Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags — The Garment District, and the Loss of American Manufacturing Jobs

SchmattaLast night, I watched the HBO Documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.  (Schmatta is a Yiddish word for rag).  It was about the garment district in New York City.  It told the story of the vibrant role played by the garment industry in New York City for so much of the last century, and included the good, the tough, the unbelievably ugly.  (Read a review here).

For example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 killed 148 of the sweatshop workers, many of whom jumped to their death because the exit doors were locked to keep the workers in,and thus spurred the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. I think I might have joined a union for better working conditions after that.

Sadly, that tragedy was practically duplicated in Bangladesh in 2000, where young girls were working in sweatshop conditions, and were also looked in, and died in a fire.  (Death toll – 48).  And, yes, they were making clothing for consumers in the United States.schmatta2 vertical

But the documentary was primarily about the loss of jobs in the garment district.  Here are the astonishing statistics:

In 1965, 95% of the clothing Americans wore was made in this country.
In 1975, it went down to 80%.
It was just 70%, in 1985,
50% in 1995,
and currently only 5% of our clothing is manufactured in this country.

And the documentary clearly argues that the loss of jobs in the garment industry is the “canary in the coal mine,” representing the loss of so many other manufacturing jobs in this country.

I, and many others, have wondered, just what jobs will be available in this country,  especially for the non-college-educated among us.  (Of which there are so very many).

The documentary reminded me of the premise in the 1991 movie Other People’s Money.  Andrew Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) gives a speech in a losing effort to save his company.  Here’s an excerpt:

God save us if we vote to take his paltry few dollars and run. God save this country if that is truly the wave of the future. We will then have become a nation that makes nothing but hamburgers, creates nothing but lawyers, and sells nothing but tax shelters. And if we are at that point in this country, where we kill something because at the moment it’s worth more dead than alive — well, take a look around. Look at your neighbor. Look at your neighbor. You won’t kill him, will you? No. It’s called murder and it’s illegal.
Well, this too is murder — on a mass scale. Only on Wall Street, they call it “maximizing share-holder value” and they call it “legal.” And they substitute dollar bills where a conscience should be. Dammit! A business is worth more than the price of its stock. It’s the place where we earn our living, where we meet our friends, dream our dreams. It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together.

You can hear and read his speech here at the wonderful American Rhetoric site, and you can watch the “winning” speech delivered by Lawrence Garfield (Danny Devito) here.

I’ve watched that movie, paid careful attention to those speeches, and have to admit – I would vote to close the company.  But in doing so, would I participate in the destruction of American industry, and would thus be a participant in a long, long painful reality of unintended consequences?  That is the question raised not just in the fictional company of Other People’s Money, but in the very real world of actual workers  in the garment district.

I think this is a really, really big question in and for this country.  I encourage you to find a way to watch the documentary Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.  It will make you think.  Will it help us act – and, how do we so act?

Here’s a brief clip:

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