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Charney's sweatshop-free T-shirt kibbutz in L.A.
Sacramento Bee
Peter Schrag
September 22, 2004

Some people in Sacramento call state Sen. Gil Cedillo "one-bill Gil." That one bill, of course, was the measure that would once again have allowed illegal aliens to obtain California driver's licenses, as they could until a few years ago.

Cedillo's been pushing one or another form of the bill since 2001. Gov. Gray Davis, gauging the political winds, twice vetoed it. Last year, facing a recall and trying to shore up his Latino base, he signed it.

Then, after Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded Davis, Cedillo made what he thought was a deal with the governor. The bill would be repealed and then passed again in a form that would satisfy Schwarzenegger's alleged concerns about security.

With every passing day, however, it's become clearer that Schwarzenegger won't sign any bill that wouldn't put the mark of Cain on people who got the license the law would have authorized. Nor is the issue security. It's Schwarzenegger's fear of attacks from conservatives who don't want to see the state issuing official documents to people who aren't supposed to be in the country in the first place. Nobody has yet accused this governor of courage, either.

But anybody who dismissed Cedillo's persistence in Sacramento should have walked with him through the huge shop floor at American Apparel the other day. The Los Angeles plant, located in Cedillo's hugely diverse, only-in-California district, employs some 2,500 people knitting, cutting and sewing T-shirts and other sportswear.

As he passed through the plant, row after row of workers - hundreds of them - spontaneously rose at their machines. They cheered; they applauded; they came over to shake his hand and to say thanks.

How did they know who he was? They'd seen his face in the Spanish language media - on Univision or Telemundo or in La Opinion - and they regarded him as their hero in a battle that might make a crucial difference in their lives, or the lives of their relatives and their children.

Some of those children have lived in this country since they were very young, have gone to school here, have excelled at California State University, Los Angeles, or the University of Southern California or UCLA, but can't drive legally because they have no documents and probably would have a hard time getting a decent job in professions that badly need their skills.

Officially, they all have documents - the taxpayer ID cards or Social Security numbers required by the Internal Revenue Service. But it's hardly a secret that the state's economy depends on millions of workers - in agriculture, in hotels and restaurants, in domestic work and gardening and construction - who aren't legal.

But that's only part of this story. American Apparel, run by a unique, effusively irreverent Canadian immigrant named Dov Charney, is itself a unique and moving tale. It prides itself on paying an average of $13 an hour to its largely immigrant work force, nearly double the minimum wage, plus health insurance. It offers - and pays for - classes in English, plus a string of other benefits. Its motto is "sweatshop free." One sign at the gate declares American Apparel to be a "T-shirt kibbutz."

Just as telling, maybe, the company, operating in an industry in which bare-bones cost-cutting is standard, doesn't outsource any of its work. None of its products are made in China, not because Charney wants to be a good guy, but because he believes he can do everything, from design to shipping to marketing, more efficiently here.

Doing business in China, he says, is getting more expensive and, in any case, is too complicated and slow. By doing it all within the market, "you can have an idea on Monday and have it in the store on Saturday." A growing number of those stores are his own.

That market is here - for him it's twentysomethings or maybe 30-year-olds, mostly women - not boomers. "The boomers," he said, "are my enemy." They're in Santa Monica, and that's not where the action is.

Charney himself is 35, and his sales message is a weave of youth, sex and generational self-assertion, plus occasional reminders about the quality of the product and his made-in-America ethics.

For Charney, Los Angeles is where it's at. And one of the things that make it exciting is immigrants who, of course, are far younger on average than other Californians. "L.A. without Hispanics would be boring. Immigrants keep us young."

The advocates of tougher immigration controls - people such as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies - argue that if employers paid better in low-wage industries, citizens and legal residents would flock to the jobs. But Charney's well-treated workers are Latino or Chinese or Korean. They may not be illegals, but they cheered when Cedillo showed up. And they're working here, buying U.S. goods, paying U.S. taxes, including the Social Security that will help pay for the boomers when they start to retire in the coming decade.

Schwarzenegger, Charney said, spends too much time in Santa Monica.