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Can Apparel Factories Treat Workers With Dignity?

[ 19 ] October 10, 2014 |

No industry has engaged in such a lengthy period of consistent exploitation as apparel, which has basically ran sweatshops around the world for 200 years, moving whenever workers successfully win decent conditions. The apparel industry claims such conditions are a must in order for them to profit. This is absurd on a number of levels. The system needs to be radically reformed in order to force the western apparel companies to have legally responsibility for everything that goes on in the factories where they contract clothing. If they don’t like it, they can build their own factories, like other industries. Hardly a shocking idea.

But even within the current system, is overt exploitation necessary? This experimental factory in the Dominican Republic is showing the answer to that question is no:

Maritza Vargas, a 49-year-old union leader with 25 years of experience working in local factories, works a variety of jobs at the Alta Gracia factory, including sewing seams on sweatshirts and putting on labels. A regular day at the factory is nothing like what she’s experienced before, she told HuffPost. Vargas and her 150 or so colleagues are unionized. They’re not forced to work absurd hours, her overtime paychecks don’t disappear into the ether and she gets frequent breaks.

“It’s as simple as understanding that we’re human beings, not machines,” Vargas said through a translator.

In free-trade zones of the Dominican Republic, the minimum monthly wage is set at RD $7,200, or about $165 in U.S. dollars. Alta Gracia factory workers earn a monthly wage of RD $22,342, or about $514 U.S., according to numbers provided by the company’s plant manager.

36-year-old Sobeida Fortuna, who has worked in free-trade-zone garment factories for about 18 years, said she’s finally being treated with “respect” and “dignity” after getting her job at Alta Gracia.

“They would force me to work mandatory overtime hours,” she said of previous employers. “I’d work in uncomfortable chairs and positions. They would control my every movement, even monitor the times I used the bathroom or drink water.”

Still, these people need somewhere to work. Fortuna paused to think when asked what she’d be doing if she didn’t have her Alta Gracia factory job.

“We’d maybe be unemployed,” she said. “We’d maybe be working three hours away from home. We’d maybe be working at another factory with the same conditions as the previous factories. We work in those conditions because it’s all that’s around and we have a family. We have no other choice.”

Now, I would never trust anything the apparel industry says, even if the Workers Rights Consortium is approving it. After all, this is an industry designed around taking every penny in profit through suppressing labor costs. But this is a unionized operation and while the article doesn’t get into how independent this union really is, it’s obviously a vast improvement over the average Dominican sweatshop.

Green Card Marriages

[ 104 ] October 10, 2014 |

I have to say that while, yes, marrying someone so they can get a green card probably should be technically illegal because it should be discouraged, that I have trouble seeing it as a real crime I should care much about. Moreover, I certainly don’t see why this should necessarily be the kind of information journalists are hunting down and publicizing, such as the case of the finance of Oregon governor John Kitzhaber, who did this when she needed money for college. She hadn’t even told Kitzhaber because she was so ashamed by it. And now, even outside the political implications of this, did Willamette Week destroy their relationship? I mean, it’s easy to talk about honesty in relationships, but everyone has shame and things they don’t want to talk about. So I don’t think anyone should be all that high and mighty about this thing. Now admittedly, it’s hardly the job of a journalist to care about how their story about a public figure will affect that person’s lives–although it’s equally hard to find the fault in journalists hiding the fact that FDR couldn’t walk. But it’s not like the woman was robbing people or heading a violent cocaine smuggling operation. She made a decision that helped her out, helped this Ethiopian immigrant out, and hurt no one. So who really cares. This seems far less a crime than lobbying for policies that kill thousands of people a year, standard fare in the political realm.

More here.

Way Too Close to the Oval Office

[ 87 ] October 10, 2014 |

John McCain’s judgment cannot be questioned.

America’s Patriotic Singing Highway

[ 83 ] October 9, 2014 |

Oh America:

Sounds emanating from 1,300 feet of roadway just west of Tijeras have been listened to around the world, and it’s more than just tires on pavement catching international attention.

