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This Day in Labor History: April 12, 1934

[ 14 ] April 12, 2014 |

On April 12, 1934, workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo walked off the job in a strike that united unionized labor and the unemployed, creating a social movement that scared capitalists around the nation, helped spur more substantial labor legislation, and left two workers dead after a five day battle between strikers and the Ohio National Guard. If I had to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.

The Electric Auto-Lite company made electrical starters and spark plugs at a factory in Toledo. Although we don’t think of the American Federation of Labor as organizing industrial workers–because usually they didn’t–by the early 1930s, the pressure to engage in industrial strikes was forcing the AFL to move in a limited way on this front, particularly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. So the AFL sought to organize the Auto-Lite plant, as well as several other auto plants. It had some early success, establishing temporary industrial unions at a few plants by March 1934.

AFL president William Green was never comfortable with this arrangement. He saw himself as the sole mediator between workers and employers and these industrial workers were too independent for his tests. When the auto unions decided on a strike in March 1934, Green tried to stamp it out, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, who offered mediation because he feared an auto strike would hurt the recovery; Green felt the unions were not strong enough to win. When Green agreed, auto union membership plummeted since workers no longer trusted him to represent them.

In Toledo, workers had organized Federal Labor Union (the AFL name for these temp unions) Local 18384. This local focused on Auto-Lite but actually had members from multiple car and car part companies in Toledo. This gave the local a lot of power because they could go on strike at one company but still have dues money coming in, allowing it to pay strike dues without becoming insolvent. On February 23, 1934, workers briefly walked out for union recognition and a 10% pay increase. They came to an agreement in late March on a smallish pay increase (the union wanted another 20%) and an agreement to talk further. But when management refused to sign the new contract, a group of workers walked out.

Unfortunately for them, only about 25% initially came out for that second strike. Very fortunately, the American Workers Party under the leadership of the legendary radical and former Quaker minister here in Providence AJ Muste immediately joined the strike, organizing the city’s unemployed both to radicalize the general population over the terrible conditions of the Depression and to ensure that they wouldn’t take jobs as strikebreakers. Muste was in his Trotskyite phase at this point and like the Trotskyite Minneapolis Teamsters who would strike the next month, was more invested in direct action than obscure theoretical arguments. AWP executive secretary Louis Budenz led the party’s actions from Toledo.

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AJ Muste

The strike quickly became a social movement. When unemployed workers came to the aid of the strikers, employers and the agents of power were shocked. After a century of using the unemployed against unions, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the employed and unemployed were uniting. The courts granted Auto-Lite an injunction against the strikers, limiting pickets to 25 at each of the plant’s 2 entrances, but that did not apply to the unemployed workers. The AWP responded that it would “deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking auto workers’ federal union.” The AWP and the unemployed continued to block the entrance to Auto-Lite, organizing them in part so that they would not serve as strikebreakers. Leaders of the movement were arrested but the protests continued.

By early May, with the strike leaders on trial, Auto-Lite decided to break the strike and began importing strikebreakers. When the workers heard of it, the protests grew rapidly. On May 21, there were 1000 picketers, 4000 on May 22, and 6000 on May 23. Between May 23 and May 28, the streets of Toledo were a battlefield and strikers battled the Ohio National Guard seeking to open the plant. It started when police started beating an old man. The crowd erupted, started breaking windows and throwing rocks at the police. The National Guard came in. FDR sent Charles Taft in to mediate. Son of the former president and a major political player in Ohio (you can also visit an animatronic Charles Taft at the William Howard Taft museum in Cincinnati), Roosevelt hoped he could calm the situation but he could not. He wanted the workers to submit their grievances to the federal Automobile Labor Board, but this would have forced the workers to give them their best weapon–the strike–and so they rejected it. The National Guard killed 2 workers on May 24 in a pitched battle with strikers. The next day, Auto-Lite agreed to keep the plant closed to avoid further violence. But on the same day, 51 of the city’s 103 unions agreed to begin a general strike. However, the violence began to die down on May 26 thanks to mass arrests, especially of local American Workers Party leaders.

