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Enforceable Standards

[ 8 ] August 13, 2013 |

I endorse all of Robert Kuttner’s essay on the need for enforceable standards in the garment industry as the only way disasters like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh can be prevented. Kuttner rightly points out that there are precedents for creating these standards:

NAFTA was approved by Congress in 1993, over the fierce objection of the unions and with about two-thirds of House Democrats voting no. Clinton got it through mainly with the support of Republicans. When Clinton came back for new authority in 1997 to negotiate more trade deals, the House rejected his request. So the administration began discussions with the unions to see what kind of labor provisions might win their support. The administration was particularly eager to make a trade agreement with Cambodia, which was just emerging from the Killing Fields years under the Khmer Rouge and desperately needed access to U.S. consumer markets. In those years, textile and apparel imports were allocated according to a national quota system, known as the Multi-Fiber Arrangement. In yearlong discussions with Clinton officials, leaders of the apparel and textile union UNITE proposed a novel approach. As part of the trade deal, the Cambodian government would enforce workers’ rights to organize and join unions. If Cambodia kept its word, it would benefit from a significant increase in its import quotas. “The administration didn’t exactly take our version,” recalls Mark Levinson, one of the union’s architects of the plan. “We proposed more power for unions and workers in Cambodia. They accepted the broad idea of trading a quota increase for labor rights but brought in the ILO to oversee it.”

Thus did the U.S.–Cambodia free-trade deal come to include the world’s only enforceable labor rights as part of a trade agreement. Under the U.S.–Cambodia Bilateral Textile Agreement, signed in January 1999, Cambodia received a bonus export quota to the U.S. if its labor practices were found to be in compliance. Thanks to the agreement, Cambodia’s clothing exports increased from $26 million in 1995 to $1.9 billion in 2004, representing 80 percent of its industrial exports. Wages increased, and unions not only gained a foothold in the apparel industry but also were able to negotiate contracts with major hotels such as Raffles. But under another trade pact, the entire multi-fiber quota system was gradually phased out over a ten-year period ending in 2004, and fashion brands were now able to look for the cheapest producer worldwide. Freed from quota constraints, China quickly became the world’s largest exporter of clothing, other nations cut costs to match China’s price, and the United States gave up its leverage to reward Cambodia for respecting labor rights.

By 2004, Cambodia’s factory owners were repressing trade unions, hauling union leaders into court and holding them financially responsible for losses due to strikes. Government, fearing a loss of Cambodia’s global market share and no longer having any reward for enforcing workers’ rights, was siding with the industry. The popular leader of Cambodia’s largest union, Chea Vichea, was assassinated. Between 2001 and 2011, wages in Cambodia’s garment industry fell 17 percent. The ILO’s monitoring program continues, but cooperation with it has evaporated. Factories have shifted more workers to short-term employment contracts. Trade union members are routinely fired. Illegal overtime has increased, as has child labor. This deterioration has intensified even though the purchasers of garments made in Cambodia are international brands such as Nike, Disney, and H&M, all of which have corporate codes of conduct.

This is not the only example of the American government getting involved successfully to prevent a race to the bottom. So frequently, defenders of capitalism say that there’s nothing governments can do short of old-school protectionism to prevent the exploitation of workers overseas, but this is patently untrue. The Cambodia example is one. Early 20th century laws that improved the lives of sailors around the world is another. A third is banning products made by slave labor (or from endangered species for that matter, which is also applicable here). In fact, the U.S. government can do a great deal. It just chooses not to.

State Change

[ 64 ] August 13, 2013 |

The Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico (and presumably Chihuahua as well, but the Mexican side of the drought is completely ignored by most environmental journalists) is undergoing what ecologists call “state change,” where the grasslands are declining into a permanent scrub desert that radically transforms the ecosystem. This has resulted from a combination of climate change and overgrazing. The overgrazing create enormous ecological degradation, but that could be restored at least to some extent under the old ecological conditions. Now, it seems highly unlikely.

The future of human habitation in the American southwest is quite unclear with a non-zero possibility that cities from Denver to Las Vegas to Phoenix to El Paso could be more or less abandoned over the next century because the environment (specifically water supplies) simply won’t be able to carry this many people in those places. This would be catastrophic to the economy, although perhaps not more so than the near certainty that Miami is doomed and probably New Orleans as well.

The Decline of the Oregon Republican Party

[ 51 ] August 13, 2013 |

When I was a kid, the Oregon Republican Party was a real and legitimate enterprise. It elected senators that remained in office for a very long time (Mark Hatfield, Bob Packwood, before that Wayne Morse even if he eventually switched parties). It elected governors like Vic Atiyeh and Tom McCall. It could win the state legislature.

