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No more American jeans: The 150-year-old Levi Strauss company is relocating its factories abroad. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Levi Strauss workers latest casualty of free trade

Last week, a short article in a local newspaper reported that a man had threatened to hang himself from I-10 by tying himself to his car and jumping over the edge of the overpass. The reason he had tried to commit suicide, the news brief said, was that he had lost his job.

Later the same week, in tandem with a federal report that revealed the U.S. poverty rate had climbed to 12 percent, Levi Strauss & Co. announced that by Christmas, it would close its San Antonio plant and move the factory overseas, "displacing" 800 workers - which is a gentler way of saying 800 people are losing their jobs to "free" trade.

This is not to imply that at year's end Levi Strauss employees will be flinging themselves from bridges. Many hardened factory veterans have seen it all before - 13 years ago, the company closed its Zarzamora Street factory, moved it to Costa Rica, and kicked 1,100 mostly Mexican-American women to the curb - but Fuerza Unida, an organization that grew out of those lay-offs, is already receiving calls from panicked Levi's workers wondering how they will feed their families.

"I received a call from a single mother with two children, who was crying, saying, 'What will I do?'" explained Petra Mata, co-coordinator of Fuerza Unida. "I tell people, 'Be prepared. Don't buy things you don't need.'"

Mata should know: She worked at the Zarzamora Street plant for 12 years before Levi's rewarded her loyalty with a pink slip, shuttered the plant, and left town. Since then, she has helped other laid-off workers - most of them women with few job skills - by establishing sewing and cooking cooperatives, a food bank, and other assistance.

"We were the first victims," said Mata, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. "NAFTA promised there would be many jobs, but it has helped only the businesses who have power.

"We came here and didn't ask for anything but a job with dignity and respect," she continued. "We put all their profits in their pockets - billions, not millions - billions - of dollars."

Make that $4.1 billion in sales in 2001, down about 40 percent from Levi's $7 billion in 1996. As consumers bought hipper designer jeans, they left the 150-year-old Levi's brand in the dust. To compensate for soft sales, Levi's chose not to cut the top dogs' million-dollar salaries, but to find cheaper labor. Since Levi's couldn't pay U.S. workers less than the federal minimum hourly wage of $5.15, plus UNITE, the textiles union, fought for their workers to earn $8-11 an hour (still not enough to rent a modest two-bedroom house or apartment in San Antonio), the company looked to Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East for people who would work for next to nothing.

"This is an indication that you can't compete with companies paying workers less than $2 a day in factories overseas," said Lesley Ramsey of the Texas Fair Trade Coalition. "All we can do is fight for the incorporation of worker treatment rights in trade agreements."

Although the company's Code of Ethics promises to pay a "fair" wage to employees in their overseas factories, that still means Levi's can pay a worker $3 an hour in Saipan, even less in China. (Levi's is still fighting a lawsuit filed on the behalf of Saipan workers, alleging violation of wage laws. Twenty-five other companies named in the suit settled out of court.)

"We can't stop them from leaving," agreed Mata. "But they can at least give the workers a severance package that is just."

Ironically, Levi Strauss' announcement came just two weeks after representatives from developing nations bolted from World Trade Organization Talks in Cancún over trade agreements that favor the U.S. and other First World countries.

"Where is the democracy?" Mata asked. "We came to this country with noble ideas. We had a dream and didn't want to create problems or take anything for free. But suddenly, we lost that dream. What is happening in this country?" •


Deconstructing a Levi Strauss press release

By Lisa Sorg

On September 25, Levi Strauss & Co. issued a three-page press release announcing the closing of its three Canadian and last San Antonio manufacturing plants. Because of the release's bureaucratic jargon, it was difficult for the even the Current's batallion of lingoists to decipher such corporate gobbledygook as "leverage, "philanthropic," "partner," and "forward-looking."

However, after several painstaking hours of consulting dictionaries from several languages, reviewing previously translated City Hall press releases, and watching a videotape of President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, Current communication analysts managed to decode Levi Strauss' release.

Here are the highlights:

"Regrettably, these closures will affect workers who have done a tremendous job for the company over the years," said Chief Executive Officer Phil Marineau. "We understand the impact this change will have on them, their families, and communities. As we have done in the past, our intent is to provide a comprehensive separation package for employees, along with support for the local communities through philanthropic grants."
TRANSLATION: "For your years of outstanding work - standing eight to 10 hours a day, enduring repetitive motion injuries, putting up with the din of hundreds of machines - you have earned $8-11 an hour," said Phil Marineau, who earns more than $25 million a year as Levi Strauss' chief executive officer. "We understand that closing the plant around Christmas could dampen holiday festivities. Enclosed is a list of local Salvation Army outlets."

"In order to remain competitive, we need to focus our resources on product design and development, sales and marketing, and our retail customer relationships."
TRANSLATION: "Once we convince Britney Spears to shake her ass in a pair of 501s, we will make up for this year's $25 million first-quarter loss."

"The Levi Strauss Foundation intends to partner with government agencies and community organizations to leverage our resources collaboratively to address the unique needs of the local displaced workers," said Theresa Fay-Bustillos, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation and vice president of community affairs for LS&CO. "We have established a Community Transition Fund to provide grants that will help strengthen the economic base in San Antonio ... and help employees gain access to a wide array of economic and educational opportunities."
TRANSLATION: "The Levi Strauss Foundation is a great tax write-off for the company. And considering our earnings are down $3 billion since the mid-'90s, we need every break we can get.
"Later this year, Foundation representatives will meet with Chamber of Commerce elite at the San Antonio Country Club for a few rounds of golf.
"The Community Transition Fund will help our workers find new jobs from a wide array of careers such as hotel maids, house cleaners, or those people who stand in the medians selling the

"Production from the San Antonio and Canadian facilities will be shifted to LS&CO's global sourcing network, in adherence with the company's comprehensive code of conduct."
TRANSLATION: "We're moving our factories to China, where we can pay our workers far less than the $3 an hour our employees in Saipan earn."

"This news release contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1985. We have based these forward-looking statements on our current assumptions, expectations, and projections about future events. We use words like 'believe,' 'anticipate,' 'intend,' 'estimate, 'expect,' 'project' and similar expressions to identify forward-looking statements, although not all forward-looking statments contain these words. ... Other unknown or unpredictable factors also could have material adverse effects on our future results, performance, or achievements. In light of these risks, uncertainities assumptions, and factors, the forward-looking events discussed in this news release may not occur. You are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements."
TRANSLATION: "We don't believe a word we're saying, and neither should you."

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