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Fallout from Bangladesh

[ 33 ] May 13, 2013 |

I am highly skeptical of the real motives here, but I am glad Wal-Mart is publicly calling for improved worker safety in Bangladesh. That said, it’s pretty clear that a) Wal-Mart could play a far more active role in the conditions of the workers who make its goods than it actually does and b) this is a pretty obvious and probably fairly meaningless attempt to protect its corporate brand from blame for the working conditions created in no small part by how it demands such low costs from its suppliers.

On the other hand, this is how international pressure can start making a difference. Companies making token efforts at workplace safety can become real efforts for workplace safety if attention remains focused on their actions. So this is a positive development.

In a related story, can we crowdsource a good term like “greenwashing” for corporations making token moves to pretend they care about worker safety? All ideas welcome. Someone on Twitter suggested “shirtwaisting” which I love but might be a bit obscure for general use.

Gun Nut Intimidation of Academics

[ 40 ] May 13, 2013 |

Kutztown University in Pennsylvania has decided to allow guns on its campus. This is a terrible move, but this isn’t the reason for the post. Rather, it’s the vitriol anyone even questioning the idea has received from gun nuts. This makes what happened to me seem reasonable by comparison.

This past week, Kutztown students, faculty and staff were first learning of the university’s new weapons policy which opens the campus to guns. The new policy, according to the Morning Call, will give ”Kutztown more gun freedom than most of the state-owned universities, even more than the sample policy suggested by the state’s attorneys,” despite statements to the contrary by the university’s president, Javier Cevallos. It didn’t take long before the radical, pro-gun playbook showed its ugly face. Shortly after he first heard about the policy under consideration at an April meeting of Kutztown’s Administrative Council, the president of the faculty union, Dr. Paul Quinn, began receiving anonymous death threats. Faculty first learned of these threats at a May 9th meeting of the union’s Representative Council and the Morning Call reported on the threats this past Friday.

I spoke with Quinn over the weekend about what happened.

Quinn, a physics professor, said after his classes on Thursday, May 2, he walked into his office to find that someone slipped a folded note under his office door. “At first, I didn’t think anything of it,” he said. “I opened the note and it said, ‘Drop the gun issue or else.’”

Quinn said that after he read the note he immediately made several calls, including one to the Executive Director of Kutztown’s Human Resources department. She told Quinn to go to the police immediately. “I alerted my Chair and my Chair said yes, go.” Quinn and a union representative met with Kutztown University’s Director of Police Services and Acting Chief of Police, John Dillon shortly afterwards. “The only time I could get there was around two o’clock,” Quinn explained. “I had an office hour from 1:30 to 3:00. So, I normally would have been in my office. I went at two o’clock to deliver that note to Public Safety. When I got back an hour and a half later, there was a second note under the door. The second note said, ‘What scares you more, guns or death?’”

“What this means,” Quinn said, “is that someone was watching.”

“What’s weird is that I have not taken a position on this new policy,” Quinn said.

I mean, at least I was actually attacking American gun culture and calling for the repeal of the 2nd Amendment.

The Present and Future of Higher Education

[ 20 ] May 13, 2013 |

While The New Yorker runs a lengthy piece on the (mostly) awesomeness of MOOCs from a classically technologically fetishist standpoint (although it at least does present the objections to them), the students of one adjunct professor are crowdfunding his surgery for a broken leg because as an adjunct and provider for his family, he doesn’t qualify for health insurance.

A very telling pair of stories.

Today in Non-Phallic Historical Advertising Campaigns

[ 51 ] May 12, 2013 |

Nothing to see here.

From 1951.

This Day in Labor History: May 12, 1902

[ 19 ] May 12, 2013 |

On May 12, 1902, coal miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields went on strike. There were many strikes in the coal fields during the Gilded Age, but this one has special significance because the refusal of the industry to negotiate pushed the strike into the fall and placed urban Americans’ heating supplies in grave danger. That convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene in the strike, but unlike his predecessors Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland, he acted as a neutral arbitrator rather than use the U.S. military to crush the strike. This marked the first time in American history a president had involved himself in a labor dispute in any capacity other than strikebreaker.

