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Hemmed In: Legal Mobilization in in the Los Angeles Anti-Sweatshop Movement


The field of labor organizing -- once a site of progressive disenchantment with law -- has now become a crucial locus of law's resurgence. There is mounting evidence that legal innovation is contributing to a new dynamism within the labor movement as immigrant worker centers, community-labor coalitions, and other grassroots alliances creatively use law to mobilize low-wage workers. These efforts suggest that a reorientation is under way within the labor movement, with activists adopting a legal pluralist approach to organizing that takes strategic advantage of the multiple and intersecting ways in which both employee and employer activities are legally regulated to leverage the power of law to advance labor goals. Yet, while there are a growing number of stories of legal mobilization campaigns outside of the formal labor law context, the evidence of their short-term impact and transformative legacy is less developed. Nor is there a detailed empirical picture of the variables that impact success and failure. This Article responds to this gap by recounting a pivotal story of contemporary labor activism: the anti-sweatshop movement in the Los Angeles garment industry. It offers a detailed case study of the decade-long campaign to bring accountability to the country’s largest garment production sector. At its most ambitious, the campaign sought to make legal responsibility follow economic power, rupturing the legal fiction that protected profitable retailers and manufacturers from the labor abuses committed by their contractors. Toward this end, the campaign deployed a multi-faceted tactical approach, pioneering the strategic integration of targeted litigation and worker organizing in a way that challenged the conventional wisdom about the demobilizing impact of law -- and marked the emergence of a new wave of low-wage worker organizing outside of the traditional labor law regime. This Article examines how law lived up to its promise in the anti-sweatshop movement. It begins by outlining the role of law in facilitating the rise of modern sweatshop labor in the garment industry, showing how industry actors combined legal opportunities for foreign outsourcing and domestic subcontracting with anti-union efforts and aggressive immigrant hiring to deregulate garment production in Los Angeles. It then offers a close descriptive account of the coordinated litigation, legislative, and grassroots campaign to reform industry labor practices by assigning liability to the retailers and manufacturers that ultimately benefited from sweatshop abuse. The Article concludes by appraising the results of the anti-sweatshop campaign from a qualitative empirical perspective, examining what was achieved and what remained undone, while suggesting theoretical implications for the study of labor law and the relationship between law and organizing.

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