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Seeing the writing on the wall, the actual Auto-Lite workers lowered their request at Taft’s urging to a 10 percent wage increase. The company again became aggressive, attempting to create a company union and rejecting everything the auto workers proposed. As May turned into June, the chances for a renewal of violence grew. More unions geared up for a general strike while the company asked the Ohio governor to use the National Guard to keep the plant open by force. Workers appealed to FDR to intervene on their side. Finally what ended this was employers throughout the city granting pay raises to the unions, beginning with an IBEW local that won 20 percent. On June 2, the auto workers came to an agreement, getting only a 5 percent wage increase but also union recognition. The AWP urged the workers to reject the agreement, but the workers wanted to work and felt they had won what they wanted. The National Guard withdrew from Toledo on June 5. The Toledo Central Labor Council held a huge victory parade on June 9 with 20,000 people. Regardless of the AWP’s revolutionary aims, for labor itself, this was a gigantic win.

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The power of workers at Auto-Lite helped build momentum for the National Labor Relations Act that followed the next year. It also increased the appeal of large-scale industrial unionism. The Toledo workers became United Auto Workers Local 12 when that union formed in 1937.

The factory closed in 1962 and was turned into a park in 1999. The Autolite company is now part of the Honeywell octopus.

This is the 102nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 11, 1986

[ 63 ] April 11, 2014 |

On April 11, 1986, police fired tear gas at strikers at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota after UFCW Local P-9 shut down the plant by blocking the main gate to the building. 17 workers were arrested that day. The Hormel Strike was notable both for its militant local and the reluctance of the UFCW to put up a strong fight against contractual rollbacks. It also pioneered the modern corporate campaign as a labor tactic. Most importantly, the Hormel strike was a sign to the entire nation of the weakness of the labor movement by the late 1980s and the aggressive actions companies would now take to destroy their employees’ unions, a trend that has continued to the present.

In 1985, Hormel decided to bust the United Food and Commercial Workers union in its plant. Average wages in meatpacking plummeted in the early 1980s as capital mobility busted the industry’s unions. In 1982, meatpacking average hourly wages were $9.19. By January 1985, they had fallen to $7.93. Hormel demanded a 23 percent pay cut for the workers in Austin, to $8.25, even though the company made a $29 million profit in 1984. The Austin plant was a new, state of the art facility that could have been a model for a new day of labor in the industry, but Hormel ran a speedup and had a terrible safety record in the plant even before it demanded the wage decrease.

Originally the United Packinghouse Workers, a CIO-affiliated industrial union that cleaned up the horrible conditions Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle, the United Food and Commercial Workers represented workers in the industry. In the wake of labor’s overwhelming defeat in the PATCO strike, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union, UFCW leadership, like most of the rest of American labor, was afraid to challenge companies on anything because they too feared destruction. Nationally, UFCW acquiesced to these pay cuts because it feared a worse result if it said no.

But UFCW did not do this with the consent of the local. Local P-9 defied international leadership, preferring to go down fighting than just give up everything they had fought for over the previous decades. In response, 1500 workers walked off the job in August 1985, a strike that would last ten months. P-9 proved quite resourceful. It began what is known as corporate campaigns, hiring a PR person to go after Hormel nationally. That included national newspaper ads targeting the company’s poor labor practices, picketing at the company’s national headquarters, and turning a local campaign in a Minnesota town into a national event in order to gain public attention for their cause. This was not that different from how Cesar Chavez used white supporters around the nation to bring publicity to the cause of farm workers in the California fields. Among the successes of the corporate campaign was discovering connections between Hormel and the apartheid government of South Africa, leading to statements of support for P-9 from the African National Congress.

Nationalizing the cause was effective and brought Hormel unwanted publicity. National supporters sent money to P-9. Although the days of the union ladies’ auxiliary was long in the past, the wives of P-9 workers took the lead in organizing national fundraising, clothing drives, and other activities to sustain the strike. P-9 roving pickets at Hormel plants did have concrete results. But nationally, the UFCW opposed all of this. One shift of workers in Algona, Iowa crossed the picket lines because of orders from the union to ignore the pickets. At the Fremont, Nebraska plant, the union told workers that if they honored the picket line, they would be violating their own contract. Only 65 of 850 did so. Workers at a Dallas factory did respect the lines and briefly shut down this facility, but without support from the international, this proved very hard to maintain. When 750 workers in Ottumwa, Iowa honored the pickets, Hormel fired 500 because of the violation of the contract’s no strike pledge.

