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Applying Labor Trafficking Laws to US Companies Operating Outside the U.S.

[ 17 ] February 19, 2015 |

In Out of Sight, I argue for the need of international enforceable labor standards that empower workers to seek redress for their exploitation through the courts of the company who either owns the workplace or who has signed contracts to produce its items there. If you are a Bangladeshi worker making apparel for WalMart and your factory collapses and kills you, your family should be able to sue Walmart in U.S. courts.

I realize that this is not happening overnight. But it’s not like there aren’t useful precedents we can build from. For instance, a U.S. ship repair company sought Indian labor after Hurricane Katrina. There was quite a bit of international labor recruited to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf. And a lot of it was exploited, including the workers of this ship repair company. But the workers fought back:

A New Orleans jury on Wednesday awarded $14 million to five Indian men who were lured to the United States and forced to work under inhumane conditions after Hurricane Katrina by a U.S. ship repair firm and its codefendants.

After a four-week trial, the U.S. District Court jury ruled that Alabama-based Signal International was guilty of labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination and ordered it to pay $12 million. Its co-defendants, a New Orleans lawyer and an India-based recruiter, were also found guilty and ordered to pay an additional $915,000 each.

The trial was the first in more than a dozen related lawsuits with over 200 plaintiffs that together comprise one of the largest labour trafficking cases in U.S. history.

Signal recruited about 500 Indian men as guest workers to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to plaintiffs.

The workers paid $10,000 apiece to recruiters and were promised good jobs and permanent U.S. residency for their families, according to the suit. When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents.

Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labour camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) units, according to the suit.

An economist who reviewed Signal’s records for the plaintiffs estimated the company saved more than $8 million by hiring the Indian workers.

“The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court,” plaintiffs’ attorney and Southern Poverty Law Center board chairman Alan Howard said in a statement.

American labor law is violated and the company can be defeated. But the question we don’t ask often enough is why should American labor law be applied only to workers in the United States? Why shouldn’t at least parts of American labor law be applicable to anyone making products for American firms? What has really empowered the global race to the bottom is disconnecting corporations from national law, allowing them to move while law stays static or is even repealed in order to keep them from moving again. Anyone working in a guarded labor, overcrowded labor camp producing goods for American companies should have the right to fight back not only in their own country, where corporate money has even more power and buys even more politicians than in the U.S., but also in American courts. These are the goals for which we must fight if we want to improve global labor standards worldwide.

Culture Wars and Studying History (II)

[ 128 ] February 19, 2015 |

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Gordon Wood is an esteemed historian of the American Revolution. He’s probably most famous for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which was popular but not universally acclaimed due to the fact that the American Revolution was primarily radical only if you accept Gordon Wood’s rather stretched definition of the word “radical.” That Wood’s version of radicalism does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men is, to say the least, problematic. But Wood publishes widely, frequently writing long reviews of new books on the Revolution and Constitution in the New York Review of Books, editing volumes on the American Revolution for the Library of America, and contributing to many other elite publications.

Wood has found a new publishing outlet and that is The Weekly Standard. His discussion of his dissertation advisor Bernard Bailyn is little more than a cranky old white man screed against how new generations of historians talk about the past. He has a litany of complaints–too much race! too much gender! too much other countries! not enough big stories! historians trying to use the past for social change!–that for whatever merit (and I don’t think the complaints have much merit at all) they might have, basically come down to Gordon Wood believing the solution to these problems is seeing the past and writing about the past precisely in the way Gordon Wood sees the past and writes about the past. To say this is an unfortunate essay is a severe understatement.

Let’s break down a few passages here to elucidate the points.

In one of his essays, Bailyn quotes Isaiah Berlin’s reactions to American universities and American students during his visit to Harvard in the late 1940s. In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” They found it hard to justify studying, say, the early Greek epic while the poor went hungry and blacks were denied fundamental rights. How, Berlin wondered, could disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing, flourish in such morally painful circumstances?

Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

How can we write about history if we care about inequality! Don’t we know that inequality doesn’t have a history worth writing about!?!

And note that the “whole of the nation’s past” does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole. The whole of the nation’s past is the kind of big sweeping story of American elites that Gordon Wood writes about.

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

Yes, writing about race and gender comes from historians who are no longer interested in how the United States came to be. Because what could be relevant about race and gender in understanding this question? Now, Wood is defining “how the United States came to be” in a very specific way, i.e., the political, economic, and military decisions that literally created the United States during the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods. Once again, Wood completely dismisses the inequalities of that generation as essentially irrelevant for answering this question, instead saying that those who study those issues are telling “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic” stories. Yet one could easily lob the same charge as Wood for also telling a fragmentary, if not necessarily anachronistic, story that because historians “necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome,” which counter to what Wood seems thinks, every single historian has to do. In his case, those choices have led him to ignore inequality and oppression entirely.

