Skip to page content
Office of the Secretary
Bookmark and Share

The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman

Smithsonian Sweatshop Exhibit

Washington, D.C.

April 21, 1998

Thank you Dennis O’Connor (the Provost of the Smithsonian Institution) for your introduction and leadership. I also want to thank Spencer Crew (the director of the Smithsonian Museum of American History) for your warm welcome.

It is indeed an honor for me to be here at the National Museum of American History. For more than 150 years, the museums of the Smithsonian have served as the repository for the very best that our nation and world has ever known -- in art and science, technology and creativity, ingenuity and imagination.

And I’d have to say that of all the Smithsonian museums, this one...dedicated to American history...our shared American my favorite.

Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman

I know I am not alone. I’m told that the most popular things to see here are the First Ladies’ gowns...Fonzi’s jacket...Dorothy’s ruby slippers...and Mr. Rogers’ sweater.

How interesting...all garments.

Perhaps it’s true then, not just in the fashion magazines, but also in American history: We really are what we wear.

So it is fitting that the Smithsonian opens today an exhibit on the history of sweatshops. And on the story of those who too often lived as they labored-- with lives hanging by a thread.

Now I know that the name of this exhibit: “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” could easily describe the process of putting this exhibit together. It’s no secret that we had some tough moments getting here--but curator Harry Rubenstein and Peter Liebhold persevered. We thank you for that.

And let me also acknowledge those who supported this exhibit. Calvin Klein Inc., Kmart Corporation, Levi Strauss & Company, Malden Mills Industries, Inc., the International Mass Retail Association, the National Retail Federation, UNITE, and so many others.

Thanks to all of you, this exhibit opens a world that few of us have ever seen, and probably fewer think about. But because clothing is a basic for every individual, it is a world that every single one of us lives in. And I am pleased that by touring the country, this exhibit will bring that world to more Americans.

Because the fact is, this isn’t history. Sweatshops exist in 1998 America.

During the Clinton Administration, the Department of Labor recovered $14.1 million in back wages for nearly 45,000 garment workers. Last year alone, we recovered nearly $2.9 million.

In addition to enforcement, we have been working in partnership with others to remove the ugly stain of sweatshops from American fashion. Because we know when people are forced to sew in sweatshops, the values stitched in the fabric of our society begin to unravel.

But even more is being done. The Apparel Industry Partnership--which is composed of unions, human rights activists, and the garment industry itself-- retailers manufacturers and others--has developed a code of conduct, company obligations and principles of independent external monitoring that the participants have committed to implement.

The companies, unions and organizations that comprise the AIP are helping to prove that earning a profit and abiding by core values is not mutually exclusive, it is mutually reinforcing.

(And let me take this opportunity to thank Jay Mazur, President of UNITE, and a member of the AIP, for his work and leadership in this effort. )

I’m pleased to see that universities are following the lead. Duke University has joined the AIP and is going to see that their sweat shirts are not made in sweatshops.

College students around the country are doing the same kinds of things, raising awareness among their fellow classmates and others.

There is a tremendous amount of momentum right now. We need to keep on building on it. I believe the best strategy is the kind that combines education, partnership and recognition. That’s exactly what this exhibit does. It marks a true milestone in our effort, and brings us one step closer to realizing our goal.

A goal that declares plain and simple: This is where sweatshops belong. In a museum--not in the daily newspapers--and not in the daily lives of our workers.

I firmly believe that by sharing the story of this working strengthening our partnerships...we will soon get to the day when we can say loud and clear:

America’s sweatshops are out of fashion and out of business.

And that, my friends, truly will be the best fashion statement of all.

History Home Page

In-Depth Research

Annals of the Department

History eSources

Departmental Timeline

Historical Office

 Century of Service  

Wirtz Labor Library