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Oil and Outrage

[ 2 ] June 3, 2015 |

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I have a new piece up at Counterpunch on the Santa Barbara oil spills, 1969 and 2015:

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.

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Sohel Rana Charged with Murder: Does it Matter?

[ 17 ] June 3, 2015 |

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Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza where over 1100 workers were killed in the largest workplace accident in industrial history, has been charged with murder in Bangladesh. 42 others are also facing charges, ranging from murder to building code violations.

This is a necessary step for justice. But there’s a long way to go before justice is actually served and an even longer path before the system that created these deaths is fixed. First, Rana still has a lot of friends in the Bangladeshi government. Will he be convicted? And if he is, what sentence will he receive? That remains to be seen. But I think the bigger issue is that it was not just a corrupt Bangladeshi political and economic system that created this disaster. It was a global apparel industry that asks no questions about means of production so long as the goods are cheap. The western apparel companies like Walmart, Primark, The Children’s Place who had contracts with Rana are as guilty as he is. And yes most of the companies have responded to these deaths by changing absolutely nothing about their sourcing practices. They remain completely unaccountable.

This is why we need an international system of governance where the survivors and families can seek compensation not only from Rana and his fellow perpetrators, but from the companies actually responsible for this exploitative system.

Once again, there is absolutely no reason for apparel production to be unsafe. There is very little inherently dangerous about it. But it is unsafe because the entire model of production is based upon outsourcing and exploitation to increase corporate profit. Until that changes, the prosecution of Sohel Rana isn’t going to stop future workplace disasters from occurring.

Gawker Unionism

[ 28 ] June 2, 2015 |

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Tomorrow, Gawker staffers vote on whether to form a union. This has been really interesting to watch play out because the company has allowed its writers to debate the issue on the site. Most of the writers who have contributed have favored the union. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but a victory here would be important for two reasons. First, it would be an expansion of unionism into new media. Entering any new industry and especially a growth area is always important for unions. Second, ten years ago, I really don’t think Gawker’s audience would be interested in hearing about labor unions and reading multiple articles about writers joining them. But times have changed and maybe this suggests a shift among the sort of educated, somewhat left-leaning readers of the site on unionism. Ultimately, a revival of American unionism is not going to happen before everyday people think they have value. Largely positive public discussions of unions are important. Union victories are even more important. I don’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it would be a nice victory.

The End of Pensions

[ 61 ] June 2, 2015 |

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This story about how the Bricklayers union offered a real compromise on their pensions only to have it completely rejected by management is incredibly depressing. Basically, there was a moment in American history where it was possible for working people to retire with dignity. Repealing that is an explicit goal of employers. And workers just don’t have the power to do anything about it.

Working Hours and Full Employment

[ 25 ] June 2, 2015 |

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I’ll admit that what I know about the French economy can be put in a thimble. So I won’t comment on the details. But the French economist Michel Husson and Stephanie Treillet have a provocative Jacobin essay on the connection between reducing the work week and achieving full employment:

There is a close link between working-time reduction and distribution of income. There are many ways to do it, each with obviously different effects on the distribution of wealth. The thirty-five-hour week has left wages unchanged, contrary to employers’ complaints, which accuse it of increasing the costs of labor. This result was achieved in two ways: by reducing social security contributions and by raising work intensity, which has reduced the policy’s potential for creating new jobs.

In other words, employers never stopped skimming productivity gains, thereby maintaining or even increasing their profit margins. These profits were not used to invest more, but to pay out more dividends. In 2012, an employee worked an average of twenty-six days per year for shareholders, instead of nine days in 1980.

What is not paid out to employees in the form of wage increases or job creation through working-time reduction is directly seized by the shareholders. This is why the rise and solidification of mass unemployment and this form of shareholder takeover (a good indicator of financialization) are two sides of the same “medal.”

This is also why any proposal to reduce unemployment without touching income distribution is an illusion. Here the crisis reveals the violence of social relations: while employees are laid off and 90% of new hires have fixed-term contracts of less than a month, dividend growth, interrupted in 2010 at the height of the crisis, is resuming with a vengeance.

