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Who Grows Your Food?

[ 15 ] December 8, 2014 |

PRODUCT OF MEXICO | Day 1 | Labor camps

The food industry, along with the apparel industry, has long led the way in labor exploitation. Throughout the 20th century, agricultural interests went to extreme lengths to keep labor costs down, which meant paying them as close to nothing as possible, crushing any organizing efforts through violence, winning exemptions from labor law, and creating arrangements to bring in immigrant workers who lacked all rights. In the era of capital mobility and subcontracting agreements, food companies can now use the same types of arrangements that allow Walmart and Gap to get clothes made at factories that burn or collapse without any corporate consequence to acquire the food we buy. All the corporations care about is one thing–keeping costs down. How that is done is up to the contractor. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But make sure you do what is necessary to keep those costs low.

The Los Angeles Times published an outstanding piece of journalism yesterday investigating the labor conditions of huge vegetable farms in Mexico that export produce to the United States. It will not surprise most readers here that the conditions are nothing more than rank labor exploitation, on par with the worst working conditions in the history of the United States and those today of Honduras, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India. You obviously need to read it all, but just real quick:

The Times found:

Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.

Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.

Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It’s common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.

Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.

Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

Basically, big American vegetable sellers contract with farms in Mexico. Those companies might claim they care about labor sourcing but we all know that’s a lie. Those farms then recruit poor Mexicans, largely indigenous people from southern Mexico, with promises of payment. They then house those workers in hovels, refuse to pay them, underfeed them, don’t provide them with bathing facilities, etc. All so you can eat tomatoes for cheap in January. See that image above? This is the “housing” of the people who grow the produce you eat from Mexico. Which is a lot of your produce, especially this time of the year.

The only way the companies care about this is when all their efforts to hide production from American consumers fails. Then they develop strategies to avoid culpability and stall reporters long enough for everyone’s attention to be turned to some other issue. It’s quite effective, even when their documents on how to do this are leaked.

As I argue in Out of Sight, these conditions are precisely why central to our demands for a just world must be international labor standards enforceable in U.S. courts. Anything else will keep workers in these conditions. If Subway wants to use tomatoes grown in Mexico, fine. But those tomatoes have to be produced in conditions that stand up to a basic test of human rights. If wages are stolen, workers threatened, bathing facilities not provided, etc., then workers should have the right to sue for recompense in American courts. Subway, Safeway, McDonald’s, etc., must be held legally responsible for the conditions of work when people labor in growing food for them to sell.

This has to be a legal framework. Mass movements are useful only in the short term because we will move on to the next issue. One month it is protesting war, the next it is sweatshops, the next it is police violence. There are too many injustices in this world to rely on mass movements. People only have so much time. Only through a legal framework can those people who do devote themselves to this issue full time have a framework to enforce worker rights in the long term.

Today in Police Violence

[ 56 ] December 7, 2014 |

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Seattle cop handcuffs a drunk black woman and throws her in the back of a police car. She tries to kick at him. He punches her in the face and breaks her orbital bone. Seattle’s city attorney urges charges to be pressed as the cop committed a clear felony. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg refuses. Cop goes scot free. Woman spends four days in jail because the cop says she assaulted him and messed up his jaw, even though he was determined to have no injuries after an examination. The charges against the woman were dismissed.

This is not the first time Satterberg has refused to charge a police officer for violence against a person of color. In 2011, he refused to charge a Seattle police officer for shooting and killing a Native American woodcarver, saying the law protected the police with few exceptions.

Politics of the New Gilded Age

[ 65 ] December 7, 2014 |

There’s a reason that corporations love state regulators and state politicians–they can easily buy them for cheap. Such is the politics of the New Gilded Age, when politicians are as openly for sale as they were in the first Gilded Age. The energy industry is just openly purchasing Republican attorney generals, especially in fossil fuel heavy states like Oklahoma. Companies write the bills and lawsuits, their hacks submit them without even bothering to change the wording:

The letter to the Environmental Protection Agency from Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma carried a blunt accusation: Federal regulators were grossly overestimating the amount of air pollution caused by energy companies drilling new natural gas wells in his state.

