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Tag: "labor"

FIFA Labor Standards

[ 28 ] June 6, 2015 |


Minky Worden argues at Human Rights Watch that while corruption is a major issue, the new FIFA director needs to prioritize worker safety in building World Cup facilities.

FIFA’s (non-corruption) problems are legion. Migrant workers shouldn’t toil in deadly heat to construct monumental stadiums: no sports fan wants to watch from seats that workers died to build. Sponsors shouldn’t want to promote games in repressive countries that threaten and jail critics. Journalists shouldn’t be beaten and jailed for reporting on abuses tied to the World Cup. Women shouldn’t be banned from watching football matches.

Whoever takes over in FIFA’s top job should act fast to end the abuses against migrant laborers building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where workers are bound by an oppressive sponsorship system known as kafala. The new leadership should also insist that ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Russia prevents the rampant exploitation of migrant workers that the government tolerated for years before last year’s Sochi Olympics.

The recent trend of repressive leaders wanting to host mega-sporting events is one to stop. China, Qatar, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan want to host global contests because it brings the chance to burnish reputations and divert media attention from domestic problems.

As democratic states move away from hosting giant sporting events thanks to the enormous burdens they place on local infrastructure, taxpayers, and the everyday lives of those who live around them, repressive states are becoming more attractive to FIFA and the IOC. That portends a real risk of workplace deaths for those laboring on these sites. The international sporting community must make labor standards a priority in assessing the suitability of a nation to host these events.

Of course, not deciding on these sites by which nation gives voting members the biggest bribes wouldn’t hurt.


Corporate Standards

[ 7 ] June 6, 2015 |


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.

Noncompete Clauses

[ 107 ] June 4, 2015 |


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.

Sohel Rana Charged with Murder: Does it Matter?

[ 17 ] June 3, 2015 |


Sohel Rana, owner of the Rana Plaza where over 1100 workers were killed in the largest workplace accident in industrial history, has been charged with murder in Bangladesh. 42 others are also facing charges, ranging from murder to building code violations.

This is a necessary step for justice. But there’s a long way to go before justice is actually served and an even longer path before the system that created these deaths is fixed. First, Rana still has a lot of friends in the Bangladeshi government. Will he be convicted? And if he is, what sentence will he receive? That remains to be seen. But I think the bigger issue is that it was not just a corrupt Bangladeshi political and economic system that created this disaster. It was a global apparel industry that asks no questions about means of production so long as the goods are cheap. The western apparel companies like Walmart, Primark, The Children’s Place who had contracts with Rana are as guilty as he is. And yes most of the companies have responded to these deaths by changing absolutely nothing about their sourcing practices. They remain completely unaccountable.

This is why we need an international system of governance where the survivors and families can seek compensation not only from Rana and his fellow perpetrators, but from the companies actually responsible for this exploitative system.

Once again, there is absolutely no reason for apparel production to be unsafe. There is very little inherently dangerous about it. But it is unsafe because the entire model of production is based upon outsourcing and exploitation to increase corporate profit. Until that changes, the prosecution of Sohel Rana isn’t going to stop future workplace disasters from occurring.

Gawker Unionism

[ 28 ] June 2, 2015 |


Tomorrow, Gawker staffers vote on whether to form a union. This has been really interesting to watch play out because the company has allowed its writers to debate the issue on the site. Most of the writers who have contributed have favored the union. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but a victory here would be important for two reasons. First, it would be an expansion of unionism into new media. Entering any new industry and especially a growth area is always important for unions. Second, ten years ago, I really don’t think Gawker’s audience would be interested in hearing about labor unions and reading multiple articles about writers joining them. But times have changed and maybe this suggests a shift among the sort of educated, somewhat left-leaning readers of the site on unionism. Ultimately, a revival of American unionism is not going to happen before everyday people think they have value. Largely positive public discussions of unions are important. Union victories are even more important. I don’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it would be a nice victory.

