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Obama’s Next Move on the TPP

[ 93 ] June 16, 2015 |


President Obama, now openly working with the Republican Party to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has very few short-term options on the Trans Pacific Partnership. So he and his new trade friend John Boehner decided to cancel a proposed vote scheduled for Tuesday on the issue, with the caveat that Boehner could bring the bill up anytime before July 30. What we can then expect is that Obama hopes that the labor-green-community alliance against the TPP will be letting its guard down and he can have another 6 weeks to pressure Democrats. Labor has been publicly lauding members of Congress for standing up to the president. With Hillary Clinton seeing how unpopular the TPP has become with the Democratic Party base and therefore unwilling to press for it, it’s a bit unclear how he picks up over 100 votes in the House, even if Boehner also pressures Republicans into voting for Trade Adjustment Assistance. And if the TPP passes without the TAA, there’s no way it survives the Senate. I still feel it will probably happen, I’ve never felt more confident that it won’t than I do now.

And if this goes until 2016 without fast track being passed, it is a dead deal until 2017 at the earliest. That’s a great thing for those opposed to the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts, aggressive corporate intellectual property laws, high drug prices and extended patents for pharmaceutical companies, polluted environments, the decline middle class jobs in the United States, and the continued exploitation of labor around the Pacific Rim. If you support those things, by all means support the TPP!

One other thing: Given the gerrymandered districts of 2015, I’d like to see the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and other leaders of the anti-TPP movement look to primary the Democrats who continue to support the TPP.


Out of Sight Excerpt

[ 15 ] June 16, 2015 |


In These Times published an excerpt of Out of Sight. If you’ve been wondering what it’s about it, you can read a chunk of it at the link. A bit of it:

Women make up the vast majority of the workforce, but men make up the supervisors. Sexual harassment is endemic. A 2006 report by Mexican labor and feminist organizations detailed massive sexual harassment in maquiladoras. Labor authorities ignore or downplay this harassment, not wanting to anger the corporations who could move again at a moment’s notice. A Human Rights Watch survey from 2002 found widespread unreported sexual harassment and intimidation at Guatemalan maquiladoras, where women made up 80 percent of the eighty thousand workers. Forty-six percent of these factory workers had experienced mistreatment from their boss, and five percent had been subjected to sexual advances. Analysts consider these numbers underestimates, arguing that many women naturalize sexual harassment and refuse to report it or admit that it is happening to them.

Employers also discriminate against pregnant women. This has a long history: RCA fired pregnant electronics workers in its Bloomington, Indiana, plant in the 1940s. Preemployment pregnancy examinations are common today, as contractors do not want to give pregnant workers paid leave. Kimberly Estrada, a worker at a Dong Bang Fashions factory in Chimaltenango, reported that she had to undergo a gynecological exam by a company doctor at the factory before she could work. If workers became pregnant while employed, their bosses would not give them time off to go to the doctor nor the maternity leave mandated by the Guatemalan labor code. Women have miscarried at work, unable to get the medical treatment they needed to save their babies.

Human rights groups in the United States and Mexico filed a complaint in 1997 over what they called “state-tolerated sex discrimination against prospective and actual female workers in the maquiladora sector along the U.S.-Mexico border,” focusing on pregnancy testing and discrimination against pregnant workers. This pressure led to American companies announcing the end of pregnancy testing in the maquiladoras and Mexico issuing new directives to labor officials to stop it. Members of Congress introduced legislation to make pregnancy testing in American-owned factories illegal, suggesting that in fact American politicians could do much more to regulate the conditions of work overseas than they usually claim. But the textile companies found Mexican wages too high anyway, and they simply moved the jobs to Central America and Southeast Asia, forcing the struggle to start anew.

