This year is the 100th anniversary of the San Diego Free Speech Fight, when I.W.W. speakers were routinely denied their First Amendment rights for speaking in public about workers’ rights. Locked in prisons and beaten by police, it became a national news story. One of many free speech fights the Wobblies engaged in the American West during the period, the AFL-CIO blog rightfully notes its importance for both labor rights and speech rights today.
Noted VERY SERIOUS POLITICAL WEBSITE (TM) Politico only employs the finest reporters. Take its political reporter Donovan Slack. In reporting on Obama’s visit to Wisconsin today, she determined to show Obama’s bias toward unions:
WH flies labor flag in Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE — It’s very clear what side President Obama is on here in Wisconsin.
Behind the stage where he will speak today are two flags: an American one, as usual, and right alongside it — and a flag for the local union, Wisconsin 1848.
What is the flag for Wisconsin Local 1848?
Yes, that’s right–the state flag of Wisconsin. Politico’s political reporter not only didn’t know what the state flag of Wisconsin looked like when she saw it on a stage, not only was she so determined to paint Obama as biased toward labor that she wrote a complete hack job, but she didn’t even realize that there’s no union called “Wisconsin.”
On this date in 1937, the Flint Sit-Down strike ended after General Motors recognized the United Auto Workers at the bargaining agent for GM employees. This titanic victory legitimized the AFL and the CIO more broadly, ushering in the nation’s great period of industrial unionism.
Flint, a city of 150,000 was an auto industry town. Auto companies employed 80% of the city’s workers directly. The largest, General Motors, effectively owned the city. The police force did its beck and call and outsiders were closely watched, lest they be agitators ready to unionize the auto workers. The auto industry was vociferously open shop; along with steel, big auto resisted unionization with all its might. The UAW had sought to unionize GM plants, but its numbers rose and fell depending on the campaign. Its inability to win a union contract made its future tenuous. To raise the stakes, UAW organizers in Flint and Cleveland decided to shut the industry down in January 1937. But workers in Cleveland walked out on a wildcat strike in late December, causing the UAW to speed up its plans. On December 29, 1936, the UAW shut down the Fisher Body plant. Fisher Body supplied bodies for Buick, one of the most profitable GM brands. In the Fisher Body plant, militants sat down on the job and refused to leave until GM agreed to a union contract. At this time, the UAW only had about a 10% unionization rate among the city’s GM plants, which employed 47,000 workers. Most of the workers had migrated from the rural Midwest and Appalachia, not areas with strong unionization rates. The UAW’s militant organizers had to teach unionism to workers at the same time that they battled the auto companies.
Strikers inside the Fisher Body plant.
The sit-down strike put the company in a tricky position. Violence against the strikers threatened the capital of the plant itself, making a forceful eviction potentially costly. However, the success of the Fisher Body occupiers in galvanizing attention led to a huge wave of workers signing up for UAW membership and spawned radical actions throughout the GM system. In response, on January 11, GM ordered the city’s compliant police force to attack the occupiers. But the workers inside began spraying fire hoses and hurling metal objects onto the police below, quickly convincing GM that a frontal assault was not a good idea.
GM also hoped to convince the state or federal government to crack down, in the style of what corporations might soon call “the good old days.” Vice-President John Nance Garner wanted to send in the military to crush the strikers (side note, how disastrous would a Garner presidency have been had FDR not run for the 3rd term in 1940? Horrible). GM attempted to use an injunction to declare the sit-down strike illegal. A judge complied but UAW officials discovered he owned $200,000 in GM stock, which disqualified him from ruling on GM-related cases. More importantly, Frank Murphy took over as governor of Michigan. A committed New Dealer, Murphy has previously been the pro-working class mayor Detroit. He would later serve as Attorney General for Roosevelt and Supreme Court justice, where he dissented strongly in Korematsu v. U.S. In fact, the UAW had originally hoped to time the sit-in to coincide with Murphy taking office. Finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected federal intervention out of hand, despite the desires of his Dixiecrat Vice-President.
