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Holding Apparel Corporations Accountable

[ 2 ] July 2, 2013 |

I was interviewed for this Jake Blumgart article at Alternet on attempts by United Students Against Sweatshops and others in the U.S. to hold apparel corporations accountable for the terrible conditions in Bangladesh. I think groups like USAS can play a really big role. USAS had its heyday in the late 90s anti-sweatshop campaigns and then faded a bit as young activists became more motivated by the Iraq War. It’s made a nice comeback however and its ability to inform everyday consumers of the social costs of the clothing they purchase is an important action since most people have no clue about these matters.

Also of note in the piece is that the Obama Administration might have suspended trade privileges with Bangladesh last week but the AFL-CIO is disappointed it did not also provide a roadmap and timeline of reforms, including asserting the right to collective bargaining is respected. These specifics are necessary to make any of it meaningful.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1822

[ 14 ] July 2, 2013 |

On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free African-American living in Charleston, South Carolina, was executed for his role in leading a purported slave rebellion. This event marked a significant increase in southern surveillance and oppression of free blacks and demonstrates the very real fear the South had of its slave labor force rising en masse and murdering whites.

Vesey was born around 1767, though no one is sure whether in Africa or St. Thomas. As a youth, he was shipped to Haiti briefly and then came to South Carolina, where he worked as a domestic slave for a man named Joseph Vesey. He won a lottery in 1799, using the money to pay for his own freedom. However, he could not buy his wife or children, forcing him to stay in Charleston. He then worked as a carpenter and became a minister, cofounding a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 1817.

The early 19th century was a nervous time for the Southern planter elite. In the aftermath of the successful Haitian rebellion of the 1790s and 1800s, the American slave power was constantly vigilant about their own slaves rising up and killing them all. A successful slave rebellion would have been nearly impossible for slaves in the United States because there weren’t enough of them and they didn’t have the ecological advantages of the Haitians (the Haitian Rebellion primarily succeeded in the end because the French troops kept dying of malaria and other tropical diseases). That certainly didn’t stop southerners from worrying about it though.

Denmark Vesey had of course heard about the slave rebellion in Haiti. There’s no doubt he would have liked to see a similar action in the United States, but then that’s hardly remarkable. We do know that Vesey was furious at South Carolina closing the AME church, which the state had done repeatedly over the past five years, fearing the proceedings going on inside. In 1818, Charleston police arrested 140 people worshipping inside the church. Vesey’s preaching seems to have grown more strident, with a great deal of emphasis on Exodus and the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites (always a small problem for oh so good Christian slaveowners justifying their slave labor system through the Bible). Vesey’s religious message was one of violent redemption. He rejected the idea of the flight to the desert to freedom. Rather, he thought the slaveowners should pay with their lives.

This was a quite syncretic religion. With the legal importation of Africans only ended fourteen years earlier, and with a small amount of illegal importation bringing additional Africans to the U.S., there was a lot of African-born people involved in Vesey’s group. One was a priest named Gullah Jack. Born in modern-day Angola, after the 1818 church closing he brought a mystic side to Vesey’s freedom movement and did most of the recruiting for the church and planned rebellion.

There has been some debate over whether this plot was real. It probably was a plan at least. The story goes that Vesey planned a widespread revolt to begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. They would rise up, execute the slave owners, seize the city arsenal, briefly take the city of Charleston, then all get on boats and flee to Haiti to escape punishment. Not surprisingly, two slaves leaked the plans to their owners. On June 22, Vesey was arrested. A total of 130 additional African-Americans were arrested. 67 were convicted and 35 hanged, including Vesey on July 2, 1822. Vesey and his followers were tortured to get all the names of everyone involved, but supposedly they never gave them up. Most of the rest, including Vesey’s son, were sold to the death trap plantations of the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the executions, South Carolina became even more harsh in dealing with its slave labor force. The first thing the city of Charleston did was burn the AME church. The Vesey plot tapped into a long-running fear of freed slaves and led to new laws against owners freeing their slaves. Free people of color faced new restrictions from traveling unless a white person would vouch for their character. Another law mandated the imprisonment of black sailors on ships docked in Charleston. Given the high number of black sailors in northern ports this was a real issue and in fact the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, a point used by the growing Southern nationalism of the South Carolina fireeaters. The state destroyed the AME church building. South Carolina also built what became The Citadel in order to prepare for future slave rebellions.

Vesey became a hero for the free black population of the North on how to stand up and fight against oppression. Among the people who saw Vesey as a model or inspiration were Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and John Brown, who would indeed make slaveowners pay for their sins with blood.

If you are interested in primary sources around this issue, Lois Walker and Susan Silverman put together a primary source reader entitled A Documentary History of Gullah Jack Pritchard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822, published in 2000. The book attempts to center the revolt more around Gullah Jack and less around Vesey, which may well be accurate but the existing documentation is so sparse that, once again, it’s really hard to know.

This is the 67th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Major Victory

[ 10 ] July 1, 2013 |

A real victory for UNITE-HERE today, as their long and contentious campaign against Hyatt has resulted in a nearly total victory, with the hotel chain agreeing to recognize the union in its organized hotels and sign union contracts while accepting neutrality agreements in its nonunion hotels if they want to join the union.

