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The Tangled Web of Oppression

[ 35 ] December 16, 2014 |

We all support professional athletes wearing shirts protesting the horrors of police violence against people of color. But what happens when that protest runs up against a horror equally as disturbing? As in, where were those shirts made?

Last week, NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Deron Williams donned “I CAN’T BREATHE” T-shirts in support of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two unarmed black men killed by police over the summer. But now, a political activist who helped organize and produce some of the shirts says he regrets they were manufactured by a company that has long been accused of poor labor practices.

“I think we want to assume sometimes when we’re ordering shirts that they’re not being made in a sweatshop,” Michael Skolnick, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We’ve got to do better.”

Skolnick was featured in a New York Times article last week that detailed how the shirts were secured for players in less than 24 hours to show support for protest movements around the country. But revelations that the T-shirts were made by a company that has faced criticism for mistreating workers — an accusation the firm rejects — is now raising questions about whether a movement for racial justice has a responsibility to make sure it also advances economic fairness.

Political activists have gotten in trouble for their choice of T-shirt manufacturers before. Last month, a shirt that read “This is what a feminist looks like” worn by, among others, U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson, was pulled from store shelves in the United Kingdom after allegations it was produced in a sweatshop.

I’m not trying to be overly negative or nitpick here–obviously what these athletes are doing is a pure good. But we also need to remember that the wealthy oppressing the poor in the United States–which is much of what police violence is about–is connected to the world’s wealthy oppressing the world’s poor, in this case through exploitative production methods that can lead to the death of over 1100 workers. All apparel operators need to do more to ensure their clothes are made in dignified conditions. It’s unfortunate that it takes the contradictions of this sort of protest to bring this to our attention, but at least it does.

Lima

[ 52 ] December 15, 2014 |

Seems unlikely that the meaningless toothless climate reductions agreed to in Lima will mitigate the carbon emissions it took to get everyone to Peru to make the deal.

Child Labor on Mexican Farms

[ 20 ] December 15, 2014 |

The Los Angeles Times has another installment in its outstanding series of labor exploitation on the Mexican vegetable farms that supply U.S. markets. This piece is on the rampant use of child labor that picks your vegetables. Once again, American corporations openly seek these arrangements out to lower costs. It should be illegal and they should be prosecuted for selling products made with child labor.

The False Promises of Prison Labor

[ 29 ] December 15, 2014 |

Prison labor not only takes jobs away from non-prisoners who earn wages, but it is a corrupt system that does not save the state money, as the Seattle Times reports. There is also no evidence this unpaid labor creates skills for prisoners they can use upon their release.

But behind CI’s glossy brochures and polished YouTube videos is a broken program that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars, charged exorbitant markups to state agencies to make up for losses, and taken jobs from private businesses that can’t compete with cheap prison labor, a Seattle Times investigation has found.

Far from being self-sufficient, CI has cost taxpayers at least $20 million since 2007, including $750,000 spent over three years on a fish farm to raise tilapia that has yet to yield a single meal.

CI has reaped millions of dollars — money it keeps — by inflating prices of furniture it sells to state agencies and public universities, capitalizing on a law that requires they buy from prison factories. In many cases, prisoners didn’t make the items, but CI instead bought prebuilt furniture then resold it with markups, previously undisclosed state records show.

The Times also found dozens of private business owners in Seattle and statewide who say they’ve had to stop hiring or lay off workers, victimized by unfair competition from an inmate workforce paid as little as 55 cents an hour.

“Have we had some problems?” said Danielle Armbruster, director of Correctional Industries. “Absolutely.”

“I believe in this program. We hope to expand and reach even more inmates. If we help just one inmate, then that’s one less victim in the future.”

But CI can’t substantiate that key claim — that inmates who work in Correctional Industries commit fewer crimes after release than those who do not. State recidivism studies often contradict each other and are rife with shortcomings, failing to account for thousands of inmates who commit new crimes, according to a Times analysis.

Likewise, officials have publicly claimed that CI inmates more successfully gained jobs after release, but they actually have no idea which offenders get jobs or where they’re working.

While for prisoners themselves, doing something with their time is better than sitting in their cell, the problems with prison labor are myriad.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

[ 79 ] December 15, 2014 |

I took this at my local CVS in Providence.

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Next, Yom Kippur brought to you by my new cosmetics brand, Tsarist Russia!

Note that this is probably the most Jewish neighborhood in all Rhode Island. I’d think someone would have said something about this before, but then I think I only notice these things.

