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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Students Stage Protest at Macy’s, Melt My Cold Black Heart

posted by on June 3 at 12:08 PM

Everyone knows how much I love protests, so when I headed downtown for a student-run, pro-union rally at Macy’s on Saturday, I prepared myself for the worst.

Forty or fifty student activists from the University of Washington’s Student Labor Action Project and UW Guatemala Project gathered in front of Macy’s to protest labor abuses and union-busting in the Guatemalan garment industry.


There was, of course, one of these:


The student group crammed themselves onto the sidewalk at 4th and Pine, waving signs, chanting, and handing out fliers under the watchful, yet casual, eye of the law.

An older woman - Macy’s bag in hand - waved off a young activist with informational pamphlets, telling him “there’s no point in me taking that.”


A group of about 10 students slipped inside Macy’s for an in-store protest, lying on the floor of the department store in a show of solidarity with Guatemalan laborers who are forced to sleep in their factories. Macy’s security broke things up pretty quickly and a herd of activists came running back out onto 4th Ave. SLAP and UWGP’s ring-leaders - Rod Palmquist and April Nishimura - were, of course, immediately snatched up by security, causing a major disruption in the already loosely-knit group’s leadership. I asked one student why she hadn’t stayed with her compatriots inside of Macy’s. She shrugged and said “everyone else got up.”

Several activists ventured back into Macy’s, along with their two legal observers, to find out the fate of their comrades. Moments later, they came running back out of the store and told the group that their legal observers were now being held by store security. Two large men wearing earpieces and Macy’s vests came out and advised the group not to re-enter the store.


Nishimura sent a text message saying she was being transported to a police station. I advised the dwindling group of student activists that she was most likely being taken to the West Precinct at 8th and Virginia and they began to march off in the wrong direction. At this point, I became absolutely smitten with their goofiness. While most Seattle activists take themselves way too seriously, these kids stumbled through the day with a sense of well-intentioned reckless abandon that you don’t often see at local rallies. These kids were willing to get arrested (in fact, a voice mail I’d received from Palmquist earlier in the day promised me that someone would be), which is more than I can say for any of the local war rallies. I appreciate that kind of dedication.

When we arrived at the police station, the desk officer told the group that their friends had been released by Macy’s security. The police sergeant who had overseen the protest, advised the group that they had “the worst legal observer [he’d] ever seen” but that their friends were free to go.


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Does anyone realize that if the wages were higher, the clothes manufactures would have less incentive in setting up operations in poor countries and those workers would be jobless? It is not the infrastructure of the countries that attracts the manufacturers, it's the low wages. While protesting for higher wages seems like a good thing, it just ends up hurting the people that need the most help.

Posted by Fellow Student | June 3, 2007 1:01 PM

Oh, thanks for your bullshit market analysis, Fellow Student. Reading all your Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand assignments, I see. I mean, really it must all be as simple as that, right? Just simple economics, no exploitation whatsoever...

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 1:41 PM

Get your head out of the text books and WSJ and visit planet Earth sometime.

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 1:43 PM

So Jay, what's your solution then? Hugs and puppies for all?

Posted by Dono | June 3, 2007 3:16 PM

Seriously, I agree with Dono. What the fuck is your answer, Jay? What do you do? Because it *is* just simple economics, no matter how unfortunate it is.

Rod is a good friend of mine and I can see at least two other friends / classmates in those photos, and was invited to this but didn't go for just that reason. I want to be all 'progressive' about this, but attempting to drive wages up across an entire industry based on low wages at its foundation? To say nothing of them being unable to articulate a means to do this, even if it would work. It's like trying to fight global warming by making a bunch of ice cubes in your freezer and dumping them in puget sound.

Posted by Juris | June 3, 2007 3:45 PM

Here's a great idea- why don't we make a 'fair trade' organization for clothing? Then all those who feel that people are being exploited in making department-store clothes can go and buy their stuff at an inflated premium that the poor-quality producers hardly ever see due to the introduction of more middlemen!

I mean, it worked for coffee! The 20 cents more per pound that the farmer gets equates directly to the $3-4 premium charged for the 'fair trade' logo at an American chain.