We labor people don’t get to celebrate victories too often these days. So this is a reason to be very happy. And if you have been following the union boycott of Hyatt hotels, you can now return to using that chain.

The Greatest Country in the World

[ 34 ] July 1, 2013 |

Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain:

Financially, they suffer the consequences. In 2011, 62 percent of women in the United States covered by private plans that were not obtained through an employer lacked maternity coverage, like Ms. Martin. But even many women with coverage are feeling the pinch as insurers demand higher co-payments and deductibles and exclude many pregnancy-related services.

From 2004 to 2010, the prices that insurers paid for childbirth — one of the most universal medical encounters — rose 49 percent for vaginal births and 41 percent for Caesarean sections in the United States, with average out-of-pocket costs rising fourfold, according to a recent report by Truven that was commissioned by three health care groups. The average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care was about $30,000 for a vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section, with commercial insurers paying out an average of $18,329 and $27,866, the report found.

Women with insurance pay out of pocket an average of $3,400, according to a survey by Childbirth Connection, one of the groups behind the maternity costs report. Two decades ago, women typically paid nothing other than a small fee if they opted for a private hospital room or television.

How long until American families start going to Canada to give birth? For all that conservatives complain of so-called “anchor babies,” by foreigners supposedly coming to the U.S. to give birth, doesn’t it make sense for everyone who can to flee to a country where you can give birth for free? Does it cost more to give birth in Canada or pay for things that should be but aren’t provided by the government in the United States?

The Modern Company Store

[ 59 ] July 1, 2013 |

We think of the company store as a relic of the Gilded Age, of one-company towns dominating the lives of their workers. We left this behind with the New Deal, right? Well, we did leave it behind but like the rest of the Gilded Age, a new form of the company store is coming back with a vengeance, with debit cards that force workers to pay high fees to use their hard-earned wages.

This population — people who tend to use few, if any, bank services — is swelling. About 10 million households in the United States do not use a bank at all, up from nine million four years ago, according to estimates from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. And 24 million households that do have a bank account still use expensive financial services like prepaid cards, the agency said.

For banks that are looking to recoup billions of dollars in lost income from a spate of recent limits on debit and credit card fees, issuing payroll cards can be lucrative — the products were largely untouched by recent financial regulations. As a result, some of the nation’s largest banks are expanding into the business, banking analysts say.

The lack of regulation in the payroll card market, while alluring for some of the issuers, can potentially leave cardholders swimming in fees. Take the example of inactivity fees that penalize customers for infrequently using their cards. The Federal Reserve has banned such fees for credit and debit cards, but no protections exist on prepaid cards. Cards used by more than two dozen major retailers have inactivity fees of $7 or more, according to a review of agreements.

Some employees can also be hit with $25 overdraft fees, called “balance protection,” on some of the prepaid cards. Under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, banks with more than $10 billion in assets are barred from levying overdraft fees on customers’ checking accounts.

Many fees are virtually impossible to dodge, some employees say. A Victoria’s Secret employee, Bintou Kamara, for example, said it cost her $1.50 just to transfer money from her Citi payroll card to her checking account.

Let’s be clear–debit cards replacing paychecks should be an illegal practice and it is an outrage that it is not illegal. Wages should be paid in one way–with a check for the full amount.

And since no one can trust banks anymore and there’s no way for many workers to use their money, we might as well go back to another old staple of the Gilded Age economy:

But she grew tired of being charged $1.75, in addition to the A.T.M.’s fees, to withdraw cash. After a tip from a co-worker, Ms. McLemore realized she could reduce her charges if she took out all her wages once a month. Now, supplied with one of the most modern banking products, Ms. McLemore has a decidedly old-fashioned way of handling her pay: it is stacked in a shoe box in her closet in $10s and $20s.

Can a political slogan built around not being crucified upon a cross of debit card fees be far behind?

And You Thought This Supreme Court Session Was Bad

[ 10 ] July 1, 2013 |

Rich Yeselson with a good overview of how the Supreme Court is likely to eviscerate card check for unions next year:

The circuit court panel remanded back to the district court so that it “can consider the § 302 claim and determine the reason why UNITE and Mardi Gras agreed to cooperate with one another.” This outcome and the ambiguity of the 11th Circuit decision prompted both sides of the litigation to seek a hearing before the Supreme Court (although, interestingly, the solicitor general, on behalf of the Obama Administration, urged the Court to let the 11th Circuit’s decision stand). The consequences could be highly significant. The Roberts Court could decide to go beyond the 11th Circuit’s decision and reaffirm the legality of card-check agreements, a pervasive feature of labor-management relations today. Or it could hold that section 302 of Taft-Hartley makes all such agreements illegal, and thus remove one of the only remaining effective organizing strategies for use by private-sector unions.