Higher Wages but No Unions

[ 37 ] December 14, 2014 |

It’s hard to argue against Harold Meyerson’s point that it is a lot easier to win higher wages for 100,000 people than to unionize 4000. Or unionize 20. The barriers to both winning a union election and securing a first contract are so great today, even as there is such an overwhelming desire to raise minimum wages by the Maoists making up the electorate of Nebraska and Arkansas, that it leaves one despairing for organized labor’s future while having strong hopes for real worker victories at the ballot box. The problem of course, as Meyerson well knows, is that unions are not just about minimum wages. They are about dignity on the job, grievance procedures, collective actions, benefits, and wages above the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is an unalloyed good, but it is not the be all and end all of progressive economic legislation. Plus, unions play a major role in these struggles for higher minimum wages but with each lost job, each shuttered local, each failed contract campaign, they lose the economic basis to provide that key support. So the future of these struggles remains tenuous as well.

How to Regulate Production

[ 14 ] December 14, 2014 |

Imagine if this was the standard for regulating production rather than the exception that took a decade of hard struggle to win:

Growers in the Fair Food Program are prohibited from firing workers who complain about working conditions. Paychecks must be calculated based on electronic time card systems, which are difficult to fudge. Growers must hire their workers directly rather than through labor contractors, comply with surprise inspections, and they have to fire supervisors who abuse or sexually harass worker, or who allow children to work in their fields. Workers’ complaints, collected via a 24-7 hotline, are investigated within two days of being received.

If the FFSC finds that a grower both failed to follow the rules and failed to correct them once caught, the corporate buyer switches to another approved grower, and the noncompliant grower loses business.

This fall, Whole Foods was the first retailer to introduce the Fair Food Label, a labeling program for tomatoes grown under FFSC, in stores. “It’s been a wonderful program,” says Erik Brown, senior global produce buyer for Whole Foods, adding that it helped him to bring “dignity” to his work.

In the program’s first four years, FFSC staff interviewed 7,500 workers in person, and processed nearly 600 complaints from workers, according to the report. Of those, the FFSC found about 40 percent were valid reports of violations of the Fair Food Program; another third of complaints were for conditions not covered by the program. Over the same period, the FFSC suspended seven growers from its program.

This should be the standard, with routine real inspections and a process to deal with problems. This is what needs to happen everywhere from the apparel factories of Bangladesh to the vegetable farms of Mexico. Anywhere that sends products to the United States. Instead, this is a unique program developed in response to a decade or organizing the Florida tomato fields by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a union of Latino farmworkers. The CIW is hoping to expand this to the state’s berry fields and spread it around the nation. That would be great. But it shouldn’t take this level of organizing to win these kinds of inspections. They should be government mandated.

Book Review: Hecht, Morrison, and Padoch, eds. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence

[ 2 ] December 14, 2014 |

For those interested in environmentalism, the dominant narrative of the state of the forests is one of decline and collapse in the face of industrial development. While wilderness protection was won for some American forests in the second half of the twentieth century, around the world, the decline of the rainforest in the wake of logging, ranching, and slash-and-burn farming makes first world environmentalists fear for the planet’s future. In this narrative, forests are largely seen as the victims of humans, despoiled wildernesses that properly should not be centers of human economic activity.

The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence, edited by Susanna Hecht, Kathleen Morrison, and Christine Padoch,
pushes back against this narrative by focusing on forest economies and forest history to argue for a more complex examination of human interactions with the forests. Largely examining tropical forests, the twenty-eight essays that make up this collection situates forests within communities, stressing the necessity of nuanced understandings of their role in regional economies if we want to have a realistic shot of not letting them all go under the saws of industrial logging.

Behind the ways we think about forests is that poor people have an outright negative impact upon them. James Fairhead and Melissa Leach analyze how social scientists have talked about environmental degradation in west African forests to note that scholars see the landscape as degraded. But actually examining the historical advance of vegetation shows this is categorically not true. Using historical photographs and narratives going back to the eighteenth century, they show there is no discernible difference in the level of vegetation for much of the area. Similarly, while the Sahel is often portrayed as encroaching desert because of human activity, Chris Reij argues that Niger especially has actually re-greened the area to a significant extent, with a significant national gain in tree cover over the last twenty years.

Historians have noted how the creation of wilderness has often led to the expulsion of people’s traditional use of that land. That continues today in the developing world. Among many problems with this is that it creates resentment toward those forests and the animals within them. Without a strong government presence, these colonialist parks can’t be properly guarded and thus can actually be counterproductive in the long-term for environmentalist goals. Moreover, while in Europe, as Roderick Neumann states in his essay, has long seen biodiversity woven into history and culture, these very Europeans are conceiving of tropical biodiversity as completely separate from human history and culture.

