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Tag: "labor"

Union Environmentalism

[ 10 ] June 18, 2014 |

Let me recommend Trish Kahle’s Jacobin piece on the Miners for Democracy (1970s reformist United Mine Workers members) and the potential of energy workers embracing environmentalism. Brief excerpt:

Ultimately, the group of miners arguing for an energy workers union federation — or even a new union to represent all energy workers — were unsuccessful in transforming their union in that vision. This failure helped lead to the decline of the MFD, and along with it, the radical environmentalist vision they put forward.

The political space that had been opened up by the incredible levels of self-organization among rank and file miners allowed broad debate and agitation on issues like the environment. But as it became harder for workers to go on the offensive and the energy conglomerates continued to consolidate their power, miners found themselves fighting an increasingly uphill battle that left less and less room to fight for anything except survival.

Although they were some of the last workers to do so, the United Mine Workers did eventually face decline accompanied by the growth of conservatism. Today, rather than being seen as the vanguard of a movement to protect the land, miners are portrayed by many environmentalists as backwards, reactionary, and part of the problem.

I think this is pretty much correct for the UMWA, but in other industries, it wasn’t so much consolidation as it was capital mobility that undermined union environmentalism. The labor-green alliance she describes was not unique to the UMWA at the time. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers were the pioneers here, but the International Woodworkers of America, International Association of Machinists, and United Steel Workers of America had pretty strong environmental records as well. She concludes by talking about union democracy as central to a labor environmentalism, but my own research on the IWA really doesn’t suggest this is necessary. For the IWA, it was the union leadership pushing the green message and the locals embraced it or didn’t depending on the issue. When there was rank and file resistance, it was against environmentalism, not for it. So in the case of the UMWA, the connection between union democracy and environmentalism was profound because it was so connected to the leadership’s indifference to workers dying of black lung and in accidents. But that’s very much not a universal thing.

Despite this quibble, this is an excellent article on the potential of energy workers embracing a green future, even if, understandably enough, how to get from Point A to Point B remains pretty hazy.

Prison Labor and Artisanal Food

[ 69 ] June 17, 2014 |

The prison-industrial complex finds new ways to generate profit. So it’s hardly surprising that probably the industry most exploitative of labor in American history–agriculture–is more than happy to take advantage. What may surprise some people is that it’s the high end artisanal food companies that cater to Whole Foods and other such stores who are involved. This story focuses on Haystack Mountain, a Colorado goat cheese company that is buying its milk from a prison company farm.

Says John Scaggs, Haystack’s marketing and sales director, referring to CCI: “They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast.”

That diverse and nimble operation has attracted visits by officials from 22 prisons as well as steady interest from companies that want to tap CCI’s workforce. “I get one to two calls a week from companies,” says CCI director Steve Smith, adding that he declines those that simply want cheap labor.

The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment,” she says.

Counters Smith: “These are coveted jobs.” Base pay starts at 60¢ a day, but most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives, he says. To be hired, inmates must get a GED and maintain good behavior for six months.

60 cents a day. In 2014. Now that’s the kind of labor exploitation I know from the history of American agriculture.

There was also this Twitter exchange between labor and justice writers Sarah Jaffe and Alexis Goldstein with some PR flack from Haystack Mountain who is not very good at his job because he reveals way too much. According to the PR person, Haystack Mountain isn’t even saving money on the milk compared to what they would pay on the open market, meaning all that money is going to the prison capitalists. Everyone wins but workers. And the idea that all these prisoners are earning skills they will take into the workforce of goat farming is so ridiculous as to be laughable.

Our Broken Trucking Regulatory System

[ 77 ] June 16, 2014 |

When the Wal-Mart truck driver crashed into Tracy Morgan’s limousine last week after falling asleep, I wanted to write a short piece on how the trucking companies endanger workers and drivers through their horrible labor practices. But I didn’t have time to do the research (pro tip: don’t write 2 books at once). Luckily, David Dayen did write this up and it’s typically excellent. The whole system is a nightmare of labor exploitation, corporate purchase of politicians, and casual indifference toward you and I when we are on the road. An excerpt:

But the fact is it’s difficult for truck drivers to make a decent living by playing by the rules, and employers, including Walmart, effectively create a hazardous workplace by constraining pay to make cheating attractive, and ordering faster shipments with deadlines that can only be achieved through cutting corners. Roper had been awake for over 24 hours when he crashed his truck, according to the criminal complaint. A January accident in Illinois featured a driver on the job for 36 straight hours.