Posted by Thomas | June 3, 2007 4:14 PM

I don't have an immediate solution, but let's consider what's being argued here. The standard of living enjoyed in the developed world came after decades of labor agitation, union formation, strikes, stoppages, recurring economic crises, and government intervention. Most employers did not start with the assumption that paying higher wages to their workers was feasible or in their best interest. If the free marketeers had had their way in the early 20th century, we wouldn't have a minimum wage or 8 hour work days now. Companies argued, and in some cases they were right, that they would not be as competitive paying higher wages, and they also argued that you would have enormously high unemployment, thereby harming the workers themselves. There is nothing novel or new about arguing that the developing world is better off making shit than not working at all- it was used before against US labor. The fact is, labor had to fight for every gain. Privileges we take for granted nowadays were earned through hard fought struggle on the magnitude most people on this forum can't even comprehend.

Now, seeking lower wages elsewhere, companies have chosen to use cheaper labor oversees in order to reduce overhead and boost profits. Ok fine, that's the logic of capitalism. But to watch people in the developed world, living off the fat of hard earned labor victories of the past, say that companies should be allowed to union bust and employ other draconian policies in order to prevent labor organizing in the developing world, is to watch hypocrisy operating at the highest possible level.

The issue here isn't whether the logic of capitalism makes sense or whether or not employment is preferable to starvation- the answers are obvious. What we're talking about are private companies operating in other countries using 19th and early 20th century techniques to prevent any possibility of improving these workers' lives. The companies are certainly allowed to operate overseas. But I believe it's also the right of the workers to protest their wages and treatment and to form unions. And I think Americans, fat and spoiled because of reforms carried out in their own history, are using the classic 19th century arguments to prevent other countries from achieving the same rights.

And yes, I recognize that a lot of US manufacturing companies have abandoned American workers precisely because of unions and high wages. But that doesn't automatically mean that workers in the developing world should just be happy with what they have, or that Americans should desire wage decreases here to make this country more competitive.

Ignore the bullshit free trade libertarian arguments that every one seems to have adopted for a moment. Workers who have actively tried to organize or sought wage increases in the developing world, have not pursued these measures for fun, but out of economic necessity. Here in the States we can talk about delightful abstract economic models, but on the ground in a manufacturing center in China or Vietnam or Indonesia, things are a little more desperate. And there is nothing wrong with Americans expressing solidarity with workers who want the same kinds of reforms and organizing rights many people enjoy in the States.

And it my view, it's better for companies to push wage increases and to allow some form of limited organizing now, rather that dealing with the more radical labor uprisings that happen when these things are allowed to fester for too long. Even a modest "living" wage increase in many locales would pay less that minimum wage does in this country.

The fact is these companies really just want to reduce overhead (production and labor costs) as much as possible in order to create much larger profits. And then the free market ideologues go out and do the rest of the job, the PR work if you will, for them, by making arguments that any wage increases or unions will automatically drive away companies. But the fact remains that these companies can make a profit and pay higher wages, but choose not to. And if we lived in a world where minimum wages were established in every corner of the globe, they would adjust. They would have to.

Stop denying the developing world the rights you claim for yourself.

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 4:59 PM

Only by making a teleological historical argument like "low wages means more companies, which leads to increased private investment, which leads to a large tax base and more infrastructure, which then magically leads us to better health care and higher wages for all" can someone say that the situation is not exploitive or somehow the only possible situation. What hardcore freetraders leave out of their fascinating teleology is the whole part in the developing world's history where labor and progressives fought for higher wages, safer working conditions and improved health care, or drew on huge amounts of post-war loans. They act as though the transition from the 19th century market place/agrarian society to advanced capitalism was some smooth transition caused by easily identified market factors. They ignore the ugly side of history that laborers in the developed world are now experiencing for themselves.

In my view, you ignore this reality at your own peril.

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 5:14 PM

The "developed world" in the second to the last sentence should be "developing world."

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 5:15 PM

Let's not forget that unions don't just demand things like higher wages. They also demand little unimportant things like a safe working environment, some sort of disability/unemployment compensation scheme so that when people are hurt (as they always will be no matter how safe the factory), they're not thrown aside by someone else desperate to get that job for 50 cents an hour. I'm actually sympathetic to the notion that a low wage job is better than no job in a lot of these places, and it's sometimes true. But a low wage job that kills you (or worse yet, permanently injures you so you're a burden on your family) definitely isn't.

Posted by hattio | June 3, 2007 5:48 PM

These kind of protests can actually be effective if done right. The one thing (and I really mean the one thing) that protests can do is bring attention to something. Most people probably have no fucking idea were Macy's clothes come from, by educating them maybe some change can occur.

That being said. not all globalism, or third world factories or bad. In fact they can bring jobs and cash to needing areas. There is a difference between expoitize nad ethical globalization.

