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Corporate Standards

[ 7 ] June 6, 2015 |

taiwan

Patagonia is receiving some kudos for taking steps to clean up its supply chain. After investigating conditions in its supply chain, mostly at factories in Taiwan, it discovered all the usual problems, including forced labor and slavery. It has set new standards for its suppliers although a compliance mechanism is not really in place yet. Inspections are promised at least.

That’s all a positive step, but I must remain pessimistic that it will lead to much. Patagonia itself bragged that the Obama administration called them in to talk about these new plans, but Walmart was at the meeting as well and we know that it has taken a lead among American industry to do nothing about sourcing problems, including refusing to sign on to standards adopted by European companies in the wake of Rana Plaza. Walmart refused because it feared being held legally accountable.

So whatever Patagonia is doing may in fact be positive. But the point is that a) we won’t know except whatever the company tells us and b) it does not seem that workers themselves will have any power to demand dignified lives. The whole system exists upon the goodwill of Patagonia executives. No fundamental change to injustice can take place if it rests on the goodwill of the powerful. It must be codified into the legal code. If Patagonia really wants to take responsibility here, it needs to also work toward creating a system where not only it but its rivals will have their supply chains be accountable to legal frameworks to ensure that forced labor, unsafe working conditions, sub-minimum wage pay, and other terrible realities of the global race to the bottom are fixed.

I certainly hope Patagonia is taking real steps to improve the lives of the workers making its apparel. But we should not accept the company at its word, nor should we take comfort in the belief that corporations can meaningfully reform supply chain exploitation on their own.

Why Ag-Gag Bills Exist

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |

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Above: Pig waste lagoon

While Out of Sight is primarily about international production and how the global race to the bottom protects companies from accountability for their sourcing practices because consumers don’t see them, I have a chapter on food that makes the point that a lot of agriculture can’t leave the U.S. for a variety of reasons, including that some crops only grow in certain places, the cost of shipping meat around the world, freshness issues, etc. But agribusiness still tries to conceal the costs of their production. The most heavy-handed way they have tried to do this in recent years is through ag-gag bills that make it a crime to record the treatment of animals in factory farms, which has been a method animal rights activists have used to publicize the horrors of animal treatment. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent because if agribusiness can make it a crime to have evidence of what happens in their facilities, why can’t every employer do the same?

Anyway, as you might guess, the leaders behind these efforts are not nice people. One is Andy Holt, a farmer and representative in the Tennessee legislature who sponsored that state’s failed attempt to pass an ag-gag bill, a bill which I am sure will be reintroduced in some form. Why would he support such a bill? To protect himself from his own bad behavior.

Tennessee representative Andy Holt, former hog farmer and sponsor of the state’s failed ag-gag bill, created quite a stink when he dumped 800,000 gallons of pig manure into the streams and fields surrounding his hog farm. Holt’s lagoons were apparently overflowing with waste and Holt’s response was simply to dump the waste in the waters and lands nearby, with no regard for the environment or the law.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently sent a letter to Holt indicating that absent good cause it would take formal civil enforcement action against him. According to a Memphis news source, Tennessee state officials were considering taking action against Holt at the time this happened, but were “discouraged by upper management” from doing so.

Shocking that the state would fail to prosecute one of their own…. It’s examples just like this why corporations prefer state-level regulation to federal. The states are just easier to buy off and control.

Mapping LA Sprawl

[ 29 ] June 5, 2015 |

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If you like cool visualizations of how sprawl in Los Angeles occurred by noting the age of every building in the city, then this is for you.

Can We Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership?

[ 8 ] June 5, 2015 |

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Probably not at this point, but we have to try. Maybe the fact that the Senate fast track bill funded assistance for workers who will lose their jobs thanks to the TPP from Medicare money will convince House Democrats to unite with the Obamahaters to torpedo it. I suspect that won’t work, but maybe.

Focusing on the actual labor conditions of the nations we are encouraging companies to move American jobs to in this agreement certainly can’t hurt. I rarely agree with Bob Menendez about much of anything concerning American foreign policy, but his recent conversion to including minimal labor standards like not engaging in human trafficking is welcome. The recent discovery of mass graves at human trafficking camps on the Malaysia-Thailand border has convinced him that Malaysia should be dropped from the TPP. Given that it is one of the most important nations in it, evicting Malaysia would be a very big deal and would set precedents for nations to uphold labor standards in trade deals that could be expanded to include more stringent policies on goods that will then be sold in the United States.

It’s a hard fight, but we have to try anything to kill the TPP.

What a Glorious Anniversary!

[ 60 ] June 5, 2015 |

Andrew Cuomo

A year ago this week, the Working Families Party decided to endorse Andrew Cuomo for governor. He made “promises” to promote parts of the WFP platform. Guess how that worked out!

From a strict scorecard perspective, the fact is that none of the legislative items that were supposed to have been part of it—from a full women’s equality package, public financing of elections and decriminalization of marijuana, to the Dream Act and a statewide minimum wage indexed to local markets—have become reality.