The Singing Road, installed last week, uses rumble strips to play “America the Beautiful” for drivers who obey the speed limit as they cruise down Route 66.

The National Geographic Channel approached the New Mexico Department of Transportation about the project last June, asking if they could construct the road for an upcoming series. The project was privately funded by National Geographic and NMDOT didn’t make – or spend – any money on it. Since the road was finished last week, Melissa Dosher, the public information officer for NMDOT, said she’s fielded questions from television stations as far away as Australia.

“My boss thought it was a really cool idea,” Dosher said.”It promotes public safety because the goal is to have people drive the speed limit. Plus it can be an attraction along Route 66.”

In addition to encouraging cars to slow down to hear the tune, Dosher said the rumble strips can help keep sleepy drivers awake as they wind their way through the Tijeras Canyon. The attraction is expected to draw visitors from Albuquerque to the East Mountains for tourism.

I think this would encourage me to speed. If you go too fast, do the rumble strips play The Internationale instead?

Southern California Bleg

[ 166 ] October 9, 2014 |

Next week, I have to attend a conference in Newport Beach, California. This is pretty much the only area of the West I have never been to. In fact, I haven’t been to the LA area at all except a quick trip to Pasadena in 1995 to watch Oregon play in the Rose Bowl. I have scheduled a bit of time to do some sightseeing. What should I do?

The one thing I am definitely absolutely going to visit is the Nixon Library. That’s going to be awesome. I hope there’s a bronze statue of Nixon shaking hands with Pinochet.

Other than that, I am pretty open. So what do you recommend in the general vicinity, which could extend as far as LA I guess. I’ll have a car. Favorite restaurants? Hiking trail? Museum? Brewery? Random weird thing? Won’t be able to do everything or most things, but I will be able to do a couple of things.

I suppose I’m supposed to be excited about the beach and yeah, I’m sure that’s cool. But I not much of a beach guy and I live near the water as is. If there’s good people watching, that could be cool though.

Fracking for the Cure

[ 17 ] October 8, 2014 |

Nothing like pinkwashing an energy process like fracking that dumps untold tons of toxins into the environment through pink drill bits. Nice.

Unions Shouldn’t Fund Their Enemies

[ 30 ] October 8, 2014 |

Talked about this last week, but Arkansas electing Tom Cotton is going to be horrible. So I don’t blame liberals and unions going all in for Mark Pryor, bleh as he is.

On the other hand, I do think unions should have some baseline standards before they give a politician money. For instance, should teachers’ unions give money to Pryor when he turns around and gets in bed with the union-busting charter school movement? I would argue no, but they are giving money to Pryor anyway. It’s one thing to give money to someone who is your not greatest supporter in Congress. It’s another to give it to someone who openly opposes what you stand for. I have trouble believing that’s in their members’ interest. After all, it is not unions’ job to be the only progressive organization to have to ignore their own self-interest for the broader progressive movement. It’s not as if NOW is expected to work for anti-abortion Democrats or Sierra Club is supposed to get out the vote for politicians in the pocket of the oil industry. But unions routinely go to the mat for politicians who don’t pay them back. Tom Cotton is bad but on the issue of teachers unions, Pryor is not much better and certainly not good.

Thanks. Also, Music

[ 16 ] October 8, 2014 |

It’s a bit difficult to come back to active blogging after the fundraising campaign for my stolen computers and–far, far worse–the lost documents for my book. At least I had submitted the thing already so even if I have significant revisions, it’s not like I have to start the whole project over. But still, it’s basically the worst thing ever. It’s also the 5th certifiable catastrophe to happen to me since I moved to Rhode Island, which is just bizarre. Luckily none of those things have resulted in injury.

I confess that I wasn’t very comfortable with being the center of a fundraising campaign. I am after all pretty Protestant about my relations with the rest of the world and while I totally support fundraising for others, for myself, it’s hard. So I do very much appreciate the donations. Basically, it will allow me to buy a new computer–a machine that will never be in the same place as my office computer so that the same calamity can never happen again–and some adaptators, the purchase of cloud space, etc. I know some people who don’t use Paypal were interested in an address and you can send it to my work address here. I think that’s enough about all of that except to say that your generosity in helping me out of a horrible situation is greatly appreciated and won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Anything additional would be used to get me back to the West for those sources. And you are all too nice to me. OK, enough of beating this dead horse.

