The Ain’t I A Woman?! Campaign was started by a group of garment workers fighting DKNY. While wealthy women, such as the founder of DKNY - Donna Karan - were being heralded as icons by the mainstream feminist movement, the garment workers making clothes for DKNY, most of whom were immigrant women of color, were forced to work 70 to 80 hours a week, without overtime and paid less than minimum wage.

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So what exactly is the Ain't I A Woman campaign?

The Ain’t I A Woman?! Campaign is a national outreach and educational effort led by women workers to demand that those benefiting the most from sweatshop labor are held accountable–whether we work in garment factories, home healthcare, or offices. A century after Sojourner Truth’s struggles against racism and sexism, women workers are refusing to be treated like slaves or second-class citizens. The AIW Campaign is sponsored by Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association and National Mobilization Against SweatShops, and has provided leadership to women workers in the fight against sweatshop conditions and for control of our lives.


What is our analysis?

Code of Conduct - Asking the Fox to Guard the Chicken Coop

Our “Ain’t I a Woman” campaign has been launched amidst a great deal of anti-sweatshop activism. For the most part, unfortunately, sweatshops are framed as a problem of “the other” : far-away workers in Third World countries, immigrant garment workers in this country hidden away behind barbed wires and locked gates.

An upsurge of activity has been directed at helping these workers: the U.S. Labor Department launched a “No Sweat” campaign to encourage manufacturers to sign on to “voluntary compliance” with labor laws. Students are demanding that their schools contract only with companies that agree to a “code of conduct” – which typically prohibits forced labor, child labor and violations of labor laws – and to “public disclosure” of where and under what conditions their goods are made. Advocacy groups are organizing consumer boycotts of companies exploiting workers abroad, chasing companies like Disney from Haiti to China and promoting the union label.

A new form of imperialism has emerged, where U.S. consumers are depicted as the key agents of change and the ones who know whatís best for those sweatshop workers who are suffering. Power is seen to reside in your ability to buy things, as a consumer, rather than in your ability to make things or make things run as a worker.

This focus on sweatshops overseas actually helps to protect sweatshops in the U.S., diverting attention from the expanding sweatshop system here and driving work from abroad to domestic sweatshops.

Voluntary compliance and monitoring measures are also naive. “No Sweat” and Codes of Conducts are based on the premise that corporations are well intentioned. How effective can these measures be if they are asking corporations to voluntarily contradict the very goal of corporations: to make a profit? Moreover, even if independent monitors investigate factories, workers will not tell the truth about sweatshop conditions if they are not organized to face threats of harassment, firing and blacklisting.

For example, workers from two of the largest sweatshops in Brooklyn, N.Y., were forced to work as long as 137 hours a week producing Street Beat Sportswear for retailers like Sears. Several were fired after asking for a day off. Workers were owed almost $300,000 in unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay and damages. Street Beat had three years earlier signed two compliance agreements with the Department of Labor.

Women’s Work and the Sweatshop Company

The sweatshop conditions faced by the Pactiv workers are not so far removed from the experiences of most women workers in this country. Women are disproportionately concentrated in clerical, service-sector and manufacturing jobs. Among all women workers in the U.S., one in five is a cashier, secretary or teacher. Nearly six out of 10 African American women work as nursing attendants, janitors, cleaners, cooks and maids. Immigrant women often take jobs as domestic workers, hotel and restaurant workers, orderlies, nursing assistants and laborers in manufacturing jobs such as garment and meat processing. Unfortunately, these very important areas of work, which we all depend on, tend to be devalued and lower-paid. And regardless of educational levels, in any occupation women are routinely paid less than men doing the same work.

And this is just the woman’s “official” job. Regardless of race or class, women are still the primary caretakes of children and elderly relatives, and still take on a disproportionate responsibility for housework. This “women’s work” is never recognized or valued as work, but is simply expected of women.

Adding insult to injury, women who have been caring for their children at home and receiving welfare benefits are now being forced into workfare, a government-supported cheap-labor program. These women are working starvation wages doing demeaning and dead-end work, while often having no choice but to pay a babysitter to watch their children.

