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The U.S. Government and Sweatshop Apparel

[ 10 ] December 24, 2013 |

This is a very strong piece of journalism detailing how the United States government contributes to the exploitation of apparel workers around the world. The problem is multifaceted. Some of it stems from constant pressure from a Congress that doesn’t care about safe or dignified jobs pressuring the Pentagon to cut unnecessary expenses like uniforms made in respectable conditions. Some issues come from the military base exchanges guaranteeing products sold at equal or lower prices to whatever military families get on the outside, meaning downward pressure on the world’s working conditions. But other parts of the problem stem from the government simply having very little interest in ensuring that it is not part of the problem.

Labor Department officials say that federal agencies have “zero tolerance” for using overseas plants that break local laws, but American government suppliers in countries including Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam show a pattern of legal violations and harsh working conditions, according to audits and interviews at factories. Among them: padlocked fire exits, buildings at risk of collapse, falsified wage records and repeated hand punctures from sewing needles when workers were pushed to hurry up.

In Bangladesh, shirts with Marine Corps logos sold in military stores were made at DK Knitwear, where child laborers made up a third of the work force, according to a 2010 audit that led some vendors to cut ties with the plant. Managers punched workers for missed production quotas, and the plant had no functioning alarm system despite previous fires, auditors said. Many of the problems remain, according to another audit this year and recent interviews with workers.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, employees at the Georgie & Lou factory, which makes clothing sold by the Smithsonian Institution, said they were illegally docked over 5 percent of their roughly $10-per-day wage for any clothing item with a mistake. They also described physical harassment by factory managers and cameras monitoring workers even in bathrooms.

At Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which makes clothes sold by the Army and Air Force, an audit conducted this year found nearly two dozen under-age workers, some as young as 15. Several of them described in interviews with The New York Times how they were instructed to hide from inspectors.

“Sometimes people soil themselves at their sewing machines,” one worker said, because of restrictions on bathroom breaks.

Federal agencies rarely know what factories make their clothes, much less require audits of them, according to interviews with procurement officials and industry experts. The agencies, they added, exert less oversight of foreign suppliers than many retailers do. And there is no law prohibiting the federal government from buying clothes produced overseas under unsafe or abusive conditions.

“It doesn’t exist for the exact same reason that American consumers still buy from sweatshops,” said Daniel Gordon, a former top federal procurement official who now works at George Washington University Law School. “The government cares most about getting the best price.”

There’s no question that American consumers could put pressure on the government to live up to international labor standards. But this sort of movement, if it ever actually exists, is almost certainly going to be ephemeral as the nature of activism goes from one issue to another for reasons no one can ever pin down. As I’ve stated before, the only real solution to these problems over the long-term has to be giving workers in factories access to courts around the world, not dissimilar to the human rights decisions made in Spain against dictators like Augusto Pinochet for instance, that gives workers real access to monetary compensation and punishes contractors, including governments, for working with contractors who violate national labor laws, abuse workers, and provide unsanitary and unsafe working conditions. While complex to create, this has to be the long-term goal in order to provide the workers of the world the power to improve their lives without risking further capital mobility to yet another impoverished nation.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if the American government wasn’t part of the problem for once?


[ 41 ] December 24, 2013 |

I was unaware that K-25, the building at Oak Ridge that separated uranium-235 from uranium-238 during the Manhattan Project, is nearly demolished to make way for a new industrial park. And really, if there’s one thing this nation needs it’s a new industrial park. Also, I can’t think of any place to put such an industrial park except on the theoretically cleaned up and radiation-free land underneath one of the mid-20th century’s most historically significant buildings.

This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1969

[ 62 ] December 24, 2013 |

On December 24, 1969, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood wrote a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn protesting a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies and asking to be declared a free agent. Thus began a process that freed professional sports athletes from total control by the owners and began the period of free agency, when athletes were finally paid fairly for the revenues they generated.

Major League Baseball had long exploited its players. The key tool for this was the reserve clause. This gave owners total control over player labor, allowing the movement of players from team to team only through trade, release, or retirement. In other words, when the owner was ready to dispense with them or the player decided to quit.