Mineworker organizing had more than its shares of highs and lows in the period before the National Labor Relations Act. When the United Mineworkers of America achieved a victory, membership skyrocketed, but those victories were often met with great bitterness from industry and a determination to push labor relations back into the dark ages. Life for coal miners was indeed nasty, brutal, and short. Coal companies ruled their territory like medieval fiefdoms. Unsafe coal mines meant frequent explosions and massive deaths, high-priced company stores were often the only option for workers to buy anything, anti-union thugs were deployed to murder or beat anyone who seemed like a union organizer, etc. If you did live long enough, a slow painful death from black lung disease was a likely future. On September 6, 1869, 110 workers died in a fire at the Avondale Mine in Plymouth, PA. On January 27, 1891, 109 workers died at the Manmouth Mine in Mount Pleasant, PA. On June 28, 1896, 58 miners died at the Twin Mine in Pittston, PA.

Emerging from a mine shaft, Hazleton, PA

The United Mine Workers of America won a big victory in the bituminous mines of the Midwest in 1897, leading to improved wages and working conditions, as well as shorter hours. The union, led by its president John Mitchell, determined to build on that by organizing Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The success meant growth from 10,000 to 150,000 members and thus a much larger treasury to use to expand their gains. A small strike led to a victory in 1899. In 1900, another strike led Republican operative Mark Hanna to convince the mine owners to settle and pay a 10% wage increase in order to not hurt William McKinley’s chances in the election. With increased confidence but facing operators furious at concessions already granted, the UMWA increased its demands. It wanted union recognition, a pay raise, and shorter hours.

Anthracite miners, Pennsylvania.

Mitchell offered to arbitrate the differences, but owners representative George Baer, J.P. Morgan’s chosen point person on the strike, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and a man who truly hated unions, refused. On May 12, 100,000 miners walked off the job, about 80% of the workforce.

As the strike dragged on, Americans in the east began to worry about supplies of coal to heat their homes in the winter. This soon got the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt first looked into intervening in early June, but Attorney General Philander Knox told him he had no authority to do so. TR wasn’t so concerned with that and as the summer dragged into fall, his concern grew. The owners however didn’t care about the strike. They had produced too much coal early in 1902 and so had large supplies. Finally, TR acted as the nation’s population grew colder with each passing night, inviting UMWA president John Mitchell and the coal operators to the White House on October 3 to talk and settle the strike, making him the first president to mediate a labor conflict.

Mitchell agreed to call off the strike if the owners agreed to full presidential mediation and a small wage increase to show good faith. George Baer however refused to even think about bargaining with mere workers. He famously said, the “rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country.” The coal operators refused Roosevelt’s entreaties, even refusing to talk directly to Mitchell at the meeting. They walked out without a deal.

I have my problems with Theodore Roosevelt. He was a blowhard who used his advanced understanding of the media to promote himself throughout his life and slander his opponents, often unfairly. But if there’s one thing you don’t want to do to a man of that size of ego, it’s blow him off. Roosevelt was incensed with the coal operators. His response to the coal operators was a threat to nationalize the industry, sending in the U.S. military and taking the profits of the coal for the government. Mitchell wholeheartedly agreed with this, knowing that it meant the president had come down decisively on the side of the workers.

Editorial cartoon on Roosevelt taking on the coal operators.

Roosevelt’s threat finally forced J.P. Morgan and his coal operator stooges to the bargaining table after Secretary of War Elihu Root met personally with Morgan to inform him of the president’s plan. Agreeing to the presidential mediation, the two sides both sent representatives to testify before a commission. Representing the workers was Clarence Darrow, at the height of his career representing the nation’s poor and oppressed against corporate power. George Baer led the team for the mine operators. In his closing arguments, Baer summed up the plutocrat view toward the poor, saying, “”These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

On October 23, the UMWA ended the strike. It did not win everything. The commission did not grant the union exclusive bargaining rights. It did however grant a 10% wage increase and a reduction in hours worked per day from 10 to 9. They also received a mediating bargaining board in lieu of union recognition, which Mitchell declared close enough. It was one of the greatest victories in the history of the United Mineworkers in the pre-NLRB era.

This is the 61st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Can People Distinguish Pate from Dog Food?

[ 84 ] May 11, 2013 |

This evidently is a real study (PDF at link). The American Association of Wine Economists, who published this working paper, is run out of NYU.

And the answer to the question in the title is sort of, in that they tend to like the pate better than canned dog food but can’t identify which (out of 5 choices) is the actual dog food better than random.

Rios Montt

[ 51 ] May 10, 2013 |

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt found guilty of genocide. May the evil old monster die in prison. Of course, his supporters in the United States still hold major positions of importance within the Republican Party foreign party apparatus.