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being.

This is of course ridiculous. It is entirely possible to tell a big narrative history centering the treatment of women, Native Americans, and slaves. It is not hard at all to create a coherent national narrative that centers on racism. That the United States is and always has been a white supremacist nation despite efforts by many people, including whites, to change that, is in fact a compelling national narrative. I will also remind Wood of one Howard Zinn, who certainly wrote a coherent national narrative that a lot of people love. That history might not celebrate America though–and that’s Wood’s problem with it

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.

Someone get the fainting couch. The leading journal in U.S. colonial history and many historians of the period have now realized that the United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the rest of the world exists. Somehow this is a problem for Wood. Having not read the William and Mary Quarterly for a decade, I have to say that if these are the types of essays it is publishing, I may have to start reading it.

The essay, and Gordon Wood’s positions and writing more broadly, have led to several other good (and disparate) discussions. L.D. Burnett places Wood’s argument in the context of the decline of the academy and pokes fun at John Fea’s plea for all the lefty historians to quit making fun of Wood. Michael Hattam, in a piece on Wood that came out last month, discusses the historiographical transformations of the study of early America and notes that Wood is wrong that no one talks about political elites anymore–they just don’t talk about them in the glowing and often uncritical terms Wood can resort to. Instead, those elites are placed in the broader context of all the other people in the nation Wood never discusses. Eran Zelnik completely dismisses Wood’s complaints about presentism, noting correctly that everyone is a presentist and none more so than those who claim not to be since they are usually comfortable with the inequalities of society. The consensus historians of the postwar period loved the mantle of objectivity, but they were as influenced by their times as anyone else. Zelnik writes:

If Wood had done that—had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.

Indeed. And I don’t think these questions of objectivity and taking passionate positions is something younger generations of historians really worry about. What power Wood has is not over the trajectory of American historiography today. His work is respected, but is not the only interpretation of the period that matters. His power is in reinforcing right-wing complaints about the study of history that we see in the Texas high school textbook debate or Oklahoma’s anti-Advanced Placement US History test bill. It’s within a broader national debate over whether we should celebrate the nation’s past or criticize it (of course, most professional historians do both but that’s not how conservatives see it). That such a famous and well-respected historian is contributing negatively to these issues is, well, sad.

Pullman

[ 26 ] February 19, 2015 |

As I have urged for some time, President Obama will be naming the Pullman site a national monument today. This is a great thing for those who are interested in remembering both American labor history and African-American history. There is such great potential for this site. It is home of the classic 1894 Pullman strike as well as the amazing union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which, led by A. Philip Randolph, became one of the most important civil rights and labor rights organizations in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

Obama will also be declaring a Japanese internment camp site in Hawaii and a beautiful canyon in Colorado national monuments as well. Very glad for both of these as well, although the Japanese-American experience is in fact more than just concentration camp sites, of which multiple already have federally protected status.

Please Drive Carefully

[ 16 ] February 18, 2015 |

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Rita Hayworth gives up her car bumpers to support the war effort in World War II.

What the Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Really About

[ 6 ] February 18, 2015 |

Robert Reich understands that the Trans-Pacific Partnership really isn’t about trade, which is already very free and open. It’s about corporate control over the world:

Recent trade agreements have been wins for big corporations and Wall Street, along with their executives and major shareholders. They get better access to foreign markets and billions of consumers.

They also get better protection for their intellectual property — patents, trademarks, and copyrights. And for their overseas factories, equipment, and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t been wins for most Americans.

The fact is, trade agreements are no longer really about trade. Worldwide tariffs are already low. Big American corporations no longer make many products in the United States for export abroad.

The biggest things big American corporations sell overseas are ideas, designs, franchises, brands, engineering solutions, instructions, and software.

And thus the TPP really is about intellectual copyright, patents, and trademarks. It’s also about ensuring the global race to the bottom and increasing the profits for the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of world. It’s unfortunate that President Obama actually believes this is a good thing. Hopefully, enough Republicans just don’t want to give Obama any victory at all that this doesn’t pass Congress. Corporations don’t need more power over our lives.

Israel Is Not Only Acted Upon. It Acts Upon Others

[ 94 ] February 18, 2015 |

Peter Beinart’s article bemoaning what has become of Elie Wiesel and his blind defense of right-wing Israeli policy toward the Middle East is right on the money.

But the deeper problem with Wiesel’s letter is the one Hertzberg identified three decades ago: Wiesel is acutely, and understandably, sensitive to the harm Jews suffer. Yet he is largely blind to the harm Jews cause. In his open letter, Wiesel notes that the Iranian threat is particularly vivid now because Jews will soon celebrate Purim, when they read about “a wicked man in Persia named Haman” who tried to “annihilate, murder and destroy the Jews.” But on Purim Jews also read about what happens after Haman’s fall from power, when Persia’s Jews “with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction… slew of their foes seventy and five thousand.”

