Three Iowa Women Stitch Together a Sew-at-Home Network and Challenge Federal Law

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

"You don't realize how desperate it is. We've got one woman literally feeding her family from this. If this job's jerked away from her, I don't know what they'd do. Four kids, backs to the wall—she says, 'Thank God for Bordeaux.' "—Carol Hook, a Bordeaux seamstress

"The Bordeaux company is getting filthy rich taking advantage of people."—Lois Slaten, ex-Bordeaux seamstress

It seems hard to believe that these women have worked for the same company. What is this Bordeaux, Inc., anyway? Is it a) an accommodating, generous employer giving modest, much-needed income to farm wives in dire straits? Or is it, b) an exploitative sweatshop growing fat off the desperation of rural women who accept dirt wages in order to feed their families? Each view is firmly held by hundreds of people, including present and former Bordeaux employees, their husbands, labor union officials and high-ups far away in Washington. And the question of which side is right bears directly on thousands of other Americans. Because of the debate over Bordeaux and other homework industries, Secretary of Labor William E. Brock next year will decide whether to repeal a 43-year-old ban on work-for-hire at home—a ban that, even before the Bordeaux case came along, had already begun to unravel.

Founded in 1980 in Clarinda, Iowa (pop.: 5,500) by two teachers and a former stewardess, Bordeaux did not start out like a venture that would create such a storm. It was christened by a joke. John Lisle, husband of one founder, observed that the women "were bored and needed dough." The enterprise they settled on seemed just as homespun: Bertha Turner, 49, said she had gotten a lot of compliments from strangers on the sweatshirts she appliquéd for her daughter, Jerelyn; Jean Negley, 45, Julie Lisle, 43, and Bertha each put up $2,500 to start an apparel company, and a cottage industry was born. Bordeaux buys sweatshirts, pants, vests and oversize tops ready-made from a company in Virginia. Seamstresses, most of them working in their homes, then sew on patches of fabric, fake fur, and ribbon in over 125 designs, including pandas, puppies and flowers. The women are paid $2.50 or so per garment, and the finished pieces retail from $24 to $80. The seamstresses must supply their own sewing machines, gas and electricity, because Bordeaux considers them independent contractors. The company now has 3,700 store and catalogue accounts, plus six stores of its own. Its nearly 150 seamstresses turn out up to 4,000 pieces each week, and Bordeaux's 1986 sales are expected to hit $3.5 million. "We're not bored any more!" crows founder Lisle, and they're not broke, either.

But they are illegal. U.S. law prohibits homework in six industries, including women's apparel, jewelry and embroideries—although, illogically, not men's apparel or women's ski suits. In 1984, then Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan eased restrictions on home-knitted outerwear in response to a challenge from some Vermont homeworkers. Last August, after more protests, Labor Secretary Brock scheduled a period of public comment, which ends Dec. 4, and promised to consider repealing the ban entirely.

But using Bordeaux as a guide to such a decision is like using Joyce's Ulysses as a primer—no two people read it the same way. Hillary Klein, an International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union lawyer who talked with ex-Bordeaux workers, says, "The employers are taking advantage of people with no alternatives—these people are really desperate." Ex-seamstress Barbara Mackey, 28, is especially bitter. "Bordeaux," she says, "is highlighting the farm crisis aspect, saying that they're giving these women jobs and holding their families together—definitely not! When I was working for them, my house was a wreck because I was sewing all the time. You can't take care of two kids properly and sew 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and I was averaging $1 an hour." Another ex-Bordeaux sewer, Barbara Winkler, 28, said in an affidavit, "I figure that I was making about $1.50 to $2 an hour, but if you need the money bad enough, you'll do about anything."

How much Bordeaux seamstresses actually make is a major issue. Betty Still, 30, says she earns about $5.50 an hour, and Bordeaux claims many of its sewers average $4 to $6 an hour. The total take, however, may be more relevant. Says Merrill Still: "Betty pays the light bill and puts food on the table. If it wasn't for her, I couldn't farm—that's all there is to it." Carol Hook, 47, who delivers supplies to seamstresses in the desolate, rolling country, sees other less tangible benefits. "Three of the women meet me in the middle of nowhere, at the junction of highways 71 and 92," she says. "It saves 'em gas money. They feel really good about it because they can voice their opinions about their work through me. I talk to 'em about their personal problems, too. We've all pulled together." And, like Bordeaux's critics, its defenders see basic issues at stake. Says Michael Avakian, lawyer for the Center on National Labor Policy which wants homework restrictions abolished: "This is an individual's-rights case. If the government can't prohibit sexual behavior in the home, it shouldn't prohibit work behavior, either."

That's just the way Mary Hughes, 48, sees it. She and her husband, Glenn, lost their Missouri farm a year and a half ago; she has been sewing for Bordeaux for three years. "If it hadn't been for Bordeaux, I don't know what we would have done," she says. "It was all we lived on for a year, plus odd jobs. I can't understand why they're trying to stop us. I've got an air conditioner—I work in comfort. Bordeaux is good to us in every way." Labor Secretary Brock, in determining whether the homework ban should be lifted, will have to decide exactly what exploitation is—and when low-paying work is better than none at all.

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