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Isle of Blight

W.’s sweatshop nominee

Patrick Pizzella has been many things in his career: director of intergovernmental and regional affairs at the Small Business Administration, deputy undersecretary at the Department of Education, a $175,000-per-year lobbyist at the firm Preston Gates. So when George W. Bush nominated him to be assistant secretary of labor for administration and management, the Senate perused his hefty CV and gave him its unanimous consent. To the Democratic eyes on Ted Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Pizzella seemed no different from the other lobbyists flooding the new administration. As one Democratic aide notes, “We can’t battle them all.”

But had Kennedy’s people paid closer attention to page 9 of Pizzella’s Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, they would have discovered that he is, in fact, quite exceptional, especially for a nominee to the Labor Department. For there, hidden in plain view, Pizzella notes that he provided “[g]eneral lobbying representation” for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Although they sound like a tropical paradise, the Mariana Islands are actually something close to the opposite. An American territory in the Pacific, just north of Guam, they have become a notorious haven for foreign-owned sweatshops in recent years. According to a 1998 report by a congressionally mandated task force, 91 percent of the Marianas’ private workforce consists of “indentured alien[s]” usually working to pay off fees their employers charged for resettling them in the islands. Describing coerced abortions, guarded labor barracks, and systematic underpayment, the task force labeled the islands a national “embarrassment.”

Blocking any federal regulations that might lessen that embarrassment was the goal of Pizzella’s “representation,” which lasted from 1996 to last year. It’s hard to imagine anyone you would want less in the top ranks of the department ostensibly dedicated to protecting workers’ rights.

For 30 years following their 1944 liberation from Japan by American GIs, no one in the United States paid much attention to the Marianas. Aside from the military bases they housed, the islands idled in the sun like a setting for a Graham Greene novel. The U.S. government sank about $90 million into building infrastructure in the islands and aiding their small indigenous populations, but that was about it.

Then, in 1975, the islands voted to become a U.S. commonwealth. In order to give the economy of the newly founded Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (cnmi) a much-needed shot in the arm, the Ford administration handed it an unprecedented deal. Marianas businesses would be allowed to ship products to the United States without quotas, tariffs, or duties. They could even sew the “Made in the USA” label into their products. But--and here’s the real coup--they wouldn’t have to adhere to American labor or immigration laws.

As the new arrangement went into effect, so did the laws of economics. Entrepreneurs from China, Taiwan, and South Korea rushed to set up factories for American clothiers (including J.Crew, Ralph Lauren, and Brooks Brothers) on Saipan, the most populous island in the Mariana archipelago. To make the blue jeans and oxford shirts, factory owners recruited heavily from the slums and farms of Asia. In the two decades following the 1975 treaty, the CNMI’s population increased by more than 250 percent. Fifteen thousand Chinese migrated to the island of Saipan alone. By the late ‘90s, the cnmi was sending $1 billion in textiles annually to the U.S. mainland.

When workers arrived, they found a grotesque parody of everything the name United States is supposed to represent. According to a 1997 federal report, “Violations of labor standards and other abuses appear common.... Chinese contract workers allegedly work under `shadow’ contracts signed in their home country that subvert their rights under the U.S. Constitution.... There are numerous reported cases of retaliation against workers filing complaints. Foreign contract workers report being victims of such crimes as rape, assault, and forced prostitution by those who have recruited them to work in the cnmi.” The feds even documented that many workers unwittingly signed contracts that “forbade the worker[s] from falling in love, having a baby, or protesting about labor conditions.”

The anecdotal evidence is equally disturbing. A 1998 article in Time magazine told the story of a 26-year-old Chinese woman named Li Li who worked 18-hour days in a factory cutting textiles: “At night she and 700 other workers were locked up in company barracks infested with rats and equipped with just one outside toilet for every 50 people. The residents were allowed out only on Sundays for a maximum of one hour. When she complained about conditions, according to her account, she and another female worker were beaten by factory foremen wielding heavy dressmaking scissors.” The abuse of the workers was so extensive that in 1986 the Reagan administration--not exactly known for its stellar enforcement of labor laws--sent a letter sternly reprimanding the cnmi. In 1995 the government of the Philippines--even less well-known for enforcing labor laws--banned new workers from going to the Marianas.

But it was something else that happened that year--the Senate’s vote to impose U.S. immigration laws on the islands--that finally made the cnmi get serious about influencing Washington. In an effort to prevent the immigration bill from becoming law, the islands’ government hired the law firm Preston Gates to lobby legislators in the House. More specifically, it hired the firm’s top lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, a longtime right-winger who viewed the Marianas assignment as an ideological crusade. In an interview with The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin last year, he compared federal regulation of the cnmi to the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws: “The[y] are immoral laws to destroy the economic lives of a people.” In assembling his team for the Marianas account, Abramoff plucked conservative lobbyists from key congressional offices--two came directly from Tom DeLay’s staff. He also picked Patrick Pizzella. Ask pizzella about his work for Preston Gates and he’ll call it “ancient history,” say “I don’t want to go down memory lane,” and note that he’s “not in a policy-making position regarding the Marianas.” But Pizzella’s history with the Marianas isn’t that ancient at all. Until a few months ago, Pizzella worked on the Marianas account, tasked with building sympathy for the cnmi within the conservative movement. It was an assignment to which he was well-suited, having spent his entire adult life in GOP circles. As a senior at the University of South Carolina, he’d hurried his graduation in order to help organize Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary campaign in Nebraska and Wisconsin. After Reagan became president, Pizzellabounced from agency to agency, accruing an array of conservative friends. “You would just always see him around,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Dan Mitchell.