Low wages, sexual harassment, and poor working conditions continue to plague women in the garment industry. Today, women in Bangladesh toil in apparel factories for the national minimum wage of $37 a month. In one factory, women were forced to work 100 hours a week during peak production periods, and supervisors punched and slapped them. The victims included pregnant women, and at least one miscarried because of the treatment. Other pregnant women were forced to quit or denied their legally mandated maternity leave. Women in Cambodia and Indonesia fare little better, making $75 a month in the former and as low as $80 a month in the latter. In all these countries, women are fighting back through labor unions. In Indonesia, Nike had to pay 4,500 workers a $1 million settlement after having not paid them for more than 600,000 hours of overtime over a two-year period—a decision that came only after Indonesia’s labor federation pressed a lawsuit.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government contributes to these problems through its purchasing practices. The U.S. Marine Corps contracts its shirt production with DK Knitwear in Bangladesh. A 2010 report showed that one-third of DK workers were children, mostly young girls, and that the plant had no fire alarms despite previous fires in the facility. Women at Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Cambodia soiled themselves at machines making clothes for the U.S. Army and Air Force. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) signed a contract with a Mexican company in February 2013; the same company had previously treated uniforms with chemicals that caused rashes in TSA agents. Yet Republicans attacked TSA for paying too much to the Mexican workers. Like the rest of the apparel industry, the government relies on subcontractors, pays no attention to the working conditions in plants, and pushes for the cheapest price regardless of the social cost.

Ethnic Cleansing in the Dominican Republic

[ 27 ] June 16, 2015 |


The long time Dominican Republic treatment of Haitian migrants has been an abomination. Now it is getting worse with the DR seeking to strip descendants of Haitians of their citizenship.

…Link is fixed. This is what happens when you set up material for the next day because you are going to be at a conference and then you screw it up. Thanks to Origami Isopod for the link. Also, thanks to the LGMers who came out for my DC booktalk last night. Working on scheduling a couple more events and will let you all know. I can say that those in New York should plan on being at Local 61 in Brooklyn on July 29 for drinks and me.

Today in the New Gilded Age

[ 95 ] June 15, 2015 |


The hard times of the uber wealthy:

Billionaire hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Lightyear Capital Chairman Don Marron are among the collectors who will head to the Swiss city of Basel to check out the world’s largest modern and contemporary art fair.

Art Basel opens to invited guests on June 16 in the quiet Swiss city on the Rhine River. The fair’s 46th edition includes 284 galleries from 33 countries showing works by 4,000 artists. Insurer AXA Art estimates there’s 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) of art on view, about the same as last year.

Last month’s New York auctions set new records as $2.7 billion of art changed hands — up 23 percent from a year earlier — and a Picasso painting fetched $179.4 million.

“Interest rates are so low that people have so much money they don’t know what to do with it,” said Robert Landau, owner of Landau Fine Art, which is offering a $30 million Pablo Picasso painting. He said one of his clients is a 37-year-old man who retired after earning a fortune and is “sailing around the world and buying paintings to put on the boat.”

Warren Buffett’s NetJets Inc., a sponsor of the fair for the 12th year, said it has booked about 110 private flights in and out of Basel, a 10 percent increase from a year ago.

Rain Barrels

[ 77 ] June 15, 2015 |


That collecting rainwater on your own property in barrels remains illegal in Colorado is a great entry point into the complex and extraordinarily contentious water politics of the West, where every drop can lead to a legal action.

This Day in Labor History: June 15, 1990

[ 22 ] June 15, 2015 |

On June 15, 1990, 400 striking janitors in Los Angeles who had organized with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and were trying to secure a contract with International Service Systems (ISS), who had the contract to clean many of the city’s downtown office buildings, were beaten by police as they attempted to cross a street. Around 90 strikers were wounded and 38 were arrested. This event galvanized support for the janitors and is an important event both in the history of Latino labor in the United States and the growth of SEIU into arguably the most powerful union in the United States during the early 21st century.

In 1983, the average wage for a janitor in Los Angeles surpassed $7 an hour and included health insurance. By 1986, that had plummeted to $4.50 and insurance had disappeared. This happened through a phenomena we are familiar with today–instead of employing their own janitors, building owners began contracting the work out to an outside company that put enormous downward pressure on wages and working conditions. These companies largely hired undocumented workers, especially from Central America, that they could control and who had little power to resist. Once again, we see how contracting out work so often leads to downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

What was happening in Los Angeles ravaged SEIU locals around the country. After a 1985 lockout in Pittsburgh, the union looked for a new campaign to fight back. SEIU sought to reverse these losses in 1987 with the Justice for Janitors campaign. The plan, developed primarily by Stephen Lerner, targeted building owners rather than contractors as they held the real power and could roll the higher costs of treating workers decently into the contract as opposed to a contractor then losing out to a non-union agency if the campaign targeted them. The campaign had early successes in Denver and Atlanta before moving on to the tougher, larger cities of Los Angeles and Washington, DC.