The End of Pensions

[ 61 ] June 2, 2015 |


This story about how the Bricklayers union offered a real compromise on their pensions only to have it completely rejected by management is incredibly depressing. Basically, there was a moment in American history where it was possible for working people to retire with dignity. Repealing that is an explicit goal of employers. And workers just don’t have the power to do anything about it.

Working Hours and Full Employment

[ 25 ] June 2, 2015 |


I’ll admit that what I know about the French economy can be put in a thimble. So I won’t comment on the details. But the French economist Michel Husson and Stephanie Treillet have a provocative Jacobin essay on the connection between reducing the work week and achieving full employment:

There is a close link between working-time reduction and distribution of income. There are many ways to do it, each with obviously different effects on the distribution of wealth. The thirty-five-hour week has left wages unchanged, contrary to employers’ complaints, which accuse it of increasing the costs of labor. This result was achieved in two ways: by reducing social security contributions and by raising work intensity, which has reduced the policy’s potential for creating new jobs.

In other words, employers never stopped skimming productivity gains, thereby maintaining or even increasing their profit margins. These profits were not used to invest more, but to pay out more dividends. In 2012, an employee worked an average of twenty-six days per year for shareholders, instead of nine days in 1980.

What is not paid out to employees in the form of wage increases or job creation through working-time reduction is directly seized by the shareholders. This is why the rise and solidification of mass unemployment and this form of shareholder takeover (a good indicator of financialization) are two sides of the same “medal.”

This is also why any proposal to reduce unemployment without touching income distribution is an illusion. Here the crisis reveals the violence of social relations: while employees are laid off and 90% of new hires have fixed-term contracts of less than a month, dividend growth, interrupted in 2010 at the height of the crisis, is resuming with a vengeance.

Certainly very thought-provoking. Of course we are far from adopting a 35-hour workweek in the United States, but these are the goals the American left need to prioritize.

Argentine Sweatshops

[ 7 ] June 1, 2015 |

TO GO WITH AFP STORY A worker of the Pun

The use of sweatshop labor in the apparel industry is not just a U.S. thing and it doesn’t just take place in Bangladesh. Rather, it’s a worldwide phenomenon that needs to be fought on an international scale. This story about the terrible conditions of sweatshops in Buenos Aires is an example. Taking advantage of impoverished Bolivian workers, employers skirt laws in order to profit.

The death of two Bolivian boys in a fire and the mistreatment and sexual abuse of a young Bolivian woman put the problem of slave-like labour conditions in clandestine sweatshops back in the headlines.

The state, the textile and fashion industries, and consumers mutually blame each other for the problem.

The two brothers aged seven and 10 died on April 27 in a fire in one of the numerous clandestine garment workshops in Flores, a Buenos Aires City neighbourhood, where their parents, immigrants from Bolivia, were living and working.

A few days earlier, Rosa Payro, a 21-year-old from Bolivia, was rescued from another sweatshop on the outskirts of Buenos Aries after nearly three years of being raped, beaten, tortured and held captive by distant relatives she was working for.

These two cases reflect a complex situation, Juan Vásquez, a former sweatshop worker who now forms part of Simbiosis Cultural, a collective of Bolivian immigrants seeking to draw attention to the appalling conditions in the clandestine workshops, told IPS.

“When people talk about slave labour, they think of it as a ‘Bolivian’ thing and they don’t associate it with consumerism, with local working class people, with the connivance of the national and city governments,” said Vásquez. “We are merely the leftovers, the excluded, the exiled.”

According to the La Alameda Foundation, there are some 3,000 sweatshops in and around Buenos Aires alone, with an average of 10 employees each. The majority of the roughly 30,000 workers are from Bolivia, the region’s poorest country. But there are also Peruvians, as well as workers from other Argentine provinces.

“They live in the same place where they are exploited, and they work over 16 hours a day,” said Lucas Schaerer, spokesman for the La Alameda Foundation, which fights slave and child labour and the trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. “They are completely under the control of their boss.”

He told IPS that “they’re forced to pay taxes, they eat in the same place they work, in inhumane conditions. Their meals, discounted from their wages, are skimpy, which is why they have a high incidence of tuberculosis. They live in concentration camp-style dormitories with bunkbeds and bathrooms shared by 30, 50, 60 people.”