Much of Pizzella’s coalition-building on behalf of the Marianas was typical Beltway networking. “He’d come to Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings to hawk his goods,” says one conservative. When cnmi officials came to Washington, Pizzella hosted dinners at downtown eateries like Sam & Harry’s steakhouse, where they met with conservative activists. But Pizzella also deployed a device considerably more persuasive than filet mignon: the fully paid tropical junket.

Between 1996 and 1998, Pizzella brought Republicans on regular jaunts to the islands--I spoke to eleven he’d personally invited. By The Wall Street Journal’s estimate, more than 100 representatives, congressional aides, and activists accepted Preston Gates’s invitations. Nor was it just Hill dwellers. Pizzella specialized in courting conservative intellectuals and journalists. In 1997 he organized a trip that included Clint Bolick (of the Institute for Justice), John Fund (of The Wall Street Journal), Kellyanne Conway (a pollster), Ron Bailey (of Reason), and Marc Lampkin (then general counsel to the House Republican Conference), among others. As one think-tank denizen told me: “If you were a conservative intellectual and you didn’t get invited, you just knew you weren’t cool.”

Pizzella’s guests flew first-class, dined at fine restaurants, and stayed at the beachfront Hyatt Regency, where they spent evenings lounging at the hotel’s bar. When DeLay visited the cnmi over New Year’s Eve in 1998, he played two rounds of golf at the Lao Lao Bay course.

But Pizzella also made sure the junkets played to his vacationers’ ideological predispositions. On the face of it, the Marianas development strategy wasn’t necessarily one conservatives would cheer. Anti-Communists might have been upset to learn that some of the islands’ garment manufacturers are indirectly owned by the Chinese government, which presumably uses the profits to fund its military. Social conservatives would have been troubled by anecdotes of coerced abortions. But Pizzella’s tours were carefully calibrated. For libertarians, they emphasized the islands’ lack of regulations. (“It is a perfect petri dish of capitalism,” DeLay has proclaimed.) For social conservatives, they highlighted the islands’ growing church population. Pizzellaeven arranged for Bolick, a staunch proponent of school choice, to meet government officials to discuss the CNMI’s interest in school vouchers. As David Cahn, a former consultant to the Marianas, puts it, “Pat’s very effective. Visitors to the island seemed to get all the right information.”

There are several ways to measure the work Preston Gates did on the Marianas’ behalf. For starters, consider the propaganda generated from just that one 1997 trip led by Pizzella. Bolick returned to defend the Marianas in editorials for Human Events and The Wall Street Journal. Bailey penned his fond observations of the island in The American Enterprise. And the Heritage Foundation’s Mitchell, another junketeer, wrote in The Washington Times that “Washington politicians should cease their assault on Saipan.” Another way would be to look at the firm’s billing--more than $8 million for the cnmi account over five years--or its own explanation of what that money bought. In a memo to the Hong Kong textile mogul Willie Tan, intercepted by The Washington Post in 1998, Abramoff wrote that, “thanks to past trips,” the cnmi had “many friends on the Appropriations Committees in the Congress.” But perhaps the best way to measure Abramoff’s and Pizzella’s work on behalf of the Marianas is this: Despite all the reports of abuses, Congress hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation to reform business practices there.

Considering the $70 million that unions spent on the Democrats’ behalf in 2000, it’s hardly surprising that the Bush administration’s early policies and appointments have been labor-unfriendly. The administration’s guiding principle, one transition official told U.S. News & World Report, is to “stick it to labor.” So ergonomics regulations have been revoked, and funding for a program to eliminate child labor abroad has been slashed by $15 million. Labor Department appointments have included Linda Chavez--whose selection seemed deliberately designed to razz labor--and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene, an orchestrator of business’s campaign to quash ergonomics regulations. And now Pizzella will oversee the department’s budget and organizational infrastructure.

What’s harder to fathom is labor’s lassitude in responding to this onslaught. When I mentioned Pizzella to Ann Hoffman, legislative director for unite, the textile workers’ union, she paused and then replied, “Wait, exactly who is this guy again?” Charles Mercer, of the afl-cio’s Union Label and Service Trades Department, said, “The name doesn’t ring a bell.” And Bill Samuel, a lobbyist for the afl-cio, told me, “We haven’t really looked into him.” Oops.