Anti-sweatshop Action in Grand Rapids – 1996

As part of the growing anti-globalization/anti-free trade movement that was growing in the US, especially after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, organizers with the Institute for Global Education held an action at the Woodland Mall to bring attention to the sweatshop labor practices of the global corporation, Disney.

In the Spring of 1996, the Institute for Global Education had brought Charles Kernaghan, the head of the National Labor Committee, to Grand Rapids to speak about the work of his organization. Kernaghan made national headlines when he confronted Kathy Lee Gifford over the sweatshop conditions at a factory in Honduras that was manufacturing her clothing line.

Kernaghan used confrontation as a way of exposing the growing international garment industry’s practices of using sweatshop labor, a practice that led to the book that Naomi Klein wrote, No Logo. One of the biggest brand names that the National Labor Committee took on was Disney, which was being confronted by the amount of sweatshop labor the company was using, especially in Haiti.

We have written about other organizing around Haiti, in a 3-part series that dealt with West Michigan connections to Haiti in the early 1990s, especially the clothing manufacturer, HH Culter, which used to make clothes in Grand Rapids, before moving their operation to Haiti.

Bringing the spokesperson for the National Labor Committee to Grand Rapids was important at the time, as it led to a greater awareness of how globalization was impacting workers around the world. In addition, bring Charles Kernaghan to town help to create the seeds of a movement that began in Grand Rapids in 1996, a movement that would later call itself the anti-globalization movement.

The first action, which was specifically designed to challenge anti-sweatshop labor, took place in Grand Rapids in late November of 1996 at the Woodland Mall. The image below if from an article in the Grand Rapids Press.

There was another campaign against Nike in 1997 that Grand Rapids organized put together, which was followed by many other actions that confronted sweatshops. In addition, there was an effort after the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, to bring labor organizers, environmentalists and community organizers together to confront the growing connections of globalization that were taking place in West Michigan, which we will explore in future articles.

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