But Mr. Pruitt left out one critical point. The three-page letter was written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s biggest oil and gas companies, and was delivered to him by Devon’s chief of lobbying.

“Outstanding!” William F. Whitsitt, who at the time directed government relations at the company, said in a note to Mr. Pruitt’s office. The attorney general’s staff had taken Devon’s draft, copied it onto state government stationery with only a few word changes, and sent it to Washington with the attorney general’s signature. “The timing of the letter is great, given our meeting this Friday with both E.P.A. and the White House.”

Mr. Whitsitt then added, “Please pass along Devon’s thanks to Attorney General Pruitt.”

The email exchange from October 2011, obtained through an open-records request, offers a hint of the unprecedented, secretive alliance that Mr. Pruitt and other Republican attorneys general have formed with some of the nation’s top energy producers to push back against the Obama regulatory agenda, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

Attorneys general in at least a dozen states are working with energy companies and other corporate interests, which in turn are providing them with record amounts of money for their political campaigns, including at least $16 million this year.

The whole story really goes into detail on how beholden these politicians are to the energy capitalists. Only a real citizen movement to retake our democracy will stop this from continuing. We did it a century ago in the Progressive Era that ended the first Gilded Age. We can do it again. But we have a long ways to go.

Martin Litton, RIP

[ 7 ] December 7, 2014 |

The great environmentalist Martin Litton has died. A radical within what was traditionally a pretty conservative Sierra Club, Litton allied with David Brower to lead the fight to save Dinosaur National Monument from the Echo Park Dam in 1956, a key moment in the rise of American environmentalism. He continued fighting for untrammeled wilderness throughout the rest of his very long life (married for 72 years!). His particular love was the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. That’s a fight that continues to be fought today as some want to turn the Grand Canyon into Niagara Falls.

Trenchant Historical Commentary on Eric Garner’s Murder (II)

[ 17 ] December 7, 2014 |

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Thurgood Marshall:

Although the city instructs its officers that use of a chokehold does not constitute deadly force, since 1975 no less than 16 persons have died following the use of a chokehold by an LAPD police officer. Twelve have been Negro males […]

It is undisputed that chokeholds pose a high and unpredictable risk of serious injury or death. Chokeholds are intended to bring a subject under control by causing pain and rendering him unconscious. Depending on the position of the officer’s arm and the force applied, the victim’s voluntary or involuntary reaction, and his state of health, an officer may inadvertently crush the victim’s larynx, trachea, or hyoid. The result may be death caused by either cardiac arrest or asphyxiation. An LAPD officer described the reaction of a person to being choked as “do[ing] the chicken,” in reference apparently to the reactions of a chicken when its neck is wrung. The victim experiences extreme pain. His face turns blue as he is deprived of oxygen, he goes into spasmodic convulsions, his eyes roll back, his body wriggles, his feet kick up and down, and his arms move about wildly[...]

The training given LAPD officers provides additional revealing evidence of the city’s chokehold policy. Officer Speer testified that in instructing officers concerning the use of force, the LAPD does not distinguish between felony and misdemeanor suspects. Moreover, the officers are taught to maintain the chokehold until the suspect goes limp, despite substantial evidence that the application of a chokehold invariably induces a “flight or flee” syndrome, producing an involuntary struggle by the victim which can easily be misinterpreted by the officer as willful resistance that must be overcome by prolonging the chokehold and increasing the force applied. In addition, officers are instructed that the chokeholds can be safely deployed for up to three or four minutes. Robert Jarvis, the city’s expert who has taught at the Los Angeles Police Academy for the past 12 years, admitted that officers are never told that the bar-arm control can cause death if applied for just two seconds. Of the nine deaths for which evidence was submitted to the District Court, the average duration of the choke where specified was approximately 40 seconds.