Stuck in low-wage jobs and shouldering primary responsibility for their children, many women lack the economic autonomy to escape abusive relationships at home. Those who do are sometimes forced to work several jobs or turn to sex work as a quick way to put food on the table. Nearly a third of all families headed by women are living below the poverty-line. Even well-paid professional women cannot escape hard choices around career and motherhood. For many, advancement means giving all your time, which means having no time for children. Moreover, many bosses fail to offer maternity leave or to guarantee that mothers’ jobs will be available when they return.


History of the Ain't I A Woman Campaign

Garment factory organizing timeline:

April 11, 1991 – Organizes the Wai Chang Fashions garment workers to: hold an unprecedented rally in Chinatown, kicking off the Campaign Against Nonpayment of Wages; throw their boss in jail; and inspire other garment workers to speak out. Contractors such as Judy’s Place, Affirmed Fashions, and Luo Bo are all forced to pay back wages to their workers.

February, 1993 – Supports ‘90s Fashions factory workers to picket and win owed wages from manufacturer CET, the first time workers demand manufacturer accountability. C.E.T. subcontracted to this factory to produce the label Kate Warner.

March 16, 1993 – Compels New York State Senator Franz Leichter and Assembly Member Frank Barbaro to introduce bill to make nonpayment of wages a felony, and hold manufacturers accountable. In September 1997, Pataki passes a watered-down version of this bill.

 July 1995 – Holds public hearing in Chinatown with Federal Labor Department. A month later, Labor Department announces its creation of The Apparel Restaurant Guidance & Enforcement Team to investigate labor violations in the garment and restaurant industries.

March 1997 – Helps unionized garment workers file lawsuit and win against Land & Sea, Tracy Evans’ and Kathie Lee’s general contractor. Land & Sea had pulled out its work and tried to duck responsibility after its subcontracted factories, Laura and Sarah Sportswear, MSL Fashion, Inc. and L.A.W. Fashion Inc. got caught violating labor laws.

March 1998 – Organizes garment workers from Chinatown union shops to testify before Congress to draw attention to sweatshops in the U.S.

1998 – Pataki signs Joint-Employer Liability law, making manufacturers and subcontractors jointly accountable for labor law violations, but lets retailers off the hook.

1998 – Helps workers from Hua Great Procetech, a factory that contracted with the manufacturer Street Beat. These workers are forced to work 137 hours a week and are fired for taking breaks, despite the fact that Street Beat had signed two agreements with the Labor Department in which the company would monitor the conditions under which its goods were made. AIW organizes these women, and is the first to target a retailer, Sears, for selling “hot goods,” produced in violation of the labor law. As a result, the women win a settlement in 1999 and throw their boss in jail.

May 1999 – The Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign goes national when seamstresses who work for DKNY subcontractors Choe Ltd, Jen Jen and Jen Chu come together to protest long hours with no overtime pay, padlocked bathrooms, and discrimination against the Latina workers. AIW assists the workers of these unionized factories to file a class-action lawsuit against DKNY and its contractors, and protest in front of the factories and the DKNY store. The campaign launches a national boycott of DKNY and tens of thousands of supporters from across the U.S. sign petitions demanding manufacturer accountability and an end to sweatshop conditions in DKNY factories. In October 2003, DKNY compensates the workers an estimated $1 million.

Sept 11, 2001 – The Ain’t I a Woman?! Campaign organizes to demand that the government extend its relief boundaries to recognize the garment workers who lost their jobs or income because of their factories’ close proximity to the World Trade Center but who fell outside the designated boundaries. As a result, more than two thousand garment workers receive assistance from government agencies and relief organizations.

2005 – assists Chinese and Latina garment workers from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to win close to $300,000 in back wages from clothing manufacturers Jenna Lane and Zeke ‘n Zoe.

July, 2007 – organizes workers who work for Necessary Objects’ contractor to successfully win their minimum wage and overtime claim in the first case in which the State Attorney General’s Office uses the State Manufacturer Accountability law.