The average trucker makes around $37,000 a year. While trucker pay varies from one company to the next, in general terms they get paid by the mile, but not for each mile driven. If a driver goes from Seattle to Minneapolis, they get an “as the crow flies” rate, meaning that any detours or miles spent lost on the road are unpaid. Most drivers aren’t covered by Fair Labor Standards Act requirements on overtime pay beyond 40 hours. Truckers are also often not paid when the haul gets loaded or unloaded, so they could spend hours at a facility working without being on the clock, adding to fatigue. Some industries, like oil and gas, have exemptions from hours-of-service rules that make driving even more dangerous.

Drivers also face tight deadlines to deliver loads on time. Employers restrict speed because it impacts fuel costs, so the only way to get goods to their destination faster is through more driving hours.

5 quick points. All drivers should be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Second, trucking companies simply need to be held criminally liable each and every time one of their truckers gets in a crash from overwork and exhaustion with vastly increased financial punishments. Third, drivers need to be paid for established route miles, not as the crow flies. This should be set by the federal government. Fourth, OSHA needs authority over the truckers even when they are on the road (the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has jurisdiction on the road). Fifth, as Dayen suggests, electronic logbooks need to be kept for every truck. The nation can spy on its citizens but can’t prevent truckers from working 100 hour weeks. Right.

And all those life-threatening hours and stress for $37,000 a year. That’s a terrible hourly rate.

No Real Progress in Bangladesh

[ 50 ] June 16, 2014 |

Colin Long’s Jacobin essay on visiting the Tarzeen and Rana Plaza factory disaster sites is all worth reading, but the important part of the article is his discussion of the aftermath. For very little has changed. The international accords are all about western brands protecting their own image at home–which is fine–but for workers, these accords have no meaning, even if they have heard of them, which most have not. The apparel companies still do not care one bit about the conditions of work, how the workers are treated or whether workers live a dignified life. The increase in the Bangladeshi minimum wage also brought on a much harder workday for the workers as the employers just drove them harder and fired their assistants to maintain their profits. Neither of these advances–and ultimately they are both still advances despite the problems–get at the main thing that would improve working conditions in Bangladesh, which is giving workers power to improve their own lives. Instead, Bangladeshi unionists are still intimidated and even murdered, acts to which the apparel companies are complicit.

But there is basically no way for Bangladeshi workers to grab that power to create a dignified life, not when the apparel companies can and will just move to another country to exploit. Without taming capital mobility, the slow and painful but real progress of workers’ rights gets cut off at the knees. And there’s no way the apparel companies are giving up that trump card.

You Kids Get Off My Lawn: Old Activist Edition

[ 90 ] June 14, 2014 |

Amy Merrick wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the terrible conditions in the sweatshops that make clothing for Forever 21, a department store focusing on low cost clothing for college-aged women. She wonders why the kids aren’t protesting Forever 21, suggesting the decline in labor unions and their own economic instability as reasons. I’ll get back to this in a minute because it’s problematic, but it then led to a more unfortunate Lindy West piece entitled “Why Don’t College Students Give a Shit About Sweatshops Anymore” that does little but compare today’s students unfavorably to her own activism in college.

But somehow, in the late ’90s, the anti-sweatshop movement managed to get a real brand going. “Not wearing clothes made by slave labor” was the “normcore” of 1999.

I wasn’t even a particularly consistent or well-informed young revolutionary, but for years I had a kneejerk aversion to anything too cheap to be true. Someone was paying a price for those clothes, somewhere. So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

It was literally the least I could do; given my level of privilege, it was almost nothing at all. I was lucky to be able to choose where I shopped (plus, it wasn’t like GAP made clothes in my size anyway). I didn’t have a family to support or significant consequences if I exceeded my budget.

But my point is that I’m impressed, in retrospect, by how effective the messaging was in that moment. “Pay attention to where your clothes come from” somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew. And, according to labor activists in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

These articles are not helpful for a number of reasons. First, they are another edition of “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College,” a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s and something that many of you have probably run into at some point.