Anyway, now that my life is starting to reorder itself a bit, I should be able to get back to blogging more or less at my regular pace (although I do have a conference most of next week). To start that process and connect it to my perils, I found this piece about too much music interesting because I’ve been feeling that myself lately. I didn’t know it would be possible to have too much music and I guess it isn’t. But because I had so much music (and so much lost although not all of it because I never got rid of my old CDs + stuff on the itunes cloud + some favorites I had burned onto a CD to play in my car) I realized I was struggling to connect to most of it. There was the occasional thing that broke through–Wussy, Frank Ocean, Mary Halvorson, Mates of State, realizing after many years of not hearing them how amazing L7 was–but mostly I’d listen to something a few times and then it would fade into the background. This isn’t so good. Over the past week, with my far more limited available music, I’ve actually been enjoying it more because it’s all stuff I love.

That doesn’t mean I’m not actively seeking to reconstruct my collection. But I think this is a good time to really edit the heck out of it. My policy in the past was to basically keep everything I ever acquired unless I really hated it. But do I really need the Frank Zappa live tracks I picked up 20 years ago in college? No, most of them aren’t very good. I’ll keep a few that I still like. Or all the mediocrities I took flyers on over the years? Probably not. Or even the discs upon discs of Appalachian music from the 20s with all the poor recording quality that implies, even though I actually like that stuff. On the other hand, I might take the opportunity to really invest in more jazz albums from the 40s-mid 60s. I’ve been into avant-garde jazz since I started listening to the genre, often to the expense of the earlier periods.

And in any case, actually listening to the 100 or so albums I most love over and over again, is actually a really good thing to do.

This Day in Labor History: October 5, 1886

[ 12 ] October 5, 2014 |

On October 5, 1886, Henry George accepted the nomination of the United Labor Party for the mayor of New York City. Although a quixotic effort, both labor’s attempt to create an alternative to the two party system and the reformist ideas of Henry George were emblematic of how Americans attempted to understand the shock of industrial capitalism during the Gilded Age.

The rise of industrial capitalism after the Civil War disturbed many Americans, not because they opposed capitalism but because they thought it was going to create a relatively fair system. The promises of free labor ideology turned out to be lies for most Americans, as the power of corporations to control all aspects of American life meant that both factory labor and farm labor were denied the fruits of their work.

Into this void came many ideas. Most Americans believed the system of capitalism worked, but that it just needed a single tweak to reconstitute the equality of opportunity they believed it would bring. As the analysis of capitalism was not very sophisticated among most native-born Americans, the solutions to these problems tended to focus on the one thing that we could do that would fix everything. That could be the 8-hour day, Chinese exclusion, Bellamyism. Obviously Marx and Engels, not to mention many other socialists, had developed far more complex analyses of the problems of capitalism, but those would not become prominent in the U.S. for another decade, as they tended to arrive with the waves of immigrants that would begin in the 1880s.

Henry George made one of the most important forays in solving the problem of industrial capitalism. George started his political life as a Lincoln supporting Republican in the Civil War but soon came to criticize the growing system of industrial capitalism, especially the dominance of railroads over American life, as well as the perfidious influence of Chinese labor on white wages. In 1879, George published Progress and Poverty, arguing for the Single Tax as the surest way to bring corporations under control. The single tax was a basic property tax. At its core was the idea that people earned the value of own their own labor, but that land was a common resource for all and should essentially be quasi-socialized with very high taxes on large landowners. George’s ideas quickly spread beyond the U.S. and were especially popular with the English and Scottish working classes, as well as the Irish resisting British domination.

