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
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
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
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.