It was in Los Angeles that the movement achieved its greatest victories. Local 339 in that city became the center of the national campaign in 1990. Some of this came from the fact that the Central American workers who made up the local’s core already knew social struggle. These were refugees from the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. They were, as a whole, less scared of civil disobedience than native-born workers, despite their undocumented legal status. They began following building owners to their nice restaurants and country club and heckling them, while using leaflets and demonstrations to get the buildings’ tenants to place pressure on the owners to settle the issue. This strategy also avoided the long and often futile process of going through a union election and dealing with the National Labor Relations Board. Given how long such a process takes and how that system has become co-opted by employers, it made sense to pressure employers to accept a union without an election. Effectively, the Justice for Janitors campaign borrowed many of the tactics of the civil rights movement to build public sympathy rather than the classic tactics of the labor movement.

Perhaps the most aggressive building owners and contractors were at Century City, a sizable office complex where International Service Systems had the contract. With the building owner and ISS unwilling to deal, the union led the janitors on a strike in May 1990. It was during these protests, on June 15, that the police attacked the janitors. They did so after shouting orders to disperse only in English with a group of workers who were largely monolingual in Spanish. As the office workers looked on in horror from the buildings, the police attacked the strikers for two hours. They used their riot batons to beat the workers at the front of the line, then engaged in a flanking action that trapped the strikers in a parking garage. When the workers tried to flee, they were arrested for failure to disperse. 90 workers were injured, 19 seriously. One suffered a fractured skull. One pregnant worker miscarried her baby.


This was an overwhelming error for the police, building owners, and ISS. Public sympathy overwhelmingly supported the janitors after the violence. The mayor of Los Angeles had mostly stayed out of it until this point, but after the beatings, he spoke out for the union. It seemed to many that the police wanted to teach these immigrants a lesson for causing problems. SEIU sued the LAPD for civil rights violations, leading to a $2.35 million settlement in 1993. The building owner finally caved and placed pressure on the contractor to settle. This led to the establishment of a master contract in Los Angeles in 1991.

This of course did not transform the lives of janitors overnight. Other cities, especially Washington, saw even more intransigent resistance than Los Angeles. To coordinate these national campaigns, critics noted how SEIU leadership rode roughshod over locals who refused to follow the international’s strategy. They claimed the aggressive actions against these locals undermined union democracy, while the practice merging small locals into larger state and region wide locals that could have greater collective political power but which isolated the former officials of those locals who didn’t have the power to win office in the larger organizations. I have to admit that I don’t have all that much sympathy for those arguments, as the need to get lame locals to actually do something may supersede idealized union democracy and the benefits of concentrating worker power into large locals has real political advantages. I know many disagree with me on this point and I guess it depends on what one wants out of the labor movement.

The campaign was one of the greatest victories for organized labor in the era and announced SEIU’s arrival on the national labor scene. By 2000, the Justice for Janitors had organized janitors around the country with companies seeking to sign new contracts in order to stave off more trouble. By 2005, SEIU represented 70 percent of janitors in 23 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. For the 21st century, that’s impressive density, especially for private sector work.

The campaign is also notable for representing the new inclusion of Latinos in the labor movement. For most of organized labor’s history, unions had been hostile to immigration, feeling that the competition undermined their wages and ability to win contracts. Sometimes this could get quite ugly, such as the Chinese Workingmen’s Party role in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the American Federation of Labor’s active support of immigration restriction in the 1920s. But the decline of immigration helped undermine the labor movement as immigrants have consistently provided new ideas and propensity for direct action to the movement, often in opposition to the relatively conservative unionism of native-born Americans. SEIU’s open embrace of immigrants recognized that Latinos were likely to be very good unionists, in part because of traditions of social justice they experienced in their home nations. Ever since 1990, immigrants have played a larger role in the labor movement, especially with the last industrial-style unions seeking to hold on against the corporate onslaught against unions, such as SEIU and UNITE-HERE.

SEIU has named June 15 Justice for Janitors Day to commemorate the event.

This is the 146th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Water and the 1 Percent

[ 124 ] June 14, 2015 |


It is so hard being extremely wealthy in this communist nation:

Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.

But a moment of truth is at hand for Yuhas and his neighbors, and all of California will be watching: On July 1, for the first time in its 92-year history, Rancho Santa Fe will be subject to water rationing.

Will these people be able to survive if they xeriscape their yards? Or instead should the state reduce the water use of the poor to 1 shower a week while the ultra-wealthy open fire extinguishers to run down the drain because they can?