The strike worked because it galvanized the community. While workers might have feared for their jobs by joining the UAW in 1936, after the strike started, it unleashed enormous pent-up desires for justice, decent wages, and good working conditions within the people of Flint. The UAW did an outstanding job of tapping into the community. An women’s auxiliary quickly formed to support the workers inside, bringing them food, clean clothing, newspapers, and other items to wile away the long days of boredom inside the plant. While the whole idea of a women’s auxiliary reinforces the male-dominated single-income family, it was 1937 so it was a good strategy at the time. The workers both inside and outside the plant also showed a tremendous amount of discipline. Conditions inside the plant could have deteriorated quickly, giving the police a clear reason to evict the strikers. Strong leadership within the UAW and first-rate organizers worked closely with the workers and community to stay on message, keep the pressure on GM, and not allow frustrations to boil over in counter-productive ways. Today, In a world where a return to street-based organizing is giving anarchist-fringe groups room to hijack movements and engage in personally satisfying violence at the expense of larger movements, the actions of the UAW in 1937 should provide a lesson on how to organize. Self-discipline and community-discipline are both key tenets of successful organizing campaigns.
Another key lesson of the GM strike is the absolutely vital role state and federal governments play in deciding labor battles. Labor had been routinely crushed by the state before 1933. During the GM strike it was the neutral and even pro-labor attitudes of Murphy and Roosevelt that allowed the UAW to win. Recently, in a comment to one of my labor posts, a libertarian linked to a piece arguing that the state actually prevents unions from succeeding when it gets involved in labor disputes. This was patently absurd because the effect of the state depends entirely on which side it takes in the conflict. Traditionally, the American state had oppressed workers. The Roosevelt years saw a marked change in this attitude. Not surprisingly, millions of Americans joined unions. This seems self-evident, yet people seem to misunderstand this basic equation.
March in support of Flint sit-down strikers, Cadillac Square, Detroit
GM obtained a second injunction on February 1. The UAW not only ignored it, but occupied another GM plant in Flint on February 4. CIO leader John L. Lewis arrived to lend his considerable weight and seriously furrowed eyebrows to the negotiations. GM leaders refused to sit in the same room with UAW members, but Governor Murphy then stepped in, sending in the National Guard, not to serve as GM’s private army, but to protect the striking workers from strikebreakers. Murphy’s move was the last straw for GM. On February 11, GM agreed to a 1 page union contract recognizing the UAW as the bargaining agent for all union members in its plants, not only in Flint but throughout the nation. The workers left the Fisher Body plant in a state of jubilation.
The UAW quickly signed 100,000 new workers to membership cards at GM plants around the country. The UAW would build off this victory to organize the other auto plants over the next few years and the other major CIO members unions would use similar tactics to unionize the steel and rubber plants of the Great Lakes states, turning America into a union nation, however briefly.
Remembering the Flint sit-down strike.
The Flint sit-down strike is arguably the most important moment in the history of American labor. After a century of struggling, failing, and dying for the right to form a union, workers’ own militancy coincided with a new attitude from the government to create the greatest period for American workers in the nation’s history. Sadly, the CIO never could turn the overall tide of this nation against suspicion of labor and over the decades, the gains labor made in the mid-20th century faded under withering corporate and government attacks. But we have much to learn from the success of Flint for our reorganization of the nation’s workforce.
Over the past two weeks, port truck drivers in Seattle have refused to work for many reasons, ranging from very low pay to terrible working conditions. The Sierra Club has issued a press release in support of the strikers, noting:
“The Sierra Club stands in solidarity with these brave individuals and in support of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an alliance among national and local environmental organizations, truckers, labor unions, and faith leaders promoting economic and environmental justice for our ports.
“The 400 truck drivers of Seattle and Tacoma are among the 150,000 port truckers around the country who struggle daily to make a livelihood for themselves and their families. Port truckers are classified as ‘self-employed’ which leaves them – rather than the corporations they work for – responsible for their aging and deteriorating trucks. These trucks are not only a hazard for those that are driving them, but they are also a significant source of air pollution and have created a pollution ‘hot spot’ in South Seattle, putting the entire community at risk.
In the 1970s, many unions worked closely with environmental groups over issues of workplace safety. Sick ecosystems lead to sick people. So-called blue-green alliances made a lot of headway. That became strained in the 80s with organized labor’s decline and the counterculture taking over much of the environmental movement, creating scenes like the Pacific Northwest forests, with a formerly invigorated blue-green alliance in tatters, with radical environmentalists like EarthFirst! both showing complete indifference to workers’ lives and their forcing mainstream environmental groups to shore up their wilderness bonafides to hold off the upstarts.
