Was Your Band’s T-Shirt Made in a Sweatshop?

Volume CIV, No. 5May, 2004

Marc Ribot

Musicians Against Sweatshops ( is a new organization whose goal is to end the sale of sweatshop-produced merchandise on the music scene.

Performing musicians and recording artists should join this campaign, and musicians who are on tour should use whatever powers of persuasion they have to convince their bandleaders to join.

For musicians, this isn’t just another call to “help the downtrodden.” It’s true that garment workers — the ones who make the T-shirts that musicians sell — do need our solidarity. But we also need theirs.


Garment workers have been subject to what economists call a “post-Fordist” or postmodern restructuring of their industry.

What were once centrally-located manufacturers owned directly by the same companies who designed, marketed and distributed their product became — through restructuring — many small, globally-dispersed companies, doing outsourced contract work for the companies who once might have owned them.

This one-two punch of globalization and outsourcing has made traditional union organizing strategies difficult, as indeed it was designed to.

It’s not just a question of the difficulties of organizing over great distances. Separate ownership often makes union action against the parent companies illegal, leaving unions unable to target the large corporations who make most of the profit from the small company’s work.

Sound familiar? To those who record for so-called “indie” labels, it should. According to a recent report, we have a whole lot in common, structurally speaking, with garment workers. This report was researched by Stanley Aronowitz and Michael Roberts of the CUNY Graduate School and it was commissioned by Local 802.

What do musicians have in common with garment workers? In music, most distribution is still controlled by large corporations. What has changed in the last 30 years is that the product being distributed is now often no longer made under the same corporate roof as these large distributors.

As in the garment industry, the production part of the business — which is economically riskier — has been outsourced to nominally “independent” companies.

As in the garment industry, the large corporations get access to cheaper production costs and legal insulation from union action.

But thanks to the efforts of labor activists, many people now see this to be exploitative and unethical. One example is the sportswear industry, and the successful campaign by college students to make sure that college sportswear is not produced in sweatshops.


In music, on the other hand, indie labels and their partisans have been able to market these same trends as a bold blow against the “major label” corporate empire, allowing gullible consumers to harmlessly vent their anti-corporate rage through consumption.

The often ideologically anti-corporate product being consumed is almost invariably still distributed and often co-owned by a large corporation of some kind, and has been made more profitable for its corporate beneficiaries by the fact that virtually all indie labels are nonunion, whereas all the evil “major labels” in the U.S. are signatories to national union agreements.

Despite their patent hollowness, theories equating the “indie” phenomenon with social progress — originally propagated in post-punk circles — have come to dominate public discourse to an incredible degree.

That my generation has watched a process of corporate restructuring destroy expectations of what we can expect from work and from life is lamentable.

That our anti-corporate rage has been harnessed to cheerlead for this process is, to put it mildly, a bit ironic. Hence the main title of the Aronowitz/Roberts report is “The Irony of the Indies.”

In this aspect alone, the garment workers have a distinct advantage over indie label musicians: at least they don’t have to listen to an endless line of crap about how progressive and hip the economy that’s impoverishing them is. (Note: I’m not a fan of major label exploitation either — just a critic of “alternatives” that aren’t.)

Of course, nothing in this article should be taken as a diss to or a criticism of individual bands, musicians or artists who sign with indie or major labels. We do what we need to do.

Often, indie labels offer less money up front in exchange for better royalty rates when and if the records sell. This practice, essentially the exchange of money for risk, may be appealing to those who can afford the risk.

But this exchange is post-Fordist capitalism at its most typical, and hardly deserves to be called “alternative.”

On the other hand, everything in this article should be taken as a reminder that we don’t have to accept either of these lousy choices.


For globalized, outsourced garment workers and punk bands, traditional union organizing tactics have largely failed. But the type of consumer-based organizing campaign proposed by Musicians Against Sweatshops is one of a new set of tactics that can really work when “indie” touring and recording musicians get good and tired of the fact that we’re the last ones in the long food chain to get paid, and the only ones without health insurance.

Then, not only the same tactics, but also the same networks of “solidarity” (a word I use without a trace of post-modern irony) will work for us.

We all potentially benefit from this, the global community of garment workers and recording artists.

The music fans — whose commitment to ethical consumption will be the backbone of this organizing drive — win something too: the hope that in a world of reduced expectations where conditions even for highly-skilled workers, professionals and mid-level management have been subjected to relentless downward pressure, there’s still a chance, to quote the song of an earlier generation of garment workers, “that our lives will not be sweated, from the cradle till life closes,” still a way to fight for “bread and roses.”

Marc Ribot is an internationally-known guitarist and a member of Local 802. He is also a member of Musicians Against Sweatshops. For more information, visit

February 29, 2004

Dear People,

The hip hop artist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs was busted last October for using sweatshop labor on his clothing line even though his sources had monitors and codes of conduct. How much do you really know about who makes your merchandise?

On June 26, 2003, at the Glastonbury Festival, Billy Bragg, No Sweat Apparel and Ethical Threads launched a new initiative, Musicians Against Sweat Shops (MASS), to drive sweatshops out of the music merchandising business. Will you join us? Check us out at

You know what the problem is. We want you to be a part of the solution. The day sweatshops become unfashionable is the day they become unfeasible. The youth and its choices control the fashion industry. The youth listens to the music. You can make the global garment industry face the music. Right now. Here’s how.

Sign up your band with MASS. Commit to sourcing your T-shirts and other merchandise from union shops or worker-owned cooperatives. Do you already have pre-existing contract obligations? No sweat. Tell them if they won’t change to union or cooperative sourcing for your gear you’ll have to change merchandisers when your contract expires.

We will provide your band with the world’s most comprehensive list of union shops, worker-owned cooperatives, and distributors. Not just from the U.S. and Canada but throughout the developing world.

Why does a union contract matter? Without it, a seamstress can’t even file a grievance without putting her livelihood at risk. Would you work for a record company that offered you a code of conduct – but wouldn’t make it legally binding?

We have also launched a virtual mall where all union shops, worker-owned cooperatives and supporting designers can sell their threads.

We aren’t wringing our hands or shaking our fists. We’re promoting real solutions to real problems.

What we’re doing here is creating a new template for change, a one-two combination punch of collective action and individual choice that can knock the global garment industry for a loop.

We want you to be a part of that. Do you? If so, or if you have questions, please contact me at

Trina Tocco