Sweating the Big Stuff
This lively documentary about two L.A. garment factories that employ radically different management strategies to empower workers pits a hippy-entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist against a mercurial and at times abusive impresario.
Sweat X, a union shop that makes casual wear for clients like Patagonia, provides employees with healthcare and retirement benefits, paid vacations, and an ownership share in the company. Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, started Sweat X with $2.5 million from his Hot Fudge Venture Fund, which bankrolls socially conscious businesses.
American Apparel, a nonunion operation that produces clothing for younger, hipper consumers, maintains a nurturing yet competitive shop floor, pays excellent wages, and practices vertical integration (the company makes the fabric it turns into garments, and handles retails sales, as well as advertising and marketing). Dov Charney founded American Apparel in 1997 without venture capital, after he relocated to L.A. from the Carolinas when the t-shirt industry there collapsed.
Both companies offer workplace amenities unheard of in most factories. Sweat X teaches English classes on site for its mostly Spanish-speaking workforce; at American Apparel, massage therapists roam the floor, kneading the kinks out of tense workers. Workstations are well lighted, comfortable, and equipped with state-of-the-art machinery.
That’s where the similarities end. While Sweat X employees work without quotas, American Apparel workers are divided into small teams, who compete among each other to achieve the highest output. Charney calls the American Apparel family “revolutionary”; Doug Waterman, President and CEO of Sweat X, talks about the “opportunity to build a culture”. Sweat X has a regimented managerial structure, with a CEO and shop foreman who speak in business school jargon.
Charney regularly stalks through his factory, shouting at the top of his lungs. “Tylenol!” he shrieks at one point, holding his head. After praising American Apparel as an employer, seamstress Patricia Revolorio, who clearly has great affection for her boss, reveals the one thing she doesn’t like about her job: “he is always screaming”.
To put the two extraordinary factories in context, brief interviews with labor activists early in the film thumbnail the labor scene in L.A., home to the largest garment-producing center in the nation: the 160,000 to 180,000 workers employed by 500 manufacturers in the city are mostly female, mostly Latina (there are some Asian workers, too), mostly non-English-speaking, and mostly undocumented. They work without the protection of a minimum wage, without the possibility of earning overtime pay, and without breaks. In the face of this kind of exploitation, Kimi Lee of the Garment Workers Center calls Cohen and Charney’s experiments “baby steps”.
Director Amie Williams has documented these steps in great detail in a year of filming. No Sweat moves back and forth from Sweat X to American Apparel, interviews management and labor, and singles out one employee from each factory to give us a sense of how the companies have changed workers’ lives. Revolorio talks about earning a living wage for the first time. Sweat X seamstress Enriqueta Soto shares her joy at buying a house. “It’s something magnificent”, she says of working for the company.
While Williams gives us plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast the two businesses, she leaves the judgment about who has the best practices to us. In this, her work diverges wildly from the films of fellow progressive documentarian Michael Moore. While Moore plays the main character in all his films, providing on- and off-camera commentary designed to move or enrage viewers to action, Williams never appears on screen, and objective intertitles identifying people and places, or establishing facts, are the only “authorial” intrusions.
This isn’t to say Williams doesn’t take a stand in No Sweat; it’s just that her politicking took place when she decided to make the film and structure it as she did. Where Moore might have interviewed and antagonized union-busters and anti-immigrant nativists to gin up support for Sweat X and American Apparel, Williams takes as a given that the industry is broken and focuses instead on possible solutions, assuming that a discerning viewer will find the twin experiments as compelling as she did.
Which company has the better business model? With a sample of only two factories, it’s hard to say. Sweat X seems to be the more traditional operation: unionized, rigidly managed—a model that’s dying in other areas of manufacturing. Charney comes across as the true innovator, able to pick up the pieces of the old twentieth-century model (clothing manufacture in the south) and make of them a new kind of factory, better able to react to rapid changes in consumer preferences, humane, even indulgent (those massages).
Yet Charney comes from the same domineering, patriarchal mold that produced Henry Ford. Like Ford, he pays the highest wages in his industry; and like the auto pioneer, he takes it as a personal offense when his workers try to unionize.
A documentary film about assembling garments invites attention to its own editing. It must have been quite a challenge to cull an hour-long film from a year’s worth of footage, but Williams succeeds in creating a coherent narrative without sacrificing the complexity of her topic. Several sequences stand out. Williams emphasizes Charney’s mercurial personality by cutting together interviews that capture the various styles he adopted during filming: he’s clean-shaven in one shot, but sporting outrageous whiskers and huge, aviator-rimmed glasses in the next. The first time she does this you wonder if they’re even the same person.
No Sweat also includes some very fast cutting. In montages that capture activity on the shop floor, the camera seems to produce sequences as quickly as the workers run fabric through their sewing machines. In a filmmaker interview on the DVD, Williams expresses admiration for the highly skilled work of the seamstresses in these factories, so it’s fitting that the post-production assemblage of sequences in the film pays homage to the women’s analogous creation of finished garments from the raw materials of their industry.
Two brief deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer make up the rest of the DVD extras.