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Out of Sight Reading Group I – Introduction

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Clara Lemlich. (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University.)

Hello and welcome to the 1st OS virtual online reading group thing. Today we’ll cover the Introduction, but if you haven’t read it, don’t be shy, feel free to join in.

A couple of days ago I sent Loomis a few questions to start things off. I believe he’s around now (Hello?) if you want to ask him about the Introduction. If we could keep the ketchup/vodka/dead horse comments to a minimum … Ah who am I kidding? You all will do what you want.

Here are two of the questions, his answers are below the break. Thanks again to everyone for taking part.

  1. You write “Nothing spurred meaningful reform until wealthy and powerful New Yorkers saw workers die.” And you also write about the way imagery (dying wildlife, burning rivers) spurred change in the U.S. Why do you think the images of the Rana disaster and the testimony of survivors didn’t have the same impact?
  2. You’re very frank about the fact that jobs that left the U.S. will not come back. That being the case, why should someone like a person who’s just been laid off by U.S. Steel care?


1. Fundamentally, the answer is that most people didn’t see them. Rana Plaza did not receive that much U.S. news coverage. When Americans are genuinely exposed to terrible things happening internationally, they will act to some extent.

For example, consider the charity relief given by Americans after the Haitian earthquake. Regardless of charity’s effectiveness, everyday Americans were genuinely moved and wanted to help. Newshounds knew about Rana Plaza. People watching CNN likely muttered, “oh, that’s terrible” to their spouse over dinner if coverage of it came on. But there just wasn’t anymore than that. And given the lack of coverage on international issues in the United States, it’s hardly surprising. This benefits the corporations outsourcing production to factories like Rana Plaza. We can’t even find Bangladesh on a map. Forget about understanding what is going on there. The farther that production is out of sight, the less likely we are to act.

2. Why should that steel worker care? I’m not going to go to that unemployed steel worker and say “hey, here’s what you should know about why you lost your job” if I don’t have an immediate solution to help that worker find a new job. The last thing timber workers needed in the 1980s was people from Portland saying “hey, here’s this whole new Oregon economy you can find a job in!”

But let me put it a somewhat different way. I have a well-meaning colleague who works on international economic issues. A local union hall asked him to talk to them about the global economy. He went and was like, “all these poor people in Bangladesh have jobs now so really it’s OK that American workers don’t have these jobs anymore.” This is of course a common argument made in our comment sections by proselytizers of globalization. My colleague couldn’t understand why they didn’t like what he had to say. Well, duh! It’s all too easy for workers who don’t have a lot of education or a lot of time or inclination to understand the global economy to blame people in Mexico or China for stealing their jobs. But that’s counterproductive.

What we have to do is articulate actual alternatives to the global race to the bottom that give workers hope and a concrete plan for the future. And no, a slightly expanded earned income tax credit is not enough. We have to have plans for people to have jobs both in the United States and in Bangladesh. In my view, the only way to do this is to strip away large parts of the incentive for capital mobility by creating corporate responsibility no matter where they move. This may not be sufficient to create a stable working class in the United States either, I don’t know. But it’s a necessary component of whatever that solution is ultimately going to be.

So by telling that steel worker, “Here’s the problem. Here’s how you are getting screwed. Here’s how the company is screwing over everyone. Here’s how we stop them.” it’s at least trying to move this anger the steel worker has in a constructive direction.

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  • Jordan

    Really liked the book, Erik. Couple of questions:

    1) It seems like there are two benefits to corporations for relocating jobs to different nations (there are others, of course). One is avoiding domestic legislation and regulations and unions. Another is that it places those jobs “out of sight”, with the resulting political benefits that you talk about. Do you think this second benefit was intentional, or did it mostly just occur as an unhappy accidental consequence of capital mobility?

    2) Your discussion of the triangle factory disaster concentrated on one terrible event in close physical proximity to local elites resulting in change. Your discussion of 1970s environmental regulation included a discussion of a number of different spread out events such as the santa barbara oil spill, the cuyahoga river burning, smog in la and denver, and so on. Is this second type of situation going to be more likely to produce domestic change in the current climate? I.e., even something as terrible as the bangladeshi factory collapse is insufficient to motivate much of a mass response, but if we were to see a continued pattern (which exists, of course, but we might not really be seing it) that would lead to domestic change? Or is this a dumb question?

    3) Do we really not know the name of the Time reporter who did the cuyahoga river story?

    Great book again, really enjoyed reading it.