Then the state changed and the state Republican Party changed. As the state moved away from the timber industry and toward a urban focus, the Republicans decided to emulate their brethren in Idaho and Alabama and take up ever crazier positions (in truth, Idaho used to be a fairly bipartisan and moderate state as well, electing politicians like Frank Church, but at least the party and the state populace moved in the same direction). Now it can’t win anything. In a massive Republican landslide year like 2010, the best it can do is run a former TrailBlazer who doesn’t believe in anything except that he doesn’t like paying taxes and still lose the governorship.

Now the Oregon Republican Party has named a new chairman that really sums up its nuttiness. He’s Art Robinson, who has been the sacrificial lamb to run against Peter DeFazio for Congress a couple of times and is a true nutjob who among other things thinks that nuclear waste is safe and that public schools should be abolished.

So as you can see, the Oregon Republican Party is on its way back to statewide relevance.

A Little Treason in Defense of Slavery for Your Sunday

[ 81 ] August 11, 2013 |

Just in case you get into any causes of the Civil War discussion during Sunday barbecue with the in-laws or something. Here’s E.S. Dargan’s speech at the Alabama secession convention:

I feel impelled, Mr. President, to vote for this Ordinance by an overruling necessity. Years ago I was convinced that the Southern States would be compelled either to separate from the North, by dissolving the Federal Government, or they would be compelled to abolish the institution of African Slavery. This, in my judgment, was the only alternative; and I foresaw that the South would be compelled, at some day, to make her selection. The day is now come, and Alabama must make her selection, either to secede from the Union, and assume the position of a sovereign, independent State, or she must submit to a system of policy on the part of the Federal Government that, in a short time, will compel her to abolish African Slavery.

Mr. President, if pecuniary loss alone were involved in the abolition of slavery, I should hesitate long before I would give the vote I now intend to give. If the destruction of slavery entailed on us poverty alone, I could bear it, for I have seen poverty and felt its sting. But poverty, Mr. President, would be one of the least of the evils that would befall us from the abolition of African slavery. There are now in the slaveholding States over four millions of slaves; dissolve the relation of master and slave, and what, I ask, would become of that race? To remove them from amongst us is impossible. History gives us no account of the exodus of such a number of persons. We neither have a place to which to remove them, nor the means of such removal. They therefore must remain with us; and if the relation of master and slave be dissolved, and our slaves turned loose amongst us without restraint, they would either be destroyed by our own hands– the hands to which they look, and look with confidence, for protection– or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded. The former result would take place, and we ourselves would become the executioners of our own slaves. To this extent would the policy of our Northern enemies drive us; and thus would we not only be reduced to poverty, but what is still worse, we should be driven to crime, to the commission of sin; and we must, therefore, this day elect between the Government formed by our fathers (the whole spirit of which has been perverted), and POVERTY AND CRIME! This being the alternative, I cannot hesitate for a moment what my duty is. I must separate from the Government of my fathers, the one under which I have lived, and under which I wished to die. But I must do my duty to my country and my fellow beings; and humanity, in my judgment, demands that Alabama should separate herself from the Government of the United States.

If I am wrong in this responsible act, I hope my God may forgive me; for I am not actuated, as I think, from any motive save that of justice and philanthropy!

Justice and philanthropy indeed.

Worker Centers

[ 11 ] August 11, 2013 |

Stephen Greenhouse has an outstanding article on worker centers, particularly the Texas-based Workers Defense Project, that provide union-like groups to some of the poorest workers in the United States, especially undocumented immigrants. Worker centers have provided a lot of inspiration in the last few years to labor activists since they can do a lot of good without the difficulties of negotiating U.S. labor law and extremely difficult unionization campaigns. The long-term viability of this type of organizing is unknown. As Greenhouse points out, the worker centers are heavily reliant upon grants and providers can be fickle. The AFL-CIO and the large internationals should increase their funding of these centers, but in the end, they need to see some kind of return on their dollar in order to make this viable. In any case, these are people creating real victories and empowerment for working people in an impossible anti-union climate and in our most difficult to organize states. They deserve our attention and support.

It’s also worth noting that Texas does not require workers’ compensation for construction workers. When Rick Perry talks about Texas’ “business-friendly climate,” the dictionary definition of that term is a dead worker.

…..Also, these worker centers are starting to freak out Republicans.

Where is Fukushima? Where is West? Where is Bangladesh?

