I’ve visited many company headquarters in my years as a journalist. Only one has been more memorable than a pallet of two-by-fours.
Indeed, American Apparel’s offices and plant just east of downtown Los Angeles is by far the most dynamic place of business in town. Visitors begin their odyssey in gloomy freight elevators out of some Prohibition-era caper. They’re let out onto corridors teeming with models, suits and seamstresses, all moving at a mile-a-minute. There are garment workers everywhere: if they’re not hunched over their sewing machines, they’re eating meals of colorful ethnic cuisine, obtaining exams at the on-site medical clinic or a shoulder-rub from a workplace masseuse. If you think Diego Rivera by way of “Project Runway,” you get a pretty clear picture. Each visit has left me mildly surprised I wasn’t charged admission.
Sadly, this workplace vibrancy was diminished by an order from the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) last September to fire 1,800 American Apparel employees – about a quarter of the company’s workforce – because they are undocumented immigrants. The employees had 60 days to prove they belong in the U.S., but that window closes this month. Few, if any, of the fired workers returned to their jobs.
The firings are considered a departure from ICE policy during the Bush Administration, when such undocumented workers would be detained and deported. This is the same federal government that e-mailed me a nine-digit Employer Identification Number in seconds when I started a new publishing venture earlier this year. Those fired American Apparel employees had considered their obtaining nine-digit Social Security numbers an impossible dream.
American Apparel presents a tempting target for the feds: Dov Charney, its chairman and CEO, is the most outré leader of any publicly-traded company in the nation. Charney has photographed hundreds of American Apparel’s notorious print ads featuring skimpily clad models, presumably far closer to the master bedroom of his Silver Lake home than his company’s bustling headquarters. His sybaritic shenanigans inside American Apparel have become the cornerstone of many an attorney’s workplace litigation practice.
But Charney has also demanded legal status for all of his employees, and pays them an average wage of $18 an hour, plus benefits. He has a point: if you work hard and abide by the law, your host country should try and make an accommodation. His efforts have been denounced by self-proclaimed pro-business politician Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, as an addiction to foreign workers. But Bilbray isn’t much of a fan of the domestic worker, either: he voted against increasing the federal minimum wage two years ago to $7.25 an hour.
I want employers like American Apparel to abide by the law, but I feel that this mass firing has in some way trampled on our past compacts. Less than a century ago, as many as 3 million Europeans immigrated here each year as a cheap source of labor. Most encountered brutal prejudices, but the deal was clear: work hard and you can stay, which is something Charney would like to see repeated in the 21st century. Virtually all of those European immigrants entered the country legally, but my guess is if Italy, Russia, Ireland and Germany had borders with the U.S., many of those people would have snuck across them rather than stop at Ellis Island.
Charney himself immigrated from Montreal, and his peccadilloes aside, he’s worked harder than virtually all of us. Yet if he had not created a business that employs 7,000 Southern Californians and the power and influence that accrues with such an accomplishment, he might have been escorted back to the Great White North years ago. Given his success, one would assume all of Charney’s employees work very hard as well, and therefore should be allowed to remain at work.
Which brings be back to Rep. Bilbray. Like many neo-conservatives, he worships at the altar of Ronald Reagan. But he will never acknowledge perhaps the most generous and historic act of Reagan’s presidency: the 1986 amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants. I’m thankful for it on many mornings and evenings, because the coffee shop closest to my house is owned by an amnesty recipient. He had been working as a busboy at the restaurant in the mid-1980s when the owner decided to retire and sell out to him, the deal hinging on his becoming legal and a citizen. He’s since opened a second restaurant that’s enlivened a dilapidated West Hills strip mall. He pays all his employees well above minimum wage; his cook clears $1,000 a week. They do indeed charge admission here, but my bill is rarely more than $25, even when I’m with my family.
Of course, I may be confusing the issue when I wax about immigrants who offer fair wages and wane about natives who consider it more practical to put 1,800 working stiffs on the streets in a steep recession who would likely be law-abiding individuals but for the lack of a nine-digit number. But we live in a world that every day is fueled more by political expediency and less by common sense.