March 2, 2007 Volume 108 Number 5

Union members ask Portland to take anti-sweatshop action

At a Feb. 19 rally, Portland Fire Fighters Local 43 Vice President Ed Hall linked current anti-sweatshop campaigns to campaigns at the dawn of the labor movement. A 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 New York City garment workers, Hall said, but led to better factory safety standards — and fire safety codes that fire fighters enforce in Portland and elsewhere.

“But it is now the 21st century,” Hall said, “and children are still working and dying in sweatshops.”

Last February, Hall noted, 54 workers, some of them children, died in the KTS Composite Textiles factory in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

“As a firefighter, when I go to work and I put on my uniform, I want to know that the company that makes that shirt and pants supports the same values we do … having a safe and fair workplace.”

Hall and other activists are calling on the City of Portland to ensure it is not purchasing goods made under conditions that violate labor laws.

About 110 people attended the noon-hour rally, held outside Portland City Hall on Presidents Day. A former sweatshop worker from Bangalore, India, told of managers abusing the mostly young, female workforce, and said he was arrested for trying to unionize factory workers at a shop that produces goods for Wal-Mart. And a Colombian woman who worked 10 years at a flower plantation that sells to Albertsons and Wal-Mart described allergies and skin problems from excessive fungicides and pesticides.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner also said he favors passage of a local anti-sweatshop ordinance, saying his agency, the Bureau of Labor and Industries, was founded in 1903 to study conditions in factories.

“We must not allow public money to go to companies that don’t comply with basic labor laws,” Gardner said.

The Portland Sweatfree Campaign, backed by 13 local unions and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, has been meeting with staff in City Hall, but so far no commissioners have committed to anything but a symbolic resolution.

“We don’t want a feel-good ordinance,” said Kate Lore, social justice coordinator for the First Unitarian Church. “We want one with teeth."

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