This reeks of romanticizing the past actions through a carefully remembered history that excludes the second problem with these articles. In 1999, there were some college aged students that cared about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students did not care. In 2014, there are some college aged students that care about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students do not care. Now, there were probably a few more students caring in 1999, but not only are college students working today on other issues that students weren’t fifteen years ago, but there are lots of students still fighting sweatshop labor. If anything, this has increased in the past year since the Rana Plaza collapse and sweatshop conditions have again returned to the nation’s attention. Plus let’s not forget why students turned away from this as a key issue–9/11 and the Iraq War turned their attention to American imperialism. Can’t just handwave this away. Students didn’t stop caring about sweatshops. They started caring about a horrible war.

Again, the third problem here, particularly with West’s piece (at least Merrick mentions it), is that there are actually a lot of great stuff going on in the anti-sweatshop movement. United Students Against Sweatshops is a vibrant organization with activists on a lot of campuses doing great work. I talked a bit about actions at USC this spring and other campuses are involved in a wide range of activities against sweatshop labor and exploitation. Sure, there should be more students involved–but it was the same in 1999.

The fourth problem here is that some of the strategies of 1999 West talks about favorably actually aren’t helpful. Telling people to buy second-hand clothing so they don’t support sweatshops does absolutely nothing to help workers. Plus it’s not scalable. Bangladeshi sweatshop labor activist Kalpona Akter has urged developed world activists not to boycott these factories because it just hurts the workers who need jobs. Cheap and easy feel-good activism does not solve problems, nor build solidarity with those fighting for a better life for themselves.

The fifth problem, and West at least nods at this, is that why are we demanding college students go protest for us? Do it yourself! We (including myself) can all do more to fight the terrible labor conditions in the products that we consume. A woman named Liz Parker started her own protest in front of the British chain Matalan because it wouldn’t sign onto a plant to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. Everyone can do these things. Quit blaming college kids and go start your own protest.

Sixth, and most important for those who are serious about thinking about how to create actual change as opposed to vague protests, is that the articles ignore why students focused on the creation of apparel for their own institutions and not random department stores–because they have leverage to do so. As students, college administrators have to at least pretend to listen to them and potentially respond. The students have a clear and targeted objective–getting their schools to agree to responsible sourcing. The implementation is always tricky, but the point is that it’s an achievable, clearly defined goal with an endpoint and a group of people in power who have to be at least somewhat accountable to them. It’s a strategic choice that makes sense.

If you want to go protest Forever 21, print off some flyers, stand in front of their stores, and pass them out until you get escorted off the premises. Call the media and let them know what you are going to do. Have a friend take pictures and put them on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t tell college students to do it. Do it yourself.

Small Victories

[ 13 ] June 12, 2014 |

This is sort of a big deal:

Target is introducing a potentially precedent-setting policy imposing new rules on companies it hires to clean its stores in the Twin Cities, the retail giant’s hometown. It’s a step forward for union-backed efforts to force major corporations to raise standards for workers they don’t directly employ.

According to a Target (TGT) memo that the labor group Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha provided to Businessweek, Target’s Twin Cities janitorial vendors will be required not only to comply with federal and Minnesota labor laws but also to give workers the option of at least one day off each week; establish safety committees and let employees choose half the members; and invite unions to meet at least once a year with management.

Most significantly, the document instructs each vendor—unless released from the obligation at Target’s discretion—to reach deals with labor groups that want to represent their workers. According to the memo, such deals should dictate “terms and conditions of employment” (making life easier for workers) but they must prohibit “economic interference with Target’s operations” by labor groups (making life easier for management).

In other words, Target—whose U.S. store workforce is 100 percent union free—is telling companies that want to clean its Twin Cities buildings to make nice with unions.

We shouldn’t overplay this–Target is not becoming a union shop overnight and it’s a very limited agreement where Target still has most of the power. But the precedent matters. Target has been forced to retreat in an era when we rarely see corporations do anything but crush organized labor.

The Decline of Meatpacking Wages

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

This is a great graph on the decline of meatpacking wages compared to industrial work as a whole. All industrial work has stagnate for 35 years (real wage decline of 1.5% since 1979). Meatpacking–real wage decline by a mere 28.3%.

