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The Prison Labor Complex

[ 58 ] November 19, 2014 |

The California Attorney General’s office opposed the release of inmates because the state wanted to use them as cheap firefighter labor.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that attorneys in Harris’ office had unsuccessfully argued in court that the state could not release the prisoners it had agreed to release because “if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.” Those prisoners, the Times reported, earn wages that range from “8 cents to 37 cents per hour.”

In a Sept. 30 filing in the case, signed by Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney but under Harris’ name, the state argued, “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

Approximately 4,400 California prisoners help the state battle wildfires, at wages of about $2 a day. There is an exception in the agreement that allows the state to retain firefighters — but only firefighters — who are otherwise eligible for release.

Like incarcerated firefighters, inmates who perform “assignments necessary for the continued operation of the institution and essential to local communities” draw from the same pool of inmates who pose a limited threat to public safety, the state argued in a September filing. Therefore, reducing that population would require the prisons to draw more incarcerated workers away from its firefighting crews.

This is the reality of the labor force today–states actively rely on incarcerated labor for work. I don’t think I need to list the many problems with this.

Prosecute the Apparel Companies

[ 13 ] November 19, 2014 |

Sweatshop factories in California are making a non-zero amount of your clothes:

Workers in the California garment industry are enduring poor working conditions and insufficient pay, the US Department of Labour has found. More than 1,500 Southern California garment workers are owed over $3 million in unpaid wages, the government department found following a year-long survey – which also concluded that American companies Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom and JC Penney, among others, were producing garments in the factories concerned.

You want to stop this? Charge huge fines to Nasty Gal, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and JC Penney for doing business with people who make clothes in this manner. That’s how you stop it. We make decent working conditions part of the cost of doing business. This so often gets portrayed as an issue of “ethical sourcing.” That’s not incorrect, but it misstates the problem. The problem isn’t sourcing production with the right contractors. It’s the entire system of apparel contracting. It’s that the apparel industry gets away from washing its hands of responsibility through it’s don’t ask don’t tell position about its contractors. Only by holding these companies fiscally and legally responsible will clothing be produced ethically

The Leather Industry and Outsourced Pollution

[ 34 ] November 18, 2014 |

Jason Motlagh and Josh Eidelson have an excellent piece up on the horrors of the Bangladeshi leather industry. When you buy leather goods, where do you think the leather comes from? How does it become leather? Of course you don’t ask yourself that question. You just like the shiny jacket. But it is just awful:

The worst conditions are endured by 8,000 to 12,000 tannery workers, who toil 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $2 a day, according to the local Tannery Workers Union. Abdul Kalam Azad, head of the union, says even experienced workers with 10 or more years on the job rarely earn more than $150 a month.

In one factory, which supplies black leather to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Korea, and Italy, hides are churned in giant wooden drums filled with toxic chemicals such as chromium sulfate and arsenic, which are used to soften them. Many workers handle the barrels without gloves and walk barefoot on floors covered in acid. “They are working in those conditions with little or no protective equipment and little or no concern for their health care from the tannery owners,” says Richard Pearshouse, who investigated factory conditions in 2012 for Human Rights Watch. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals has been known to cause cancer.

Nur Mohammad, 35, a veteran worker, has severe chemical burns on his hands and feet. “I’m always in pain,” he says. Workers risk being fired if they take time off to seek medical treatment, he says. “Sure, I would like to find a different job, but I have six children to support.” A factory manager, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, says his tannery provides first aid and a medical stipend of as much as $20 a month. He concedes that while allowances are made for longtime employees to take leave, an excess of cheap labor ensures workers can easily be replaced.

On top of this is the effect of this pollution on surrounding people who live near this hellhole that exists for our consumer preferences. That’s a mere 160,000 people.

I talk a bit about this industry in Out of Sight and the fundamentals are the same as most of the rest of globalized capitalism–developed world nations are offloading the worst parts of the industrial process onto the world’s poor, keeping these realities far away our consumers’ eyes and brains, and ensuring that they hold no responsibility for what happens. The only way this really gets improved is for global standards that empower workers and the people of these communities to seek financial compensation from and legal repercussions for every company that makes or contracts goods that comes from this leather. Even if Bangladesh cleaned up its leather industry, the clothing companies and other big leather buyers would find an even poorer country to move it too. That’s why global standards have to follow industries no matter where they travel. It must be our goal in the apparel sweatshops, the food industry, the leather industry, and everything else.

