89: Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory is both energetic activist scholarship and history from the bottom up.  Louie, a lifelong activist, builds on interviews with Chinese, Korean, and Mexicana immigrant sweatshop workers from five independent community-based workers’ centers in New York, El Paso, Oakland, San Antonio and LA (from 1997-2000) to argue that “grassroots immigrant women [are] agents of change… the very heartbeat of the labor and anti-sweatshop movements.”  By combining the experiences of these women with a structural analysis of the global sweatshop industry, Louie turns the story of their progress form workers to warriors into a handbook for other activists for social change.

Plenty of theorists and historians have explored the development of global capitalism.  Where Louie’s account is unique is in her focus on (and identification with) immigrant sweatshop workers in the United States.  Working from this perspective, Louie shows that, first, the global sweatshop pyramid of exploitation takes advantage of the “exceptional” and the “different” in order to “relegate certain strata of the population into super-exploited positions and other to more privileged buffer positions;” the “exceptions” being gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.  She thus exposes the exploitation of social difference as the heart of the global capitalist enterprise.  Second, she shows that immigrant sweatshop labor in the US is itself a product of US expansion abroad: many of the women argue that “we are here because you were there.”  And third, this perspective also allows her to show concretely and in detail how global capitalism can and is being resisted by the people at the very bottom of the pyramid, who use both their differences in language and in origin AND their common experiences to fight for basic rights like a minimum wage, safe working conditions, a cap on hours, greater corporate accountability… as well as food, education, rights to housing, and so on.

Louie brings the voices and experiences of women who have turned their differences into an asset and begun working together for social change.  And, conscious of her readers’ probable ignorance of these women’s lives, she asks that we not be voyeurs or consumers of their work and their lives, but that we join to help them in their struggles.

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