Certainly very thought-provoking. Of course we are far from adopting a 35-hour workweek in the United States, but these are the goals the American left need to prioritize.

The Population Bomb

[ 162 ] June 2, 2015 |

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The Times has a discussion of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, setting it up as so many do today–as being fundamentally wrong and tainting environmentalism as a whole with that wrongness. That’s pretty unfair. On some level of course, Ehrlich wasn’t correct in that he underestimated the technological ability to grow more crops and how higher consumption rates would lead to declining birth rates. But on the fundamental level–that the world is vastly overproducing in proportion to what the planet can handle–was not incorrect. It may be that consumption is the real threat the world faces as opposed to overpopulation. There is an upper limit of the world’s carrying capacity of humans, but the significantly greater threat in the short term is that overconsumption will lead to catastrophic climate change, as we are already seeing. It’s this latter issue why attacks on Ehrlich are problematic–because it assumes that apocalyptic environmental thinking is inherently wrong. Meanwhile, those who are seen as opposing Ehrlich’s line of thinking are portrayed as not only correct, but generally better people. But Stewart Brand, who made an entire career on optimistic environmental thinking, is horribly wrong about extinction in ways that are at least as damaging to the world as anything Ehrlich has written. Meanwhile, Green Revolution scientist Norman Bourlag was perfectly fine with the mass extinction of all the world’s animals if it meant selling more DDT.

There’s no question that focusing on population as the world’s greatest environmental problem has given cover to racists and rich world consumers blaming poor people instead of examining their own culpability. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need jeremiads about the state of the planet. With the realities of climate change just beginning to hit us, we need all the jeremiads we can get.

And as for the idea that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything, I hear this talked about as received wisdom all the time, but have never seen a single piece of empirical evidence supporting the claim.

Flipping Houses

[ 116 ] June 2, 2015 |

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The expansion of extreme house flipping and rapidly rising housing prices to cities like Pittsburgh is not a positive development for those of us who value affordable and diverse cities with stable growth. Unfortunately, smaller scale versions of what has happened to New York and San Francisco can be replicated in cities around the country. Still, I don’t know what the long-term market is in many cities for people able to turn enormous short-term profits on housing.

Release Day

[ 78 ] June 2, 2015 |

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Today is Out of Sight‘s official release date
. If you like what I do on this blog, you will love this book. It combines a breezy overview of America’s history of capitalism and resistance with analysis of how outsourcing has destroyed the American working and middle class while not allowing the people of Bangladesh, Vietnam, Honduras, and Guatemala to create middle classes of their own. It brings labor and environmental analysis together on issues as disparate as apparel production, candy factories, and steel. It focuses on tales of women in the history of global production from 19th century New England to 21st century Bangladesh. And it tries to point the way forward toward global labor solidarity and reforms that could help workers of all nations. In other words, it’s by far the most important thing I’ve ever done in my political and professional life.

Not to belabor the point, but I might as well repeat some of the blurbs here:

“The arrival of Out of Sight could not have been better timed. Erik Loomis prescribes how activists can take back our country—for workers and those who care about the health of our planet.” —Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

“The rise of unbridled corporate power has been a disaster in so many ways—including the ability of the 1 percent to intimidate the rest of us into remaining silent lest we displease our masters. The story told here is tragic and important.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“In this dazzling overview of industrial history, Erik Loomis shows how we can—no, we must—fight for both decent jobs and a clean environment. We can do so by not letting the corporations escape ‘out of sight.’ We need to think and act as globally as corporations do, and force them to respect rights wherever they go. This book is a must-read for people who care about jobs and the environment.”
—Aviva Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University and author of Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal

“A passionate condemnation of the power that corporations hold over our lives, Erik Loomis shows that capitalism’s geography is a central element in class conflicts.”
—Andrew Herod, Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of Georgia

