The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.
Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.
Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.
The men the Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global commerce stream.
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
This is why in order to fight these conditions, we must be able to hold contracting corporations legally responsible for the actions of their suppliers. It is Walmart, Kroger, etc. that are demanding the fish at a very low price. Just like with apparel, this puts downward pressure on wages, to the point of using slave labor wherever possible. Right now, there is no way to hold these corporations accountable. At best, one local operation gets busted but then it just gets replaced by something else almost or just as bad. That’s not acceptable.
I know Cleveland fairly well, though I haven’t spent much time there in the last few years. Much of the city is obviously a mess. I love the place more than pretty much any other city east of the Mississippi and there is so much potential for cool things to happen there. One of the highlights of the city is the neighborhood Ohio City, which has a bunch of cool bars and breweries and restaurants and markets. It’s growing and this is positive. The problem is, as these things tend to be, is that the people who are spurring it are enormously egotistical yuppie neoliberals who make me want to puke. I guess this shouldn’t matter. But as this profile of some of the movers and shakers in Ohio City suggests, when they start thinking of themselves as Congressional material, it moves beyond the personally repulsive into the really problematic.
There are signs Veysey is serious about the “doing good” part: After the Obama campaign, Veysey tried his hand at being a candidate. In 2012 he ran for Congress against Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich. Veysey’s politics during that campaign were those of a generation growing up in the age of neoliberalism: He was left to the two more established candidates on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, and more to the right on economic ones. Veysey is okay with things like NAFTA, a liberal bogeyman; he thinks America’s debt is one of the country’s biggest issues; he thinks underperforming schools should be starved of money.
Veysey only captured 4 percent of the vote, but the run nonetheless whetted his appetite for more do-goodery.
“I thought that I could have brought value when I ran for office,” Veysey said. “But you don’t have to be in office to bring value to a community.”
Still, there are major differences between being the King of Hingetown and a congressman. Political leaders are, at least in theory, meant to represent everyone, not just the well-off. And Hingetown is definitely not meant for everyone.
This guy is gross enough without running for Congress as a neoliberal who thinks Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kuchinch are too far to the left on economics. I mean, if there’s one thing that Cleveland needs, it’s a pro-NAFTA congressman who wants to see more Ohio jobs shipped overseas and more poor schools closed and replaced with capitalist schools! And if his goal is to make Ohio City a haven for the rich, which seems likely regardless of the positive things happening there now, that’s also a bad thing.
On the other hand, doing something with the many struggling neighborhoods of Cleveland is really important. So I’m torn.
Many will remember in April 2013 when a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, which improperly stored chemicals, exploded. Fourteen men were killed and more than 300 people were injured. The facility was non-union. Stronger workplace protections perhaps could have saved those men’s lives. But since then, Rick Perry and the state of Texas have continued to beat their anti-union drum and have not managed to pass a single new law or regulation to make workplaces safer in their state.
The images of that factory in Texas exploding quickly went viral, ricocheting throughout social media. The tragic photographs from the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire should capture our attention just as much. They may look like distant history but they show a society that did nothing to protect its workers. One hundred and five years later, we cannot make the mistake of thinking the battle is won. The richest country on Earth can afford to protect its workers. And the people of this country deserve to be led by men and women who care whether Americans can get home safely to their families at the end of their shift. The young women who died on that fateful day deserve at least that much.
Textile companies that make clothing for transnational brands in El Salvador are accused of forging alliances with gang members to make death threats against workers and break up their unions, according to employees who talked to IPS and to international organisations.
Workers at maquila or maquiladora plants – which import materials and equipment duty-free for assembly or manufacturing for re-export – speaking on condition of anonymity said that since 2012 the threats have escalated, as part of the generalised climate of violence in this Central American country.
“They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker,” one worker at the LD El Salvador company in the San Marcos free trade zone, a complex of factories to the south of the Salvadoran capital, told IPS.
She has worked as a sewing machine operator since 2004 and belongs to the Sindicato de la Industria Textil Salvadoreña (SITS) textile industry union. Some 780 people work for LD El Salvador, a Korean company that produces garments for the firms Náutica and Walmart.
“They told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company,” she said.
She added that LD executives hired gang members to make sure the threats directly reached the workers who belong to SITS, on the factory premises.
The warnings have had a chilling effect, because only 60 of the 155 workers affiliated with the union are still members, she said. Many quit, scared of falling victim to the young gangs, organised crime groups known in Central America as “maras”, which are responsible for a large part of the murders every day in this impoverished country.
This is all implicitly approved of by American trade policy and of course by Walmart and the other developed world corporations contracting in El Salvador. Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership would double down on this global race to the bottom. Today is the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That fire happened in part because the Uprising of the 20,000, 2 years earlier, failed to force sweatshop owners to improve working conditions. One reason for that was that those sweatshops hired prostitutes to start fights with striking workers, giving the police an excuse to bust the heads of the strikers. Very little has changed except that American companies have shifted the nation of production away from the U.S. None of this will change until we create a global legal system that holds these corporations accountable for the actions of their suppliers, giving workers in El Salvador and other nations legal recourse in the national home of corporate origin to fight against these horrible things. Right now, unlike in 1909 and 1911, it’s all out of our sight. That has to change if we don’t want Walmart suppliers employing murderous gangs to keep wages low.