How to Tell Your Friends from the Japs

[ 157 ] May 10, 2013 |

This came up in comments to the anti-Chinese post from yesterday. Some of you have no doubt seen this, others have not. From Time Magazine, December 1941.

Fire Codes

[ 86 ] May 10, 2013 |

One thing about Texas is how strongly its residents buy into the whole mythologizing bullshit about how great it is. This is true even of a lot of lefty Texans, as I found out in my 3 years there. It’s eyerolling at best. At worst, it helps lead to workplace deaths. As we already knew, the West fertilizer explosion is going to make absolutely no difference in regulating workplace safety in Texas going forward. Texans themselves have the basic response: “We’re Texas and we don’t do it that way. Go Cowboys!” But there are real things that Texas could do to protect workers. Fire codes for instance:

But federal officials and fire safety experts contend that fire codes and other requirements would probably have made a difference. A fire code would have required frequent inspections by fire marshals who might have prohibited the plant’s owner from storing the fertilizer just hundreds of feet from a school, a hospital, a railroad and other public buildings, they say. A fire code also would probably have mandated sprinklers and forbidden the storage of ammonium nitrate near combustible materials. (Investigators say the fertilizer was stored in a largely wooden building near piles of seed, one possible factor in the fire.)

“It’s tough to overstate the importance fire codes would have made,” said Scott Harris, a former emergency management coordinator in Texas for the Environmental Protection Agency, who is now with UL Workplace Health and Safety, a safety science company. “Texas just hasn’t wrapped its brain around this fact yet.”

In chemical fires, firefighters often bear a heavy toll. Ten of the at least 14 people who died in West were firefighters, and two more were residents helping fight the flames. This week, officials from the state firefighters’ association said the 50-foot-tall memorial to volunteers killed in the line of duty, on the Capitol grounds in Austin, had no room left for new names, not even those from West.

But hey, Rick Perry and his friends are all about maximizing corporate profit, even though fire codes would reduce corporate profits by like almost nothing. Firefighters dying fighting fertilizer conflagrations, that’s just the price of freedom!

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1993

[ 18 ] May 10, 2013 |

On May 10, 1993, the Kader toy factory in the Nakhom Pathom province of Thailand, just outside of Bangkok, caught on fire, killing 188 workers, severely injuring over 500, and breaking the all-time death toll for a factory workplace, previously held by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911. The largest workplace disaster in Thai history, the Kader fire should have demonstrated the to the world the very real costs of outsourcing unsafe working conditions to the world’s poor countries. Unfortunately, the event received relatively little media attention and created no momentum for improving safety standards in the world’s factories.

The Kader factory was largely owned by Charoen Pokphand Group, a huge Thai conglomerate with concerns primarily in agribusiness; as of 2003 it was the world’s 5th largest transnational food corporation. CP owned 80% of the factory, the Hong-Kong based Kader Company owned about 20%, including the name. The factory manufactured toys, mostly stuffed animals and plastic dolls, for the international market. It received large contracts from Arco, Hasboro, Tyco, Toys-R-Us, Fisher Price, and other leading toy companies. Approximately 3000 workers toiled in this factory, with about 1500 in Building No. 1. Most of the workers were young women, some underage using fake IDs to get by age restrictions on labor. Thai women frequently add to family income, so many families encouraged their daughters to travel to Bangkok for factory labor.

This factory opened in January 1989, but already had a history of unsafe conditions. The original plant burned in August 1989 and the company’s license was suspended that November. But the Thai Ministry of Industry allowed the new plant to open on July 4, 1990. In February 1993, another fire struck one of the factory buildings. It was still closed when the main fire started in May. Thai law only provided minimum wage for full-time workers. Thus Kader and other manufacturers rarely employed people as full-time laborers. 47% of Thai employers did not pay the minimum wage. Compulsory overtime frequently kept workers until midnight, or even 5 a.m. if a deadline approached. Workers had their pay docked if they did not meet production quotas. On the 4th floor of Kader, 800 workers toiled. On that floor were 8 toilets.

None of this mattered to the American and European corporations outsourcing toy production to the developing world. They sent orders to Kader, demanding exact specifications for their markets, and asked no questions about wages, hours, working conditions, or safety. That was the advantage of outsourcing. These became irrelevant questions for corporations–so long as the costs were kept low. If costs rose, Tyco and Hasboro would move operations to another factory, another country.