If the Book of Esther offers a haunting warning of the violence Jews can suffer, why does it not also warn us of the violence Jews can inflict? And if Wiesel is so alarmed by threats of nuclear annihilation, why does he keep embracing his former patron Sheldon Adelson, who in 2013 urged the United States to drop an “atomic weapon” in the Iranian desert, and then, if the Iranians don’t halt their nuclear program, drop one “in the middle of Tehran” so the Iranians are “wiped out.”

This tendency to whitewash Jewish behavior is a feature of Wiesel’s previous statements on Israel too. In 2010, when the Obama and Netanyahu governments tussled over settlement growth in East Jerusalem, Wiesel wrote a public letter celebrating Jewish control over Jerusalem because “for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.”

Wiesel’s motivations for believing the best about Jewish control of the holy city may have been commendable. But his claims were blatantly untrue. In a detailed rebuttal, Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer specializing in Jerusalem land claims, noted that one-third of East Jerusalem and almost all of West Jerusalem is “state land,” available for residence only to Israeli citizens and Diaspora Jews eligible to become Israeli citizens. And since the “Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categories…Wiesel may purchase a home anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, [but] a Palestinian cannot.” Seidemann also dismantled Wiesel’s claims about religious access, noting that, “due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington’s National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City’s Al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.”

Again and again, Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is. “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be,” Wiesel said in 2010. But these are not questions of faith. Israel is a decent country composed of decent young men and women who, in the West Bank, are obliged to police people who lack basic rights. And in such circumstances, decent people do indecent things. “We are making the lives of millions unbearable,” declares one former Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, in the film “The Gatekeepers.” In the West Bank, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force,” notes another, Avraham Shalom. A third, Yuval Diskin, calls the occupation a “colonial regime.” These men don’t hate Israel; they have dedicated their lives to protecting it. But unlike Wiesel, they are discussing the real Israel, not the one they have constructed in their minds.

Really, it’s just sad to see a once heroic and great person fall into such reflexive defense of injustice.

The Law of Unintended Environmental Consequences, Part Gazillion

[ 7 ] February 18, 2015 |

Who could have guessed the promoting invasive species would have negative impacts?

It startled her. She jumped, let out a yelp, and took off down a hall. Wilde wasn’t running for her life; she was amazed by a discovery. She had uncovered a bacteria, one with a powerful toxin that attacked waterfowl, hiding on the underside of an aquatic leaf that grows nearly everywhere in the United States, including the Chesapeake Bay.

After 20 years of testing determined that the bacteria had never before been recorded, and the brain lesions it cause had never before been found before that night in 1994, Wilde recently gave her discovery a name: Aetokthonos hydrillicola. The Greek word means “eagle killer” for its ability to quickly kill the birds of prey. It’s the latest threat to a raptor that is starting to flourish after being removed from the endangered species list.

Across the South, near reservoirs full of invasive plants from Asia called hydrilla, eagles have been stricken by this bacteria, which goes straight to their brains. Eagles prey on American coots, which dine almost exclusively on hydrilla.

Before now, reservoirs that serve up a buffet of this plant were considered beneficial because they helped fuel the annual migration of coots from Canada to Florida and beyond, while also feeding eagles. But now the reservoirs are “death traps,” said Wilde, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia whose study of the topic was recently published in the journal Phytotaxa. In Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, coots, shorebirds, ducks and eagles are dying by the dozens from the incurable lesions.

“We’re attracting them to places where they’re going to die, and that’s not a good thing,” Wilde said.

I’m sure Republicans will be quite favorably to relisting the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act so I feel great that this will turn out well.

Culture Wars and Studying History (I)

[ 96 ] February 18, 2015 |

Oklahoma is moving to reject Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum because it doesn’t believe the new standards say that America is awesome enough:

State Rep. Dan Fisher (R) introduced a bill at the beginning of the month that keeps the state from funding AP U.S. History unless the College Board changes the curriculum. The bill also orders the state Department of Education to establish a U.S. History program that would replace the AP course.

Since the College Board released a new course framework for U.S. history in October 2012, conservative backlash against the course has grown significantly. The Republican National Committee condemned the course and its “consistently negative view of American history” in August. Numerous states and school districts have now taken action to denounce the exam.

Fisher said Monday that the AP U.S. History course emphasizes “what is bad about America” and complained that the framework eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism,” according to the Tulsa World.

The House Common Education Committee voted for the bill 11-4, with all Republicans voting for the legislation and all Democrats voting against it.

During the hearing on the bill, state lawmakers also questioned the legality of all AP courses, comparing them to Common Core, which Oklahoma has repealed. According to the Tulsa World, lawmakers were concerned that College Board courses could be seen as an effort to create a national curriculum.

