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New Frontiers in the Global Race to the Bottom

[ 13 ] July 21, 2015 |

Myanmar-Cigar-Factory

Labor in Bangladesh is not cheap enough for the apparel industry. Time to move to Myanmar, so long as the government–a group of military leaders not precisely known for taking the poor into consideration–doesn’t raise the minimum wage to a shockingly high 40 cents an hour.

In the last few years, top Western clothing retailers such as Gap, H&M, Marks and Spencer Group PLC and Primark Stores Ltd. have signed contracts with more than a dozen garment factories in Myanmar, the former British colony also known as Burma. The country emerged from decades of military dictatorship in 2011 and major U.S. and European sanctions shortly thereafter. It now offers some of the cheapest labor costs on the planet combined with easy access to Asian markets — both attractive features for corporations looking to source low-cost, ready-made garments for export.

Last summer, Gap raised eyebrows when it became the first American apparel company to publicly sign a contract in Myanmar since President Barack Obama eased sanctions. At the time, Gap said, “The apparel industry will play a key role in helping to fuel the economic prosperity of the country.”

But if garment-factory bosses get their way, comparatively little of that newfound wealth will flow to workers.

The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, representing about 350 factories, says the government’s proposed wage is too high and will force employers out of business. It wants its own industry-specific rate of about $2 a day instead. Starting pay in factories currently hovers around $1 a day.

An association official recalled a meeting two weeks ago that brought together representatives of about 160 factories, including the owners of plants that supply Gap and H&M, to discuss the government’s wage proposal. “At one point, we did a roll call vote to see a show of hands, who would say basically they couldn’t afford to pay it, and every hand went up,” says the group’s project manager Jacob Clere, reached on the phone in Yangon, the nation’s largest city and garment-manufacturing hub. “In terms of the membership, they’re all saying they can’t afford to pay it.”

That sentiment contrasts sharply with the repeated public assurances of brands that say they are committed to improving labor standards in Myanmar.

What I love about how the garment industry is framing this is by saying that the apparel contractors can’t pay this minimum wage. Not letting them off the hook here, but the real issue is that Gap, Walmart, Primark, etc., won’t pay enough per garment to allow them to pay that higher wage. Again, let’s be clear where most of the power resides in the global apparel industry–with the big western companies doing the contracting. The garment owners may often be awful people who treat employees with unnecessary cruelty. But they are most certainly operating with very thin profit margins thanks to the cost standards imposed upon them by the western companies. They are the ones that need to be held culpable. This is why we need international standards on wages, conditions, and other facts of work in the global garment trade, precisely so that a nation like Myanmar can pay their workers 40 cents an hour without the garment companies having all the leverage to defeat it.

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High Standards

[ 272 ] July 20, 2015 |

It’s nice that the National Review can run articles insinuating that Bernie Sanders is a Nazi, or I’m sorry, a national socialist. Quite the respectable publication with really high standards for publication there.

As for Sanders and Black Lives Matter at Netroots Nation, well, that was pretty ridiculous all the way around and probably doesn’t really mean much of anything as far as the election is concerned. However, he was pretty roundly embarrassed there and I didn’t quite expect him to act like an amateur. There were clear responses to that kind of protest–like affirming the protestors, even if Netroots Nation needs to do a much better job of policing the room–and he and his staffers failed.

Out of Sight in Brooklyn

[ 40 ] July 20, 2015 |

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Time for another round of Out of Sight promotion! Specifically, I wanted to let all our New York readers know that on Wednesday, July 29, at 7 pm, I will be having a book event at Local 61 in Brooklyn. It will be a conversation with Sarah Jaffe about Out of Sight, outsourcing, and possibly dead horses, who knows. Other than listening to me ramble and meeting Sarah, there are two additional reasons why you should come. First, Local 61 is also a bar with a good tap selection. Second, the event will be filmed by CSPAN for its BookTV channel. So that’s pretty cool. That may mean I shouldn’t be drinking that tasty beer during the conversation. Or maybe I should! So if you are in the area, come on out!

I will also soon have announcements for an event in Cambridge, and hopefully one or two more for you residents of the Keystone state.

I’ll also mention that the book is now discounted on Amazon to a Jamestown starvation price of $16.08 so, you know, Christmas is coming.