Flood referenced slavery in his letter, writing, ”After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” This was a shot at the total control white owners had over all players’ labor, who were supposed to be happy that they could play a kid’s game and appreciative of the father figure-owner who gave them the opportunity. This labor of course made owners an incredible amount of money, of which the players saw very little. Flood made $90,000 in 1969, the equivalent of $555,000 today. That’s not nothing, but for a well above-average outfielder in a profession with a relatively short work life, it was not nearly enough for the profits he generated through his work.

Curt Flood

When Kuhn denied his request, expressing some outrage at the slavery comparison, Flood sued for his release. He claimed not only did the reserve clause violate antitrust laws, but also the Thirteenth Amendment, doubling down on the slavery comparison in a time of great racial tension in the United States. The Major League Baseball Players Association was trying to become a real union. It was established in 1953 to provide some level of representation but was weak in its early years. Luckily for Flood, he had an ally at the MLBPA in lawyer Marvin Miller. Hired by the MLBPA away from the United Steelworkers of America in 1966, Miller desperately wanted to turn the organization into a force that would, among other things, destroy the reserve clause. He had won credibility with players by winning a collective bargaining agreement from the owners in 1968 that raised the minimum salary from $6000 to $10,000, which was pretty significant. Miller convinced the other players, many of whom were skeptical and turned off by the slavery rhetoric (the white ones anyway), to bankroll Flood’s case.

Marvin Miller

Miller himself was outraged by the reserve clause. As he put it, “Yes, you’re an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you like, but this right does not apply to baseball players.” Miller told Flood this would kill his career but Flood was willing to go to the mat in order to improve the lives of baseball players in the future. Flood himself had a long history of activism, including attending civil rights rallies in Mississippi in 1962, a risky move for any African-American but perhaps even more so for an “outsider,” coming from Oakland as Flood did. In 1964, Flood successfully sued a man who had sold Flood his house in the Oakland suburb of Alamo, CA without meeting him; when Flood arrived, the owner pulled a shotgun and refused to let him and his pregnant wife entrance. So Flood, a political man with a great deal of courage, was willing to take this sacrifice and use racially charged language in doing so.

The case cost Flood his career. Although he was beginning to fade in his age 31 season, he likely had at least one more good year in him. He did manage to play 13 games in 1971 for the Senators, but was out of baseball after that. It’s also worth noting the atmosphere of fear Flood faced. When Flood testified in court, not a single other active player showed up because they were terrified of the owners. Only the retired stars Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg attended. In 1972, Flood lost his case before the Supreme Court, 5-3, after the Anheuser-Busch stock owning Lewis Powell, who would have voted in his favor, recused himself from the case and a last second change of mind by Warren Burger. Flood was granted free agency but the baseball antitrust exemption could only be removed by an act of Congress.

In the short-term, the marginal nature of Flood’s victory gave Marvin Miller greater leverage in his battles with owners and he forced them to agree to binding arbitration for grievances. But it was not until 1976 that an arbitrator ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents that the reserve clause fell away and the modern era of free agency began.

Of course, owners resisted free agency in all sports as strongly as they could. In baseball, owners colluded in the mid-80s to not bid up free agents, a direct violation of the collective bargaining agreement. This was coordinated by MLB commissioner Peter Uberroth, who wanted the owners to run their teams as a business and not spend millions of dollars for the best players. Between 1985 and 1987, only a few players changed teams. But further lawsuits forced the end of that strategy and player salaries skyrocketed by the late 1980s. The 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the game was the final major battle in this war and the determination of the Yankees to win every year and other new owners willing to spend to catch up with them pretty much ended any concentrated owner resistance to high salaries. The growth of television contracts has only pumped more money into the game, making the salaries of today’s baseball players far beyond the dreams of Curt Flood.

Flood’s actions began the modern professional sport labor union movement. The long-term effects has been to unionize each of the four major sports leagues, creating titanic salaries for a few and pretty good salaries for most everybody. The sports unions have had a contentious relationship with the American public who hated to see “their” players leave for other teams and even go on strike. But ultimately, Flood is one of the great heroes of the American labor movement in the late twentieth century.

This is the 85th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Last Second Gift Ideas

[ 31 ] December 23, 2013 |

If you are struggling with some last minute shopping ideas, why not give your loved ones what Santa really wants for himself?