Same for the political goals: The Independent Democratic Conference is still allied with the Senate Republicans, and the mainline Democrats are still in the minority.

What happened?

W.F.P. says the governor simply broke his end of the bargain.

“The promises Governor Cuomo made would have amounted to a real difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers,” the party’s New York State director, Bill Lipton said in a statement to Capital. “He didn’t keep his promises.”

Clearly no one could have seen this coming!

The WFP not only made a mistake in endorsing Cuomo, but it was an obvious mistake that many commenters noted at the time, including myself. It was terrible politics and it will take a long time for WFP to live it down.

Condiment Wars, Revisited

[ 237 ] June 4, 2015 |

What Cheer Tavern in south Providence already had a legitimate claim to the best bar in the state. And then they gave me this menu tonight:

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I like this place even more.

Post-Prohibition Whiskey Raids

[ 23 ] June 4, 2015 |

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I’ve long said that the passage of the 18th Amendment was the worst day in American history, but even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, states and counties could continue to ban the sale of liquor. Doing so incentivized people to fill the gap by producing their own. Here’s a good series of photos of cops busting bootlegging operations in Alabama over the decades, including the photo above, from 1964.

Race, History, and Naming Buildings at the University of North Carolina

[ 57 ] June 4, 2015 |

William Saunders

The University of North Carolina has long had a building named for former KKK leader William Saunders. Public protest has finally moved to renaming the building “Carolina Hall” (which really, could you be more bland?). But the school’s Board of Trustees can’t go all the way and confront the past. UNC law professor Eric Muller:

The Board of Trustees decreed that the new “Carolina” Hall must feature a historical marker that “explains Mr. Saunders’ contributions to UNC and the State of North Carolina,” the circumstances that led an earlier Board of Trustees to name the building for him and the reason why the current board has chosen to remove his name.

What is noteworthy is the decision to perpetuate the celebration of William Saunders. His name comes down, but an explanation of his contributions to the university and the state goes up. Why does Saunders, gone for almost 125 years, continue to command this honor, an honor bestowed on the KKK leader by his grandchildren’s generation at a time when many were celebrating the “lost cause” of the Confederacy and enforcing Jim Crow? Why are we obliged, almost a century later, to perpetuate that generation’s decision to single him out for honor from among all Carolina alumni who had made contributions to the university and the state? Why must we still publicly venerate his “contributions” on the walls of a university building?

The trustees also required the university to adorn the renamed building with a plaque that reads as follows: “We honor and remember all those who have suffered injustices at the hands of those who would deny them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

At first glance, the statement is pleasing in its timeless generality. But therein lies the problem. The society that Saunders lived in, and the society of two generations later that honored him with the naming, did not practice oppression as a generality. Whites oppressed blacks in the service of white supremacy. Why can this not be said? Indeed, why remember generic “injustices” when what we are actually remembering is “racial persecution”?

The statement even lets the oppressors subtly off the hook. It refers to them as people who “would” deny others their rights. The conditional word “would” strips their persecution of its terrible effectiveness. The truth is not that white supremacy merely aimed to deny blacks their rights – and at times their lives. The truth is that white supremacy actually did those things. Why the equivocating use of the conditional verb?

That’s pretty ridiculous. Whether this all means the Board of Trustees is really perfectly happy with the politics of William Saunders is an open question and one that’s especially salient given the current racism of the North Carolina state government and the Moral Mondays movement that has tapped into the state’s civil rights traditions to resist it. In any case, it’s amazing that not naming a building after a Ku Klux Klan leader is still contentious in 2015. But then an open confrontation with slavery, white violence, and Jim Crow could get awful uncomfortable for people who are doing all they can to strip the franchise from as many African-Americans as possible in the present.

Teaching Tenure Track

[ 38 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth have a very solid proposal for create tenure-track teaching positions for what would now be contingent faculty. In part:

In our recently published book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, we argue that the crisis in American academe has nothing to do with the intellectual content of research and teaching in the humanities, and everything to do with the labor conditions of most American college professors. We therefore propose, as a way of undoing the deprofessionalization of the profession of college teaching, a teaching-intensive tenure track for nontenure-track faculty members with Ph.D.s and good teaching records.

We know it is difficult to measure teaching, and we do not recommend that departments rely solely on student evaluations. Teaching can and should be evaluated not only by students but by extramural peer observation, by review of syllabi and course plans, by examples of professorial feedback on student work, and by careful review of professors’ own accounts of their classrooms.

Not surprisingly, our proposal has met with mixed responses. The most predictable is the complaint that our plan is too utopian or ambitious: that tenure was meant only for research faculty who can be evaluated by a national or international body of their peers, and that a teaching-intensive tenure track would dilute the very meaning of tenure. This view is not merely blinkered but mistaken; the academic freedom tenure ensures is as important for teaching and shared governance as it is for research.