Officials blame each other or take the real easy way out and talk about illegal immigration. But the reason these sweatshops exist is that no one in power cares about these people. Even the Argentine government is contracting with some of these sweatshops. There are people fighting these conditions, including Bolivian migrants, but as the story shows, the exploitation and murder of workers continues apace.

Why is the Obama Administration Seeking to Slash Workers Compensation Benefits?

[ 136 ] June 1, 2015 |


The Obama administration is really going out with a bang when it comes to the American working class. First there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership and now the administration is seeking to reduce worker compensation benefits for some federal workers. Specifically, Obama is looking to reduce benefits paid out through the Federal Employees Compensation Act to 70 percent of their normal salaries. Right now, employees with dependents, about 2/3 of them, receive 75 percent.

Like the Obama administration, Rep. Tim Walberg (Mich.), the Republican chairman of a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee, cited “concerns” that workers’ comp benefits “are too generous and can discourage an employee’s return to work.”

The changes proposed by the Labor Department would save Uncle Sam money, but at the cost of cutting future payments to most workers injured on the job. But nowhere in the department’s recent statement to the House workforce-protections subcommittee did the agency provide evidence to back the administration’s concern about “disincentives” for the return to work.

“I am disappointed that the Department of Labor would come forward for the third time in the past five years with a proposal to cut benefits for injured workers that is not evidence-based, and whose justification has been completely debunked by the Government Accountability Office,” said Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (Va.), the top Democrat on the full committee. He finds it “incomprehensible that we are now considering” hits to feds “who have suffered a disabling work-related injury while doing their jobs in service to the American people.”

The idea that working people are a bunch of lazy slackers who really want to get out of work is a right-wing myth that goes back to the first proposals for workers compensation. Companies have always concern trolled the American working class by wondering what generous benefits like making a percentage of your former wage when your arm is cut off by a machine would do to the national work ethic. I expect such lies from Republicans and corporations, but it’s quite disconcerting to see the Obama administration accept some of these arguments.

There is only one appropriate figure for workers compensation benefits and that’s 100 percent of the workers’ former wages until that worker is cleared by a doctor to return. The idea of workers trying to game the system and stay at home insults them because it completely ignores that people take pride in work and for the most part don’t want to live on government benefits. Yes, some people would try to stay at home, but the large majority would want to return to work. Only with a 100 percent benefit do employers have the necessary incentive to make work safe. The reason the focus is on slacking workers instead of lazy employers is power–companies and the government has it, workers don’t. But there’s no evidence that workers are more likely to abuse the system than employers.

The Obama administration needs to reverse this position immediately.

This Day in Labor History: June 1, 1906

[ 12 ] June 1, 2015 |

On June 1, 1906, copper miners in the city of Cananea, Sonora, a few miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, went on strike against the American companies dominating the mines and Porfirian Mexico. Widely seen as one of the most important events influencing the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the Cananea strike is also one of the most important events in Mexican labor history.

In the early twentieth century, the U.S.-Mexico border was quite fluid for both workers and capital. Mining companies like Phelps-Dodge had major investments on both sides of the border. The government of Porfirio Díaz committed itself to bringing in foreign capital as part of its modernization plans that included reshaping everything about Mexico to look as European as possible. In the north, this meant granting enormous economic concessions to American mineral and cattle companies.

On the U.S. side of the border, mining operations required Mexican labor. The Southwest was lightly populated and while some Italian and Greek immigrants made it all the way to Arizona and Colorado to work in the mines, for the most part, the mine operators recruited Mexican labor. On both sides of the border, the mines operated with American capital and Mexican workers. As was typical of mine labor throughout the United States and especially mine labor that was not white, the conditions and pay for Mexican workers were very bad. Mexican miners engaged in a tough 1903 strike against Phelps-Dodge at the Clifton-Morenci mines in southern Arizona and that strike was well known throughout the region, helping to create an atmosphere of general resistance to the racist treatment by the mining companies.