$40 Million to Rana Plaza Victims

[ 1 ] December 23, 2013 |

Good news that the European retailers contracting for clothing at the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in April and killed 1100 workers have agreed to pay $40 million in compensation. It remains to be seen to what extent the money gets to survivors or the families of the deceased, but it is a positive step. Notably lacking of course are the American companies, especially Wal-Mart and Gap, who clearly do not care one whit about dead workers and have avoided all responsibility in much the same way that clothing makers in 1911 avoided all responsibility for the Triangle Fire.

Méliès Monday: The Christmas Dream (1900)

[ 0 ] December 23, 2013 |

Georges Méliès, The Christmas Dream, from 1900.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 11 ] December 23, 2013 |

Today, dolphins:

So far this year, nearly 1,000 bottlenose dolphins — eight times the historical average — have washed up dead along the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida, a vast majority of them victims of morbillivirus. Many more are expected to die from the disease in the coming months.

The high death toll from the resurgence of the virus, which killed 700 dolphins in an outbreak 25 years ago, has alarmed marine scientists, who say it remains unclear why the dolphins have succumbed to the disease. The deaths, along with a spate of other unrelated dolphin die-offs along Florida’s east and west coasts, raise new questions about the health of the ocean in this part of the country and what role environmental factors may be playing, scientists said.

The Indian River Lagoon, a diverse estuary, has been tainted by huge algae blooms caused in part by too much nitrogen. Research on some of the dead dolphins in the estuary — 76 died this year, the third series of deaths since 2001 — has showed that some had high levels of mercury, fungal diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and oral-genital tumors. The dolphins found were emaciated.

“You have to think, ‘Where does antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from in dolphins?’ ” said Dr. Bossart, who is involved in a long-term study of the Indian River Lagoon dolphins. “One thought is that it comes from environmental pollution.”

Film Blog (IV)

[ 32 ] December 22, 2013 |

More short reviews on my pointless film blog. Reviewed since my last update:

The Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee, 2013 (OK, but cliche on cliche)

To the Wonder, Malick, 2012 (OMG this is a disaster)

Before Midnight, Linklater, 2013 (I do like these movies mostly but the idea of Hawke’s character as a serious novelist is laughable)

Night Moves, Penn, 1975 (a script with holes so wide you could drive a tractor trailer filled with stolen Mayan artifacts through it. Hackman is outstanding however)

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Barretto, 1976 (the lesson is that all a woman really wants is hot sex so treat her as you will if you provide it)

The Thorn in the Heart, Gondry, 2009 (when filmmakers make films about their family members who are not particularly compelling)

Idiots and Angels, Plympton, 2008 (wanted to like this but it really falls apart in the last 20 minutes)

Salome, Bryant, 1923 (an excellent example of silent directors using Biblical stories as a cover to show a lot of flesh. Pretty good too)

Eyes Without a Face, Franju, 1960 (maybe my favorite film ending of all time)

A Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu, 1934 (an early masterpiece by one of the top 5 directors of all time)

12 Years a Slave, McQueen, 2013 (incredibly powerful depiction of slavery. That it is unrelenting may turn off some filmgoers but it is necessary to convey the true hell of the institution that the South committed treason to defend)

The Thin Red Line, Malick, 1998 (one of the top five World War II films ever. Malick at the height of his powers)

Scrooge, Greenwood, 1923 (not a bad adaptation for the time period)

The First Teamster

[ 32 ] December 22, 2013 |

International Teamster, 1949

Entomology 101, Professor Waits

[ 3 ] December 20, 2013 |

Earlier this week, Tom Waits told you a nice bedtime story. Tonight he provides you a useful entomology lesson. Good for any Friday night.

Sea Monsters

[ 64 ] December 20, 2013 |

I’ve always found the old maps with imagined sea monsters in unexplored places particularly fascinating. Marina Warner has a long essay in the New York Review of Books about them. The ocean is so interesting because it’s so close yet so impossible to explore, especially before advancements in technology during the 20th century allowed for underwater exploration. The occasional creatures the ocean spits up onto the shore, the glimpses of whales, the sheer terror of the ocean, all of these things contribute to an amazing mythology and power around what covers 70% of the globe.

Personally, I think the greatest value such sea monsters have today is to describe the northern wasteland known in mythology as “Canada” to Americans.

Marriage Equality–In Utah?

[ 149 ] December 20, 2013 |

I am not the resident LGM expert on these issues. But I have to think that marriage equality in Utah of all places is basically the tipping point for it spreading across the whole nation very quickly. Maybe I am too optimistic.

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