How did this happen?

Meatpacking has a somewhat unique position in the American economy. Like many other industries, it found capital mobility a great way to cut wages and increase profits. It discovered this early on, busting unions by the 1960s through transition production out of the cities and into small Midwestern towns. But unlike other industries like textiles, the vast majority of the work has remained in the United States. Over 99 percent of our chickens, 92 percent of beef, and 97 percent of pork are produced domestically. This means it has basically found ways to create as exploitative conditions as possible within the U.S. The history of union-busting (which I discussed in detail here) in the meat industry (a phenomenon in fact closely related to the exploitation of truckers since trucking companies played a leading role in this new economy) led to plummeting wages, making it a dangerous and low-paid job in 2014.

Wal-Mart Trucking Abuses Kill

[ 169 ] June 10, 2014 |

The man who fell asleep at the wheel of his truck and rammed the back of Tracy Morgan’s limousine of course worked for Wal-Mart and had not slept for 24 hours.

This is not surprising at all. Wal-Mart has long been accused of pushing truckers to the limit. All the companies push drivers to the limit for profit, endangering not only the drivers but also everyday drivers on the road.

Of course, Republicans think that drivers falling asleep at the wheel is OK:

Days before Morgan’s accident thrust trucking safety into the news, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would undo rules that only went into effect last year that mandated certain rest periods for truck drivers. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill that would suspend a regulation that truck drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM, before driving again.

“With one amendment, we’re doing away with rules we worked years to develop,” Izer said Monday.

Another reminder that “moderate Republicans” are only moderate on social policy; on labor issues they are as bad as any Tea Partier.

Slave Labor in the Thai Fisheries

[ 32 ] June 10, 2014 |

If you buy southeast Asian seafood, which includes most of the shrimp in the frozen section of your grocery store, you are buying a product produced with slave labor.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. “They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

For a more complete view of labor exploitation in the Thai shrimp industry, see this report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (PDF).

Of course, Wal-Mart and the other companies don’t care. They are happy to bring in fish sourced with slave labor. In fact, its own fish contractors in the U.S. have followed this model as closely as possible.

Guestworkers as Strikebreakers

[ 25 ] June 5, 2014 |

While I am open to an argument that part of an immigration reform package should include a guestworker program, I am extraordinarily skeptical. Why? Because guestworker programs have ALWAYS been used to bust strikes. They give employers even greater leverage over their workers than trucking in strikebreakers from a different part of the country because they have no right to stay and thus no investment in not crossing the picket lines or showing solidarity with the workers, a solidarity they may well feel but what choice do they have? Such was the very plan for Sakuma Farms in Washington, even under the limited guestworker program already in existence:

This year Sakuma Farms applied for H-2A work visas for 438 workers it intends to bring from Mexico to work during the harvest, from June 18 to October 15. Afterward, they would have to go back to Mexico. Sakuma, one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, hires about 500 workers each picking season. If it recruits 438 of them in Mexico, there will not be enough work for those like Ventura, who have been laboring in its fields every year…

What is happening to Rosario Ventura… is a window into a possible future for farm workers. For workers already here, that future includes lost jobs. For growers, the same future holds government-administered programs giving them a source of temporary workers at close to minimum wage, who go back to Mexico when the work is done…

Workers question the company’s eligibility to recruit H-2A workers. [The Department of Labor] Fact Sheet #26 says clearly: “Employers must also assure that there is no strike or lockout in the course of a labor dispute at the worksite.” Last year Ventura, Galicia and 250 workers went on strike at Sakuma Farms several times…

In the course of the work stoppages workers formed an independent association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia—Families United for Justice…

Last year Familias Unidas por la Justicia wanted an improvement in both hourly wages and the piece rate—a $14 hourly guarantee, and a minimum price of $6 for a fifteen-pound box of blueberries. The company would not pay more than $4 a box, and a $12 per hour guarantee, saying that the higher demand would raise its labor costs too much.

When the company was questioned about why it needed H-2A workers, it said a labor shortage had led to the loss of blackberries and strawberries—it couldn’t find enough workers to pick them. But the farm was also unwilling to raise its wages to attract additional pickers.