cartoon_george-henry_fighting-corruption-1886

Cartoon of Henry George fighting corruption, 1886

George had moved to New York in the early 1880s and became an obvious candidate when laborites and socialists decided to form a working class challenge to the duality of Tammany Democrats and plutocratic Republicans who both disdained a strong labor movement. His mayoral campaign generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. His campaign lasted less than a month, but he gave over 100 speeches around the city. Here is a bit from his acceptance speech, which you can read in full here. It gives you a good sense of George’s appeal:

See how we are crowded in New York. London has a population of 15,000 to the square mile. Canton, in crowded China, has 35,000 inhabitants within the same area. New York has 54,000 to the square mile, and leaving out the uninhabited portion it has a population of 85,000 to the square mile. In the Sixth Ward there is a population of 149,000 to the square mile; in the Tenth Ward, 276,000; in the Thirteenth, 224,000, including roads, yards, and all open places. Why, there is one block in this city that contains 2,500 living beings and every room in it a workshop. There is in one ward a tenement covering one quarter of an acre, which contains an average of 1,350 people. At that rate a square mile would contain 3,456,000. Nowhere else in the civilized world are men and women and children packed together so closely. As for children, they die almost as soon as they enter the world. In the district known as the Mulberry Bend, according to Commissioner Wingate’s report, there is an infant death-rate of 65 per cent, and in the tenement district he says that a large percentage of the children die before they are five years of age.

Now, is there any reason for such overcrowding? There is plenty of room on this island. There are miles and miles and miles of land all around this nucleus. Why cannot we take that and build houses upon it for our accommodation? Simply because it is held by dogs in the manger who will not use it themselves, nor allow anybody else to use it, unless they pay an enormous price for it—because what the Creator intended for the habitation of the people whom He called into being is held at an enormous rent or an enormous price. Did you ever think, men of New York, what you pay for the privilege of living in this country? I do not ask what you pay for bricks and mortar and wood, but for rent, and the rent is mainly the rent of the land. Bricks and mortar and wood are of no greater value here than they are in Long Island or in Iowa. When what is called real estate advances it is the land that is getting more valuable; it is not the houses. All this enormous value that the growth of population adds to the land of this city is taken by the few individuals and goes for the benefit of the idle rich, who look down upon those who earn their living by their labor.

But what do we propose to do about it? We propose, in the first place, as our platform indicates, to make the buildings cheaper by taking the tax off buildings. We propose to put that tax on land exclusive of improvements, so that a man who is holding land vacant will have to pay as much for it as if he was using it, just upon the same principle that a man who goes to a hotel and hires a room and takes the key and goes away would have to pay as much for it as if he occupied the room and slept in it. In that way we propose to drive out the dog in the manger who is holding from you what he will not use himself. We propose in that way to remove this barrier and open the land to the use of labor in putting up buildings for the accommodation of the people of the city. (applause) I am called a Socialist. I am really an individualist. I believe that every individual man ought to have an individual wife, and is entitled to an individual home. (applause) I think it is monstrous, such a state of society as exists in this city. Why, the children, thousands and thousands, have no place to play. It is a crime for them to play ball in the only place in which they can play ball. It is an offence for them to fly their kites. The children of the rich can go up to Central Park, or out into the country in the summer time; but the children of the poor, for them there is no playground in the city but the streets; it is some charity excursion which takes them out for a day, only to return them again to the same sweltering condition.

The United Labor Platform also had a provision against police interference in strikes, a reaction to police repression during the Haymarket violence, not to mention the remembered police violence of Tompkins Square a decade prior. George faced a rising Republican by the name of Theodore Roosevelt, a man who also stood for reform, albeit of a different kind. The Democrats responded the George threat with Abram Hewitt, who attacked Roosevelt as a tool of the plutocrats and set himself as a responsible working class voice, claiming that socialists and anarchists controlled the ULP. In the end, Hewitt won with 41 percent of the vote. George finished second with 31 percent and Roosevelt trailed in third with 28 percent.