…Also, I was on the Heartland Labor Forum out of Kansas City last week. Here’s the interview if you want to listen.

This Day in Labor History: July 19, 1972

[ 65 ] July 19, 2015 |

On July 19, 1972, the AFL-CIO announced its decision not to endorse George McGovern for president. This astounding decision helped doom the already floundering McGovern campaign, helping to guarantee another victory for Richard Nixon. It also placed a permanent divide between non-labor progressives in the Democratic Party and the labor movement, one that still has not been fully bridged today. The story is actually more complicated than is usually stated, because in fact a lot of unions strongly supported McGovern.

For George Meany, George McGovern and his supporters were offensive on a number of levels. First, McGovern represented the Democratic Party in revolt, the hippies who protested inside the disastrous ’68 Chicago DNC. In the aftermath, with rules changes to the Democratic Party structure to make it more democratic, the power of the AFL-CIO leadership within the Party was challenged, even as there was room for more rank and file participation. But worse for Meany, McGovern didn’t support the Vietnam War. George Meany was a cold warrior’s cold warrior. He used his power as head of the federation to undermine socialism around the world and promote CIA activities, including, at the beginning of his tenure as AFL chief, supporting the overthrow of Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz. Meany thought the Vietnam War was a righteous war. And that would make him hate McGovern.

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There was another issue at play–the endless rivalry between Meany and the old CIO unions. Walter Reuther was dead by this time, but Meany and Reuther hated each other and what each stood for. Meany was highly concerned that the new social liberalism of the Democratic Party grassroots would empower the Reutherites both in the labor movement and in society as a whole. So undermining the social democratic unions in a new grassroots oriented Democratic Party was also on his mind.

George McGovern had a reasonably strong background in labor. He wrote his first book on the Colorado coal wars that culminated in the Ludlow Massacre. But McGovern’s record was not perfect, and that included on some of the most important labor legislation of his term. First, while in Congress, he voted for the Landrum-Griffin Act. Second, in 1966, he voted against the repeal of Section 14(b) the Taft-Hartley Act. The latter especially is pretty bad. That’s the provision that allows states to enact right to work legislation. Yet in the end, COPE, which was the AFL-CIO political arm, noted that McGovern voted with labor 93.5% of the time, about the same as Ed Muskie, if less than Hubert Humphrey, who was an outstanding supporter of unions. In any case, it wasn’t a record that should have lead to the AFL-CIO ditching him once he had won the domination. One can argue, as Jefferson Cowie has in Staying Alive, that the vote to overturn 14(b) would have hurt him in South Dakota where such a vote would have no support. Possibly, although I think Cowie, is excusing McGovern’s vote here to make a point against Meany. But, to his credit, McGovern openly said that if elected, he would fight to overturn 14(b). And as Cowie also points out, Meany’s good friend Lyndon Johnson had voted for Taft-Hartley in the first place so this was all a frame job against McGovern, a fair enough charge. And in any case, McGovern’s labor record was a hell of a lot better than Richard Nixon’s.

So Meany went to work on the AFL-CIO to not endorse McGovern. That wasn’t all that hard, really. First, Meany himself supported Nixon. Second, a lot of the building trades also supported Nixon. That didn’t mean that the federation was going to endorse Nixon; far from it. But it did mean neutrality, which was a huge and very public blow to McGovern. At the AFL-CIO convention a week before the announcement, Meany worked openly to achieve this result. Even before it was made official on July 19, the newspapers were filled with articles that this was going to happen. And in fact, Meany ruled the day, with the neutrality vote passing 27-3 in the AFL-CIO executive council.

Interestingly, McGovern’s second choice for the vice-presidential candidate, after Ted Kennedy, was United Auto Workers president Leonard Woodcock. By this time, the UAW had withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taken out by Reuther in 1968 over Vietnam and a variety of other policies. So it’s far from clear that had Woodcock accepted whether this would have done anything more than infuriate Meany. But while Woodcock was interested, there was a lot of feeling within the UAW that this was inappropriate for a union head and he declined.