Officially Sanctioned Hippie Punching

[ 43 ] December 6, 2014 |

Just because you are a police officer doesn’t automatically mean you support the racist killing of black people by your co-workers. There are some Bunny Colvin types out there. Including in St. Louis. But the official disapproval of standing with people fighting against racist law enforcement officials is really strong. In the protests over Eric Garner’s murder going unpunished, a single fire fighter in Providence appeared before the protests in a window and raised his fist in solidarity. This was filmed. He was punished while the firefighters openly mocking the protestors were not. Providence journalist Steve Ahlquist is responsible for the coverage. He’s sad and angry that it led to the punishment of the firefighter.

Commissioner Paré recognized the humanity of the action immediately. It was the sincerity of the gesture and the humanity expressed that made a silhouette with raised fist so dangerous. For the system to work, one side must be strong, powerful and monolithic and the other side must be weak, compliant and diverse. When the strong show tenderness and tolerance or the weak demonstrate strength and solidarity, the system strains to breaking, and punishments must be meted out.

I feel sad that my footage has caused the firefighter censure and official punishment. Commissioner Paré says the firefighter should have remained neutral, but were the disdainful looks or dismissive chuckles of other figures in the windows neutral? Dismissive attitudes also lack neutrality, yet it never occurred to me or the protesters to note such attitudes, because they are common. It seems neutrality is only neutral when it serves those in power.

If in the future I film police officers at protests laughing or taking a dismissive attitude towards the activists, will Commissioner Paré take them to task for their lack of neutrality? Perhaps the police should wear helmets to hide their emotions and mask their humanity. No one can see the tears of a stormtrooper as the trigger is squeezed.

Neutrality über alles.

If this kind of enforced anti-protestor mentality exists among firefighters, imagine the peer pressure among the police.

Dead Horses in American History (XV)

[ 26 ] December 6, 2014 |

A reader sent this to me, to which I give thanks.

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This is the cover of the February 12, 1898 issue of Harper’s. Thanks to Google Books, the greatest invention since indoor plumbing. You can buy a print of it here. Or you can buy it and give to me as a gift.

The Price of Poverty

[ 108 ] December 6, 2014 |

Being poor is horrible for so many reasons. Among them is that life’s little inconveniences for the non-poor can be utterly devastating. Getting sick and missing a couple of days of work means you can lose your apartment. The car breaking down destroys your life. Linda Tirado, from her new book on living in the New Gilded Age:

It is impossible to be good with money when you don’t have any. Full stop. If I’m saving my spare five bucks a week, in the best-case scenario I will have saved $260 a year. For those of you that think in quarters: $65 per quarter in savings. If you deny yourself even small luxuries, that’s the fortune you’ll amass. Of course you will never manage to actually save it; you’ll get sick at least one day and miss work and dip into it for rent. Gas will spike and you’ll need it to get to work. You’ll get a tear in your work pants that you can’t patch. Something, I guarantee you, will happen in three months.

When I have a few extra dollars to spend, I can’t afford to think about next month—my present day situation is generally too tight to allow me that luxury. I’ve got kids who are interested in their quality of life right now, not 10 years from now.

Here’s the thing: we know the value of money. We work for ours. If we’re at 10 bucks an hour, we earn 83 cents, before taxes, every five minutes. We know exactly what a dollar’s worth; it’s counted in how many more times you have to duck and bend sideways out the drive through window. Or how many floors you can vacuum, or how many boxes you can fill.

It’s impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right—and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet. I’ve done well in years that I had a job I didn’t mind terribly and that paid me well enough to get into an apartment that met all the basic standards. I’ve done less well in years where I didn’t have steady work. The trouble’s been that my luck simply hasn’t held out for long enough; it seems like just when I’ve caught up, something happens to set me back again. I’ve been fortunate enough that it’s rarely compounded, and I’ve stayed at under sea level for short periods instead of long-term. But I’ve stared long-term in the face long enough to have accepted it as a real possibility. It’s only an accident and a period of unemployment away.