After 1900, overall resistance to the Diaz regime grew. Many dissidents moved to the United States, usually just over the border. This allowed them to influence the border workers. The most influential group was the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) headed by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Magón, along with his brother Enrique, were dissidents who had served time in Díaz’s prisons. They moved to San Antonio and then St. Louis, where they sent followers back to the border. Clifton and the nearby town of Douglas was the center of this agitation and the PLM began to influence workers on both sides of the border.


Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón

This was certainly true in Cananea, about 25 miles south of the border. The town and everything for ten square miles around was owned by Bill Greene and his Consolidated Copper. There was a lot of racial tension on the border early that year, with significant anti-American sentiment and a race riot at a baseball game where four Mexicans were killed. Greene has received enormous concessions from Diaz, including 350,000 acres of timber, 37,000 acres of mineral lands, and thirty miles of railroad. The Cananea Mine employed 5360 Mexicans and 2300 foreigners, primarily American managers and executives. On May 31, two foremen at one mine told workers they would start having to work on piecework rather than salary.

The next morning, June 1, 1906, the miners in Cananea walked off the job. They demanded the 8-hour day, a minimum wage of five pesos per day, a merit system to eliminate hiring discrimination, and the promotion of Mexicans into some management positions. Green armed his American workers. The strikers marched to the copper mine’s lumberyard where two Americans fired on them. This enraged the workers, who burned the lumberyard and killed both their attackers and another American. The governor of Sonora then invited the U.S. Army to come into Sonora. The Mexican army arrived about the same time, arrested about 100 miners, and sent dozens to prison. The strike was completely suppressed within two days.


The Cananea strikers

This event was a loss for the workers, but it had long-standing reverberations. It was the first moment that a widespread rebellion against American domination of the region took place and it showed that workers were ready to take direct action against the American corporate domination of their lives. The PLM had hoped this strike would be the first step in a revolutionary movement against Díaz and while it wasn’t quite that, it was very important. The PLM and other radicals built on this event and workers themselves clearly moved to the left, which may have had something to do with the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was always active in mining and had relative success organizing workers on the border. The use of U.S. troops also rankled in Mexico. The Flores Magón brothers began working with the IWW and bringing the organization’s syndicalist ideology to Mexican workers. Over the next four years, repeated actions along the border, with Mexican workers increasingly involved in both labor and revolutionary groups and angry over the systematic racism and despoliation of their nation by Americans, which by no means improved after 1906, laid the groundwork for the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican and American governments worked together on both sides of the border to repress these movements, including American agents harassing Mexican political refugees when the Diaz government brought them to American attention. By by 1910, the Mexican workers of the north were ready to play an important role in what would become the Mexican Revolution. Cananea strike leaders Manuel Dieguez and Esteban Baca Calderón became revolutionary leaders as well.


During the strike, with burning buildings in background.

As the Revolution wound down, the new government produced the Mexican Constitution in 1917. That document reflected the concerns of Mexican workers, especially those of El Norte. Specifically, Article 27 makes it illegal for foreign citizens to own land within 100 miles of the nation’s borders, albeit with plenty of caveats. This specifically reflected how corporations like Phelps-Dodge and Consolidated Copper had made northern Mexico their personal fiefdoms and how workers demanded this never happen again. The Mexican government would eventually turn its back on the need to help the nation’s poor, but in its early decades, the PRI’s actions did reflect the influence of the Mexican working class on the revolution.

Ricardo Flores Magón never returned to Mexico. He was caught up in the Wilson administration’s World War I repression of radicals. He died in Leavenworth prison, probably of untreated diabetes, in 1922.

I consulted Rodolfo F. Acuña, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 in the writing of this post.

This is the 145th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Human Toll of FIFA Corruption

[ 23 ] May 28, 2015 |

1200 dead workers building World Cup projects in Qatar so far. This compares to just a handful of workers dying for other major sporting events in recent years, even in relatively poor nations like Brazil, China, and South Africa. Note that we are 7 years out from the actual event.

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