Given that conservatives (or for that matter most university administrations) see the study of history as basically irrelevant for education in the 21st century, the real point of it (for conservatives at least) is as a cudgel in the culture wars that have centered history education over and over again in recent years. Thus emphasizing Native Americans or Japanese internment or labor unions takes away from the need to learn about the awesomeness of Ronald Reagan, how Joe McCarthy was right, and how Martin Luther King would have opposed affirmative action because he had a dream.

Part II of this short series on Culture Wars and Studying History will come later tonight if I can get some work done. It concerns a bizarre essay by a very famous U.S. historian.

Birth of a Nation

[ 86 ] February 18, 2015 |

100 years ago today, D.W. Griffith showed his racist epic film “Birth of a Nation” at a private White House screening for President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson called it “history written with lightning,” and said lightning strike sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which in its late teens and early twenties form became a gigantic nationwide organization of conservative white men marching and organizing against not only African-Americans but all sorts of perceived threats ranging from women with short hair and the theory of evolution to Jews and socialism. When it declined in the late 20s, it wasn’t because of federal oppression or a rejection of the KKK’s ideas. Rather, it was because of widespread corruption in the organization’s leadership, including the the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan’s trial for the brutal rape and murder of a teacher named Madge Oberholtzer on a train.

I was first exposed to Birth of a Nation as a college student. While I did watch it for a class my senior year, it was my sophomore year that I actually first saw it. I worked for the AV department in college and this was long enough ago that films in class were being shown reel to reel (the switch to VHS capability in classrooms was taking place while I was in college). One quarter I had the job of running the previews of the 100-level intro to film course for the professor. Saw a bunch of weird stuff–Un Chien Andalou, The Gold Rush, and Notorious are three I distinctly remember. But none shocked me like Birth of a Nation, as I had never heard of the thing. I never forgot the shock of what I was seeing.

And if you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation, it really is must viewing, both in spite of and because of its racism. As a film, it’s great. As social commentary, it’s repulsive.

Fun Facts About Ben Tillman

[ 22 ] February 17, 2015 |

I just finished reading Steven Kantrowitz’s book from 2000, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Tillman, the South Carolina politician who became nationally famous for his public defense of lynching and secession and his use of violence and violent language in the Senate and during public speeches, was one of the most loathsome political figures of the Gilded Age, but also one of the most influential. A man from an elite plantation family, after the Civil War, he recast himself as a man of the people who could lead South Carolina whites back into the reinstatement of white supremacy, even though as Kantrowitz discusses, he never accepted poor whites as equals and really wanted to recreate the class and gender relations of the plantation world, as well as the racial relations.

Anyway, two pieces of trivia about Tillman. Which is less surprising?

1) Tillman’s older brother murdered a man in a fight over gambling in 1856. He was indicted for murder. His response was to flee and join William Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua to capture it, legalize slavery, and establish a relationship to the United States that would make bring it within the orbit of American slave owners.

2) Tillman’s personal attorney was Strom Thurmond’s father.

Yglesias Ranks the Presidents

[ 295 ] February 16, 2015 |

Too busy with book revisions and class prep and hating snow to do any President’s Day posts of my own, but I thought Yglesias’ ranking of presidents was not bad. Ranking Washington 1st is fully defensible, even if I’d go with Lincoln. Establishing the precedent of peaceful transfer of power was vital (and is much to John Adams’ credit as well). TR is about right at #11; the idea of the man as a great president and great man is really falling for the self-promotional material TR himself played a central role in creating. Among other things, for as meh as Taft might have been, so much of Taft’s bad reputation today comes from TR’s self-serving biography written after their split. LBJ seems about right, as does Jefferson.

Really just two major objections and then some minor ones. I know that among the progressive blogosphere, Grant’s reputation has skyrocketed in recent years but the idea that he was the 4th best president is not something I can buy. I agree that much of the criticism of Grant over the years was Dunning School inspired and I realize that there wasn’t that much he could really do in the face of widespread corruption washing over the entire Republican Party and the creeping return of white supremacy, but he wasn’t a particularly effective president. I’d also rank John Tyler much lower. The man named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State and committed the nation to an aggressive pro-slavery policy to carve out a place for a hopeful election victory in 1844. It didn’t work but it did go very far to making sectional tensions the dominant feature of American politics. I’d rank him below Fillmore, if not Pierce and Buchanan.

I don’t think I can agree about George H.W. Bush as #8, but I’d at least be willing to hear the argument. I’d rank Cleveland lower too, but we are really getting into nit-picking mode at this point

Prison Labor Clearing Boston Snow

[ 22 ] February 16, 2015 |

Even if you think that prisoners are better off doing work outside than being stuck in their cells, I hope we can all agree that prisoners being paid 20 cents an hour to shovel the mountains of snow that have walloped Boston is more than a little inappropriate.

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