurt the workers who make these brands in the sweatshops. We don't want to take jobs away, but we want companies to pay them a living wage. We want to do this in a way that will raise conditions globally.”