On the Decline of a Hero to Western Liberals

[ 160 ] June 14, 2015 |

It turns out that Aung San Suu Kyi is basically as bad as the Myanmar government on the issue of the Rohingya.

The Nobel Prize winner — and prospective presidential candidate — is seen around the world as a beacon of hope for Burma, but the Rohingya crisis has cast a dark shadow over her democratic credentials. As thousands of Rohingya flee to Burma’s democratic neighbors — Indonesia, Malaysia, and even earthquake-ravaged Nepal — the international community cannot ignore their persecution. They have suffered violent pogroms from Buddhist extremists. Their many successfully-run businesses have been burned. The government has barricaded them into concentration camps, where they are in dire need of food, water, and medical help. Aid groups that have been trying to help them face being banned from the country. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to this — the greatest human rights issue facing her country — is shocking.

In 2012, she said she “didn’t know” if the Rohingya could be citizens. In doing so she aligned herself with the government’s official policy that the Rohingya don’t exist. In fact, Burmese officials threatened to boycott the recent regional conference to address the migrant crisis if the other participants so much as used the word “Rohingya.” This is in spite of the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for centuries — some scholars say they are indigenous people of the Rakhine state.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s more recent comments are no redeemer: “If I speak up for human rights, [the Rohingya] will only suffer. There will be more blood.” Why the evasiveness? Aung San Suu Kyi is courting the country’s Buddhist majority, among whom hatred for the Rohingya is rampant.

The real lesson here for western readers is that heroes don’t exist and that the entire idea of heroism should be eliminated. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be disappointed in her–we obviously should be sad that she is so indifferent to human rights violations against a minority–but it does mean that people exist in their place and time, have prejudices, and generally are flawed human beings. That Aung San Suu Kyi bravely stood up to the Myanmar military regime for so long in no way automatically means we should expect she cares about the rights of minorities, as we are discovering. The more interesting question is what it says about us that we would expect to her to hold our positions on this matter? Western liberals found her a useful way to project their values on idealized figure from the developing world, something far easier to do when the subject is under long-term house arrest by an awful regime. But that she would be more than willing to sacrifice minorities to win support from the majority population, is this surprising at all?

This doesn’t excuse her lack of interest in minority rights. I just don’t think it’s remotely surprising.

Labor Unity

[ 8 ] June 13, 2015 |


Noam Scheiber’s dissection of how labor so successfully torpedoed the Trans Pacific Partnership in the House (thus far anyway, again I’m still suspicious this passes somehow) shows how labor can still win today. First, it is united and pushes very hard on erstwhile allies that are ready to abandon it. Second, it crafts alliances with other liberal groups, including environmentalists.

This time around, not only did the firefighters make a considerable investment — producing ads and paying to broadcast them in five congressional districts — but Mr. Schaitberger personally led the effort within the A.F.L-C.I.O. executive council to freeze all donations to members of Congress by the political action committees of the federation and affiliated unions until after the vote on trade promotion authority. (Mr. Schaitberger, who developed the motion, credits Mr. Trumka with helping create almost unanimous support for it.)

Mr. Schaitberger acknowledged some apprehension within the labor movement about denying money even to longtime congressional allies, but he argued that it had been the most effective way to persuade friendly members of Congress to pressure wavering Democratic lawmakers. “We wanted to encourage those members to use their influence, their passion for our position, to move some of their colleagues,” he said.

Even labor’s opponents marveled at the cohesion unions brought to the fight. John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he was mystified by the position of the Service Employees International Union, which represents two million workers.

“None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports,” said Mr. Murphy. “Yet S.E.I.U. will be there, showing solidarity.”

The across-the-board mobilization by labor unions reflected two pivotal developments since the late 1990s. First was the dawning realization that even public sector workers who appear to be insulated from global competition could ultimately feel its dislocating effects. Mr. Schaitberger said the firefighters had learned all too well that deindustrialization leads to urban decay and declining property values, which can increase demand for public services while it drains cities of the revenue to pay for them.

More recently, the public sector unions, under increasing assault from Republicans in Congress and in several big states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, found that the rapid decline of industrial unions had left them politically vulnerable as well.

It’s not like unity, solidarity with other unions in situations that don’t directly affect your members’ jobs, and alliance-building with other progressives is always that easy to replicate. But this is a clear way forward and I hope organized labor can build on it.