At about 4 pm, a small fire broke out in one corner of Building No. 1. No one is really sure how the fire started, although a cigarette seems most likely. The workers were told to continue working. The fire alarm did not work and the fire spread rapidly in a factory full of finished plastic products. Security guards and employees tried to put the fire out but found themselves quickly overwhelmed with a rapidly spreading conflagration that soon spread to Buildings No. 2 and 3. Much like the Triangle Fire of 1911 in the United States, employers had locked the downstairs fire exits in order to maintain more control over workers. Fleeing back upstairs, the workers flooded the upper fire exits, causing them to collapse under all the weight. Workers began jumping from the upper stories to escape the flames. Then the main building collapsed from the heat of the fire. If this sounds much like the procession of events at Triangle, outside of the structural collapse, commenters at the time noted the same thing as well, ranging from a lack of fire safety training to highly combustible industrial products unsafely stored to the high number of women killed.

The dead at Kader.

Said one survivor, “I didn’t know what to do. Finally I had no other choice but to join others and jump out the window. I saw many of my friends lying dead on the ground beside me. I injured my legs but I came out alive.” Said another, “In desperation, I went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was so thick and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped too. She died.” The symbol of the fire was a melted Bart Simpson doll. The fire took place at the height of The Simpsons craze and the factory is where most Simpsons material was produced.

Melted Bart, symbol of the Kader fire.

Like many horrible factory accidents, shoddy design combined with employer malfeasance and a lack of basic safety standards to create an easily preventable disaster. The building was constructed with uninsulated steel girders that would collapse in 15 minutes during a fire. Basic infrastructure investment, even if none of the other problems had been alleviated, would have likely saved dozens of lives.

Although initially resisting any compensation, CP agreed to pay $8000 to the families of each dead worker and agreed to help pay the education costs of orphaned children. The Thai government announced improved safety and health standards. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai traveled to the factory site on the night of the tragedy and pledged greater fire safety for Thai workers. But no one from CP or the factory managers received even a day in jail. The management was fined $12,000 for building code violations. Safety and health standards in Thai factories have not improved in any meaningful fashion since 1993, nor have they in many of the other manufacturing nations of southeast Asia. One big reason for this of course is that all the incentive for governments and business owners is to do nothing because the less they do, the more the big American, European, and Japanese corporations are pleased with low costs.

A memorial to Kader victims.

As I have suggested in the aftermath of the Bangladesh fire, now the largest tragedy in the history of industrial factories, with over 900 dead, perhaps the only way to stop corporations from taking advantage of poor nations and corrupt politicians to replicate the terrible working conditions of the Triangle Fire, Kader fire, and Bangladesh building collapse is to tie corporate legal status with their subcontractors’ behavior, making them civilly and criminally responsible for the conditions in factories to which they subcontract work. Otherwise, Disney can make a big stink of pulling out of Bangladesh to make themselves look good without doing anything to help Bangladeshi workers stay alive or ensure that workers in Cambodia, Vietnam, or wherever aren’t subject to the same conditions when no one is looking.

The better details in here came from Fiona Haines, Globalization and Regulatory Character: Regulatory Reform after the Kader Toy Factory Fire

This is the 60th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Harsher Penalties Needed

[ 90 ] May 9, 2013 |

There’s no question that one lesson from the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas is that we need much harsher fines and criminal statutes against corporations when workers die, as well as the regulatory structure to prosecute the owners of these corporations. The latest AFL-CIO Death on the Job Report, released this week, shows that according to data complied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, 4,693 workers died on the job. That’s 13 workers every day. 50,000 workers died from occupational disease. Workers suffered between 7.6 and 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses.

This might just be an inconvenience for the corporations who employ these workers, but it is devastating to the workers and their families. They need real compensation for their pain and it needs to come out of corporate profits.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, the factory collapse has now claimed the lives of at least 912 people, making it by far the greatest workplace accident in human history. And another factory fire has killed 8 people in that country, including, ironically, one of the biggest defenders of the nation’s unsafe factory system. The multinational clothing corporations responsible for this system will not suffer at all for all these deaths.

The Similarity of Chinamen

[ 93 ] May 9, 2013 |

Building off my Chinese Exclusion Act post from the other day, here is a good example of pure, unadulterated anti-Chinese racism, from the New York Times, August 26, 1885. In short, they all look the same.

Credit to the Times for making this stuff available, even when it is less than flattering to their ancestors at the paper.

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