“One of the top voices chronicling the struggles of the twenty-first-century labor movement. Loomis’s blunt, witty, take-no-prisoners style always promises an exciting read.”
—Sarah Jaffe

“Erik Loomis has globalized [Upton Sinclair’s] The Jungle. He shows that the most important reason for U.S. corporations to produce abroad is to avoid the regulations that books like The Jungle produced. Perhaps Out of Sight can prompt a similar movement on behalf of workers around the world, our planetary environment, and, yes, we who wear the clothes and eat the sausage that ‘they’ produce.”
—James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me

“Well-written and informative . . . shows the many strong connections between workplace catastrophes, poor working conditions, diseases, and environmental disasters. Highly recommended.”
—Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, Dhaka

“Erik Loomis shows that our systems remain broken, and it is our planet and her people, particularly the most marginalized communities, who are paying the price. However, there is hope in collective action.”
—Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program

And as my father in law put it, “my granddaughter in the 8th grade could read this.” It’s the best thing one could say about it. It’s easy to read and I hope powerful and persuasive. But you won’t know unless you procure a copy. If the world’s most famous environmentalist, the head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, several famous scholars, and a sitting senator and his dog can find time to read it, surely you can.

Argentine Sweatshops

[ 8 ] June 1, 2015 |

TO GO WITH AFP STORY A worker of the Pun

The use of sweatshop labor in the apparel industry is not just a U.S. thing and it doesn’t just take place in Bangladesh. Rather, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that needs to be fought on an international scale. This story about the terrible conditions of sweatshops in Buenos Aires is an example. Taking advantage of impoverished Bolivian workers, employers skirt laws in order to profit.

The death of two Bolivian boys in a fire and the mistreatment and sexual abuse of a young Bolivian woman put the problem of slave-like labour conditions in clandestine sweatshops back in the headlines.

The state, the textile and fashion industries, and consumers mutually blame each other for the problem.

The two brothers aged seven and 10 died on April 27 in a fire in one of the numerous clandestine garment workshops in Flores, a Buenos Aires City neighbourhood, where their parents, immigrants from Bolivia, were living and working.

A few days earlier, Rosa Payro, a 21-year-old from Bolivia, was rescued from another sweatshop on the outskirts of Buenos Aries after nearly three years of being raped, beaten, tortured and held captive by distant relatives she was working for.

These two cases reflect a complex situation, Juan Vásquez, a former sweatshop worker who now forms part of Simbiosis Cultural, a collective of Bolivian immigrants seeking to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the clandestine workshops, told IPS.

“When people talk about slave labour, they think of it as a ‘Bolivian’ thing and they don’t associate it with consumerism, with local working class people, with the connivance of the national and city governments,” said Vásquez. “We are merely the leftovers, the excluded, the exiled.”

According to the La Alameda Foundation, there are some 3,000 sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires alone, with an average of 10 employees each. The majority of the roughly 30,000 workers are from Bolivia, the region’s poorest country. But there are also Peruvians, as well as workers from other Argentine provinces.

“They live in the same place where they are exploited, and they work over 16 hours a day,” said Lucas Schaerer, spokesman for the La Alameda Foundation, which fights slave and child labour and the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. “They are completely under the control of their boss.”

He told IPS that “they’re forced to pay taxes, they eat in the same place they work, in inhumane conditions. Their meals, discounted from their wages, are skimpy, which is why they have a high incidence of tuberculosis. They live in concentration camp-style dormitories with bunkbeds and bathrooms shared by 30, 50, 60 people.”

Officials blame each other or take the real easy way out and talk about illegal immigration. But the reason these sweatshops exist is that no one in power cares about these people. Even the Argentine government is contracting with some of these sweatshops. There are people fighting these conditions, including Bolivian migrants, but as the story shows, the exploitation and murder of workers continues apace.