On March 25, 1947, the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine in Centralia, Illinois exploded, killing 111 workers. This disaster, caused by extremely unsafe working conditions from employers utterly indifferent to the lives of their workers, helped move forward, however slowly, the nation’s push toward safer working conditions in coal mines.
In the Centralia No. 5 mine, workers labored up to 3 miles underground. In the late afternoon of March 25, coal dust exploded. Fire flashed through the tunnels. Poison gas that builds up after a mine explosion, known as afterdamp, began accumulating in the mine, severely threatening the lives of those not killed in the explosion and fire. 142 men were in the mine. 65 died from burns and 45 by afterdamp. An additional individual died of afterdamp in the hospital. Only 31 miners survived. As the surviving workers began succumbing to the gas, they scratched final goodbyes to loved ones on the mine walls. One scribbled “”Dear wife, Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.” Sad stuff.
Bringing out the dead in Centralia
In the six months prior to the explosion, the Centralia mine had undergone two inspections by federal mine inspectors and both had found serious violations of the Federal Mine Safety Code. The second investigation took place a mere five days before the explosion. But the enforcement power of the government was weak and nothing was done. Centralia did have to pay small fines, but the company decided it was a good value to just pay the fines rather than fix the safety in the mines. A year before the explosion, UMWA Local 52 recording secretary William Rowenkampf wrote to Illinois governor Dwight Green, asking him to get involved in the unsafe conditions at the Centralia mine. He wrote:
This is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 of the Centralia Coal Co. before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Green ignored the request.
United Mine Workers of America president John Lewis made workplace health and safety a major issue for his union as World War II concluded. In 1946, Lewis led over 300,000 workers on strike in demand for an employer-paid health plan. President Harry Truman responded by seizing the mines and Lewis began negotiating with Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug (Interior has regulatory responsibility for most mines) instead of the employers. The Krug-Lewis Accord was signed in May 1946 and established a jointly operated health plan between the UMWA and the government funded by a five cent tax per ton of coal. However, the operators resented both federal intervention and the entire agreement and Krug did little to enforce it either. The miners continued to seethe over the lack of safety and health on the job.
Lewis announced a six-day national walkout after the mine disaster, using the union’s right to call memorial days to remember dead comrades. Lewis was furious. He attacked Krug for failing to enforce existing mine safety legislation. He stated, “The killing must stop. Coal is heavily saturated with the blood of too many brave men and the tears of too many widows and orphans.” Lewis demanded that President Truman fire Krug. Truman refused (and it’s not like Lewis had that many friends in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in 1947 anyway). Rather, Truman and his advisers believed that Lewis called the walkout as a way around an injunction against a previously planned strike to begin April 1. However, this did elicit a response from the Truman administration. Krug ordered 518 mines to remain closed for federal inspection even after the UMWA walkout ended.
Unlike the many mine disasters of the past, this one got the attention of Congress. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on mine safety. Lewis furiously attacked Krug for failing to enforce the heath plan of the previous year. He testified:
If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.
John L. Lewis testifying before Congress, 1947
Congress began to move toward a more permanent regime of federal mine inspection, which was extremely weak in 1947. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution urging the Bureau of Mines to continue inspecting mines for safety and passing along any found violations to the respective state regulatory agencies. But of course state regulations are almost always extremely pro-business and the reporting to the states provision demonstrates just how weak the federal presence was in workplace safety as late as 1947. Congress also passed Public Law 328, which asked the states to comply with federal mining regulations. Yes, asked them. There was no enforcement. Of the 26 coal mining states, 17 reported fully, 2 partially, and 7 not at all. Even Congress wasn’t really that serious here; the Senate’s appropriation for the investigation of the disaster was all of $5000. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Mine Safety admitted that only 2 mines in the entire nation actually were safe for workers.
Eventually, in 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act passed which for the first time gave federal mine inspectors the ability to shut down mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Yet this still remained a relatively weak law and it would not be until 1969 and miners’ own activism against the indifference of their union leadership at that time before a strong act would pass to protect them on the job. Even today, the health and safety of coal miners is treated with contempt by companies and indifference by the regulatory agencies of the government.
To remember the Centralia mine victims, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Dying Miner.”
Longreads.com was not messing around when it chose that name. Sometimes, things are now long reads primarily because the internet makes it possible, as opposed to using the most effective length to get a point across. That’s the case with this extraordinarily long excerpt of Nikil Saval’s new book on the development of white collar labor in the 19th century. Despite (or maybe because of) this, if you want to know about how explicitly white collar labor developed, with a sort of class consciousness of its own, this is a really good place to start. Given how culturally valued white collar labor is over blue collar in 2015 America and how this was very much the opposite before the Civil War, it’s worth exploring this history.
Richard Cohen, America’s least favorite racist uncle, just can’t help himself, calling outrage over cops murdering black people in places like Ferguson, “the liberal Benghazi.” Fred Hiatt of course is fine with this.
Since she lacks a credible primary challenger, it might be awhile before we know whether Hillary Clinton is as in the pocket of the wealthy education privatizers and Rheeists as Barack Obama. Given her close relations with the teachers’ unions and the Wall Street Democrats, she is definitely being pulled in different directions. Where she does eventually fall may tell us much about what her presidency might be like for progressives.