Posted by Giffy | June 3, 2007 6:52 PM

I'm 100% for globalization for exactly the that reason, Giffy. I'm not opposed to factories overseas on general principle. But there has to be oversight and fairness. Globalization shouldn't be directed by the whims of the free market alone.

Posted by Jay | June 3, 2007 7:16 PM

Jay has made this point, but anti-sweatshop groups are not just agitating for higher wages but also better working conditions.

Posted by ben | June 3, 2007 8:03 PM

I have a solution. Raise wages everywhere, and impose tariffs on imports equal to the price advantage they gain from low wages. Then, Americans can regain a foothold in manufacturing, and we can have a middle class again.

Posted by Gitai | June 3, 2007 8:34 PM

I suppose I'm an old-fashioned girl, but I believe in tarriffs, unions, and the middle class. We didn't have an illegal immigrant problem in this country until that dottering old sociopath Reagan started busting up the unions. That was back in the days when we actually did things in this country, instead of just shopping for crap and sitting on our asses.

And I also think that protests are much more effective when they are of the water-on-stone method: Instead of glamor and drumming, have a few folks by the doors of the Bon, handing out fliers and accessible for conversation, day after day after day, until things change.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay | June 3, 2007 9:31 PM

I knew we'd win you over, Jonah. We try to be as least-excruciating as possible.

I helped organize the action, and will be going to Guatemala in less than three weeks. I'm the tall one in front of the police station.

Management of the factory, CimaTextiles, has not once claimed that the factory was not profitable. If the wages offered to the union were, in fact, too high under capitalist conditions to be sustained, they would have legal justification under Guatemalan labor law to close down. However, the Guate labor ministry denied the management's request to close the factory down--because it was illegal to do so under these conditions.

Further, the union was bargaining for hardly more than basic human rights. They had to fight to get the right to drink water. One women told the UW students who visited the union in 2006 that she was pregnant the year before, that she felt dizzy, asked for a drink of water, was denied, fainted, and lost her child on the way to the hospital.

No search for lower wages can justify this. It's simply false that this is a matter of seeking lower wages: it's a matter of basic human dignity.

If you want more information about the event, check out our blog at

Posted by Travis Thomas | June 4, 2007 7:31 AM

Jay's incredibly well thought out and coherent refutation of the blind free trade argument makes my little wounded-former-activist heart smile.

Has anyone ever noticed that the free trade true believers make the same kind of arguments as dyed in the wool communists did back in the early 20th century? It's the same kind of blind faith in an economic model regardless of the reality of that model's massive failings in actual application.

There are positive aspects and intentions in a wide range of economic models, but the blind allegiance of Marxist-Leninists and Friedman-Randists to a systemic ideal inevitably creates these kinds of nightmare scenarios.

Posted by BillyCorazon | June 4, 2007 9:20 AM

what else would people in poor countries do besides work in sweatshops?

work in mines?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 10:23 AM

Yes, Jay's argument is excellent. Props.

Bellevue Ave: these women have been unionized since 2001 and working under a collective bargaining agreement since 2003. They have had their jobs--with dignity--for four years. The choice is not between working in a sweatshop and working in a mine: it is between working in an ethical union shop and working in a sweatshop.

We hold the radical belief that globalization to provide jobs where pregnant women can get a fucking cup of water.

Posted by Travis Thomas | June 4, 2007 11:01 AM

Dear Travis Thomas,
Thanks for proving yourselves to be even more ignorant than Jonah revealed you to be in his post. I didn't think that was possible, but you kids always surprise me. I admire that. Much like Jonah admires your ability to get arrested, run off, and accomplish exactly nothing. Good job. Keep it up!

Posted by kasa | June 4, 2007 11:04 AM

You hold the radical belief to use emotional arguements rather than logical ones?

Hell I dont even suscribe to logic 9/8ths of the time but cmon now, you're "preggers women need water cups via union" is cheap and doesnt get to the root of the issue:

show me how it's in MY best interest to support unionized garments makers. then youll make a fan outta me. I dont even shop at macy's either.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 11:08 AM

lol @ 14,15! you know how ridiculously high we'd have to raise tarrifs? tarrifs have rarely if ever have been effective long term in reducing the problem they seek to eliminate. It has to be a social desire to not buy cheaper goods based on their manufacture, not a government mandated one that will actually change things.

furthermore who doesnt believe in the middle class? whats with the us vs them mentality? "YOU EVIL CAPITALIST WANT NO MIDDLE CLASS".

I dont want a middle class that is some absurd rendition of 50's consumerism and blue collar jobs. Im sorry that 5 chinese people, no 10 chinese people can do the same job for the same price...
why do you want 10 jobless chinese people for the benefit of one uneducated dink who feels by living in the states he has a right to a job?