Of course, the rich will say that Tirado and others are just lazy. Sure. No one knows work like poor people. Because they do it, and a lot of it, whenever they can.

Academic Integrity and Union Busting at the University of Oregon

[ 64 ] December 6, 2014 |

As I discussed awhile ago, the teaching assistants at my alma mater, the University of Oregon, were discussing going on strike over the university’s refusal to provide them paid sick leave. In response, the university threw academic integrity out the window and threatened to allow students to have their current grade be the grade for the course and encouraged professors to give scantron finals. Well, the TAs did go on strike and the university has moved forward with its plans. For one, the university is threatening TAs (or GTFFs as they are called in Eugene) on foreign visas with deportation if they strike. That’s a pretty low blow.

The faculty union has come out in support of their TAs. Here is its statement:

Today, the University of Oregon administration escalated its tactics against the striking graduate employees that will have profoundly negative implications for undergraduates.

The College of Arts and Sciences decreed unilaterally that final examinations and end-of-term assignments will be optional in graduate-assisted courses taught in the Departments of Linguistics, Philosophy, and Ethnic Studies.

If the GTFF strike continues after Dec. 12, the Associate Dean for Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences will assign all grades in the affected courses, based on only a portion of the graded assignments and tests listed in course syllabi. In the Department of Philosophy, the department head and all graduate instructors have been removed as instructors of record. More departments may suffer a similar fate.

This course of action threatens to damage the mentorship between teachers and students, relations of trust among colleagues, and between the university community and the administration. It also interferes with the ability of teachers to do what they do best: to educate students. This harms students who hoped to improve their grades with end-of-term writing assignments and final examinations.

The apparent goal of this attack is to break the GTFF and not, as the administration insists, to maintain “academic continuity.”

Every effort by faculty members and the university senate to deal with the problem of assigning grades during the strike in a manner that upholds the professional integrity of teachers and the expectations set out in course syllabi has been rejected.

Furthermore, because the administration has declared final examinations to be optional, grades will not have the same value for all students.

Such callous disregard for academic freedom and the welfare of students forces faculty and students between a rock and a hard place. Rather than work with faculty to create meaningful options for grades to be delayed, the administration has chosen to compromise the integrity of undergraduate education at the University of Oregon.

I have a bit more information. I was forwarded an e-mail from the Associate Dean of Humanities, Judith Baskin. At the request of the person who sent it, I have redacted the course name this e-mail applies to. It reads as follows:

Dear Students,

I am responsible for ensuring that you receive a timely grade for
the work you have done in [COURSE NAME].

On the Academic Affairs website
(affairs.uoregon.edu/academic-continuity [1]) the Provost has advised
that students in courses taught or supported by GTFs may be given the
option to forgo the final assignment/exam and take their current grade
in the course.

Please be advised that should the GTFF strike continue to Dec. 12, I
will enter the grade you achieved in [COURSE NAME] up to December 1 as
your approximate grade for Fall term. This grade will be based on the
grading information given to me by your Instructor. If you wish you
may accept this grade as your final grade. In that case, you need
not complete any further work for this course and the grade I entered
will not be altered.

* If this is your preference please send me an email to that effect
(jbaskin@uoregon.edu) by date XXXX. Be sure to include your name,
student number, and the course number and name; you may include your
understanding of what the final grade would be. I regret that,
given the large number of courses with which I am working, I cannot
give you the grade I will be entering at this time but I assure you
that it will be based on the information your Instructor supplied for
work competed as of Dec. 1.

*

* OR

*

* You have the option to complete the final exam / assignment as
described on your course syllabus and/or by your Instructor. You may
submit that work either to the Department of [BLANK] or electronically (if this was your Instructor’s
preference) by the date and time assigned by your Instructor. At such
time as your work is graded, the approximate grade will be replaced by
a grade based on all your course work, including the final
assignment/exam. If you have any questions, please feel to email me
(jbaskin@uoregon.edu) or contact me via Blackboard.