cartoon george campaign 1886sm

Anti-George image counseling labor to shed anarchists, 1886

This was an auspicious start for an independent labor political movement, but, like most 3rd party challenges in American history, it was made up of diverse forces that collapsed almost immediately after the election. Specifically, it split over socialism in 1887, with the expelled socialists creating an alternative political party. The ULP tried to revive in some form for several years, but it never again made a serious run as a real labor challenge to the 2-party system. George slowly migrated to the Democratic Party in the last years of his life, supporting Grover Cleveland because they both opposed high tariffs. George suffered a stroke in 1890, recovered enough to campaign for William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and then died of another stroke in 1897, a week before another mayoral election in New York where he became a candidate on an anti-Tammany Democratic ticket.

photograph_george-henry_mayoral-campaign-poster-1897

Henry George campaign poster, 1897

This is the 120th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“Let me introduce my twin girls, Less Filling and Tastes Great”

[ 151 ] October 4, 2014 |

Someone call CPS. From an interview with Robert Duvall:

Do you intend to keep working for as long as you can?

Well, somewhat. I just finished directing a movie called “Wild Horses.” All we had was 2.2 million bucks and 23 days, but we had terrific people. Matthew McConaughey’s nephew, Miller Lyte McConaughey, is 8 years old, and he’s terrific in it. He has that wacko streak that that whole family has.

Miller Lyte McConaughey. I feel that some of you outraged by the LGM naming wars of the past will reconsider your position.

Baby Doc

[ 58 ] October 4, 2014 |

Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier dies. The world cries. Oh wait, no it doesn’t.

Modi’s India: Please Multinational Corporations, Exploit Our Workers

[ 24 ] October 2, 2014 |

bangladesh-factory-collapse-1-537x402

Above: The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, i.e., Narendra Modi’s vision of the Indian economy.

I understand that workers in India need jobs, but I’m not sure that Narendra Modi going full neoliberal is going to build the kind of growth that will be good for India:

Responding to big business complaints that India has not done enough to open up its economy to foreign investment, and that its regulations limiting layoffs and plant closures are “onerous,” Modi declared “India is open-minded. We want change.”

The US business leaders subsequently sang Modi’s praises. GE CEO Jeffrey R Immelt told the Indian Express, “My interaction with him was outstanding. I am certainly looking forward to further investments in India as the climate for investments has switched to positive once again.’’ According to Indian press reports, Modi planned to signal to Immelt that his government is open to amending India’s nuclear liability law, which US energy companies have denounced because it could force them to pay significant compensation were they responsible for a catastrophic nuclear accident.

Regulations limiting plant closures! Why that might hold corporations accountable for their actions. Onerous indeed!

What does Modi have in mind to replace these odious regulations?

At the end of July, Modi’s cabinet cleared 54 amendments to the “Factories Act, 1948,” the “Apprenticeship Act, 1961” and the “Labor Laws Act, 1988.” Under these amendments, women would be eligible for night-shift work, the ceiling for overtime hours will be increased from 50 hours per quarter to 100 hours, and employers will no longer be liable to imprisonment for violating the Apprenticeship Act.

As a test case for the gutting of labour laws nationwide, the BJP state government in Rajasthan has pushed through amendments to the “Industrial Dispute Act”, “Factory Act” and “Contract Labor Regulation & Abolition Act.” These would raise the ceiling for the number of workers in a factory where employers can retrench workers without government approval from 100 to 300 and make it much more difficult for workers to form trade unions with collective bargaining rights.

The amendments to the Contract Labor Act would strip most contract workers of any protection under the labor laws, as contractors employing less than 50 workers will no longer be subject to its provisions. During the past two decades, Indian employers, including government-owned corporations, have vastly expanded their use of contract labour, so as to slash wage and benefit costs, circumvent restrictions on layoffs, and divide the workforce.

In the race to the bottom, I promise my nation will be at the bottom! Give it your best shot Bangladesh. We don’t mind if apparel companies kill 2000 of our workers. Multinationals, please come exploit us!

All of this is a sign of just how much power corporations have in dictating terms of employment today. Capital mobility is a powerful thing and the CEOs know how to use it.

This is also a good piece on Modi’s neoliberal beliefs
that should make him a good friend of corporate leaders if he keeps the anti-Muslim rhetoric to a minimum.

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