You may say that a press release doesn’t mean a lot, but to the workers it does have meaning. A major organization is offering support and the chances of the Sierra Club staying involved in the situation and lending support to drivers improving the environment of the workplace is high. There is no down side to the Sierra Club getting involved here. I am very glad to see it.
There was a lot of interesting discussion around my angry post about the FAA reauthorization bill screwing over unions, especially the Communication Workers of America. If you didn’t watch CWA President Larry Cohen’s rant yesterday, here it is.
Under the “compromise bill” passed by Senate Democrats, CWA would need not only 50 percent of the 9,000 passenger service workers currently working for American in order to file for an election, but 50 percent of those workers and the 2,000 laid off employees combined; many of these laid-off employees will not return to American Airlines and are difficult for union organizers to track down to sign union petitions since they no longer worker there.
In addition, the “compromise bill” would strip the rights of unionized airline or railway employees when their company merges with a nonunion company. Currently, under the Railway Labor Act, when a unionized company merges with a nonunionized company , a union election is automatically triggered to see if the workers in the new merged company want a union (as long as the previously unionized workforce represents 35 percent of the workforce).
Under the new rules, workers in a unionized company would be immediately stripped of their union rights as soon as their company merges with a nonunion company if those workers represent a minority of workers in a workplace.
Hopefully, that helps answer some questions.
I want to address a larger point though. Our valued commenter Brien Jackson brought up something well worth thinking about in the comments:
Maybe I’m missing something here, but isn’t this just another case of the Democrats getting screwed over by their need to be the adults in the room? I mean, I’m certainly supportive of the unions position, but if Republicans are really willing to kill re-authorization of the FAA over the provision, your hands are tied just a little bit if you actually care about good government, no?
This is at the core of the paradox Democrats face. They are by and large grownups. A functioning FAA is a very important thing. So it makes sense to compromise to keep the government functioning. But Democrats do this on every issue. Republicans know this will happen. So they take extreme positions, win major concessions, consolidate their gains, and do the same thing the next day.
Where does this stop? For those who fundamentally believe in being the grown-ups here, what is the endgame? Where do we see labor (or any number of other progressive issues) 15 years from now? Does this strategy pay off? Are we buying time until sanity returns to the Republican Party?
I’m not advocating for the shutdown of the FAA necessarily. But I am asking for people to articulate where they see labor in 2020 or 2025. Is it better to compromise constantly and be destroyed over a 20 year period or to go down fighting? Maybe the latter, after all another two decades of worker protections, limited as they might be, is better than nothing. But the end result is about the same.
What should CWA do here? I’m a bit reticent to suggest a lot of particular policy proposals, or at least to push for any one. But should a union support a politician who votes for a bill inimical to its interest? I would argue no. Should CWA put its considerable resources into promoting the individual politicians who supports its position? I know CWA effort could make a major difference in Ohio, where Sherrod Brown is a top Republican target. Same in Missouri for Claire McCaskill. And in many House races. Should the CWA contribute to the reelection campaigns of those who don’t support their agenda? I would argue probably not. Moreover, I would guess that the very real threat of this would scare some of those Democrats who voted for this bill to change their minds pretty quick.
Labor is not totally powerless here, but it does have to decide whether its strategy of supporting the Democratic Party in elections regardless of the policies of the individual politician is particularly effective. President Obama naming people to the NLRB that will uphold the laws is important. But as Cohen says in the linked video, the next Republican president will change any rules Obama makes and name horrible people to the NLRB. And whether in 2012, 2016, or 2020, a Republican president will take office. What matters more than rules and NLRB appointments to Cohen is legislation that puts protections on the books. And on this key issue, unions have been very disappointed in the administration. The votes certainly weren’t there for EFCA, but holding the line at what things were like during the Bush Administration does not seem an unreasonable expectation.
Every election cycle, Democratic politicians come feasting at the union trough, using unions to raise money and coordinate get out the vote campaigns. Nobody on the Democratic side does these things better.