[ 77 ] August 11, 2013 |

Pierce makes an excellent point about how our 24-hour news cycle eliminates extraordinarily important stories that deserve long-term coverage. This reality is a huge boon to business and the corrupt, who can rest assured that if stories about their malfeasance do come out, they will disappear soon.

Hey, is there another royal birth on the horizon?

Nation’s Least Friendly Schools to LGBT Students

[ 91 ] August 11, 2013 |

Schools are listed here with no comment provided.

The list of most LGBT unfriendly schools is largely a repeat of last year with 16 returning schools and four replacements (in bold):

Grove City College, (Grove City, Pa.)
Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, Va.)
College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, Mo.)
Wheaton College (Wheaton, Ill.)
University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah)
Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, N.C.)
Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
University of Rhode Island (Kingston, R.I.)
University of Dallas (Irving, Texas)
Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas)
Baylor University (Waco, Texas)
Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.)
Auburn University (Auburn, Ala.)
Colgate University (Hamilton, N.Y.)
Wofford College (Spartanburg, S.C.)
Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, Mich.)
Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.)
Pepperdine University (Malibu, Calif.)
University of Wyoming (Laramie, Wyo.)

Charter Schools Do Better On Standardized Tests: One of Rheeism’s Many Lies

[ 58 ] August 10, 2013 |

Gary Rubinstein does some number crunching from New York school test report that showed declining scores and what he finds exposes more Rheeism lies:

In the Stephanie Simon report she mentions that KIPP Star and Democracy Prep hadn’t done so well with their proficiency rate, but she doesn’t mention how far they had dropped. Out of over 500 schools, which includes about 35 charter schools, of the one hundred largest drops, 22 were charter schools.

The most stunning example is the famed Harlem Village Academy which had 100% passing in 2012, but only 21% passing in 2013 for a 79% drop (you can see that sad dot all the way at the right of the scatter plot). Democracy Prep Harlem Charter, run and staffed by many TFAers, dropped 84% in 2012 to 13% in 2013. KIPP Amp dropped from 79% in 2012 to just 9% in 2013. The Equity Project (TEP) which pays $125,000 for the best teachers had finally gotten some test scores they can brag about with 76% in 2012, but that has now sunk to just 20% in 2013. The Bronx Charter School Of Excellence, which recently received money from a $4.5 million grant to help public schools emulate what they do, dropped from 96% in 2012 to 33% in 2013. So these are the schools that are the red ‘outliers’ hovering near the bottom right of the scatter plot. In general, the average charter school went down by 51 percentage points compared to 34 percentage points for the average public school. The most plausible explanation for charters dropping so much more than public schools is that their test prep methods were not sufficient for the more difficult tests. In other words “you’re busted.”

I just don’t see how the ‘reformers’ can reconcile these statistics with their statement that these lower scores are a good thing since we are now being honest about where we stand. The low scores in general do not decisively prove anything. The cutoff scores for passing were an arbitrary choice by some politicians in Albany. But the evidence that charters are certainly not working the miracles they claim is very clear from this data.

Ouch. It’s all about the data for education reformers, right? Well the data suggests that the promises reformers tell about charter schools aren’t coming true.

Hackneyed Anti-Union Historical References

[ 123 ] August 10, 2013 |

Dylan Matthews responded on Twitter to my brief criticism of his column on Thursday , leading to a good debate that eventually included Mike Konczal, Jamelle Bouie, David Roberts, Ned Resnikoff, and other smart people. Matthews admitted that he could see a scenario where there was no minimum wage at all, which I disagree with strongly. He claims to be for reducing inequality (which I believe does support) but shows no understanding about the importance of giving workers dignity and power to control their own lives. When I challenged Matthews’ claim that AEI economists had the interest of working-class people in mind (and I do not believe they do care about working-class people. Otherwise they wouldn’t be working for the American Enterprise Institute) by saying that if these were such good ideas, maybe actual working-class organizations like labor unions would support them, Matthews responded unfortunately, tweeting:

This is the anti-union equivalent of saying that we can’t take Democrats seriously on civil rights today because Robert Byrd was a Klan member in 1946. Who cares what George Meany’s foreign policy was in 1972? What on earth does that have to do with anything in 2013? But you hear this all the time. Meany’s support of Vietnam and hatred of McGovern remains a bog-standard anti-union argument from center-left people who are not comfortable with unions. At least mentioning Teamsters corruption and Jimmy Hoffa is so past its sell-by date that it’s not respectable to trot that one out anymore. But outside of saying that maybe we shouldn’t care all that much what AFL-CIO executives think about foreign policy, I can’t see what AFL leadership’s position on Cold War foreign policy 41 years after it happened matters one iota to the present and I certainly can’t understand what possible relevance it has to any economic debate today. Not only was that decision extremely controversial within the AFL-CIO, leading to many internationals openly bucking Meany, but the American labor movement also had a lot of other priorities in the 1960s and 1970s that are well worth taking seriously. Maybe Matthews could have mentioned union support for the Humphrey-Hawkins bill of 1978 that could have guaranteed full employment. Or the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Or increases in the minimum wage. Oh right, he doesn’t really support that one.