    • 1) At times it is intentional. In some ways, it’s easier to see this working within the United States than outside, especially in the meat industry. Most of our industrial meat production (with exceptions like the big CAFO operation west of Amarillo along I-40) is pretty hidden from consumers. You really have to go find these cattle operations in Kansas and Nebraska or pork and chicken megafarms in places like eastern North Carolina. There are several reasons for the placement of agribusiness operations in those places, including keeping it away from consumers. The connections are more stark in the processing facilities which used to be union shops in places like Chicago. But in the 50s, for a variety of reasons explored in Shane Hamilton’s excellent book Trucking Country, business in conjunction with the Eisenhower Administration decided to bust the unions and move the operations to rural places. One of the advantages quickly became that the workers were more exploitable and no one would complain. Even locals don’t complain much because of the lack of local economic options.

      The shorter answer is that sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it is an unexpected benefit. Today, it is often both. And agribusiness is working to keep it that way with the ag-gag bills that would criminalize knowledge of what is happening inside those meat production facilities.

      2) There’s no question that modern media–including cell phones–has tremendous power to spur change and I think that it’s far more likely that Santa Barbara style incidents splayed across the media is a lot more likely to create that change today than the actual physical witnessing of events. Triangle was pretty unusual, even for the time, in that the sweatshop was hidden in plain sight of the nation’s elite, being on the Lower East Side. NYU professors in their tall buildings were already reporting to the city that the conditions in that factory were unsafe before the fire because they could just look across the street. That’s uncommon, to say the least. The most obvious example today is the power of videos of police violence to create protest. The police have been beating on black people for 400 years but today, where everyone has their own video camera on their phone, we can spread that information around the world in a heartbeat. That’s tremendously powerful.

      3) I’m sure the information could be found if one looked through archives. But the brief story with the iconic picture from the 1952 fire does not have an author’s name.

      • Jordan

        1) Ok, great example for the agricultural business. I guess I was just wondering to what extent say, apparel manufacturers were going overseas for lower labor costs and avoiding regulations and unions and to what extent they were actually tying to avoid western consumer attention.

        2) Do you think this modern media thing can work for overseas worker rights issues? I totally agree with you about the police issue, but that is still *close*. Even if we get lots of videos of terrible factory results in asia or africa, are those places just too far away to generate domestic support for something other than a haiti earthquake or southeast asia tsunami type of thing?

        3) Fair enough, was just wondering.

        • I think in the case of the apparel companies, obscuring the work is more a nice feature than the prime reason. But employers are inventing all sorts of new ways to make employment as opaque as possible for outsiders or even workers to understand, whether it is the system of subcontracting and modern supply chains or its Toyota plants in Kentucky hiring “temporary” workers to labor alongside permanent workers for years at far lower wages doing the exact same work or it is McDonald’s franchising operations while controlling the actual decisions that affect the bottom line.

          I do think it can work for overseas issues, but it’s harder. However, there’s no question that if you put the images in front of Americans enough, they can act. It’s not like we are totally heartless to all disasters overseas. The Haiti earthquake saw a ton of genuine heartfelt giving from Americans, even if it wasn’t always funneled to actual Haitians. And the sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s was a point where people did see what was going in those factories and acted. It’s not like we need a huge movement around these issues, although that’d be great. What we need is some hardcore activists who are willing to apply pressure to make changes where that pressure can be applied, such as how United Students Against Sweatshops has pressured universities to ensure licensed clothing is made in humane conditions.

          • What we need is some hardcore activists who are willing to apply pressure to make changes where that pressure can be applied, such as how United Students Against Sweatshops has pressured universities to ensure licensed clothing is made in humane conditions.

            Speaking of hardcore, I just wanted to say thanks for introducing me to Clara Lemlich.

            I love that she helped the orderlies at her nursing home form a union.

            • She’s pretty much one of the great badasses of American history.

          • Jordan

            Ok, thanks for the multiple responses! This helps clarify it for me: we have corporations moving to avoid regulations/legislation/unions, we have corporations moving (not necessarily abroad) to avoid public attention, and we have corporations acting to diffuse and deflect actual employer responsibilities. Of course, many times it will be two of these or even all three. But it is three different motivations for what is going on that you are talking about, one of which doesn’t even require relocation at all. Thanks, again.

            I guess I kind of think situations like the Haiti earthquake (or the southeast asia tsunami, which I think had a lot of the same things happen) have a lot to do with that they are gigantic, one-time disasters. So while its true that we aren’t totally heartless to disasters overseas, I guess I’m not sure if those types of responses apply to more slow-rolling disasters like sweatshop labor conditions.

            You have the difference of “one gigantic disaster, all at one time” and you have the difference of “one specific thing” that many people may not necessarily link up. They may mutter about how terrible rana was, and then mutter about how terrible apple subcontractors can be, as they muttered about how terrible nike child laborers were a while ago, and so on. But they might not really automatically link those up in the same way?