I think this is a solid way forward. I don’t know that administrations would buy into it since they are turning to cheap contingent faculty in order to save money. Providing an alternative tenure track would give those faculty power, which is probably not what the average provost wants. But as far as a just yet realistic proposal from faculty on how to create better lives for contingent colleagues, I think this is a good way forward. As far as some of the professionalization questions some faculty have risen, I basically agree with Bérubé and Ruth up and down the line on how this would improve faculty lives.

Noncompete Clauses

[ 107 ] June 4, 2015 |

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Chris Murphy and Al Franken have introduced a bill to ban one of the most egregiously oppressive practices against low-wage workers: noncompete clauses.

The bill from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) would ban noncompete clauses for workers making less than $15 an hour or $31,200 annually, or the minimum wage in the employee’s municipality.

The move follows reports the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops requires some of its low-wage workers to sign two-year noncompete agreements prohibiting them from working at retail stores that make at least 10 percent of their sales from sandwiches.

The legislation is dubbed the “Mobility and Opportunity for Vulnerable Employees (MOVE) Act” and is also supported by the National Employment Law Project.

There is no reason at all for noncompete clauses on low-wage workers. If a Jimmy John’s work learns how to make a sandwich and then takes her skills to Subway, Jimmy John’s does not suffer at all. This is why I push back against those who say that the employer assault on workers is about money. It’s not. It’s about power. Money is a big part of power, but there are plenty as aspects to this assault that have nothing to do with money. Noncompete clauses in the fast food industry is one of them. This is all about employers doing this because they can and because it intimidates workers from quitting. It should be illegal and hopefully this bill will make it so.

What Should Labor Have Done Differently?

[ 91 ] June 3, 2015 |

george-meany-resize-1Above: George Meany, 1967

Stephen Lerner spoke at a plenary session during last week’s Fighting Inequality conference. He asked us to engage in an intellectual exercise. If you could take a time machine back to 1955, what is the one thing you would tell the labor movement to do differently so that it the situation it faces in 2015 wouldn’t be so bad?

It’s an interesting question. My first response is that there probably isn’t that one thing labor could have done differently because the problems it faces are structural rather than a failure of leadership. I know the leadership hasn’t helped, but we need to keep our legitimate criticisms of poor labor leadership in their proper context. One thin labor could have done a lot better is dumping George Meany as head of the AFL-CIO and replacing him with Walter Reuther, but I’m not sure the final outcome is all that much better. From a moral perspective, telling labor to stop working with CIA and supporting American Cold War foreign policy is a good one, but if the AFL-CIO is a leader in opposing the Vietnam War, what is really different today except maybe that others on the left trust the movement a bit more? Certainly telling labor to think of a real response to outsourcing and capital mobility is very tempting. UAW members destroying Toyotas with a sledgehammer might have felt cathartic, but it’s hardly a response of value.

I think the best answer is to urge them to never think of management as a partner. Maybe the biggest mistake labor made was thinking that they had long-term deals with the employers that would create permanent stability for the working class. Labor’s power forced employers to tone down their anti-union rhetoric in public, but they never accepted unions as partners. As soon as labor let its guard down, employers started pushing back against everything they had given up to workers. At first, it was around the margins, but it became a full-fledged assault by the 1970s. And labor had no response to that because it had deemphasized organizing and worker activism, instead relying solely on the boardroom and courtroom as spaces of contention and negotiation. Those strategies definitely had great value and those who wish for a more activist labor movement overly romanticize direct action on the shopfloor. But that doesn’t mean that worker activism isn’t a necessary part of a labor movement. Marginalizing that in favor of thinking of employers as permanent partners that would get workers a growing piece of a growing pie, that was a pretty deadly error of judgement.

Oil and Outrage

[ 2 ] June 3, 2015 |

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I have a new piece up at Counterpunch on the Santa Barbara oil spills, 1969 and 2015:

The environmental legislation the Santa Barbara oil spill produced included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, one of the most important pieces of environmental ever passed. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 372-15 in the House, showing the overwhelming bipartisan belief in the need to change how industry affected the natural world in the aftermath of Santa Barbara. NEPA required government agencies to create environmental impact statements for federal projects and mineral and timber sales. This gave environmentalists an opening to sue the government for not taking environmental concerns seriously, which would become a major part of green strategy by the 1980s.

But this time around we are more jaded and cynical. We’ve seen this story time and time again and environmental groups are worried that apathy has taken hold of the nation. Rather than build on that pioneering legislation and continue fighting to hold the oil industry responsible for its environmental damage, the industry has managed to largely avoid new regulations to prevent these spills. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, the nation continued to tighten restrictions on oil, including spurring resistance to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But the lack of meaningful change to oil drilling practices after the blowout of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast in 2010 is telling. BP received hefty fines totally so far tens of billions of dollars, but ultimately very little has changed and similar drilling techniques are continuing today. It’s only a matter of time before another Deepwater again shows the environmental damage of our energy regime.

Of course, we all know that a bill which passes unanimously in the Senate means that Richard Nixon is a liberal who deserves all the credit for signing it.

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