As regards Nixon’s health plan, while it might sound good compared what came after, it was hardly considered some great progressive bill in 1974. Unions believed it could be better. Ted Kennedy did not support it either. Nixon wanted to end Medicaid and replace it with significant employee contributions to health plans that did not exist in 1974. The plan as a whole was not terrible, but taking Nixon seriously as a progressive president domestically only makes sense if we complete ignore both the congressional and social movement context of the period. On all progressive domestic programs, Nixon signed what he had to and weakened legislation when he could in order to mitigate opposition to what he really cared about–fighting communists and cracking down on hippies. Nixon was moved very little by actually providing quality health care to average Americans, although his plan, if enacted, might have created real improvements. With hindsight, labor maybe should have supported it, but that was far from clear at the time.

I told Matthews that he needed to read less conservative economists and more labor history. The more I think about it, the more I believe he to delve much deeper into twentieth century American history. I don’t mean that in a condescending way. In general, we should all read more history, but for an important writer to not have the contextual historical background to make arguments that pull from the past to discuss legislation or ideas in the present is a problem. In any case, it’d be nice if liberal-centrist columnists who don’t much value unions at least updated their arguments to include some events that took place after I was born nearly 40 years ago.

America’s First Sex Manual, 1766

[ 69 ] August 9, 2013 |

Very interesting.

And thus those nobler parts we see
For such the parts of generation be:
And they who carefully survey will find
Each part is fitted for the use design’d:
The purest blood we find if well we heed
Is in the testicles turn’d into seed:
Which by most proper channels is transmitted
Into the place by nature for it fitted:
With highest sense of pleasure to excite
In amorous combatants the more delight.
For in this work nature doth design
Profit and pleasure in one act to join.


The Tyranny of Consensus

[ 128 ] August 9, 2013 |

One chapter of my book is on Oregon reforestation cooperatives from the 1970s who found their countercultural work ideal disrupted when the Forest Service sprayed them with pesticides. One of the key members of the main cooperative, known as the Hoedads, was Gerry Mackie. After fifteen years working in the forest, Mackie went into academia, eventually ending up as a political theorist at the University of California-San Diego. I was reading his M.A. thesis the other day, which deals with the rise and fall of the cooperatives. This is what Mackie had to say about consensus decision-making, something I oppose with every fiber of my bones:

“In the late 1970s, some new members imported a belief popular on the liberal-left, that democracy requires consensus. Consensus groups could function, but were unstable and usually the first to fall. There are several problems. Those with the least to do elsewhere in life have the greatest power in the interminable consensus process. Trust, ironically, is absent, in that no delegation of decision is permitted. The thought of a meeting then becomes so horrifying that a larger and larger scope of decisions is left to informal leadership and clandestine process, an undemocratic outcome. Consensus is always biased to the status quo, but problems usually originate in the status quo; rapid external change worsens the conservative bias. Further, consensus invades the individual personality and demands conformity; dissenters may acquiesce but in doing so are implicitly judged to have compromised the moral ideal. The healthy legitimacy of openly holding different views becomes suspect. Finally, rational unanimity is impossible for a larger class of goals. Just to illustrate with a trivial example, suppose it is time to decide where the crew works in the Spring. Six people want to work in Montana because they have friends there. Two people want to work in California because they have friends there. Three people don’t care. Under majority rule, the crew goes to Montana, and those in the minority might feel they are owed a little deference in some future decision (know to political science as “logrolling”). Under consensus, the different sides are denied the legitimacy of their individual interests, because there is only one rational goal for the group, which one side or another must adopt, or the group disband. Under majority rule one is subordinate to shifting impersonal majorities, but under consensus one is permanently subordinated to every other member in the group.”

Right–consensus decision making is the opposite of democracy. Not only does it empower the person with nothing else going on in their life, but it places everyone under the tyranny of everyone else. Meetings are impossible and effectively, consensus decision-making is a sure fire way to destroy your movement. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and being outvoted. Unfortunately, too many of today’s social activists believe that such a thing as a consensus is possible, when in fact a consensus is the worst possible outcome.