There was significant discontent within the labor movement over Meany’s tactics. A lot of unions, especially the industrial unions, were furious with him over it. They thought McGovern would be great and fully supported him. The United Auto Workers, the International Association of Machinists, AFSCME, and a lot of less powerful unions like the International Woodworkers of America fought hard for McGovern. Thirty-three unions, representing a majority of unionized workers in the United States, ultimately officially endorsed McGovern.

McGovern also visited that site of 1972 rebellion against both corporations and staid union leaders, Lordstown, Ohio, where his genial rebellion was received very positively with the young rank and file UAW members rebelling against the boredom of their jobs and what they saw as staid union leadership. But it was all too little by far and of course McGovern was crushed that fall.

Unfortunately, this complexity within the labor movement over the McGovern decision gets lost in a general narrative that between Meany’s support for Vietnam, his hatred of McGovern, and a couple of isolated incidents where “hardhats beat hippies,” labor cannot be trusted by other progressives. It’s a cherry picking narrative that is really problematic and needs severe revision. Those incidents are true enough and George Meany was terrible, not only for what he did to McGovern, but to the labor movement as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that labor itself can’t be trusted because of some actions over 40 years ago. Rather, it means that organized labor has had some terrible leadership over the years, but that the union movement has always included some forward-thinking people who have done a great deal of good for social and economic justice everywhere. And that’s should be a lot more important today that George Meany’s call in the presidential election of 1972.

This is the 152nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The South or the Nation?

[ 520 ] July 18, 2015 |

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Tom Sugrue is a great historian and he makes excellent points in this op-ed about how racism is not just a southern problem but a national problem. But let’s face it, this is an overstated case. Even if everything he says about the North is true, and it pretty much is, Dylann Roof still shot up a church in Charleston, South Carolina (Denmark Vesey’s church no less), it is southern states that are seeking to disfranchise African-Americans in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act and it’s also southern states denying the Supreme Court’s verdict on gay marriage, executing African-Americans in racist criminal injustice systems, and where the last die-hards going to the mat for the Confederate flag are hanging on.

Yes, racism is a national problem. No, the North and the West are hardly immune from the horrors of white supremacy. But yes, these problems are worse in the South and it’s important to recognize where the front line of the civil rights struggle remains.

Clark

[ 65 ] July 18, 2015 |

General_Wesley_Clark_official_photograph,_edited

Remember the days when we Democrats were supposed to listen to Wesley Clark? Yeah…..

But I do think on a national policy level we need to look at what self-radicalization means because we are at war with this group of terrorists. They do have an ideology. In World War II if someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.

So, if these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States, as a matter of principle fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict. And I think we’re going to have to increasingly get tough on this, not only in the United States but our allied nations like Britain, Germany and France are going to have to look at their domestic law procedures.

Oh, OK. That’s the kind of progressive leadership we need today. Why couldn’t we have elected Clark instead of that far, far to the right of Richard Nixon sellout Barack Obama?

Sun Ra Films

[ 15 ] July 17, 2015 |

I realized that some of you have probably never seen any of the Sun Ra films. Allow me to alleviate this serious problem in your life.

Prison for Wage Theft

[ 66 ] July 17, 2015 |

papa-johns

A great start in New York fighting wage theft:

On Wednesday, the owner of nine Papa John’s franchises in New York City pled guilty to the first criminal case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman against a fast food franchisee over wage theft.

According to court documents, including company records obtained by the attorney general’s office, Abdul Jamil Khokhar, the franchisee, and BMY Foods Inc. paid its 300 current and former workers the same base rate for any hours they worked after putting in 40 a week, which under law should be paid time-and-a-half. To get away with paying less, they allegedly paid overtime hours in cash and created fake names for the employees in the timekeeping system. They then filed fraudulent tax returns that left out the cash payments made to employees under the false names.

Khokhar’s sentencing is set for September 21, when he faces 60 days in jail. He also faces paying the employees $230,000 in back wages as well as an additional $230,000 in damages and $50,000 in civil penalties.

BMY Foods Inc. declined to comment. A Papa John’s spokesperson said in an emailed statement, “Papa John’s is aware of the recent incident involving one of our New York franchisees who was taken into custody this morning. These allegations do not reflect our position as a company. We have a strong track record of compliance with the law. We do not condone the actions of any franchisee that violates the law. This particular franchisee has divested itself of most of its restaurants and is in the process of exiting the system. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and take appropriate action.”

