Poets Take On Guess Inc.: Poets Win

Julia Stein

On September 18, 1997, Guess Inc. filed a libel/slander suit against the literary reading I had organized in support of the garment workers' union UNITE that was organizing this garment manufacturer. How did my literary reading wind up getting sued by this corporation?

My involvement started when my grandmother sewed shirts at the Bennett, Hollander, and Louis pants factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A Russian Jewish immigrant teenager in 1906, her family sent her into the garment shop; her wages supported the family, letting her younger brothers and sisters go to school. My grandmother read Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem as well as Russians like Tolstoy--both were forces in their culture, and both had huge literary funerals in which 100,000 people showed up.

Reading Yiddish sweatshop poets and also Pablo Neruda showed me that poetry can talk about labor. During the 1980s in my two books of poetry, Under the Ladder to Heaven and Desert Soldiers, I wrote a number of poems about my grandmother's garment work, the heroic strikes of immigrant women garment workers from 1909-1915, and the Triangle factory fire in which 146 women lost their lives. I included a line from Yiddish poet's Rosenzweig's poem on the Triangle Fire in my poem "The Flame." During the 1980s I discovered that a number of other contemporary poets also were writing about the Triangle Fire: Mary Fell, Zoe Anglesey, Chris Llwellyn, Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Carol Tarlen, and Hilton Obenzinger. Janet Zandy, an English professor, anthologist, and critic, delivered a critical talk about this "fire poetry," including my own work, at the 1991 American Studies Association Conference.

San Francisco poet Carol Tarlen showcased this "fire poetry" in a reading commemorating the Triangle Fire in March, 1996; I was one of the poets who read. At the reading Tarlen announced there was a small storefront sweatshop three blocks away in Chinatown. Listening to her, I felt I could no longer just write about the past as a poet or a critic. I felt I needed to act in the present. Returning to Los Angeles, I joined Common Threads, a women's group trying to eradicate sweatshops. UNITE, the garment workers' union, was beginning to organize Guess Inc., the largest garment manufacturer in Los Angeles in the spring of 1996.

During August, 1996, over 100 garment workers lost their jobs for trying to organize a union at Guess Inc. and its contractors. I produced the first Justice for Garment Workers reading on September 8, 1996, at Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica as an act of support for UNITE's organizing efforts. My event was modeled after Carol Tarlen's March reading in San Francisco. The co-sponsors of the Los Angeles reading were the L.A. Local/National Writers Union, U.A.W., and Common Threads.

Guess Inc. filed its libel/slander lawsuit against the literary reading on September 18; Daniel Petrocelli, their lead lawyer, was also the prosecutor for the Goldmann family in the O.J. Simpson civil trial. In the Guess Inc. lawsuit, their lawyers had called my literary event a "so-called literary reading." The participants and audience thought it was a real reading. I read poetry and was the M.C.; Mary Helen Ponce read from her autobiography Hoyt Street; Carol Schwalberg read a short story about a seamstress and spoke about the L.A. Local/National Writers Union. Edna Bonacich, a sociology professor at UC Riverside and co-author of a book on the apparel industry, spoke about the UNITE campaign. And Enrique Flores, a garment worker who had worked for Kelly, one of Guess's contractors, told us about doing illegal homework, the lack of a minimum wage, and losing his job at Kelly. About 35 people attended, including a spy from Guess Inc. named Joe Vargas.

The Guess lawsuit said that the organizers of the reading had conspired with UNITE in an attack campaign against the corporation. Most of the year, I hadn't been conspiring at all but writing literary criticism. In June, 1995, while visiting the National Historic Park at Lowell, Massachusetts, I saw the first textile mills in this country. In the gift shop I picked up Nancy Zaroulis's novel about a Lowell mill girl, Call the Darkness Light. Inspired by this wonderful novel, I researched and wrote a long essay, "Tangled Threads," about American fiction and poetry on garment work from 1810 to the present day. Besides Janet Zandy, I discovered two other literary critics had written brilliantly about this literature: Paula Rabinowitz's Labor and Desire: Women's Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America and Laura Hapke's Daughters of the Great Depression: Women, Work, and Fiction in the American 1930s. I was also inspired by Elizabeth Wayland Barber's Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years— Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times that looked at textile work in Greek (Homer's Odyssey) and other ancient literatures.