Judith R. Baskin, Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities

Associate Dean for Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences

So there you have it. “You may include your understanding of what the final grade may be.” Great! Tell me you are getting an A and then I don’t have to bother looking it up. And why even bother taking a final? Just go celebrate the Ducks’ victory at Rennie’s! (a local bar) Now this is some academic integritude!

Trenchant Commentary on Eric Garner’s Death

[ 19 ] December 5, 2014 |

Richard Pryor on police killing black people with choke holds.

How to Celebrate Bhopal

[ 35 ] December 5, 2014 |

If you were prime minister of India, how would you celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bhopal, the worst industrial accident in world history? If you are Narendra Modi, you try to recreate it around your country by eviscerating environmental laws and giving chemical companies open season to pollute and kill.

VAPI, India — Factory owners in this city on the western coast of India have been fuming, railing, and arguing for years against a single troublesome number: the pollution index used by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which identified Vapi as an area so badly contaminated that any further industrial growth there was banned.

They finally got some good news in early June, about two weeks after Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister. The new officials at the ministry told them that the pollution index would be revised — and in the meantime, Vapi’s chemical and pesticide factories were again free to expand, and to snap at China’s share of the global chemical export market.

Rightly so, said Harshad Patel, standing outside the plant where he works. The air had an acrid-sweet smell, and reddish-brown effluent was gushing from a treatment plant down the road at a rate of 55 million gallons a day into the Daman Ganga River, but Mr. Patel looked untroubled. “Clean India is fine — we also like clean India,” he said. “But give us jobs.”

Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are choking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects.

Not surprisingly, Modi is using the same strategy that U.S. corporations want in our nation–devolution to state regulators:

“We have decided to decentralize decision-making,” Mr. Javadekar said. “Ninety percent of files won’t come to me anymore.”

He said the new government was not phasing out important environmental protections, just “those which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress.”

Environmental activists are alarmed at the plan to devolve power to state regulators, in part because state chief ministers have powerful incentives to support industry. “It would be a rubber stamp, because the chief minister would just call the pollution control guy and say, ‘clear it,’ ” said Jairam Ramesh, who served as environment minister under the previous national government. “In the state, the chief minister is the king, he’s the sultan.”

Bhopal for all!

This Day in Labor History: December 5, 1894

[ 26 ] December 5, 2014 |

On December 5, 1894, Alabama repealed its child labor law in order to convince the officials of the Dwight Manufacturing Company, a textile corporation, to move its mill operations from Chicopee, Massachusetts to its state. Dwight did this, settling in Gadsden. This incident is both an early incident in the history of capital mobility, a phenomenon that plagues workers today, and also shines a light into how the apparel industry was a pioneer in breaking labor resistance through simply closing up and moving operations to a non-union state.

Child labor had long plagued the United States. Of course, children worked in various ways on farms on in the cities but the Industrial Revolution made that work all the harder and more dangerous, with factory owners using children’s small size to hire them in the most dangerous jobs, often around moving and deadly machinery. At the same time, in New England, increasingly restive workers protested against the poor wages and bad working conditions of the textile industry. Moreover, northern states had started passing legislation mandating wages and hours, especially for the female and child workers the textile industry loved exploiting. By the 1903, Chicopee had about 2000 union members in the textile industry and a growing set of state labor laws these unions successfully fought for that today we would see as basic protections for workers.

Stepping into this labor unrest were the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama, who began to see attracting northern investment in textile mills as part of the solution to its persistent white poverty and an economic move befitting a New South image they pushed. The first cotton mill opened in Alabama in 1832 but the industry remained small, despite that state’s centrality in American cotton production. By the mid-1880s, Alabama legislators decided to encourage northern capital investment, offering tax exemptions and cheap labor to textile corporations.