Sakura has since withdrawn their application, possibly because of bad publicity, more likely because it was going to be rejected. But a bigger guestworker program would only undermine organizing. Immigrant labor must have the opportunity to stay in the country to create a fair playing field for them and for the workers already here.

The Power of American Governments to Improve Labor Conditions Around the World

[ 9 ] June 2, 2014 |

If it wants to, American governments can play an enormous role in improving labor conditions overseas. The federal government could do all sorts of things to regulate the conditions of what comes into this country. At the very least, it could demand the products it purchases itself (mostly for the military) are ethically sourced. Unfortunately it does not.

Even on the local level, government can make a difference. Take Madison:

Last month, to commemorate the anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, launched a contracting policy that commits the city’s vendors to promote fair labor standards. The city’s new “sweatfree” contract guidelines aim to eradicate labor abuse from its international supply chains for the production of government uniforms, including the apparel worn by firefighters and other agency personnel. The guidelines build on the city’s existing sweat-free procurement policies, with disclosure and monitoring mechanisms that aim to “[raise] the bar for human rights due diligence in government contracting” by providing a nationwide model, according to the advocacy network Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (SPC). Similar to living-wage policies for workers on government contracts—which help raise pay scales for low-income workers across the community—the sweat-free contract model for government purchasing can promote standards for more ethical manufacturing across the global apparel market. Madison’s effort builds on model policies developed by advocates and governments of various cities and states through the SPC, which includes Austin, Berkeley and Maine.

The Madison contract rules cover basic labor protections that reflect International Labour Organization standards. Vendors will be required to disclose detailed information on the entire supply chain, allowing city authorities to oversee factories’ compliance with national rules on wages and benefits, child labor, employment discrimination and maternity leave, fire and building safety codes, and overtime and maternity leave rules. Vendors will be monitored by a Contract Review Panel that includes representatives of the city and international labor experts. And if contractors do not have full disclosure for all their suppliers initially, they must increase disclosure levels annually over the duration of the contract.

Suppliers will also be screened on whether they provide “worker education” and “a grievance process” to help them advocate for their rights at work. There is a special focus on “prevention measures to address health and safety conditions in high-risk areas such as Bangladesh and Pakistan”—two countries associated with “deathtrap” factories that have claimed the lives of hundreds of workers in recent years. The language mirrors provisions of the Bangladesh Accord, an industry-based program for factory health and safety that now has now enrolled about about 170 brands and retailers worldwide.

Moreover, the firms themselves have to pay for the system. This is a very good thing and a good precedent for those fighting for international labor rights.

UAW Effort in Alabama Collapsing

[ 66 ] June 1, 2014 |

This is a depressing story.

Pro-union forces in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama are asking the United Auto Workers to stop organizing there because the UAW won’t bring the election up to a vote.

Garner and Jim Spitzley, another longtime employee, have been key spokesmen for pro-union employees, and they have worked closely with the UAW on the campaign.

But they have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAW’s failure to file for an election.

At one point, the men say, the campaign had enough union authorization cards to legally file for an election, as more than 30 percent of the plant’s hourly production and maintenance workers had signed one.

But the UAW was pushing for a much higher percentage, 65 percent, because it wanted a sure win, they said.

“It’s all about the image with the UAW, and it’s not about the workers,” Spitzley said.

But before you say that the UAW is wrong here, understand that it is not wrong. The UAW knows it can’t bring this before an election because it will go down to a resounding defeat. 65 percent is a pretty standard number in modern elections because a lot of those votes will be peeled away in the intimidation campaign to come from the company.

Yet the Alabama unionists distancing themselves from the UAW is a sign of just how low the prestige of the union has become since the Chattanooga loss. I have no idea what the Alabama workers are going to do to replace the UAW. Some want the Machinists to come in but that would violate AFL-CIO jurisdiction rules, which may not be the best thing in the world sometimes, but you really don’t want unions raiding each other either. So probably nothing, maybe some kind of independent union, but the problem is that they aren’t going to win a vote either way. Maybe the best thing is to start an employees’ group that acts like a union, recruit members over the next few years, and build up that way. But right now, this is just ugly for anyone who cares about American unionization.

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