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Sympathy picketer for P-9

Hormel was annoyed by the corporate campaign but it made no difference to corporate strategy. It brought strikebreakers to Austin, getting them into the plant with the help of the National Guard. This undermined the strike itself. 460 members crossed it to retain their jobs after the company imported enough strikebreakers to get the plant started again. After 6 months, seeing a lost cause, UFCW leaders ordered P-9 to end the strike. An overwhelming majority of the workers voted no. At that point, the UFCW put the local into receivership and took it over. By September, UFCW negotiated a new four year contract with lower wages, the elimination of a guaranteed annual wage, and the 52-week layoff notice that the workers had originally won in 1940. Of the remaining 850 workers who had not crossed the picket line, fewer than 100 ever received their jobs back. A year later, Hormel demanded further concessions. When the union refused, the company outsourced most of the jobs.

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Teargassing P-9 strikers

Hormel later leased most of the factory to Quality Pork Processors, which took over the most dangerous pork slaughtering functions in the plant. By the mid-1990s, QPP had replaced most of the labor force with Mexican labor, recent migrants who would take jobs with declining safety standards at low wages.

In my view, perhaps the most significant thing about the Hormel strike is not the corporate campaign, a strategy beloved by many liberals, nor the defeatist behavior of UFCW leadership, but rather the aggressiveness by Hormel. By 1986, American corporations simply stopped caring about the appearance of compromise with organized labor. Capital mobility was in full effect by this time. The rise of Reagan and the growth of open union-busting after PATCO took off the facade that corporations ever accepted unions in their factories (despite the necessity for rhetoric claiming it was so in the 1950s and 1960s, rhetoric too often taken at face value today).

Hormel’s open contempt for anything the UFCW could do was notable to everyone involved. It’s why that while the UFCW international leadership comes out of this strike looking really bad, in a sense their position is understandable. P-9 decided to go down fighting, They had the right to do that and UFCW should have supported them. UFCW’s actions in attacking P-9 president Jim Guyette (who international leadership saw as a real threat and thus red-baited him) were reprehensible But it was truly a lost cause. Hormel had all the momentum and all the ability to simply close factories and move. Some will argue that the Hormel strike shows the moral bankruptcy of business unionism and the potential of corporate campaigns, and while I don’t totally disagree with that, I think any larger examination of the larger trajectory of the meatpacking industry during these years should make one skeptical of the potential that this strike could have succeeded.

The Hormel strike is perhaps most famous today for being chronicled in Barbara Kopple’s American Dream, not exactly one of the most uplifting films about American labor you’ll see. The failure of the Hormel strike and the horrible internal struggle became a national symbol for labor’s hard times.

For further reading, see Peter Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.

This is the 101st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The U.S. is Truly a Greater Nation than France

[ 124 ] April 10, 2014 |

We American proles are busily doing whatever our bosses ask us to do whenever they want it, even if we are at home, because we support the noblest thing in the world–creating wealth for the 1%. What are those savage French doing? I’ll bet their workers think they have the right to a life outside of work!

Just in case you weren’t jealous enough of the French already, what with their effortless style, lovely accents and collective will to calorie control, they have now just made it illegal to work after 6pm.

Well, sort of. Après noticing that the ability of bosses to invade their employees’ home lives via smartphone at any heure of the day or night was enabling real work hours to extend further and further beyond the 35-hour week the country famously introduced in 1999, workers’ unions have been fighting back. Now employers’ federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require staff to switch off their phones after 6pm.

Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones – or any other kind of malevolent intrusion into the time they have been nationally mandated to spend on whatever the French call la dolce vita. And companies must ensure that their employees come under no pressure to do so. Thus the spirit of the law – and of France – as well as the letter shall be observed.

