- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Companies that make uniforms for the U.S. military pay poverty-level wages, often fail to provide health care and have unsafe working conditions for employees, according to a union report released yesterday.

The Defense Department must take greater responsibility to ensure safe working conditions and recognize their procurement procedures contribute to sweatshop conditions at companies throughout the South, said a report written by Unite Here. The union represents 450,000 apparel, textile and hotel workers.

“It is unconscionable that taxpayer dollars are funding sweatshops,” said Edgar Romney, executive vice president of Unite Here.

About 20,000 workers at U.S. apparel companies make military uniforms.

The Defense Department is the world’s largest buyer of U.S.-made apparel, and sales of clothing, textiles and equipment to the military by the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia exceeded $2.5 billion in fiscal 2005.

Unite Here interviewed 88 workers at eight companies in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee that have been given contracts worth $455 million since fiscal 2003 to make uniforms. The union also reviewed Labor Department records to learn employees at the companies earn an average hourly wage of $6.55 and average annual wages of $13,624.

“It’s very hard for a lot of us,” said Lois McMillan, who earns $6 an hour at American Power Source, a company in Fayette, Ala., that has $8.2 million in contracts to make uniforms for the Defense Department.

Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst for Unite Here, said about 59 percent of American Power Source workers interviewed by the union are without health care, and 86 percent of workers interviewed at J.H. Rutter Rex Inc., in Columbia, Miss., don’t have health coverage.

Government contractors should be forced to pay higher wages, provide health care coverage and improve working conditions for employees, Unite Here President Bruce Raynor said.

Mr. Raynor said he attempted to discuss findings in the report weeks ago with Kenneth Krieg, Defense Department undersecretary for acquisitions, technology and procurement, but the two sides haven’t spoken.

Jack Hooper, spokesman for the Defense Logistics Agency, which buys clothing and equipment for the military, said the agency can’t penalize a contractor paying workers the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, even if others believe salaries should be higher.

“Clearly the DLA is not in a position to address what pay and benefits a company provides its employees,” he said.

Federal procurement officials also should change procedures used to award bids to uniform makers so firms paying higher wages and providing health care have better odds of winning a contract, Mr. Raynor said.

Companies employing union workers are at a disadvantage because they pay higher wages and can’t submit bids as low as nonunion firms, said Mark Fogelman, president of Tama Manufacturing, an Allentown, Pa., firm that makes clothing and has one government contract to make physical training uniforms for the Air Force.

Mr. Fogelman, who employs 200 union workers, said he thinks he lost a contract for the Army’s new combat uniform because his labor costs were too high. He said he pays up to $10.50 an hour.

Unite Here represents about 5,000 people who work at companies making uniforms, and the union has tried to organize workers at some of the eight companies scrutinized in the new report.

American Power Source closed a plant in Macon, Miss., after workers chose to form a union, Mr. Raynor said.

“The sector is dominated by companies that are viciously anti-union,” he said.

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