So what do unions get in return? Lip service. Or worse. Such as yesterday, when Senate Democrats agreed to a “compromise” over the FAA reauthorization package that was essentially another Democratic cave on the major issue between them and Republicans–the ability of government transportation workers to form unions. Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller are the leading sellouts here. Essentially the compromise measure raises the bar for the percentage of workers who show active interest in forming a union to the unreasonable level of fifty percent before a union election can be held. The current level is a more reasonable level of 35%. This is not to vote the union in. This number is simply to begin the process of setting up an election. The Communication Workers of America, who represents many of these workers, and the AFL-CIO worked to kill the bill, but it passed with a huge majority.
Why do unions support the Democratic Party again? Unions were the difference in Harry Reid’s reelection campaign. His payback–pushing through a measure that will severely restrict unionization among government transportation workers. Thanks Harry!
…To be clear, I obviously understand the reasons why unions support Democrats such as the NLRB, etc. However, that unions are taken for granted by the Democratic Party year and year and election after election, even after labor provides much of material necessary to win elections–including having just provided the margin of victory for Harry Reid–is more than a little frustrating. I guess relying on your friends means dying a slow death whereas your enemies will kill you immediately. Great choice.
On February 6, 1919, the Seattle General Strike began. This event, the most successful general strike in American history, was also arguably the most serious working-class threat to industrial capitalism industrialists ever faced. The forces of order certainly felt this way. It also spurred on the Red Scare, deportation of radicals, and crackdown on labor activism that dominated America after World War I.
The Seattle General Strike began with a longshoremen’s strike, as shipyard workers protested two years without a pay raise. 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. They believed they would receive a raise after government wage controls during the war were ended. Instead, the government-appointed leader of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, designed to promote the rapid construction of America’s Navy, conspired with business leaders to keep down wages. A telegram meant for the business leaders fell into union hands, convinced the shipbuilders that they had no alternative but to strike. They walked off their jobs on January 21, 1919. Over the next two weeks, business cut off strikers’ credit at grocery stores and police raided a cooperative set up to get food to the strikers.
The rest of Seattle labor saw this as the first strike against organized labor in one of America’s most militant cities and regions. The Metal Trades Council suggested a general strike, which was approved by the Central Labor Council and set for February 6. On that day, an additional 25,000 workers went on strike, shutting down Seattle. This was the first large-scale general strike in American history. Radicals had discussed for a generation or more, but it had never been successfully pulled off. The strikers sought to take over basic city services. They organized feeding tens of thousands of people, staffed hospitals, and ensured order in the streets. The city ran peacefully.
Serving food during the Seattle General Strike
Most of the locals engaged in the general strike were affiliated with the AFL. This was a strike led by Seattle’s skilled labor. The I.W.W. dominated agricultural and logging workforces played a very small role here. But as was frequently the case throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, AFL locals were far more radical than the international leadership and especially than the federation itself. And radicals, including Wobblies, were finding jobs in the shipyards, bringing new ideas onto the shop floor.
The strike soon collapsed under severe outside pressure. As one would expect, the forces of order in Seattle and the nation were outraged by the general strike’s existence and, perhaps more so, by its peaceful nature. Perhaps union solidarity might have helped stand up to this pressure. But the American Federation of Labor leadership was equally outraged. AFL president Samuel Gompers had sought to make himself and his movement respectable during World War I. Gompers sought to clamp down on strikes, isolate radicals, and show the AFL to be the responsible option that employers should negotiate with. This didn’t really work, as anti-labor employers hated all labor unions equally. There’s a story of Gompers at a dinner with other high-powered people. Gompers talked of how respectable labor had acted during the war. A big capitalist then lambasted him, basically calling him a Bolshevik and saying that labor was the Allies’ greatest enemy during the war. After, the capitalist received congratulations from his friends across business. Gompers feared that not only was the Seattle action being run by extremists, but that it would give the AFL bad publicity and undermine organization efforts in the rest of the country. Gompers declared the strike unauthorized and withheld strike funds.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the predictable crackdown by business, police, the media, and politicians came with full force. Declaring the strikers Bolsheviks, mayor Ole Hanson gave strikers an ultimatum: run City Light (the city electrical company) at full power or the National Guard would take it by force. In an era when a lot of households did not have electricity, City Light was primarily used by business and running it at low capacity was a tool for strikers against business trying to force people onto the job. Fearful of violence and dispirited by the lack of AFL support, a few workers started returning to work on February 8 and the strike was declared over on February 9.