Several essays discuss the human history and anthropology of tropical forests. Rather than be seen as untrammeled wilderness, it’s important that we understand these forests have long had human involvement. The essay by Heckenberger, et al., shows the “massive forest alterations” people created in the pre-Columbian Amazon, with earthworks, roads, and artificial ponds still observable. David Lentz and Brian Lane explore the long-term effects of an early Mayan site on the forests of Belize today, where trees of economic importance to the Maya are still more common than usual in areas of former population centers than the forest as a whole. Are these forests wilderness today? Does the term even have value? Should the nature/culture divide be broken down? The overarching theme of these essays is yes on the latter question.

When we do think of tropical forests and industrial production, John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfector remind us that most of these forests are fragmented, not fully deforested, which makes a significant difference in how we perceive of environmental problems and solutions. If we see everything through a lost Eden declension narrative, the will to solve problems with the forests that remain become much more difficult. And when people leave the forests to move to cities, they often still rely on the forest for their livelihood, an important issue for crafting forest policy according to Padoch, et al in their essay on the people and forests around Pucallpa, Peru. And in fact, people will need to make a living off the forest and do in creative ways, including minority populations in the uplands of Southeast Asia producing forest tea that they can and do market in a sophisticated manner to discerning rich consumers. Commercialized agricultural is also transforming many forests, including the Laos uplands as Yayoi Fujita Lagerquvist details. This has led to a lot of landscape degradation but understanding the choices farmers have made are important for governments to craft more environmentally and socially responsible policies.

Are there lessons we can learn from these essays for forest management here in the United States? Only one of the twenty-eight chapters discusses the U.S., but I think it’s useful to explore it. Peter Crane, et al write about the “Chicago Wilderness,” or the biodiversity hotspot that surrounds Chicago. Of course, not much of that is in anything close to a pristine state and even the open spaces are often overrun with invasive species. Yet managing those open spaces for both biodiversity and human enjoyment has great potential to bring people and the forest together for a lot of people who can’t make it to the great wilderness areas of the West. That’s what is happening in Chicago by organizations bringing volunteers and children into the wilderness for rehabilitation projects and education efforts. This is also why I like a lot of what The Nature Conservancy does. That organization is I think often unfairly maligned for the compromises it makes with corporations but it goes a long ways to preserve small spots, often near urban areas, that do a lot to promote biodiversity and help urban dwellers engage with the natural world.

To quote Hecht: “As forests become increasingly pivotal in global climate politics, understanding the dynamics of forest transitions, successions, and their social underpinnings—the social lives of forests—is a critical step for whatever resilience we might hope for in the maelstrom of twenty-first century climate change” (113). This sums up the book’s social purpose. If we see forests as “lost” whenever humans work in them, what we lose is the ability to marshal the resources we have to deal with global environmental problems while also giving local people a chance to live.

The Social Lives of Forests
is probably too technical for general readers. The essays range from fairly detailed short histories of forests to heavily data-driven articles. But for those concerned with the long-term sustainability of the global environment, the insights in these essays are very useful.

Heisman

[ 5 ] December 13, 2014 |

The greatest has won.

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Post Oat Flakes

[ 9 ] December 13, 2014 |

Discuss

Post-Racial America

[ 49 ] December 13, 2014 |

Structural racism is obviously dead in this country:

White households’ median wealth ticked up to $141,900 in 2013, up 2.4 percent from three years earlier, according to a Pew Research Center report released Friday.

Net worth for black households dropped by a third during that time to $11,000. Hispanic families experienced a 14 percent decline in wealth to $13,700.

Whites have 13 times the net worth of blacks, the largest wealth gap that’s existed since George H.W. Bush was president in 1989. The ratio of net worth between whites and Hispanics now stands at more than 10, the widest it has been since 2001.

Much of the focus in recent years has been the growth in income inequality, with the Top 1 percent capturing most of the post-Recession gains. But wealth inequality is also troubling.

There are several reasons for the growing gap, says Pew, citing Federal Reserve Bank data.

Minority households’ median income fell 9% between 2010 and 2013, compared to a drop of only 1% for whites. So minority households may not have been able to sock away as much or may have had to use more of their savings to cover expenses.

13 times the net worth of blacks. Post-racial America indeed.

Those Douche Country Bros Are Whiny Boys

[ 137 ] December 13, 2014 |

The purveyors of bro-country (I prefer douche country myself) are real sensitive to women criticizing their idiotic and terrible songs. I hope those guys are giving each other manly bro-hugs to console themselves before writing another song about a half-naked women riding in the back of their pickup to their favorite rural swimming hole.

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