            I mean, I guess this is why you need people like Students Against Sweatshops (I was an incredibly minor supporter of my university’s campaign). But it seems that their success has as much to do with the (relatively) soft targets of university apparel brands as it did with anything else? (Of course, all the better for them, to act where they can be most effective). Or am I being a dumb asshole here?

  • In the book you argue that global capitalism relies on a three mutually reinforcing elements: capital mobility, worker exploitation, and pollution. Do you think addressing one reduces capitalism’s power to do the others? Why or why not, and what led you to that conclusion? Especially with regards to pollution, which I’ve rarely seen linked with the first two issues.

    I guess I’m wondering if you have any sort of coherent theory of capitalism and/or history, or if you focus on individual problems without concerning yourself if there’s some sort of grand narrative.

    • Great question!

      I think that reducing capital mobility definitely can improve the other two. When you have an industry that is exploiting workers it is probably polluting and when you have an industry that is polluting, it is probably exploiting workers. Now, I would caution that if you look at the mid-twentieth century, this is not necessarily true as there were many unionized shops that were polluting like crazy. But that was before the rise of an environmental consciousness in people and the decision made by the American public that unregulated pollution is bad. In today’s globalized economy, I don’t think there are any significant situations where pollution and worker exploitation are not hand-in-hand, whether happening or not.

      As a scholar and popular writer, I would say my primary goal is helping people understand the interlocking issues of labor and environment. That’s what Empire of Timber is about in the Northwest logging industry and that’s what so much of Out of Sight is about. Much like I think it is a folly to try and separate race and class into discrete categories, I think it is a folly to separate the other two categories and environment. That requires perhaps a slight rethinking of what environment means away from strictly wilderness and trees to the common air we breathe and water we drink, but that has been and should always be central to any definition of environmentalism.

      As far as a grand narrative goes, I guess the first chapter of Out of Sight is about as far as I’d say I’d go right now. We’ll get to that next but that was my attempt to provide a very brief history of American capitalism and how people have stood up to it. I would not say that I am a theorist in any special way so I am unlikely to try and be the next Piketty or Marx or whatnot.

  • Nick Conway

    Hey Erik, loved the book,

    You’ve mentioned the Coalition of Immokalee Workers before, they’ve been using the consumer boycott to get multinational corporations like Mcdonalds, Taco Bell, Walmart, etc. to sign onto their “Fair Food Program” to boost farm workers wages and protect their rights down the supply chain. Families Unidad Por La Justicia is attempting something similar in Washington, with a boycott of Driscolls berries. Their campaign recently crossed international lines by allying with striking workers in San Quintin, with both groups pushing for union representation.

    I know that interest in boycotts often peters out pretty quickly, but the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been boycotting different companies since about 2001 I believe, going down the list of fast food and grocery store companies and forcing them to join the program. It seems like the strongest and longest-lasting boycott since the UFW grape/lettuce boycotts.

    Basically my question is, do you think consumer boycotts could be a viable strategy to increase workers rights in the absence of legislation (or as a way to build a constituency for legislation on capital mobility and workers rights) in other areas beyond US farmworkers rights?

    • I think consumer power can work if it is geared toward institutional change and if it is connected with a particular movement of exploited people. In other words, the CIW has done wonderful work. And groups like the Harry Potter Alliance, which has worked to get ethical sourcing of Harry Potter-themed items is really good as well because it is connecting with groups on the ground. Where consumer activism becomes a bit more problematic is when it is about the consumer instead of about the exploited worker. That’s where you run into the pesticide situation where consumers and workers both protested about being poisoned by pesticides and growers and chemical companies responded by developing nonpersistent pesticides that hit the crop hard and fast and then disappear. By the time those crops get to the store, they are no longer dangerous for the consumer. What that has done is eliminate consumer protests over pesticides but those new pesticides are even more poisonous to the workers than the old ones. But the consumers don’t really care about that because it doesn’t affect them.

      So I’d say that consumer activism is a positive but it works better when it is not strictly about the consumer.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        do you *know* that the consumer knows the chemicals are more toxic to the worker and doesn’t care? is this part of the research?

        • No, but I do know that consumer activism disappeared over these issues once consumers were no longer affected.

  • Jhoosier

    I don’t know what’s been spurring people towards this, but lately I’ve been seeing these issues pop up in unrelated places. The YouTube channel Extra Credits just did a video devoted to how consoles are made, specifically where raw materials come from, factory conditions, and what companies are doing about it. They make a lot of good points which seem to jive with Erik’s recommendations. It’s a bit shallow, but that’s to be expected for a <9min video.

    • That is random. It’s like they created a School House Rock version of the book. (SHR comparisons are a compliment.)

      Even the comments are not the nightmare of flames and tentacles I’ve come to expect from YouTube.

    • Good!

      Why is this becoming a bigger deal now, I guess I don’t know. But I am glad.

      • Jhoosier

        Me too!

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