2009 – works with Liberty Apparel workers to win a landmark decision against the manufacturer and its owner after nearly 10 years of fighting. The judge and jury find that although a manufacturer might not have direct control over its subcontracted factories, it still can maintain control over the work conditions, and therefore should be responsible for paying workers when its subcontractor doesn’t.

June, 2010 – assists the workers of the Silver Fashion and Great Rose factories to successfully hold the manufacturer Great Wall accountable despite the company’s claim that the workers are independent contractors.

2010 – AIW launches boycott against Cache, a high-end women’s apparel retailer that knowingly contracted with sweatshops that didn’t pay its workers overtime and that fired workers who stood up for their rights

Boycott Reynolds timeline:

June, 2010 – About 100, mostly Latina and Chinese workers at Pactiv factory where they molded and packed plastic containers, sign a petition to demand a reduction in the workload and heavy lifting.

August, 2010 – Workers try to organize into the United Steel Workers Union, with about 70% of workers signing the card. Pactiv launch an anti-union campaign while improving conditions and promising to make more changes. The Union lost the election in September.

February, 2011 – Pactiv speeds up production and conditions worsen. It also implements new rules and warnings that target the most outspoken workers.

July, 2011 – A few days before the workers can re-file the petition to join the union, Pactiv uses deceptive measures to lay off 60% of the packing department.

2012 – Workers who were laid off and workers still working at the factory unite to demand the right to bathroom breaks; to sick days and parental leave; to speak out and organize without retaliation; the reinstatement with full back pay for fired or laid off workers; and the right to a 40 hour workday with no mandatory overtime. Ain’t I a Woman launches a boycott of Pactiv and Reynolds Group, Pactiv’s parent company.

2017 - After years of organizing, Students Organizing Against Reynolds (organizational member of the AIW campaign) succeeds in ending contract between Pactiv and Sodexo at Binghamton University.

Justice for Home Care Workers timeline:

November 10, 2006 – NYS Department of Labor (DOL) rejects Chinese-American Planning Council’s (CPC ‘s) application for the overtime exemption.

March 11, 2010 – DOL issues an Opinion Letter which interprets the NYSDOL Wage Order:

“…live-in employees must be paid not less than for thirteen hours per twenty-four hour period provided they are afforded at least eight hours for sleep and actually receive five hours of uninterrupted sleep…the eight-hour sleep period exclusion is not applicable and the employees must be paid for all eight hours.”

Around 2013 – A group of home attendants file a complaint with the DOL

June 2014 – CPC enters into a collective bargaining agreement with 1199 SEIU (the Union)

November 2014 – DOL makes a finding that CPC workers are owed overtime, and issues checks to home attendants totaling more than $2 million. However, DOL does not address the 24-hour shift (live-in or sleep-in) employees’ claim. Many home attendants who worked 24-hour shifts, 4 or 5 days a week receive nothing from DOL.

November 2014 – Lai Yee Chan receives a check of around $200 from DOL. She asks CPC’s accounting office about the check, and she is informed the check was issued for the overtime hours she worked from 2007 to 2013, which amount to approximately 6,000 hours.

December 2014 – Lai Yee Chan talks to other home attendants. Many workers complain to the Union and DOL about their owed back pay and overtime. The Union tells them that CPC is not required to pay overtime because they are a non-profit organization. The Union doesn’t file a complaint against CPC on behalf of the complainants.

March 11, 2015 – Lai Yee Chan and 2 other home attendants who worked 24 hours shift to file a class action lawsuit against CPC for failure to pay them under the NYLL (1) minimum wages, (2) overtime wages, (3) spread-of-hours wages, (4) straight time wages, among other claims.

May 2015 – CPC makes an application to the court to dismiss the class action on the basis that:

  • CPC has a contract with SEIU, and this matter should be arbitrated

  • CPC home attendants should be treated as domestic workers

September 9, 2015 – New York State Supreme Court Judge issues an order denying CPC’s request to dismiss the case on the basis that:

  • The arbitration clause is not specific enough about the wage claim to prevent workers from seeking relief through the court

  • Even though home attendants are domestic workers, they are entitled to received overtime and the hours they work at night

October 2015 – Federal Court issues a finding that home attendants are entitled to overtime pay based on the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law.

