By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
A SOHO building partially owned by U.S. Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro and managed by her husband, John Zaccaro, has housed 35 Chinese garment-manufacturing companies over the past few years--many of them nonunion and some apparently illegal.
While an attorney for the current tenants insists they are not sweatshops, a Voice investigation has uncovered an array of conditions identified with sweatshops: piecework pay; 15-hour days; seven-day work weeks; boarded-up windows; blocked exits; crowded, filthy facilities; gut-wrenching fumes; and fly-by-night corporate shells.
Many of these conditions were observed during a half-dozen Voice visits to the premises, one of which was made by experienced garment workers who are both fluent in Chinese and connected to a labor organization. As another indicator of the kinds of shops that have tenanted the building, UNITE, the merged union that represents most garment workers, says that 21 of the 35 businesses listed in phone or other records there have not been represented by it or its predecessor unions, the International Ladies Garment Workers or the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers.
Revelations that a mob-tied pornography company occupied much of the same building undermined Ferraro's vice-presidential candidacy in 1984 and her last Senate race in 1992. That space is now filled with garment manufacturers.
The state Department of Labor could find no registration for 10 of the firms listed in the building at various times since 1988--meaning they may have operated illegally. DOL lists 10 more as ''out of business.'' One tenant, Forum Trading, has been cited by DOL for stiffing workers on overtime pay.
U.S. Labor Department counsel David Saltz told the Voice that there is ''one open wage and hour investigation'' against a firm at the building. Saltz said he could not identify the company. Beyond difficulties with labor agencies, outstanding state tax warrants have been issued against nine of the constantly changing firms there, totaling $62,581.
The building itself also has had its share of problems--including at least 20 code violations and $4075 in city fines. An artists' co-op next door has filed a hotly contested lawsuit against the owners and tenants, alleging that toxic chemicals, including perc and benzene, are being emitted into a joint courtyard, and that the Zaccaro building is an industrial boombox, with a phalanx of ventilating fans droning until 1 a.m., even on weekends.
In addition to Ferraro's 25 per cent stake in the seven-story building, located at the corner of Lafayette and Broome streets (and known as 200 Lafayette and 418 Broome), she has long been a one-third owner of the firm that manages it: P. Zaccaro Company, her husband's family business. Ferraro has been running her Senate campaign out of P. Zaccaro's main office at 218 Lafayette, located on the same block. She has maintained an office at P. Zaccaro for years, served as a corporate officer, and obtained her health insurance from the company at least as recently as 1996.
Ferraro's tax returns, which she made available to reporters last week, indicate that she and her husband, who also owns 25 per cent of the factory building, have earned as much as $204,089 a year from it since 1992. At times, it has been their single greatest source of income. Their returns for 1996--the last year she disclosed--revealed an income of $116,977, more than from any other real estate investment.
When Ferraro announced her candidacy in January, she indicated that she'd recently been ''dumped'' as an officer of various family real estate entities, but did not say anything about her holdings. A month before her announcement, she conceded to the Times that she had not altered her longtime involvement in her husband's business activities, a concession supported by both her tax returns and the disclosure statements she filed as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She served at the UN from 1994 to 1996--part of the period when this property became more and more dominated by apparent sweatshops.
The lawyer for the garment manufacturers, Chris Sullivan, claims that all of the building's current tenants ''are very well run union shops'' that ''pay $11 an hour in wages and fringe benefits.'' Sullivan said he was speaking only for the seven shops named as defendants in the lawsuit brought by the artists' co-op, not the other 28 listed in the building over the years.
When told that UNITE spokeswoman Joanne Mort had said that only three of these seven are union, Sullivan contended that two of the nonunion companies were no longer in the building. Ironically, it was Zaccaro who identified the companies for the co-op's lawyer, Jack Lester, only a month ago, suggesting just how ephemeral these entities are.
''There are people who say they're union when they're not--often in an attempt to gain political cover,'' says Mort. In fact, the union sent organizers to the building recently to distribute leaflets opposing Sunday work, which is barred under UNITE contracts but clearly occurs at the Zaccaro site. Broome Knitwear, a third-floor shop that is not a named defendant, posts a boldface sign that it is not a union shop, and one manager there reiterated this in a conversation with the Voice.
A Ferraro spokesman--who declined to answer any other questions--claimed that a UNITE official, Edgar Romney, had assured the candidate last Friday that there were ''no sweatshops in the building.'' But Mort insists that Romney merely said none of the union firms were sweatshops. Mort wrote the Voice a letter saying that the union's business agent for the building ''doesn't have any information about the conditions in the nonunion shops there.''
The problems start with the working hours. Asked about the allegation in affidavits filed by the artists' co-op that the factories ''continue into the night until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m.,'' Sullivan replied: ''Is that a violation of the labor law?'' Neither Zaccaro nor Sullivan denied the charge in their court papers, consistent with Voice observations of nighttime plant activity.
Wing Lam, the head of the Chinese Staff Workers Association, which organizes garment workers, says ''there are no shifts'' in factories like this, meaning that workers who start at 8:30 a.m. may be there until the late-night closings. ''The landlord has a lot to do with it,'' maintains Lam, pointing out that landlords in the garment district ''frequently close by 7 p.m. and aren't open on Sundays.'' But in Chinatown, says Lam, ''landlords give the keys to the contractors,'' which tenants at the Zaccaro building say is precisely what Zaccaro does.
It is the combination of long hours and piecework pay, says Lam, that makes for sweatshops. While piecework pay is permitted under UNITE contracts, it is at rates that theoretically add up to the union's $7-an-hour average wage. Voice visits to most of the building's shops found piecework commonplace at below union rates.
In fact, two Chinese women with sewing experience retained by the Voice and sent to seek employment at the building were offered only piecework positions in conversations with bosses at shops on three floors. At a shop on the sixth floor, they were told they could make 85 cents a piece sewing button plackets and hems on jackets, a task that experienced labor organizers said would typically take 15 minutes (meaning the workers would make $3.40 an hour). On the fifth floor, they were offered $1 per pair of dress pants--another 15-to-20-minute job. The $4 an hour wage equivalent would be less than the $5.15 minimum wage. The women were told that there were no positions other than piecework available, and no overtime or weekend bonus pay.
On another occasion, a Voice reporter and interpreter who questioned a man cutting strings off shirts on the third floor on Sunday morning were told that he was paid five cents a piece. The man agreed that the pay was low, but shrugged: ''What can you do, though?'' Piecework pay, of course, means that any lunch or break time lowers earnings, leading workers to arrive in the morning with plastic bags filled with oranges and other snacks. Few were seen leaving for lunch.
Indeed, the building's hallways are strewn with orange peels, rotten bananas, and garbage. Vagrants were seen sleeping on the steps. Bathrooms are cramped and dirty, with no toilet paper, sinks, or windows. Metal gates cover door windows, and side windows are draped in sheets. The ventilation is so bad, and the odors and steam so overpowering, that many workers cover their noses and mouths with cloth all day.
City inspectors have cited the building in each of the last three years for ''total obstruction of exit doors'' with ''boxes and debris''--a violation the buildings department categorizes as of ''high severity.'' Zaccaro defaulted on a $400 fine for an egress violation on January 15, just 10 days after Ferraro announced for the Senate--in a speech that included a pitch for a higher minimum wage.