In the end, the general strike strategy was a total failure because it showed Seattle business that they could take the biggest punch labor could deliver and survive. After the general strike collapsed, what could labor do next? The answer was not a whole lot. As Dana Frank shows in her book, Purchasing Power: Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, whereas in 1919 it seemed that Seattle labor was on the verge of starting a revolution in the United States, a decade later it was completely decimated in that city, weak, divided, and unable to stand up to the assaults of employers upon working-class lives.
Since general strikes are part of the organizing lexicon again, this is a question worth thinking about. If your general strike doesn’t work, then what? How do you raise the stakes from a general strike? These are tough questions with no easy answers.
In the aftermath of the strike, politicians sought to capitalize. Mayor Ole Hanson believed he had saved the United States from the Bolsheviks. Hanson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, had a pro-labor reputation. As a state legislator in 1909, Hanson had been a strong supporter of organized labor and he was elected mayor with some labor support. Only three days before the strike, the Seattle Union Record, the labor newspaper of note in the city and a paper very sympathetic to radicals, had commended Hanson for his calm leadership through these difficult times. But during the 1919 General Strike, Hanson came down not only as anti-strike, but as the leader of those who thought the strike the greatest threat in history to this nation. After his threat of martial law helped break the strike, Hanson became famous for his stand against anarchy and Bolshevism.
In a move later perfected by Sarah Palin, Hanson immediately resigned from the mayor’s chair, wrote a book, and went on a national speaking tour. He quickly became one of America’s most popular speakers on the dangers of anarchism and Bolshevism. Part of his speech:
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact… The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere… True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community… That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt — no matter how achieved.
The peaceful nature of the strikers itself was a threat to order! The fact that workers could run a city for 72 hours without control by capitalists and police–what could be more threatening than this!
Hanson was also one of the targets of the failed April 1919 anarchist mail-bomb campaign, although I’ve always wondered if this wasn’t a frame job. As 1920 went on though and the nation began moving away from the most egregious violations of working-class rights, Hanson’s speech began to get old fast. He hoped to capitalize by moving up in the Republican Party, but after giving his speech at the 1920 Republican National Convention, he was forgotten about and faded from view. He then went on to found San Clemente, California, promoting Spanish Revival architecture by creating a clause in the city charter demanding that new buildings go before an architectural review board to ensure compliance with the city’s chosen architectural style.
Yesterday, with Gov. Mitch Daniels’ signature, Indiana became the 23d state, and the very first (other than Indiana itself during a brief period ending in 1965) in the industrial northeast and midwest, to enact “right-to-work” legislation—or as folk in the labor movement call it, a “right to work for less” law.
But as someone who grew up in the right-to-work Deep South, I can assure Indianans that from a psychological point of view they are about to enter a brave new world where an ever-neurotic desire to keep corporations happy always seems to trump any consideration of fair play or workers’ rights. Welcome to the Old South, Hoosiers! Misery loves company.
A lot of interesting things under the radar right now:
1. It looks like Minnesota is going to have a right to work a person to death law on the ballot this fall. A right-wing legislator is introducing this bill. Republicans control both houses of the Minnesota legislature. If the bill can pass both houses, the governor cannot veto it, and it goes to the voters. It will join an anti-gay marriage measure, making Minnesota a hot bed of politics this cycle. Minnesota should have a bit enough progressive presence to fight this back, but the state also has odd politics and so who knows.
2. The new Revel Casino in Atlantic City has a very special employment policy: workers are hired for 4-6 year terms. Then they are fired and have to reapply. No seniority, no rights. The second Gilded Age advances another step. Revel received $261 million in tax credits to build this casino and are trying to bust the UNITE-HERE union that represents casino workers.
3. Great Mike Elk piece on the 13 year struggle of Brooklyn’s Cablevision workers to unionize with the Communication Workers of America. CWA used a complex media strategy to undermine Cablevision’s intense anti-union pressure placed upon workers. Winning by a nearly 3-1 margin, which is a blowout compared to usual numbers after companies seek to destroy the organizing campaign, this is a major win for CWA and the workers.
The Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that poorly educated government workers make more than they would in the private sector. That’s hardly surprising. What’s equally unsurprising is that pro-business writers are saying that government workers make too much money. First up is my new favorite Atlantic hack Jordan Weissmann:
It’s great that the federal government is providing livable wages to workers, and their families, who would probably have a tough time of it in the private sector. But as an efficient use of resources, the current setup doesn’t make much sense. This might sound cold-hearted to some, but this is exactly the opposite of what the chart should look like if we’re interested in attracting the best and brightest to public service, and keeping them there.
