On Monday, a West Virginia gas facility exploded, injuring two workers. Luckily, neither have life-threatening injuries. So this story will fade into oblivion even faster than a fatal coal mine or fertilizer plant explosion. However, it should rivet our attention because it seems that OSHA has never inspected this plant. There are 8 OSHA inspectors in the state of West Virginia. It would take them over 100 years to inspect every worksite in the state. Amazingly, that’s actually better than average.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
When we think of terrible labor standards in the 21st century economy, we may very well think of Wal-Mart and for good reason. But the real villain in the international clothing industry is Gap. That company has done more than any other to push back against any meaningful reform, including in the aftermath of the Bangladesh disaster.
Consumer and labor groups have focused more on persuading Gap rather than Walmart to join the Bangladesh factory safety plan. Gap has been the most vocal company in criticizing the plan, expressing concerns that overly litigious American lawyers could seize on the agreement to sue American companies on behalf of aggrieved factory workers in Bangladesh. Gap’s proposed changes would greatly limit any legal liability for any company that violated the plans.
In a statement, Gap said: “We’re pleased that an accord is within reach, and Gap Inc. is ready to sign on today with a modification to a single area — how disputes are resolved in the courts. This proposal is on the table right now with the parties involved. With this single change, this global, historic agreement can move forward with a group of all retailers, not just those based in Europe.”
Under Gap’s proposal, if a retailer is found to have violated the agreement, the only remedy would be public expulsion from the factory safety plan.
“The U.S. is quite litigious,” said Bill Chandler, a Gap spokesman. “We put forward specific proposals that we thought would bring other American retailers into the fold. We thought it would be a step forward and would turn it into a much more global agreement.”
The labor unions and advocacy groups that have negotiated with H&M; Inditex, the Spanish company that owns the Zara chain; and other companies that have signed the plan criticized Gap’s proposal to change the agreement. These groups say Gap’s vigorous push against the version of the plan has helped sway some other American companies not to sign.
“Gap Inc. is ready to sign on today with a modification to a single area — how disputes are resolved,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a group sponsored by 175 colleges and universities. “Gap’s demand is that the agreement be made unenforceable — and therefore meaningless. What Gap wants is the right to renege on its commitments when it wishes.”
This is not the first time Gap has acted to preserve the exploitative nature of the apparel industry. Gap has a long history of using child labor to make its clothing in nations ranging from Jordan to Bangladesh. It has used contractors that dump dyes into Lesotho rivers. It wants absolutely no enforceable standards and is the greatest defender of a system that just killed 900 Bangladeshis.
I think it is high time for an international boycott of Gap until it agrees to enforceable labor standards at its contractors, or at least signs on to the safety plan created by European companies in the wake of the Bangladesh factory collapse.
If there’s one thing this country needs, it is more guns in our schools. Nothing bad will ever happen!!
According to KMGH-TV, a school employee who also has a second job as a security officer had offered a student a ride home at the end of the day. The gun discharged, hitting the student in the leg, when the school employee tried to secure his weapon in the glove box of the car.
The man took the student to a nearby hospital, where he was rushed into surgery with a “significant injury,” police said. The injuries were not expected to be fatal.
That this happened in Aurora, Colorado is even more depressing.
Pretty big environmental and agricultural news out of Tennessee. Governor Bill Haslam, who is generally terrible on everything, has vetoed a so-called “ag-gag” bill, which would have criminalized whistleblowing and undercover investigations of conditions in agricultural operations. The agricultural industry and its political hacks in state legislatures have pushed for these laws around the country in response to videos and other reports of massive and disturbing animal cruelty taking place in our food system, both in terms of the general cruelty of the animals’ living conditions, but also terrible acts of individual cruelty against animals. Whether this leads to a broader movement against these almost certainly unconstitutional laws, I don’t know, but it is certainly a good sign. The real signal will come out of North Carolina’s insane wingnut legislature, which has a bill with much the same language, but which also expands it to investigations in any industry.
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.
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.
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.
Nothing to see here.
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.
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.
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.