Coal’s Decline

[ 21 ] November 18, 2014 |

Zach Colman’s longish piece is good for getting at the real reasons behind coal’s decline in West Virginia. The people of that state want to blame Obama. And there’s no question that Obama has issued new regulations to move us away from the dirtiest of all energies. But overall, his administration has played only a minor role in a collapse long in coming:

Production in West Virginia hit 156.5 million tons in 1924, when the industry employed 116,000 people, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. Output stayed relatively steady for decades, but new technology cut the workforce to 68,000 by 1956, when output totaled 150.4 million tons.

The region’s low-sulfur coal became a hot commodity when Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970. Power companies could not afford the pollution scrubbers needed to continue burning dirtier coal under the law’s new standards, so cleaner coal from Central Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee was suddenly in demand. Once the easiest coal was extracted, production dipped in the 1980s before peaking again in 1997 at nearly 300 million tons. West Virginia’s production of 182 million tons that year, just 17 years ago, was a record.

Wage costs rose sharply after that as the coal was harder to reach. And by then, power plants had installed technology that allowed them to burn dirtier Midwestern coal.

Decline accelerated when the shale boom began in the late 2000s. Plentiful supplies of natural gas pushed prices to record lows, making it competitive with coal. Power companies built cheaper generators to run on gas. Buyers for Central Appalachia’s coal went away. Regulations have encouraged the shift from coal to gas. The writing was on the wall for electric utilities when Congress nearly passed a sweeping cap-and-trade bill in 2009. It passed in the House but fizzled in the Senate.

Coal employed 22,096 people in West Virginia in 2012, according to state records. That’s up from 16,233 at the 1997 production peak. The figure shows that the struggles of West Virginia’s coal country can’t be pinned solely on the Obama administration.

That’s right, more people are employed in coal in West Virginia than in 1997. Obama is not the enemy here. It’s a century of coal industry profit-taking, terrible political leadership, poor planning on the county and state level, and structural disadvantages related to the region’s long-standing poverty. Coming out of Oregon logging towns collapsing in much the same way during the 1980s and 90s that have not recovered today, I get the despair and hatred of outsiders that is animating the people of coal country. But like it was not environmentalists’ fault in Oregon in 1990, it’s not the Obama administration now. But protecting your culture by blaming outsiders is the easiest thing to do. When they are a bunch of long-haired tree huggers or are a black guy in the Oval Office, it’s even easier.

Immigration Politics

[ 76 ] November 18, 2014 |

I tend to agree with Marshall here–there is very little downside to Obama acting unilaterally on immigration. There’s tons of precedent for such a move, including by St. Ronnie on immigration itself. Any subsequent president can undo such an executive action. So if the Republicans are actually going to impeach him for it, which I don’t think they will, they don’t have much of a leg to stand on, even for them. More importantly, the politics going forward on this are very much in the Democratic Party’s favor. The anti-immigrant people are already voting and they are voting Republican. Obama’s actions would likely have little concrete negative reaction for Democrats in 2016 since the people who would be angry about it are already a highly motivated voting bloc. But effectively declaring the end of most deportations forces Republicans to run for deportations, creating real difference between the two parties on the issue and likely vastly increasing Latino turnout in 2016 since it will be so clear which party more stands with them. Republicans have to do something because they’ve campaigned on it, but fighting it exposes their racism to the populace.

This is one of those situations where Obama acting would be morally correct and politically savvy.

Cruz ’16!

[ 17 ] November 18, 2014 |

Ted Cruz is writing some great attack ads for his opponents in 2016.

“Ted Cruz: He wants to double the cost of your internet access.”

Now that’s a surefire path to the presidency!

A Glimpse Into a Lost World

[ 16 ] November 17, 2014 |

In 1938, a couple of Jewish Americans went on vacation to Poland, where one of them was from. They made films of their trip. Some of them survived. Thanks to their grandson finding them and donating them to the Holocaust Museum, you can now watch 3 minutes of film of the Jewish section of Nasielsk, Poland just before World War II. Powerful, haunting stuff given what is about to happen there. Of the 3000 Jews who lived there in 1938, about 80 survived the war.