More Punishing the Poor

[ 66 ] June 1, 2015 |

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Above: Receiver of almost endless government benefits

The Massachusetts House passed an amendment last week ordering the state welfare office to conduct a study about using biometrics in order to crack down on welfare fraud. Now I have no theoretical problem with governments attempting to run programs efficiently, but once again, this is something intended to target the poor. While I don’t doubt that some welfare fraud exists, the amount of money involved in almost certainly small. Why not combine this with measures to ensure that corporations are also targeted to stop fraud and waste in their welfare programs? This is of course a rhetorical question–obviously the answer is power. The rich can abuse corporate welfare, pocketing tax breaks and then moving jobs away for instance, but the poor have to be punished to get their block of government cheese, Even in Massachusetts, the focus is on the latter form of welfare than the former, despite the former costing everyday people much more.

See also.

Why is the Obama Administration Seeking to Slash Workers Compensation Benefits?

[ 136 ] June 1, 2015 |

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The Obama administration is really going out with a bang when it comes to the American working class. First there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership and now the administration is seeking to reduce worker compensation benefits for some federal workers. Specifically, Obama is looking to reduce benefits paid out through the Federal Employees Compensation Act to 70 percent of their normal salaries. Right now, employees with dependents, about 2/3 of them, receive 75 percent.

Like the Obama administration, Rep. Tim Walberg (Mich.), the Republican chairman of a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee, cited “concerns” that workers’ comp benefits “are too generous and can discourage an employee’s return to work.”

The changes proposed by the Labor Department would save Uncle Sam money, but at the cost of cutting future payments to most workers injured on the job. But nowhere in the department’s recent statement to the House workforce-protections subcommittee did the agency provide evidence to back the administration’s concern about “disincentives” for the return to work.

“I am disappointed that the Department of Labor would come forward for the third time in the past five years with a proposal to cut benefits for injured workers that is not evidence-based, and whose justification has been completely debunked by the Government Accountability Office,” said Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (Va.), the top Democrat on the full committee. He finds it “incomprehensible that we are now considering” hits to feds “who have suffered a disabling work-related injury while doing their jobs in service to the American people.”

The idea that working people are a bunch of lazy slackers who really want to get out of work is a right-wing myth that goes back to the first proposals for workers compensation. Companies have always concern trolled the American working class by wondering what generous benefits like making a percentage of your former wage when your arm is cut off by a machine would do to the national work ethic. I expect such lies from Republicans and corporations, but it’s quite disconcerting to see the Obama administration accept some of these arguments.

There is only one appropriate figure for workers compensation benefits and that’s 100 percent of the workers’ former wages until that worker is cleared by a doctor to return. The idea of workers trying to game the system and stay at home insults them because it completely ignores that people take pride in work and for the most part don’t want to live on government benefits. Yes, some people would try to stay at home, but the large majority would want to return to work. Only with a 100 percent benefit do employers have the necessary incentive to make work safe. The reason the focus is on slacking workers instead of lazy employers is power–companies and the government has it, workers don’t. But there’s no evidence that workers are more likely to abuse the system than employers.

The Obama administration needs to reverse this position immediately.

This Day in Labor History: June 1, 1906

[ 12 ] June 1, 2015 |

On June 1, 1906, copper miners in the city of Cananea, Sonora, a few miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, went on strike against the American companies dominating the mines and Porfirian Mexico. Widely seen as one of the most important events influencing the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Cananea strike is also one of the most important events in Mexican labor history.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S.-Mexico border was quite fluid for both workers and capital. Mining companies like Phelps-Dodge had major investments on both sides of the border. The government of Porfirio Díaz committed itself to bringing in foreign capital as part of its modernization plans that included reshaping everything about Mexico to look as European as possible. In the north, this meant granting enormous economic concessions to American mineral and cattle companies.

On the U.S. side of the border, mining operations required Mexican labor. The Southwest was lightly populated and while some Italian and Greek immigrants made it all the way to Arizona and Colorado to work in the mines, for the most part, the mine operators recruited Mexican labor. On both sides of the border, the mines operated with American capital and Mexican workers. As was typical of mine labor throughout the United States and especially mine labor that was not white, the conditions and pay for Mexican workers were very bad. Mexican miners engaged in a tough 1903 strike against Phelps-Dodge at the Clifton-Morenci mines in southern Arizona and that strike was well known throughout the region, helping to create an atmosphere of general resistance to the racist treatment by the mining companies.