November 2015 – The home attendant plaintiffs amend the class action complaint to include federal overtime claims. Defendant CPC uses this to move the case to Federal Court.

December 7, 2015 – CPC and the Union enter into a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to amend the collective bargaining agreement to include a mandatory arbitration clause and cuts the wages of home attendants who work a 24-hour shift.

December 8, 2015 – CPC requests an arbitrator to exercise jurisdiction over all of Plaintiffs’ claims in the federal lawsuit.

December 11, 2015 – The Union responds that the MOA is not retroactive, therefore the arbitrator has no jurisdiction over the claims.

December 15, 2015 – CPC asks the court to stay the federal class action case and to compel arbitration based on the December 2015 MOA. CPC argues the collective bargaining agreement has a mandatory arbitration clause and CPC claims it is retroactive to June 2014, and any complaint concerning wage theft must go to arbitration.

December 28, 2015 – Lai Yee Chan files a charge with the NLRB against CPC and the Union, stating that:

  • By entering the collective bargaining agreement, which contained a mandatory arbitration clause that requires employees to waive their Section 7 rights, the employer and the Union are preventing the employees from engaging in collective action or class action to challenge the employer’s policy.

  • The employer and the Union are retaliating against the employees who filed the class lawsuit by seeking a mid-contract alteration of the collective bargaining agreement, which has as its intent and impact the termination of a pending class/collective action lawsuit.

January 15, 2016 – Plaintiffs file their memorandum of law in opposition to defendant’s motion to compel arbitration by saying that the MOA has not been ratified by the Union membership.

January 21, 2016 – The Union holds a ratification meeting and omits or gives incorrect information to the members. The Union representatives tell Chinese speaking workers different things than they tell the English and Spanish speaking workers.

February 3, 2016 – The federal court judge stays the workers case based on the mandatory arbitration clause being retroactive to June 2014, even though she knew there was a disagreement between CPC and the Union on the effective date of the MOA signed on December 2015.

February 17, 2016 – The plaintiffs file a motion asking the judge to reconsider her decision.

April 8, 2016 – The federal court judge rules to let the arbitrator decide whether this should be trial by court or arbitration.

April and May 2016 – Home attendants from First Chinese Presbyterian Community Affairs Home Attendant Corp., United Jewish Council, Alternate Staffing, and other agencies begin to organize against the 24-hour workday and for their stolen wages and overtime pay for the night hours.

May 2016 – Former home attendants file a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against CPC for wage and hour violations.

September 2017 – Two decisions issued by New York State courts state that home attendants working 24-hour shifts must be paid for every hour of the shift. On September 20, home attendants and the AIW Campaign hold a press conference announcing the legal victory.

October 6, 2017 – DOL issues emergency regulations to override the court decisions and force home attendants to work 24-hour shifts for no pay during the night, and renews the regulations in January, April, and June 2018.

December 8, 2017 – Worker centers in the AIW Campaign joined home attendants to sue the DOL Commission of Labor to withdraw the emergency regulations.

January 2018 – The State of New York Industrial Board of Appeals refuses to order the Commissioner to withdraw the regulations.

May 2018 – Five home attendants and two worker centers file Article 78 case asking a New York Court to vacate and nullify the DOL’s emergency regulation.

September 25, 2018 – Home attendants win Article 78 court decision, vacating and declaring null and void the DOL emergency regulation that permitted home care agencies to pay home attendants for only 13 of their 24-hour shift, and that effectively legalized a 24-hour workday for home attendants.

February 12, 2019 – The NYS Court of Appeals hears the appeal of the two September 2017 cases. Workers come from all over NYS to hear the case.

March 19, 2019 — NYS Court of Appeals releases decision overturning the September 2017 cases, officially sanctioning the payment of only 13 hours for 24-hour home care workdays. Two of the 7 judges voted against this decision. Workers around the state condemn the NYS Court of Appeals decision and commit to pursuing split-shift legislation, which would limit home care shifts to 12 hours maximum.