Solving the Palm Oil Problem

[ 9 ] November 17, 2014 |

Palm oil is a very efficient way of producing cooking oil and is thus in high demand around the world. One huge problem is that it is turning the incredibly diverse rain forests of southeast Asia into a region-wide monoculture. Deforestation for palm oil plantations is a major problem. Luckily, this has led to significant criticism of the food industry. So many of the big palm oil producers have recently signed agreements to limit or eliminate deforestation in the production of palm oil.

That’s great, I guess. Certainly it’s better than nothing. However, I want to stress that just like agreements to improve labor conditions in southeast Asian sweatshops, there is very little incentive for companies to actually follow through. There is no stick to go along with that carrot. Without a way to enforce that agreement, you are relying on corporate beneficence. From the corporation’s perspective, they are waiting for attention to be drawn to something else. Without a way for people to sue or prosecute the companies over violating these agreements, the long-term benefit may well be negligible.

Remembering U.S. Complicity in Salvadoran Military Crimes

[ 18 ] November 17, 2014 |

25 years ago yesterday, the Salvadoran military massacred six Jesuit priests and two women who worked for them. The National Security Archive has collected documents showing how the Bush administration refused to acknowledge that its client state’s military could have committed such an atrocity, when in fact it committed human rights violations all the time. This isn’t just a past event without relevance to the president. A Spanish court is attempting to extradite of the indicted offices for the tragedy. U.S. support of that effort would partially remediate American complicity in the mass deaths that plagued El Salvador in the 1980s and continue to destabilize that nation today.

Deporting Parents

[ 47 ] November 16, 2014 |

What happens when our unjust immigration system deports parents of children who are under 18? It’s usually pretty grim. Orange is the New Black actress Diane Guerrero’s story is about as good as it is going to get:

And then one day, my fears were realized. I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn’t there. Neighbors broke the news that my parents had been taken away by immigration officers, and just like that, my stable family life was over.

Not a single person at any level of government took any note of me. No one checked to see if I had a place to live or food to eat, and at 14, I found myself basically on my own.

While awaiting deportation proceedings, my parents remained in detention near Boston, so I could visit them. They would have liked to fight deportation, but without a lawyer and an immigration system that rarely gives judges the discretion to allow families to stay together, they never had a chance. Finally, they agreed for me to continue my education at Boston Arts Academy, a performing arts high school, and the parents of friends graciously took me in.

Being 14, having friends with generous parents, a great high school, this is not the norm. Even here, her family was deported and she was left behind, separated from her parents during many of the most important moments of her life. This is a horrible thing that does no one any good. Completely unjustified and it’s about time that President Obama take more concrete steps to deal with this unjust system, even without Congressional approval.

Labor Notes

[ 15 ] November 16, 2014 |

There are a lot of labor stories in my blogging queue right now. Let’s just deal with them all at once.

1. Do we need a new legal framework for food workers? Jacob Gersen and Benjamin Sachs say we do and they are correct:

Take farm workers who witness the processing of infected (or “downer”) cows — an illegal but, unfortunately, not uncommon practice that risks spreading a host of diseases to humans. Or workers in poultry-processing facilities, where safety and hygiene regulations are flouted, thus increasing the risk of salmonella, which every year results in more than one million illnesses, more than 350 deaths and over $3 billion in health care and lost productivity costs. Unless we offer specific legal protection for all food workers who come forward to expose such practices — something the law does not do now — we all are at risk.

We should also adjust many of our standard workplace rules to take account of the special nature of food production. To avoid the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which causes mad cow disease, workers involved in the processing of beef must fully and carefully remove the dorsal root ganglion, a part of the spinal nerve, from all cattle that are 30 months old or older. That’s because these dorsal root ganglia can contain the infective agent behind B.S.E.

Not sure what the Obama Administration can do on this in the face of certain Republican opposition but it should be a priority within American labor regulation.

2. San Francisco is considering an ordinance to force companies to provide a “predictable schedule” for part-time workers. This is absolutely a workplace justice issue that needs to be taken care of. Among the many problems with people stringing together multiple part-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads is the inability to know when they will need to work week-to-week at each job. Keeping workers’ lives unstable of course helps the company and so they will probably fight such a common-sense idea.