So it’s great that the federal government treats working-class people with dignity but this needs to end yesterday? For someone like Weissmann, committed to defending the nation’s income disparity and defending the privileges of the 1%, this is typical but still awful. For Weissmann, the only workers that matter are those with advanced degrees. Working-class people I guess should go work at Wal-Mart or something.
Would the quality of the federal bureaucracy improve if we paid less for low-level jobs and used the money we saved to compete better for top-level managers and other professionals? Maybe! But the CBO punts on this: “A key issue in compensation policy is the ability to recruit and retain a highly qualified workforce. But assessing how changes in compensation would affect the government’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel it needs is beyond the scope of this analysis.” Maybe next time.
Hiring working-class people hurts the quality of the federal bureaucracy? Should you need a master’s degree to work for the Postal Service? A Ph.D. to hold a mid-level job in Commerce?
What’s remarkable is the assumption by both writers that the government should target primarily the highest educated people. Does anyone in this society care about workers with only a high school education? Are we really going to accept their exile to the lowest levels of the workforce and permanent poverty? Should even the federal government follow the corporate social Darwinist model?
Tom Krazit at Paid Content has a piece up apologizing for Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers in the creation of its products. Krazit argues that Apple really can’t do anything about the problem–the jobs aren’t coming back to the US, it would be too risky for Apple to open its own factory, and China might not allow any real reform anyway.
Most of this is hogwash. The idea that an enormous multinational corporation which just had one of the most profitable quarters in the history of any corporation in the history of the human race is completely incapable of paying its workers a living wage would be laughable if it it didn’t shill for immorality. Take this paragraph for instance:
The truth is that an entire consumer electronics industry depends on these factories for their livelihoods; the dozens of companies and millions of people that have made a handsome living on the spread of mobile technology, gaming consoles, and high-definition televisions into everyone’s lives. And China depends on the demand for its manufacturing services driven by Western consumers who want quality goods at a low price, knowing that few other operations are able to hit those targets as consistently as its homegrown manufacturing base.
OK, but how does this get in the way of paying a decent wage. Apple prices are not low and people are desperate to own its products, but even given the general principle that people want to buy things for cheap, it’s not at all clear that you can’t provide reasonably priced goods and pay people good wages. We did this during the great period of unionization in this country after World War II; admittedly, our level of consumer spending was not so high as it is today, but people also witnessed rapidly increasing consumer power during those years. Even outside of that, given Apple’s gargantuan profits, there’s no way they can’t ensure better working conditions through throwing their considerable corporate weight around. Those contractors do whatever the corporations want them to do. They want so much product at so much cost. And they get it to them. This does not have to be a constant downward. If the corporations want the contractors to pay more, that will happen.
Krazit’s one point worth serious discussion is the role of the Chinese government, who may well be obfuscating any information coming out about their workers’ lives and who could theoretically provide a structural barrier to a corporation wanting to pay its workers more (assuming any of us take seriously the idea that Apple executives really care all that much about how these workers live, which I most certainly do not). If China truly sees its future as providing cheap manufacturing labor, I can see why it might want to discourage one company from paying too much in the fear of driving off other companies. But that’s happening already. As China begins transitioning to a more mature and wealthy society and as workers get sick of dying in factories and having babies born with cancer, companies are moving to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other nations with working conditions even more wretched. And while I don’t doubt the power of the Chinese government, I do not at all buy the presumption that Apple is somehow helpless to improve their workers’ lives in the face of the Chinese government. This is patently absurd.
Apple could do any number of things if it were serious about allowing its workers to live better lives. It could slightly reduce profits and earmark this money specifically for workers’ wages. It could open its own factory in China, hiring skilled technicians and creating a modern version of a company town (a scenario also ripe for abuse, but it isn’t worse than the present situation). It could then allow western reporters, environmental consultations, human rights groups, and whoever else full access to that factory. Even if you take Krazit’s point seriously that they jobs can’t leave China because that’s where the expertise lies (which begs the question of how computers were made before they were in China and what will happen when computer companies move their factories to nations with ever-more degraded labor), it hardly means that corporations are helpless to do anything at all about their workers. It’s that they don’t really want to do so.