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Today and throughout history, US fashion industry closely tied to labor unions

By Sara Bauknecht, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Fashion Daily News

Beyond fostering skills, these groups were significant in advocating for their members in other ways, too.

"They defended their standard of living and the job security of their members. They defended their dignity at work. They defended their working conditions, fair wages - that's the role the unions did," Green says, noting that one of the garment unions' catalysts was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 that killed 146 people.

In the 1970s and '80s, these groups pushed everyday Americans to think about who were making their clothes with the "Look for the Union Label" campaign and jingle. Despite these efforts, the uptick in manufacturing garments overseas in the 1990s and the swell in popularity of fast-fashion retailers contributed to a steady decline in union membership and influence.

"Those laws we had to protect workers here in the U.S. don't apply overseas," Green says, noting the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed more than 1,100 people.

These days, many American design houses big and small are trying to figure out how to support local workers, but that requires money and equipment.

"When all of those factories went belly up in the '90s, a lot of that equipment was discarded. In order to reestablish garment manufacturing in the U.S., it's going to require a reinvestment of machinery," Green says.

She's encouraged, though, by fresh approaches to this in Detroit and other cities. In Pittsburgh, the fashion community has seen a number of designers and brands, including Kelly Lane, Kiya Tomlin, Knotzland and Idia'Dega, build brands that have a focus on sustainability and equity.

There are pushes by some for the modeling industry to follow suit. Since 2012, the Model Alliance in New York City has lobbied for labor solidarity among models through programming, education initiatives and legislative advocacy efforts.

Despite the challenges, Vogel remains hopeful as she thumbs through her vintage collection and sees those union labels.

 

"The more people are willing to tell their stories and listen to what other people are saying ... I think the stronger any industry grows," she says.

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