3. In the world of labor on our college campuses, administrators at Pensacola State College are telling faculty members they are violating state law by talking to student reporters about their stalled contract negotiations. The administration is trying to use a section of the state legal code already shot down by both state and federal courts. Absurd, but all too typical for one of the biggest union-busting industries in the U.S. right now–institutions of higher education.

4. I always like to highlight stories of student labor activism when I see them, so here is one on anti-sweatshop activism at Oregon State University.

5. Meanwhile, a Chicago alderman whose father worked in a sweatshop in India is pushing the City Council to pass an anti-sweatshop ordinance. Wonder what ol’Rahm thinks about that.

6. Finally, the chemical industry strikes again, with 4 dead workers at a DuPont plant in LaPorte, Texas after a chemical leaked. I’d be real curious to see when the last time this plant was inspected by OSHA.

The Climate Conundrum

[ 155 ] November 16, 2014 |

I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new climate change book but I want to. I did read Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of it. The basic problem we face in dealing with climate change is that both Klein and Kolbert are correct. First, Kolbert’s summary of Klein:

Klein traces our inaction to a much deeper, structural problem. Our economy has been built on the promise of endless growth. But endless growth is incompatible with radically reduced emissions; it’s only at times when the global economy has gone into free fall that emissions have declined by more than marginal amounts. What’s needed, Klein argues, is “managed degrowth.” Individuals are going to have to consume less, corporate profits are going to have to be reduced (in some cases down to zero), and governments are going to have to engage in the kind of long-term planning that’s anathema to free marketeers.

The fact that major environmental groups continue to argue that systemic change isn’t needed makes them, by Klein’s account, just as dishonest as the global warming deniers they vilify. Indeed, perhaps more so, since one of the deniers’ favorite arguments is that reducing emissions by the amount environmentalists say is necessary would spell the doom of capitalism. “Here’s my inconvenient truth,” she writes.

“I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody.”

Klein goes so far as to argue that the environmental movement has itself become little more than an arm (or perhaps one should say a column) of the fossil fuel industry. Her proof here is that several major environmental groups have received sizable donations from fossil fuel companies or their affiliated foundations, and some, like the Nature Conservancy, have executives (or former executives) of utility companies on their boards. “A painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring emissions,” she writes, is that “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting those interests—they have merged with them.”

Absolutely–the system of capitalism created climate change and we cannot effectively fight climate change by tweaking around the edges. The only answer is, frankly, economic shrinkage which means the rejection of capitalism. There just isn’t any way around this.

And Kolbert:

The need to reduce carbon emissions is, ostensibly, what This Changes Everything is all about. Yet apart from applauding the solar installations of the Northern Cheyenne, Klein avoids looking at all closely at what this would entail. She vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up. At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism. Near the start of the book, Klein floats the “managed degrowth” concept, which might also be called economic contraction, but once again, how this might play out she leaves unexplored. Even more confoundingly, by end of the book she seems to have rejected the idea. “Shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint,’” she writes, is “simply not an option today.”

In place of “degrowth” she offers “regeneration,” a concept so cheerfully fuzzy I won’t even attempt to explain it. Regeneration, Klein writes, “is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

Couple of things here. First, again, both are correct. The changes we need to make to forestall climate change are huge, no question about it. But the changes we need to make to forestall climate change will be completely rejected by people. So what do you do? Nothing is the worst possible answer but by far the most likely. Second, the biggest weakness of The Shock Doctrine was her refusal to do much to think through solutions to the problems she so perceptively diagnosed. When I wrote Out of Sight, I very much kept this critique in mind and in the last chapter, I work very hard to suggest ways forward. People might think the ideas are crazy or unworkable or unrealistic, but I want to envision the society I see. It doesn’t look like Klein does too much of that here either, other than highlighting a few examples of people doing good things. In the end, if we are criticizing capitalism, we have to articulate some kind of alternative to the system we disdain. That’s especially true when we are fighting climate change, the greatest threat to human society in centuries. But, in dealing with climate change, there is no hope of adapting a consumerist lifestyle to the problem, which means people will largely reject the solutions out of hand.

Good times.

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