We work with Mitch Cahn, president of Unionwear, for the majority of our hats, bags, and union made accessories. A businessman who sees labor unions as a necessary piece of a successful company, Mitch is an anomaly among entrepreneurs. He is successfully navigating the world of local American business in the face of huge competitors who produce overseas in sweatshop conditions. In this follow-up blog to our interview last winter, we ask Mitch some questions relevant to our recent infographics about legitimate union labels, How Hats are Made, and How Fake Union Labels are Stitched in Hats.
Ethix: You just celebrated Unionwear’s 20th anniversary- congratulations! How have you been so successful and competed with so many non-union manufacturers?
Mitch Cahn: The union benefits our employees earn result in low employee turnover, which pays for itself. A veteran employee may cost more, but is so much more productive than a new employee that it makes sense to do everything we can to keep them for as long as possible.
This fits right in with another reason for our competitiveness– lean manufacturing. Lean means making sure we only pay for work which adds value to the product. So while in sewing new employees can sew as fast as veteran employees after about six months, it takes years to learn how to make sure they are sewing as much of the day as possible.
A fast sewer is not adding value to the products when they are waiting for instructions, fixing their machine, or looking for thread. A commitment to lean is essential to compete with a well paid work force.
Ethix: We know your worst competition all these years are factories stitching fake union labels into similar goods- and as a result selling them for lower prices. What mechanisms have allowed you to confront this unjust practice?
Mitch Cahn: It is a trademark violation when companies use a union name in union labels that are sewn into non-union garments. We have gone to the union whose trademark has been violated and asked them to enforce it, with much success.
Often, companies don’t use union names, they just claim “union made” or “union proud”. We have had to approach these companies with violation of the Lanham Act, which essentially treats the false labeling as false advertising, and this approach has been successful.
Ethix: What do you think about the probable emergence of a fair trade certified hat entering the market, especially given the controversy surrounding Fair Trade USA’s apparel program so far?
Mitch Cahn: Baseball caps and T-shirts are very different animals. There is much less labor in a t-shirt than in a baseball cap- so Fair Trade’s standards will have a greater impact when applied to hats instead of shirts.
However, because of this, factories in countries with much lower wages than China will become more attractive to produce hats in, and if Fair Trade still uses minimum wage instead of living wage as a wage standard, the unintended consequence will be a flight to countries where the minimum wage is below living wage.
Ethix: We are looking forward to the launch of Unionwear’s new website. Are there any new Unionwear styles coming out that we can look forward to?
Mitch Cahn: Unionwear is a contractor- we make the styles our clients design. We can make any kind of hat or bag or really any sewn accessory. Our specialty is in figuring out how to make them domestically within the client’s price point.
We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.