Unionmade is an upscale men's clothing store, based in San Francisco and celebrated by GQ, that sells $258 "Vintage Styled Work Shirts" and $68 Cow Horn Combs and $565 "Vintage" Levi Jeans, and things of that nature. The company says that it "aims to improve the lives of our customers, community and suppliers by offering fairly priced products made from the best available materials." You might want to know, however, that Unionmade's products are not union made.
We live in an age in which organized labor is on the decline—a fact that makes the remaining unions all the more important. The people who care about unions, labor, and workers rights know this. They make up quite a committed support base. If they think they have found a fellow traveler—a popular retailer that supports the cause—they will make it a point to support that retailer. Which brings us to Unionmade. We would never have heard of them, except for the fact that twice in the past few months we have gotten emails from people who were excited to finally go out and shop at a store that supports unions, only to have those illusions shattered.
First, we heard from a woman who emailed Unionmade saying that she wanted to buy a present for her dad, a Teamster. They informed her that, no, their goods are not actually union made—"The name UNIONMADE is an overarching concept and narrative for the store, signifying that we strive to carry well made and aesthetically timeless goods." A rather unsatisfying explanation for a term that already has a well understood explanation.
Then, we heard from another disappointed would-be customer, who wrote:
There is a store (and website) in San Francisco that calls itself "Union Made Goods" (http://www.unionmadegoods.com/). As a member of a union household, I was initially excited to learn about the store, as I try to buy union-made goods as much as possible. Unfortunately, when I inquired by email whether the store called Union Made Goods does in fact sell union-made goods, I was disappointed to learn that the name is merely an "homage to a time in our history when products were crafted with care, quality, longevity, and respect to the people that made them." The email went on to say "we try to carry products that represent the "Union Made" ideals of yesteryear as it is virtually impossible to curate a store entirely of union labor made products."
While I support the store's effort to 'curate' its inventory with products that are crafted with care, etc., the name of the store seems pretty fraudulent and insulting. "Union made" is not just an "ideal of yesteryear." There are websites out there that sell goods that were actually made by union members, under the protection of a union contract. See, e.g., http://www.unionlabel.com/. As many workers that you've written about can attest, collective bargaining through a union representative remains an important path to a living wage and basic protections for employees. It's something that many people fight hard for, today.
That sums up the point well. If you want to have an attractively curated store that sells insanely overpriced clothes designed to mimic the clothes that poor people wore a century ago, fine. But calling your store "Unionmade" (and modeling your logo on the AFL-CIO's) while not selling union made goods is just as asinine and insulting as calling your store "Americanmade" while selling things manufactured in China. It's blatantly misleading. It's fraudulent. It's the fashion equivalent of a TV preacher using Jesus love for the poor as a selling point to line his own pockets. On the other hand, subjugating the meaning of a real, serious political issue that affects millions of people's lives to the fact that you like the vibe of the sound of the name of it seems perfectly in character for a store that sells luxury-priced 1890s miners clothes to affluent people who will wear them while sitting inside their air-conditioned advertising agency office job.
We emailed Unionmade about this, and received the following response:
You are correct, though some of the brands we carry are union made, many are not. The unfortunate reality is that there are not many unions left in the garment industry and so the name was cultivated as a signifier of well-made and aesthetically timeless goods. There have been customers that take issue with the store's name and we certainly understand and respect their opinion, though by and large the majority of our customers understand the use of the name as an overarching narrative of the store. This being that we strive to carry well-made items that will age well in regard to both wear from use and stylistically.
At this rate, your $1,085 Unionmade military jacket will last longer than unions will.