I want a middle class that exists on it's brains, not it's muscle.

Furthermore, why dont we start the globalization thing right? Eliminate all domestic subsidies for crap products we over produce and then export to other nations. Agricultural products especially.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 11:20 AM

I'm a bucket o' typos today.

We hold the radical belief that globalization can provide jobs where pregnant women can get a fucking cup of water.

Posted by Travis Thomas | June 4, 2007 11:24 AM

sure it can...but it starts somewhere besides the storefront of macy's. perhaps in electing people for change, instigating revolution in adversley affected countries, and actually building a backing that includes people from walmart shoppers to ceos. and perhaps also not being so self righteous that you alienate potential converts.

as it is, the people who are against exploitation overseas are the same people that can afford to be.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 11:32 AM

I will meet the women of this factory in 4 weeks with a UW human rights seminar, and many of my compaņer@s here in Seattle met these women over the previous two summers. They sent our professor an email asking for help, asking for direct action against the brands.

The people who are against this exploitation are the people who are being exploited. They asked for direct action; we gave it for them.

We are building a base. We've been reaching out to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center and other US labor organizations, to our Representatives offices, to labor organizations in Guatemala. We're pushing to file a complaint under CAFTA's dispute resolution mechanism. I'm personally going to stay in Guatemala until October or November, working directly with the women in Guatemala and local labor organizations STITCH and FESTRAS and in conjunction with my compaņer@s here in Seattle. I know at least one of my classmates will be in California later this summer working to build support for these women.

We aren't angry young men and women who like just to make noise. We're making a coordinated effort to help our compaņeras at CimaTextiles.

Posted by Travis Thomas | June 4, 2007 12:38 PM

i have a more cloths.

Posted by cochise. | June 4, 2007 2:13 PM

I would like to highlight some reasons why our protest does have the potential to create positive change.

In the first case, people responding to this article don't seem to be aware of the political dynamic at play in globalization and economics. Economics in reality isn't an abstract world of perfect market freedom, information or competition. On the contrary, individuals don't all have the same opportunity to enter the oil industry, know the prices of coffee around the world, or compete with established apparel brands like Nike.

Similarly, many societies throughout history have noticed that there are certain things which shouldn't necessarily be left for the market to provide and price. These include services such as protection, education, healthcare, and transportation to name a few. In addition to this, because of the different levels of access to opportunity that individuals have, some find themselves with more political power than others. Power apparently is something that is hard not to abuse, and the results in the economic realm are phenomena like monopolies, oligopolies, monopsonies, subsidies, barriers to trade, and the like. Because powerful individuals are prone to abuse their power, one day people on the receiving end of the stick decided to fight back. They organized themselves, and after a lot of struggle, eventually succeeded in convincing their peers and political representatives that there are certain things which are best not left for the market to provide and price, such as a minimum wage and social security. What's more is that when all of this was happening, industry claimed -- just like Nike does today -- that change will result in collapse. This was the argument for unionization back then, and for opposition to public factory disclosure now, and somehow, some way or another, economic growth continues.

All of the above is important to bear in mind when thinking about issues related to globalization. Why? Because whenever the term "wage," "price," or "competition" is used, we have problems. If a principled orthodox argument is employed against increasing wages, then I would ask whether the current system actually takes "full prices" into account in determining how much a good or service costs. Presumably part of the reason why manufacturers source outside of countries like the U.S., is due to the lack of enforcement for the "full costs" of engaging in business, such as disposing of toxic waste in a manner that doesn't irreparably hurt our environment, actually paying taxes, or adequately compensating workers.

If however, people object to increasing wages out of a pragmatic view of the system as something which is flawed, but will not likely change, then this is a different matter. What I would say here is that there is another political component to globalization: protection of brand names, or more broadly concern with image and "Public Relations". One of the reasons why corporations change their business practices, is because the costs incurred from making consumers, citizens, and governments unhappy sometimes outweighs the benefits derived from taking advantage of the fruits of the system. Especially, citizens and consumers in countries with powerful governments. The basic argument from this angle is that political and moral pressure can bring about positive change in business practices.

