No justice, no jeans: Unions fight for Levi’s workers around the world
Photo via Chicago Federation of Labor

CHICAGO—“Workers’ rights are violated overseas, they are making a fraction of what American workers make, and it’s important to shed light on this struggle because an injury to one is an injury to all,” Chicago Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Don Villar told People’s World just hours before a major multi-union demonstration downtown Chicago Tuesday.

The unions’ target: Levi Strauss & Co. The locale: Chicago’s upscale “Magnificent Mile” shopping district. The goal: Pressure the jeans giant to sign the International Accord, an agreement focused on safety protections and promoting fair production processes in the garment industry.

Nearly 200 fashion companies have now joined the agreement, but Levi’s—the renowned U.S. fashion corporation known for its iconic denim wear—has still refused to sign on.

In the United States and Canada, Workers United represents over 1,200 Levi’s workers in five distribution centers. They are the union spearheading the fight to demand that Levi’s sign the international garment production agreement. Workers United, along with the Chicago Federation of Labor, are seeking to not only win stronger safety protections for their own members but to demonstrate their commitment to international working-class solidarity.

Photo via Chicago Federation of Labor

“We lost a majority of our members when the Clinton administration signed the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA],” Carlos Ginard, Vice President of Workers United Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board, told People’s World.

“So, if we can’t organize garment workers here, we’ll help organize them elsewhere. It’s in our nature to help garment workers wherever they are.”

In 2023, Levi Strauss tallied $6 billion in sales, with a retail and manufacturing footprint all over the world. The company has production facilities in the United States, China, Japan, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Vietnam, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Italy, Cambodia, Poland, Egypt, and of course, Bangladesh.

“Since its inception in 2013, the Accord has achieved immense progress in making garment factories in Bangladesh measurably safer, saving countless lives,” said Edgar Romney, Secretary-Treasurer of Workers United. “Unlike other programs that purport to address factory safety, the Accord includes a central role for workers, something we know to be vital to any effective labor rights program.”

The timing of the union demonstration against Levi’s occurred almost 11 years to the date after the infamous Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. In 2013, a catastrophic collapse of the industrial garment complex led to the deaths of 1,135 workers and injuries to hundreds more. The factories in the large-scale compound manufactured goods for various corporations, including Walmart, Benetton, Zara, The Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, Matalan, El Corte Inglés, and more.

Prior to the fateful collapse, the factory owners refused to evacuate the building after huge cracks appeared in the walls—even after safety engineers told them not to let workers inside. Furthermore, after the structural damage was recognized, the bosses still forced the garment workers to the factory floors to toil the very next day. If the workers did not return, they were threatened with losing an entire month’s wages, or dinged three days’ pay for each day they did not work.

Because the economic development policy in Bangladesh is based on attracting garment production by keeping costs among the world’s lowest, it is the second-largest exporter of apparel on the globe. Major “fast-fashion” brands, such as H&M, Zara, American Eagle, as well as more “high-end” brands like Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger capitalize on production contracts with the factories that make the lowest bids.

Within Bangladesh, factories then compete with one another to further cut costs. Oftentimes, these corporate behemoths undercut the factories as well, which leads to further exploitation of the garment workers, as the factories cannot pay them.

Low-cost labor is a huge incentive for major apparel conglomerates and fast-fashion brands. In order to ensure profits keep rolling in, structurally sound buildings and safety precautions are not a priority; sometimes they’re not even considered at all.

Bangladesh has a long history of industrial disasters, including factories catching fire with workers trapped inside. The collapse at Rana Plaza was a major turning point in the struggle for workers’ rights in the country, though.

Photo via Chicago Federation of Labor

For decades, Bangladeshi apparel workers, the majority of whom are women, have been trying to organize militant unions to raise wages and enforce safety codes. This would allow them to support themselves and their families better, as well as avoid literal death on the job. Before the 2023 holiday season, around 25,000 garment workers participated in mass protests and forced 100 factories to close.

“We urge Levi’s to take responsibility for the safety of their workers by signing the International Accord. Levi’s continues to hide behind their own corporate program without independent oversight and behind non-transparent industry programs that are not trusted by the workers,” stated Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity.

“Brands’ self-regulation has never saved our workers’ lives. The Accord is the highest standard the garment industry has, and by failing to sign it, Levi’s is basically saying they don’t care about their workers’ safety,” said Akter.

“Since these corporations act internationally,” Ginard told People’s World, “labor must also act internationally. It’s well past time for Levi’s to do the right thing and join this life saving program.”

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Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.