Eric’s been writing about sweatshops again. Not that he accuses me or any of you of operating sweatshops, quite the contrary. His view is that the term “sweatshop” has been misused to the point of dilution. Anyone who’s worked in a factory would have to admit to themselves that at some point they’ve also callously and senselessly thrown that ugly word around in response to a workplace disagreement or a mis-timed process. Disgruntled employees have been using that cheap-shot for years and I’m no less guilty; the memory shames me and sullies the remembrance of someone I profoundly respected.
I have to tell you a story. It’s kind of long but it’s about someone I knew and a lot of people called him a sweatshop owner -me included- but that was a lie. A bald faced lie. This essay was originally published in the Designer’s Network Newsletter in 1996. I don’t remember what month.
It was a tradition in the garment industry to announce the deaths of great people by placing a full-page ad in the pages of Women’s Wear Daily. This isn’t done as much anymore. I never gave obituaries much thought until a year ago. Then last May, my hero died. His name was John Sullivan.
He deserved some mention of his passing. He deserved an acknowledgment that he lived and contributed. His lifestyle did not meet the approval of other manufacturers because he was gay and contrary to public belief, being gay is no more acceptable in this industry than in any other. John was openly insulted, ridiculed or excluded in industry circles. He did not get the respect he deserved. Well, this is my obituary for John. You owe him a great debt; he’s taught you many things through me.
John was born in East Germany. In 1938, he and his family were forced to leave their home, narrowly escaping the Nazi rampage that shamed the integrity of all men. John’s father knew America was safe, free and brave. America became their home.
John joined the US Army as soon as he could. He survived dramatic battles, the very sort depicted in popular films. Once, he was the only man in his battalion to survive. He was wounded many times, was patched up and set back to fight. Until he died, he set off airport metal detectors from the shrapnel he still carried in his body. After the war, John coached professional hockey. After a time he got bored and finally settled down to help his parents with their home business in Albuquerque New Mexico. John’s family worked late every night, cutting and sewing leather coats right on the kitchen table.
John built his parent’s business into the world’s largest manufacturer of western-style outerwear and leather coats. John became rich and successful but if you think this is the end of his story, you are wrong. John still had a war to fight, the one he fought till the day he died, and this is why he was a hero.
This was John’s war. A lot of industry consultants told him he could not manufacture in the United States and make a profit. Go offshore they said, labor in Thailand is cheap. John could have made a lot more money but it wasn’t worth it to him. He was committed to producing a quality product in his community and country.
John’s home was the United States. The country that adopted him and fought to save him and other Jews. John paid his debts. He fought bravely and with distinction; first in World War II and then by keeping his work at home. John was absolutely committed to employing his neighbors. For 42 years, John fed 300 families a year. John wasn’t touchy-feelie and fuzzy and he wasn’t perfect. Heroes never are but he didn’t run a sweatshop.
All employees complain and sadly, we were no exception. But we always had a paycheck; 9 days of paid holidays, two weeks of vacation and a turkey at Christmas. He let me take time off whenever I needed; my son is disabled and needed to go to doctors a lot. John let me take a 2 hour lunch every Wednesday so I could read stories to the kids in my son’s class; help out the teacher and that sort of thing. He knew that kids need this even though he never had any of his own.
In factories, things get slow sometimes and people get laid off but not at John’s factory. Rather, he asked for volunteers. Anyone who needed to work had a job and spent their time cleaning, painting or organizing the warehouse. Nobody complained then. How could anyone complain when the production manager was pressing sleeves and mopping floors in suit and high heels?
I loved John. I still miss him terribly. John was my mentor and my hero. He was a hero for all of us. Who can take his place?
Employ your neighbors and keep your work at home.
Teach your children and your neighbor’s children.
Keep the knowledge and skills alive….
John taught me more in 3 years than I’d learned in the preceding 15. He invested a lot of time in my education when he didn’t have much time left. He was sick and didn’t want to die. The best thing he taught me was passion and commitment to my work.
What I preach is not a joke. It’s not quaint. It’s not funny. It’s not fantasy and it’s not a myth. This is REAL. This is my life and I never want to share something so personal again. It was very hard to write this because…I was a welfare mother who couldn’t get a job. With a disabled child, no one would hire me. Other than my son, I had two things; my pattern making tools and a paper sack of donated clothing; I’d lost everything else. We lived in a battered women’s shelter with no family and no friends. John gave me more than a job. He gave me hope, integrity and self-respect.
So when I say, “employ your neighbor…gets her off welfare… Before you know it, she’s bought a home, paying taxes and meeting with her child’s teacher…”, I’m talking about myself. Would you have hired me? If John had not hired me, you would not be reading this today…or any day.
The guilt I live with -stupid I know but it pains me- is that when he was alive, I never thanked him for the Christmas turkey. He didn’t have to do that. Many employees criticized him rather than thanked him. “Sweatshop” was one of the words thrown around, stupidly, carelessly. We were so ignorant and thankless. Ingrates, all of us, I despise the person I was for what I failed to do and I still miss him. I’d work for a “sweatshop” owner like him, any day. Since he died, I don’t throw that word around anymore, maybe you shouldn’t either.