This Day in Labor History: August 9, 1910

[ 33 ] August 9, 2013 |

On August 9, 1910, the first patent was issued for the electric washing machine. I am going to use this seemingly random event as a jumping off point to explore one of the most forgotten labor sectors in American history—unpaid domestic labor in the home. Like many household technologies of the twentieth century, the washing machine created radical changes to housework, almost entirely done by women. While Americans almost always embrace technological advances with the zeal of religious converts, in fact the larger effects of household technologies have been complex and not always great for the women engaged in domestic labor in the home.

I’m basing this argument off Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1983 book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. As Cowan points out, housework is the first form of labor humans are exposed to and through most of western history, it is the sector of work to which women have been delegated. The key transformation in this history was the arrival of the Industrial Revolution to the home in the late 19th century. Women always did productive labor, often unpaid, but in the earlier period that included canning, sewing, and other tasks that might bring income into the household. Women continued to produce domestic tasks in an industrialized household, but now the consumption of that work stayed solely within the home. The labor became entirely reproductive.

Cowan shows that despite the bold promises of industrial technology entering the household, the ultimate effects were complex. New technologies were sold as freeing women from generations of the boring drudgery that was household labor. There was a long history of trying to do this—many of the 19th century transcendental communities experimented in communal household labor precisely to free women to do more interesting things. When these went nowhere, the middle class hired people to do it for them. Technology again promised middle-class women a life of leisure. But while new tools may have made work easier, but it also meant that women had to do that work more often. The vacuum cleaner meant women cleaned their floors far more often than their mothers. The washing machine made cleaning clothes far easier. It also raised standards of cleanliness, meaning that women had to do laundry more often. Multiply this task by all the other tasks a woman now had to do to meet newly elevated middle-class standards of housework and you are talking a lot of work.

The washing machine itself came about as part of a larger process transforming the American home: electricity. In 1907, only 8% of American homes were wired for electricity, a number that jumped to almost 35% by 1920. With electricity, companies began developing a wide array of new appliances to sell to the modernized home. Electric fans, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines flooded the market. Soon electric stoves and refrigerators would follow. Taken together, these would revolutionize household labor. The work of women had increasingly separated from that of men in the 19th century (although this was often more true in aspiration than reality for the working class) with the rise of the doctrine of separate spheres and the creation of the modern factory. This would only increase with new technologies in the 20th. It also made household workers far more productive.

One change these appliances created was a decline in hired domestic labor. Middle-class women often hired a laundress to do work. The electric machine meant the expense of hired help was not necessary. In 1900, there 1 was servant for every 15 households. By 1950, that dropped to 1 for every 42. But it also meant that the middle-class woman actually did the laundry herself now, and usually several times a week. The woman of the household did just as much work as before, but now without the help. Add to this the movement of children away from work (increasingly, even chores at home) to schools and the rise of a youth culture, and with each passing year, women became more like the sole worker in a factory of never-ending meals, laundry, diaper-changes, vacuuming, floor washing, window washing, dusting, etc.

Technologies did not inevitably lead us down this road. Cowan also argues for the possibility of eliminating much reproductive labor through these technologies, a road not taken. She looks at the history of commercial laundries, noting they peaked in the 1920s, when the new technologies made it possible to take that sector of work out of the home entirely. But the electric washing machine killed the commercial laundry. Cowan argues, “The decline of the commercial laundry is, in fact, one of the few instances we have of a household function appearing to be well on its way to departing from the home—only to return.” (107). The creation of the modern automatic machine in the late 1930s made this history. While many at the time and today looked at washing machines as a good investment because of the cost of doing laundry, Cowan points out that only makes sense if you calculate women’s time as worth nothing. Given the significant labor of doing laundry yourself, especially if you have a family, valuing your time even at the minimum wage may make commercial laundries a sensible option. Yet even today, most people either have their own laundry machines or do it themselves at laundromats.

There are somewhat legitimate critiques of this line of feminist inquiry into technology and labor. For one, Cowan focuses too much on the middle class and ignores working-class women who not only lost their jobs as housekeepers through these technologies but had to find other employment and try to hold up to heightened middle-class standards of housework. Cowan also downplays just how hard some of this labor was pre-technology in order to make her larger points. I’ve read plenty of descriptions of just what doing laundry was like when you had to haul and boil water. Let’s just say that I’d embrace a new technology too. In a related point, she ignores rural women for whom these tasks were the most onerous. But this is a relatively minor critique of a brilliant book that provides an important line of argument for thinking about household labor.

This is the 71st post in this series. Other posts are archived here.