More of this. And Papa John’s itself needs to be held legally liable. Franchising exists in no small part so corporate doesn’t have to have any legal accountability for what happens in their stores. They control what they care about and let the little things like workers be on the backs on the franchisee. It’s a model that exists to help the corporation. One way it helps them is provide legal distance from the actual conditions of work. That has to change, and there has been recent signs that it is changing. We already know that Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter is a terrible human being who likes to keep his labor as poor as possible. I don’t know if Schneiderman can go farther up the food chain, but imprisoning a franchisee for wage theft is a good start.

Florida Courthouse

[ 89 ] July 17, 2015 |

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Civil War reenactment, Baker County, Florida

It’s nice that not only does the Baker County, Florida have a courthouse mural heroically portraying the Ku Klux Klan, but that said mural was painted in 2001.

Since we all know our racist past and modern politics are totally unrelated, I’ll just note that Baker County was Mitt Romney’s second strongest showing in the state, winning it 79-20.

The Politics of Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class

[ 136 ] July 17, 2015 |

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Above: Not the middle class

The state of mainstream country music is, to say the least, a mixed bag. The Nashville radio formula that has dominated the art form for over twenty years creates same-sounding singers who try to best each other in paeans to fun with the boys down by the creek with their wholesome girlfriends or wives alongside. Of course, a lot of alternative country, whatever that means in 2015, is great, but most of that does not tap into a mainstream audience.

Yet even if much of what comes out of Nashville is bad, perhaps no cultural form provides a better window into the state of the white working and middle classes than country music. For all the music’s current cheesiness, the genre has long represented the yearnings and politics of the everyday whites who listen to it. The demographics may have changed from the rural South in the 1930s to the suburbanites who make its listenership today, but the lyrical content has always intended to appeal to a large swathe of workaday whites, whether Tennessee farmers in 1932, southern migrants to Detroit factory jobs in 1956, or Charlotte suburban residents in 2015.

Most on the left usually ignores country music, seeing it as a mire of right-wing resentment best avoided, shunned, and ridiculed. This attitude betrays snobbishness toward working class people to the sound of the banjos in Deliverance. There’s no question that country music, like the southern white working class where it originated, has a deep conservatism. The banjo player Earl Scruggs was called the only man in country music who voted for George McGovern in 1972; his old partner Lester Flatt was more typically writing songs about hippies with lines such as “I can’t tell the boys from the girls.” From the string band pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson playing a role in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank to the cheap jingoism of Toby Keith and his bro knockoffs, the left has rarely had reason to take country music seriously as an art form that expressed the potential for solidarity.

That doesn’t mean country music hasn’t had its left-populist streaks. Going back at least to Roy Acuff’s “Old Age Pension Check,” a celebration of Social Security that venerates Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the music has occasionally reflected a politics of universal improvement that suggests a bit of class-consciousness. But more often, the politics of resentment has taken over. For all that people have attempted to explain away Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” by saying it tells his father’s side of the hippie story (especially since Haggard was definitely smoking marijuana in Muskogee), “Fighting Side of Me,” his follow-up hit that attacked Vietnam protestors, is just ugly and awful. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the nastiness of the country music response to the protests of the 1960s, which created a whole subgenre of songs dedicated to hating hippies, perhaps personified in Autry Inman’s “The Ballad of Two Brothers,” contrasting an older brother fighting in Vietnam to his worthless hippie brother protesting in the streets, who only learns how he has betrayed American values after the brother dies in Vietnam. During these years, popular country music became a vehicle for expressing white working class contempt for anti-war protestors and hippies, even as hippies such as Gram Parsons broadened its horizons and sympathetic figures such as Johnny Cash complicated its mainstream message.

On a rare occasion, something good both comes out of mainstream Nashville and has an interesting political message. Angaleena Presley’s excellent 2014 album American Middle Class suggests the complexity of how country music politics represent the limits of white political consciousness. How often do we see an album of any genre dedicated to dissecting class in any conscious way? Very rarely. So from a political perspective, this is already interesting. Songs like “Pain Pills,” “Grocery Store,” and “Knocked Up” tell well-crafted stories about the white working class that show great sympathy and sensitivity for everyday people.

