In an echo of the politically charged uproar that killed the Smithsonian Institution's planned 1995 exhibit on the dropping of the atom bomb, several apparel and retailing industry groups are protesting a new plan by the national museum for an exhibition displaying the slave-like conditions at the notorious El Monte apparel sweatshop.
The California Fashion Assn., which represents major clothing manufacturers in the Southland, on Wednesday condemned the exhibition as negative and unbalanced and claimed that it is unduly influenced by labor unions.
The group said it would try to block the Smithsonian's plan to unveil the display in Washington early next year and send it on tour around the country.
"The Smithsonian is taking a political position" by focusing on sweatshop conditions rather than the apparel industry's broader contributions to American life and commerce, said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the apparel trade group.
"We cannot stand idly by," she said, threatening to bring her complaints before Congress. "We want to turn this exhibit plan into another Enola Gay."
Metchek was referring to the controversy that erupted over a planned exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan by the B-29 nicknamed the Enola Gay.
The exhibit was canceled after veterans groups and some members of Congress complained that the project focused too much on Japanese suffering and an antinuclear message and not enough on Japan's war atrocities and the United States' strategic rationale.
The new show's co-curator called his program on the sweatshops "tremendously balanced."
"We wanted it to be as full a story as possible," said Peter Liebhold, a museum specialist at the Smithsonian. "[But] I knew from the start it would be difficult."
Among those voicing support for the program were such groups as the Los Angeles-based Thai Community Development Center, which helped the El Monte workers find new jobs, and Common Threads, a Southland activist group.
California Labor Commissioner Jose Millan, who oversees regulation of the state's apparel industry, also backed the exhibition.
"A lot of manufacturers don't want to see El Monte in an exhibit, but it's part of history," he said. "The lessons of the past should not be ignored. The industry should be taking steps to make sure an El Monte incident doesn't happen again and they can help ensure that by actively supporting this exhibit."
At the heart of the controversy is an exhibition dubbed "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present." The show is scheduled to open April 15 at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian's complex of museums on the Mall in Washington.
The $285,000 program's centerpiece will be a re-creation of portions of an El Monte apartment complex sweatshop where about 70 illegal Thai immigrants were discovered in 1995 working in peonage to sew garments for brand-name apparel makers and retailers. The display will include two work stations and numerous artifacts from the notorious sweatshop, as well as a videotaped narrative by former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich.
The planned exhibit will also delve into such broader issues as the historic relationship between immigration and sweatshops and how the pressure of low-priced imports leads some domestic contractors to underpay workers to stay competitive.
Liebhold said in an interview that he tried to avoid controversy over the program by inviting retail and apparel trade groups to contribute videos and other displays on "good industry practices" to remind visitors that many garments in the marketplace are not produced in sweatshops.
But one leading trade group, the Washington-based American Apparel Manufacturers Assn., turned down the invitation because "anything centered on El Monte will only reinforce negative images of the industry," in the words of Allison Wolf, a spokeswoman for the group.
Another trade group, the Washington-based National Retail Federation, said it feared the graphic immediacy of the El Monte display would overwhelm any positive material the industry could provide.
"They wanted a videotaped statement from a retail representative giving our position," said National Retail Federation spokeswoman Pamela Rucker. "You would have memorabilia and human suffering on one hand, and a talking head on the other. That's not balanced."
Industry officials also contended that the plan for the exhibition largely reflected the viewpoint of apparel labor unions, which they feared would use the display to further their organizing efforts.
"Why should we put ourselves in the position to be manipulated by the unions?" said Wolf.
Liebhold denied that the unions exercised "an undue influence" over the program.
"I've sought support and involvement from all areas--foundations, corporations and unions," he said. "I suspect the trade groups are not excited about the topic."
Liebhold said he would continue to seek involvement by retailers and apparel manufacturers--many of which are leaders in the effort to eradicate sweatshops--despite the opposition of trade groups. He said the project already has enough funding--mostly from the U.S. Department of Labor and the apparel labor union UNITE--to mount the exhibit at the Smithsonian, but that an additional $150,000 will have to be raised to send it on tour to museums in four to six U.S. cities.
"I'd like to highlight the constructive contributions of the industry," he said. "It makes it more difficult when they walk away."
Union officials say the opposition of the trade groups suggests that the industry is not serious about addressing the sweatshop issue.
"It seems the trade groups don't want to be on same stage as the union--and that's part of the problem," said Jo Ann Mort, a UNITE spokeswoman. "El Monte happened because of the terrible conditions in Southern California's apparel industry. Southern California is more plagued by sweatshops than any other apparel manufacturing center."
For his part, the Smithsonian's Liebhold said he hopes the controversy can be defused before it becomes as politicized as the fight over the Enola Gay exhibit.
"We're dealing with a piece of history that has a current-day component," he said. "As long as we presume that sweatshops are an issue we should examine, we're doing a good job. If this is an issue we don't want to talk about, perhaps [the trade groups] have a point."