Date of Award

May 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Robert S. Smith


20th Century, Solidarity, Sweatshops, Women


This dissertation examines the ebb and flow between the purveyors of sweatshops and their activist opponents. I identify three different moments in the 20th century when activists succeeded in creating a mainstream movement to fight for worker justice by applying pressure to industry, consumers, and lawmakers. During the late Progressive Era, Great Depression, and neoliberal era, cross-class alliances formed to challenge capital's desire to maximize their profits. The solidarity demonstrated by these alliances provides important examples of the power that consumers hold when using market-based activism against business interests.

By examining the solidarity movements and their subsequent backlash, I aim to provide insight into the constant struggle over sweatshops in which business elites and activists tried to outwit each other. My research focuses on the activism of the National Consumers' League, Women's Trade Union League, League of Women Shoppers, Sweatshop Watch, National Labor Committee, and United Students Against Sweatshops. These groups used their members' privileges to support workers during labor disputes, establish labor laws and independent monitoring of workplaces, and to influence consumers to make ethical purchasing decisions. While sweatshops never disappeared during the 20th century, activists achieved tangible gains that challenged capital's autonomy and profits. Industry, government, and the courts responded by colluding to repress dissenting voices and find new environments where sweatshops could thrive. The solidarity activism examined here offers important examples of cross-class alliances between the most vulnerable workers and members of the self-described "comfortable class," who used their privilege to highlight workers' actions by shining a light on the harshest elements of industrial capitalism.

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