But that her album is titled American Middle Class and not “American Working Class” says a great deal, for not even Presley can escape the divisive politics that undermine class solidarity in the United States. The album’s title track opens with Presley’s father, a Kentucky coal miner for thirty years, talking about life in the mines. He explains the hard work, how the companies “make thousands and thousands of dollars” while the workers get almost nothing. He closes by saying “It ain’t no life really.”

How on earth is a poor Kentucky coal miner middle class? The answer is that in this song, as in much of America, middle class actually means “white.” See how Presley frames her father’s words in the song:

Now daddy can’t get his pension or Social Security
worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families
struggle hard and hide it well, you sure ain’t rich and you sure as hell ain’t poor enough to get one little break
’cause everything would collapse
without the hardworking God-loving members of the American middle class

“Worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families.” This line says so much about the problems of class and racial solidarity in the United States. Of course Presley doesn’t mention race directly. No mainstream singer would in 2014. The politics of overt racial resentment are too toxic today. But the lightly obscured politics of race are as powerful as ever. “Welfare” mostly means “black people cashing their welfare checks while rolling up to the store in their Cadillac and then ordering a t-bone steak” has a decades-long history by now. It is worth noting of course that in much of the South there is also a white underclass that also receives the welfare stigma from society and she may well mean those people too, but there’s no way to define coal mining as a middle class job.

Presley is also mostly wrong about what her father’s money funded. That tax money went to a military buildup, the nation’s oversized and racist prison system, servicing the nation’s debt, and replacing the high tax rates once paid by the rich. In 2012, the 1 percent became the richest in recorded history earning 19.3 percent of American income, surpassing the previous record of 18.7 percent, set in 1927, just before this income inequality contributed to the Great Depression. Between 1979 and 2007, the one percent captured 53.9 percent of the increase in U.S. income while average income for our elites grew by 200.5 percent versus just 18.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent. Between 1978 and 2011, CEO pay rose 726.5 percent versus 5.7 percent for workers.

This doesn’t mean the song is wrong or bad. Presley may well be presenting her and her father’s point of view, one typical of much of the white working class. Presley grew up in Beauty, Kentucky. That is in Martin County, on the West Virginia border, deep in Appalachia. Martin County is over 99 percent white. Thirty-seven percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. Despite this, Martin County gave Mitt Romney 83 percent of its vote in 2012, compared to 15 percent for Barack Obama. This was one of the highest votes for Romney in the state, with more than 89 percent of nearby Leslie County voting for Romney being his highest. If these people vote, it’s overwhelmingly for a political party with the open agenda of destroying the social safety net they benefit from at higher rates than most of the country. Even when some of the mine jobs were union, these were not middle class folks; coal mining was always dangerous and not well-paid. But the mythology of the middle class can exist when you see people who are below you in social class. In Martin County and evidently for Presley, that’s largely black people, people who do not live there, who are in Louisville, Cincinnati, New York City. These are the others taking money from the hard working taxpayers of Martin County, even as social services flow into that impoverished place.

This nation has a toxic relationship with class and race. The politics of middle class mythology reinforce the corporate powers that increasingly control our lives. If all whites are middle class–or all whites who include lifelong coal miners left with nothing–then politics that actually promote the interests of the poor are undermined. If the poor consider themselves “middle class,” how do we create institutions that effectively demand a more robust welfare state and worker power? I’m not sure we can until we disconnect popular ideas of class from race. And given the upsurge in racism over the past seven years, we are far from accomplishing that goal.

And a Professor of Ancient Languages at NYU

[ 54 ] July 16, 2015 |

This is outstanding:

I also love Wonder Woman’s glasses

Hillary and The Fight for $15

[ 67 ] July 16, 2015 |

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Hillary Clinton won’t come out and support a national $15 minimum wage. That’s too bad, but probably expected. However, this is the sort of issue where we need to put a ton of pressure on her. This is the value of Bernie Sanders. Even if he doesn’t win, he is going to force her left. If we emphasize this and if Sanders emphasizes it, she is going to have to respond. And given the constant centrist Democratic fear of pushing a high minimum wage, which is hard to wrap your head around given that voters in such Maoist states as Arkansas and Nebraska pass ballot measures to do just that, that response may pay off in the fall of 2016.

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