But taking a hard line against the conditions that undergird card-check agreements would also put the Court in the anomalous position of limiting the rights of companies to reach organizing agreements with unions on their own terms—in a sense, a broad reading of section 302 could be construed as impinging upon the rights of businesses, not just unions. Still, in this as in all of its litigation, the NRWLDF understands what it is up to, and it is not to enable union organizing. Given that the Roberts Court has been widely acknowledged to be perhaps the most pro-business Supreme Court in the past 70 years, the labor movement might be faced with a court decision based upon a highly creative reading of a section of the Taft-Hartley Act that might have shocked even Sen. Taft and Rep. Hartley themselves.

Every Roberts Court decision moves us closer to the Gilded Age.

The Decline of Driving

[ 58 ] June 30, 2013 |

Really fascinating analysis of the decline of car culture. I tend to believe it to be true, particularly among young people. And I don’t think it’s an ideological rejection of cars per se nor is it a response to climate change I don’t think. Rather, it’s just changing values, different kinds of consumer goods providing status, different ideas about what makes up the good life. All of which is probably worse for the car companies than an ideological shift since that seems easier for them to combat through advertising or another change in fashion.

Via Atrios

A Journey

[ 17 ] June 30, 2013 |

If you haven’t read E.J. Graff’s personal history of moving from a radical queer activist to “mainstream and married,” you owe it to yourself to do so.

More Bangladesh

[ 4 ] June 30, 2013 |

The problem with this article on the power that garment factory owners wield in Bangladeshi politics, making the prosecution of owners of factories where workers die almost impossible, is that it completely ignores the relationship between those factory owners and the multinational apparel companies that make this all possible. Focusing the blame strictly on Bangladeshi problems lets Walmart, Gap, and other companies off the hook for a system where they hold a huge amount of responsibility.

Another Victim

[ 60 ] June 29, 2013 |

Jim Hudson, who played a key role in the 1969 Super Bowl, has died of Parkinson’s related-trauma, likely, as he believed, another victim of the NFL’s casual and dismissive response to head injuries.

Bangladeshi Trade Privileges Suspended

[ 16 ] June 29, 2013 |

In a move pleasing to the AFL-CIO, the Obama Administration has taken what I think is an unprecedented step in suspending trade privileges for Bangladesh after the building collapse that killed 1100 garment workers this spring. The labor federation had pushed for such an action all the way since 2007 because of that nation’s consistent disregard for worker safety.

Honestly, this is not that important of a move. Bangladesh is pretty mad about it, but it’s more that they lost face than real economic burden. For one, the garment industry is not covered by these privileges and that’s about 95% of Bangladeshi imports to the U.S. More likely is that the U.S. is hoping European nations do the same, which would put slightly more pressure on Bangladesh since they have more non-garment trade in the country.

The Generalized System of Preferences, which is designed to boost the economies of developing nations, covers less than 1 percent of Bangladesh’s nearly $5 billion in exports to the U.S., its largest market. The benefits don’t cover the lucrative garment sector but Bangladesh’s government was anxious to keep them.

The action may not exact a major and immediate economic toll, but it carries a reputational cost and might deter American companies from investing in the country, one of the world’s poorest.

This is all fine and good. The Bangladeshi government does suck on these issues, what with its murdering union organizers and such. Putting pressure on it is a positive. But the real power behind improving working conditions is the apparel companies. The government needs to pressure the companies to improve conditions. Once again, the only real way to protect workers is to have international safety and health standards that are both legally enforceable in the country of origin and that contractors are still liable for if their subcontractors violate them. One could create these standards with various levels of stringency, but at the minimum, basic workplace safety, exposure, and pollution laws should not only be applicable, but workers around the world should be able to sue the companies in the corporate country of origin.

I know we are nowhere near this happening. But the textile industry has exploited workers for over a century in the worst way. Why things never really improve in that industry is capital mobility while laws and regulations remain tied to place. It is time to make law as mobile as capital.

As it is, the concern is that U.S. companies will invest in Vietnam or Indonesia or Cambodia, taking jobs away from Bangladeshi workers who need them and who are losing them simply because a couple of particularly horrific accidents took place in their country. Those workers want reforms, not to lose their jobs. We need to craft responses that encourage workplace safety, worker empowerment to improve their own lives, and continues to have people work and earn money for their families.

The Worst People in the World

[ 27 ] June 29, 2013 |

The North Carolina legislature for another in a string of extremist laws that tear the state’s once fairly robust safety net apart in order to appease plutocrat Art Pope:

Starting next week, North Carolina—which has the fifth highest jobless rate in the country—will become the only state in the union with no safety net for the long-term jobless. Thanks to reforms in the state’s unemployment insurance laws, North Carolina’s 71,000-plus long-term unemployed residents will lose access to the federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.

North Carolina is losing eligibility to the federal program because of a new law, signed by the governor in February of this year, which reduces the number of weeks that unemployed people are eligible for state-funded benefits and cuts the maximum weekly benefit amount by roughly one third, from $535 to $350. It is the latter provision that has cost North Carolina workers its eligibility: States looking to receive federal EUC money are forbidden from cutting weekly benefits. The federal government granted a special exemption from that rule to four other states last year, North Carolina’s request for a similar exemption was ignored.

“I would call these cuts obscene,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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