Uniform Makers Pay Poorly, Union Says

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

U.S. military uniforms are being made by workers who are poorly paid and lack health insurance coverage, the union that represents garment workers asserted in a report released yesterday.

Many of the workers must rely on government programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, according to the report from Unite Here, which said starting pay at the companies it surveyed averages $5.49 an hour. The average wage of those who sew uniforms is $6.55 an hour. The average for U.S sewing machine operators is $9.24 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although 20,000 workers at several hundred companies in the United States make military uniforms, the report collected data from a relatively small pool of 88 workers at eight companies. Information was also collected from the Labor Department, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Defense Department.

The Defense Department did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Bruce S. Raynor, Unite Here general president, said the union attempted unsuccessfully to meet with Kenneth J. Krieg, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, about the findings "weeks ago."

American Power Source Inc. of Fall River, Mass., and J.H Rutter Rex Manufacturing Co. of Metairie, La., two companies cited in the report, also did not return calls.

Of the 20 to 25 workers who were interviewed at those two companies, about 86 percent at Rutter Rex have no health care coverage, while 59 percent at American Power Source have no coverage, the report said.

Workers at American Power Source, which employs about 300 people in Mississippi and Alabama, are trying to organize a union and would be represented by Unite Here.

Workers who rely on government programs, according to the report, cost the government about $300,000 for a typical factory and more than $45 million for the entire industry. Many of the workers are in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee; more than 90 percent are women and 87 percent are black.

Military uniforms, by law, are made in the United States with U.S. labor and materials. The contractors discussed in the report received $456 million for military apparel contracts from 2003 to 2005.

At a news conference yesterday, Annie Williams of Columbus, Miss., said she was laid off from American Power Source a year ago. She earned $6.50 an hour.

"I take pride in what I was doing," Williams said. "I was excited because I was doing something to support our soldiers." She said many of her co-workers could not pay for electricity or child care.

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