After 1900, overall resistance to the Diaz regime grew. Many dissidents moved to the United States, usually just over the border. This allowed them to influence the border workers. The most influential group was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) headed by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Magón, along with his brother Enrique, were dissidents who had served time in Díaz’s prisons. They moved to San Antonio and then St. Louis, where they sent followers back to the border. Clifton and the nearby town of Douglas was the center of this agitation and the PLM began to influence workers on both sides of the border.

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Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón

This was certainly true in Cananea, about 25 miles south of the border. The town and everything for ten square miles around was owned by Bill Greene and his Consolidated Copper. There was a lot of racial tension on the border early that year, with significant anti-American sentiment and a race riot at a baseball game where four Mexicans were killed. Greene has received enormous concessions from Diaz, including 350,000 acres of timber, 37,000 acres of mineral lands, and thirty miles of railroad. The Cananea Mine employed 5360 Mexicans and 2300 foreigners, primarily American managers and executives. On May 31, two foremen at one mine told workers they would start having to work on piecework rather than salary.

The next morning, June 1, 1906, the miners in Cananea walked off the job. They demanded the 8-hour day, a minimum wage of five pesos per day, a merit system to eliminate hiring discrimination, and the promotion of Mexicans into some management positions. Green armed his American workers. The strikers marched to the copper mine’s lumberyard where two Americans fired on them. This enraged the workers, who burned the lumberyard and killed both their attackers and another American. The governor of Sonora then invited the U.S. Army to come into Sonora. The Mexican army arrived about the same time, arrested about 100 miners, and sent dozens to prison. The strike was completely suppressed within two days.

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The Cananea strikers

This event was a loss for the workers, but it had long-standing reverberations. It was the first moment that a widespread rebellion against American domination of the region took place and it showed that workers were ready to take direct action against the American corporate domination of their lives. The PLM had hoped this strike would be the first step in a revolutionary movement against Díaz and while it wasn’t quite that, it was very important. The PLM and other radicals built on this event and workers themselves clearly moved to the left, which may have had something to do with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was always active in mining and had relative success organizing workers on the border. The use of U.S. troops also rankled in Mexico. The Flores Magón brothers began working with the IWW and bringing the organization’s syndicalist ideology to Mexican workers. Over the next four years, repeated actions along the border, with Mexican workers increasingly involved in both labor and revolutionary groups and angry over the systematic racism and despoliation of their nation by Americans, which by no means improved after 1906, laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican and American governments worked together on both sides of the border to repress these movements, including American agents harassing Mexican political refugees when the Diaz government brought them to American attention. By by 1910, the Mexican workers of the north were ready to play an important role in what would become the Mexican Revolution. Cananea strike leaders Manuel Dieguez and Esteban Baca Calderón became revolutionary leaders as well.

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During the strike, with burning buildings in background.

As the Revolution wound down, the new government produced the Mexican Constitution in 1917. That document reflected the concerns of Mexican workers, especially those of El Norte. Specifically, Article 27 makes it illegal for foreign citizens to own land within 100 miles of the nation’s borders, albeit with plenty of caveats. This specifically reflected how corporations like Phelps-Dodge and Consolidated Copper had made northern Mexico their personal fiefdoms and how workers demanded this never happen again. The Mexican government would eventually turn its back on the need to help the nation’s poor, but in its early decades, the PRI’s actions did reflect the influence of the Mexican working class on the revolution.

Ricardo Flores Magón never returned to Mexico. He was caught up in the Wilson administration’s World War I repression of radicals. He died in Leavenworth prison, probably of untreated diabetes, in 1922.

I consulted Rodolfo F. Acuña, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 in the writing of this post.

This is the 145th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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