The Guess lawsuit disrupted my writing criticism. After I heard about the lawsuit, I consulted with Harry Youtt, lawyer, fiction writer, and member of the L.A. Local/National Writers Union. He called the Guess Inc. suit a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (S.L.A.P.P. suit) which many corporations file these days to harass and silence critics. So many of these lawsuits have been filed that California recently passed an anti-S.L.A.P.P. statute.

In October, 1996, I decided on a press campaign. If my efforts gave Guess Inc. enough negative publicity, I predicted they would drop the lawsuit. There is a 200 year old tradition of writers helping to support workers. Shelly and Byron both supported English workers--Byron's first speech in the House of Lords was on behalf of the British weavers who were starving at the time. Both Melville and Whitman wrote about the suffering of workers. Alongside these writers, working class movements fought for and won free speech both in England and the United States during the last 200 years; in Los Angeles the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) waged a free speech fight in 1922 in which writer Upton Sinclair participated that won free expression in the Los Angeles area. More recently, I had participated in successful PEN U.S.A. campaigns to free writers imprisoned abroad. Though some think poetry is weak and marginalized in the United States, I believed that poetry can be a force in our lives. If poets and novelists can be powerful in France and Russia, why not here?

After I sent off the first press releases and press packets, the first newspaper articles appeared in November and early December. Some West Coast poets were very supportive of my efforts to fight the lawsuit--Uncle Don Fanning, Carol Kent Ireland, Alexis Krasilovsky, and Luis Campos. Uncle Don helped me in doing Internet research on S.L.A.P.P. suits as well as in setting up an e-mail list of poets to help publicize our efforts. At a December 14 Common Threads demonstration against Guess Inc. I got to meet my alleged co-conspirator, David Young, who was then Director of Organizing for UNITE. It was three months after we were sued, but we'd never met before.

Before the court hearing on December 23, Common Threads held a press conference which resulted in our being on Channel 9, Korean TV, and in more newspaper articles. At the December hearing our lawyers invoked the anti-S.L.A.P.P. statute, asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, but the judge postponed her decision. During this period some of the women in Common Threads experienced mental anguish over this lawsuit; the fight back was time-consuming.

In mid-January Guess Inc. announced it was moving production to Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Then, on January 31, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) indefinitely extended Guess Inc's probation from the Trendsetter's list which lists companies that adequately avoid sweatshops; the DOL's action was in part a reaction to Guess's announcement that they were moving jobs out of the United States. I produced Justice for Garment Workers II at Midnight Special on February 2, 1997. The women in Common Threads and the poets refused to be silenced. With hundreds of jobs on the line, we felt we needed to speak out.

At Justice for Garment Workers II Common Threads again held a press conference which resulted in more newspaper articles in Los Angeles as well as radio coverage. After the plaintiffs won in the O.J. Simpson civil trial, their lawyer Petrocelli was on the cover of Time magazine and on Larry King Live. But we continued to get press, too. By March we were getting favorable articles in the Bay Area and the New York press. On March 9, I read poetry in honor of garment workers at the luncheon of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

On March 23, 1997, I heard that lawyers for Guess Inc. had on their own dismissed the lawsuit. One can speculate on motives of the Guess Inc. executives, but if the lawsuit tried to silence the poets and Common Threads, it hadn't worked. Instead, Common Threads's battling the lawsuit had generated months of negative publicity for the corporation. There was a way, I knew, that poets could become both central to the culture and powerful.


Julia Stein is an English professor at West Los Angeles College. She has recently published poetry in Long Shot, a print journal, and the Poetry Superhighway on the Internet, as well as an essay in The Chiron Review.




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