Texas: Our National Leader in Wind Energy

[ 37 ] June 13, 2015 |

US wind farm large

My former home of Georgetown, Texas is set to become the first city in the United States to be entirely powered by wind and solar energy. It’s remarkable how Texas has become the national leader on renewable energy. Of course, it’s not for some sort of political principle. Rather, Texas is gigantic with seemingly endless open, windy spaces in the western part of the state and the state has its own electricity grid to send that energy to the populated areas farther east. But Georgetown is a deeply Republican place. It’s not as crazy as, say, the Houston suburbs, but it’s quite conservative. Yet this is city that is pioneering the nation’s hopeful energy future.

Today in Terrible Arguments

[ 61 ] June 13, 2015 |


Caroline Kennedy provides the worst possible argument for supporting the Trans Pacific Partnership: that her father supported free trade.

Serving as the U.S. ambassador to Japan has given me a chance to experience first-hand how our country is perceived in Asia. It has been a deeply moving experience to see how much the American dream still matters from 7,000 miles away.

The people of this region are eager for American involvement of all kinds—they cherish the free expression that we sometimes take for granted, their workers are seeking the kinds of hard-won protections the U.S. labor movement has gained, entrepreneurs are eager to innovate and young people are desperate to connect with us on a free and open internet that protects intellectual property and cybersecurity.

With assistance from the United States, Japan and other nations, developing countries throughout Asia are working to educate girls and young women and to protect their environments so future generations can reduce the risk of natural disasters and live sustainably.

This is a dynamic region that, right now, is at peace. It is also growing, presenting enormous economic opportunities for Americans. With a continued focus on President Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” we can keep it that way for generations to come.

A vitally important part of that strategy is the Trans Pacific Partnership. This ambitious, 12-nation trade agreement, now in the final stages of negotiation, has the potential to knit the United States and our allies into the world’s strongest, most prosperous partnership.

Yet, there are some who are reluctant to change the status quo and embrace the future. This is nothing new. But there is a proud Democratic free-trade tradition that we should not forget. For my father, President John F. Kennedy, expanding trade was integral to America’s prosperity and security. As he told Congress on January 11, 1962, when asking for a precursor to the same authority President Obama is requesting today, “Our decision could well affect the unity of the West, the course of the Cold War, and the economic growth of our Nation for a generation to come.”

It’s followed with a standard defense of the TPP and reminding us that Ted Kennedy also supported free trade, which is probably the worst policy position he consistently held.

And let’s think of the upshot of this. Should Democrats today then also support other Kennedy policies? Perhaps we should arm Cuban exiles to overthrow the Castro regime in a half-baked invasion plan. Or provided arms and advisers to Latin American nations to bust their unions in the name of development. Or move the nation significantly ahead toward a pointless war in southeast Asia. Or drag our feet on civil rights. Or this:

Kennedy insults us with this argument. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, appealing to a mythical Democrat of the past is pathetic. Given that Caroline Kennedy is Obama’s ambassador to Japan, one has to wonder whether the administration didn’t ask her to openly appeal to the Kennedy myth to promote this specific policy. Never mind whether JFK would have actually supported the thing. I mean, our whole judicial system is based on trying to figure out whether James Madison would have approved of violent video games. But resorting to cheap nostalgia to a president mythologized all out of proportion to his actual accomplishments is really a ridiculous argument to make.

If there is a reason for Democrats to support the Trans Pacific Partnership, it sure isn’t because JFK’s daughter says he would have supported it too.

In conclusion, Caroline Kennedy deserved to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009 because of her lineage.

Virtually Speaking

[ 6 ] June 12, 2015 |

Sure you are getting tired of me promoting various Out of Sight related events. But I’d stop if every reader bought my book, as well as copies for their families and friends. In lieu of that, I was on Jay Ackroyd’s show Virtually Speaking last night for a full hour. In the last 5 minutes, we discussed what made LGM so awesome, i.e. a bunch of loud mouth writers and a great commenting community. So that can be an extra benefit for you to listen to me talk about outsourcing, the global race to the bottom, the capitalist war on the world’s workers, the decline of the American middle class, and other of my favorite uplifting topics.

I was also on the Rick Smith Show today discussing the defeat of Trade Adjustment Assistance in the House and what the victory means for the larger anti-Trans Pacific Partnership movement. So check that out too.

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