But in 1887, Alabama also became the first southern state to enact regulations on hours and child labor. This created an 8-hour day for most women in factories, an 8-hour day for children under 14 in most work and banned work for those under 15 in the coal or iron mines. This was supported by the Knights of Labor, which was briefly prominent in Alabama, as it was in much of the nation. But with the Knights’ decline in the aftermath of Haymarket, the political will to keep these laws in place quickly waned.

In 1894, the Dwight Manufacturing Company announced it was going to build a southern factory to get away from its restive workers and “oppressive laws” guaranteeing them some rights, as their executives called them. It put itself up to the highest bidder. Dwight didn’t like that it couldn’t employ children. Alabama repealing their child labor law thus made it the winner of Dwight’s race to the bottom. The original law simply excepted Etowah County, where the factory was to go, but 12 days later, Governor William Oates signed another bill repealing it for the whole state. The company refused to transfer workers to Chicopee in order to keep the union traditions away from its new home. About this repeal, Samuel Gompers wrote, “I was horrified by this outrageous piece of legislation…this crime that had been committed by that legislature in sacrificing young and innocent children to the greed and rapacity of the profit mongers.” By May 1897, 17 of the 162 employees in the Dwight spinning department were 10 years of age or younger.

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Northern unions did not take this lying down. The National Union of Textile Workers began trying to organize the southern mill workers, fighting for northern standards in order to undermine the threat of capital mobility. Factories such as Dwight used the standard anti-union procedures–firing unionized workers, kicking them out of company towns, threatening to replace them with black labor, the blacklist. The NUTW and other unions struggled mightily to organize the mills, which were largely seen as public benefactors by many white Alabamans. The labor movement outside the textile industry in the state did however start fighting immediately for new labor legislation. After several failed attempts, a 1903 compromise bill banned child labor under the age of 12 except for some exemptions such as orphans and children of widowed mothers who could be employed at the age of 10. The textile companies, including Dwight, fought against this, but it did pass.

However, it lacked any meaningful enforcement mechanism. With the rising Progressive Era, even in Alabama the continued use of child labor sparked increased concern, and a somewhat better law passed in 1907. The Dwight Mill received a significant amount of negative publicity throughout this fight, including from the Massachusetts State Federation of Labor who had it in mind when it blamed the lack of labor law in the South on “attorneys of Northern capitalists who have large investments in the Southern mills.” Despite this new law, in 1910, Alabama mills still employed 2903 children between the ages of 10 and 13.

By 1927, Dwight had closed its Massachusetts operations and had moved to Alabama full time. While the southern textile operations slowly killed the industry in the northeast, it was not immune from the same problems. In 1934, textile workers around the nation, including in the South, struck over low wages and bad conditions and after World War II, the apparel industry began experimenting with moving their operations overseas. For the Dwight Company, their workers had organized even before 1934 and continued fighting for unionism through the 30s, despite continued firing and blacklisting from the company. Dwight openly defied the National Labor Relations Board and challenged the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, even after the Supreme Court found for its constitutionality in 1937. Because of Dwight, The Nation‘s Maxwell Stewart called Gadsden, “the toughest [antiunion] city in the United States,” although there was plenty of competition for that honor. Finally, when their Alabama workers struck in 1959, the company shut the mill down and threw 2100 people out of work.

By the 1980s, companies like Dwight were leaving the United States entirely because of too many labor laws like the Wagner Act, what with its minimum wages and guaranteeing of collective bargaining rights. The southern mill towns suffered the same fate as did New England. As does any place today that tries to give workers right or pass legislation protecting labor or the environment. Apparel manufacturers pioneered capital mobility and continue to aggressively search for the cheapest and most exploitative labor today, even if over 1100 workers die in a single factory collapse in the process.

This post is based on Beth English, A Common Thread: Labor, Politics, and Capital Mobility in the Textile Industry, a book I found very useful in conceptualizing Out of Sight.

This is the 127th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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