Believe it or not, this is what actually can happen in the real world too. In the case of BJ&B -- a unionized garment factory in the Dominican Republic -- brands like Nike and Adidas tried to cut and run from the factory in order to source from cheaper sweatshops. While the end-story of BJ&B is not ideal (see:, political pressure in the U.S. resulted in Nike and Adidas sending business back to the factory in 2004. This can, and hopefully will happen with Cimatextiles, if enough people make noise for a sustained period of time. Finally, I strongly object to the arguments that we are advocating to raise wages across the entire global garment industry. While I think there could be creative ways to potentially do this, and also generally bring about a more equitable redistribution of all of the world's resources, the fact of the matter is that we talking about justice for a specific, albeit, important case student: one of the only unionized garment factories in Guatemala. The signoficance of what happens at this factory cannot be understated however, but this is because of the political precedents that its resolution will set, not the increase in the wages (which isn't even happening anyway) of the workers in a single union. In other words, the fate of the union at Cimatextiles will be a litmus test of whether companies and governments can respect human and labor rights, not whether one long-dead economist is more correct than another theorist...

Posted by Rod Palmquist | June 4, 2007 3:19 PM

how many of the students protesting are actually in the department of economics? also define adequate compensation in a 3rd world or developing country.

furthermore i still havent found a reason to care about your cause. guatamalans can't unionize; so what?
why is that bad for me, and my family, and my community? why is that bad for the united states?

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 3:50 PM

Okay Bellevue Ave (and, good Lord, if there was ever a more fitting screen name, I know not what it is), if you are going to insist on the glib Ayn Rand "What's in it for me?" argument as a refutation of basic decency, howzabout this?:

If you can look past the pure short term
"I can get me some cheap clothes, screw you brown people!" kind of self interest, and look at the long term, what happens when people don't get basic human rights like the ability to organize and take bathroom breaks is that eventually they get so pissed off that you end up with either bloody, decades-long class warfare at worst (which there are plenty of examples of) or AT BEST you end up with people electing somebody like Robert Mugabe or Hugo Chavez who is a megalomanical "voice of the people"
through which they can take their (sometimes deserved) revenge on the ruling class but will ultimately destabilize the society. In either case, if cheap clothes are your main concern, good fucking luck getting them from that country anymore in either of those cases. I think that even Edmund Burke (the oldest of old skool conservatives) would back me up on that one.

ps. Yes, protest tactics are often inane.

pps. You make me fucking sick

Posted by BillyCorazon | June 4, 2007 4:29 PM

Bellevue Ave: as for your first question, 2 or 3 I believe, though many tackle issues of economics in departments with different ideological orientations. Note: orthodox economists assume that humans are all rational robot-like actors that only respond to changes in incentives, which is quite an abstraction in my opinion.

Regarding adequate compensation, you are right to point out that this is a subjective term. Having said this, there are many ways to calculate social costs, such as paying someone enough in wages so they can afford all the costs of a basket of goods (i.e. what they need to live). The cost of this basket of goods would of course, vary by region. In any case, governments set their own minimum wages which are often under poverty levels for a given region, and in 2005, the Guatemalan women actually made less than the legally mandated minimum wage of $5.66/42.46 Quetzales (they make 39 Quetzales, see and

Finally, regarding how the plight of these workers impacts you, I cannot say. Although I'm not a Christian, one could point to "I am my brother's keeper," or other such scripture. I obviously have a personal connection to these women, but I would also say that all of humanity's oppressions are intertwined -- an infringement of one person's human rights in a given place is an infringement of all human rights everywhere. This is how crimes against humanity are viewed, and certainly could be used here too. One last way to consider viewing this issue -- letting multinational brands get away with whatever they want, be it union-busting in Guatemala or destroying the environment sets very dangerous precedents. The law is already stacked in favor of business interests, and allowing this to happen on a global scale will ultimately destroy families, societies, and our planet. But I'm sure all of this will be said to be quite a stretch.

For me at least, the issue is about justice and human rights...

Posted by Rod Palmquist | June 4, 2007 4:58 PM

ayn rand was a nut and i dont support the way she applies any of her ideas or the silly ways she explores them.

you also assume that economic growth and employment lead to political instability. also, if those countries can no longer provide cheap labor, the labor market shifts to another country...boohoo?

@30, Im simply trying to help you build your arguments. I believe what you're doing is right for human compassion, but these are some objections that I have, and other people have. One of the other ways that I think can be effective, at least for a public company, is to become an active vocal shareholder with other people who are like minded. make the company listen to you through their stock, and their revenue.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | June 4, 2007 5:39 PM

Rod Palmquist, hows the arm

Posted by thinkin what | June 4, 2007 9:00 PM

Thanks for the charity, Bellevue Ave. As if we haven't heard it all before.

As for posters who think we've accomplished nothing, pause for a second and reflect on how you're reading this post. Obviously we've got your interest...

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