My god! If that kind of craziness happened here, bosses might actually have to hire enough employees to get work done by 6:00. All those takers would have jobs. That’s simply not acceptable. Can’t we just automate more work to free us from the oppression of employment and food? Certainly that’d be better than the hellscape of France.

Wal-Mart Organics

[ 52 ] April 10, 2014 |

Wal-Mart is introducing a line of organic food at low prices:

Walmart plans to announce on Thursday that it is putting its muscle behind Wild Oats organic products, offering the label at prices that will undercut brand-name organic competitors by at least 25 percent.

The move by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, is likely to send shock waves through the organic market, in which an increasing number of food companies and retailers are seeking a toehold.

“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries,” said Jack L. Sinclair, executive vice president of Walmart U.S.’s grocery division. The Wild Oats organic products will be priced the same as similar nonorganic brand-name goods.

So good, right? Well, yes and no. One of the legitimate criticisms of organic food is that it is too pricey, making it something for the nation’s elite. This would help reduce that. But what is the real cost of cheaper organics? Who makes up the difference? It certainly isn’t Wal-Mart. Rather, we can expect Wal-Mart to do what it does on apparel and foreign-made consumer products–put the screws on producers to lower production costs. That means labor, especially in a food production system without the same kind of chemical inputs as conventional food. How will the workers producing this food be treated? The article is silent on this, as are most similar articles that focus on this issue from the perspective of consumers and to a lesser extent from the corporate view. The voices and views of labor are completely erased from the conversation. And if we know one thing from Wal-Mart, it’s that people at work will suffer to produce this food.

As Mark Bittman has argued, food costs need to be higher and wages need to go up in order to allow the poor to eat it. This of course means in part taking the world back from the retail corporate domination of the Wal-Marts, Targets, and Gaps. A tall order, but just offering cheaper organic food under an exploitative labor system is not much of an answer to our ailing food system.

$10.10

[ 71 ] April 8, 2014 |

Glad to see Maryland following Connecticut in creating a $10.10 minimum wage. That’s still too low but it’s a nice jump. It also continues to build a real red state-blue state divide in wages and I wonder how big that gap will become.

Equal Pay Day

[ 46 ] April 8, 2014 |

Today is Equal Pay Day. Pay equality has still never been achieved in this country. Some facts, thanks to the National Women’s Law Center:

On average, women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.For women of color, the gap is even wider: African-American women are paid only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. The wage gap has only budged by 18 cents since it was signed into law in 1963, when women were typically paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.

The wage gap among union members is half the size of the wage gap among non-union workers.


Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers
.22% percent of minimum wage workers are women of color.More than three-quarters of women earning the minimum wage are 20 or older, and do not have a spouse’s income to rely on.70% of restaurant servers (the largest group of tipped minimum wage worker) are women – and their poverty rate is nearly 3 times higher than the rate for the workforce as a whole.

Women represent 76% of the low-wage workforce, defined as the ten largest low-paying occupations. Women of color are 37% of the low-wage workforce.

4.8 million working mothers would get a raise if the minimum wage was increased. Increasing the minimum wage would boost annual earnings by $5,700 – enough to pull a family of three out of poverty.

Wellness Programs as Tools of the Boss

[ 82 ] April 8, 2014 |

Not at all surprising that employee wellness program shifts responsibility for unhealthy workplaces off of the employer and onto the employee:

“Many of the individual behaviors you are focusing on in your health and wellness programs [such as] stop smoking, eat better, exercise more, are in fact the consequences of the environments in which they [employees] are working,” Pfeffer says. “If you work people to death, of course they are going to smoke more, drink more and eat worse.”

Pfeffer outlined his concept of “social sustainability,” where companies invest more in making their human capital sustainable.

“Work organizations ought to be measuring the health of their workforce,” he said in his keynote speech. “Just as many places today measure carbon, renewables and environmental impacts, we ought to measure human sustainability just as much as we measure environmental sustainability.”

When determining well-being and longevity of workforces, Pfeffer said that most company wellness programs – which conventionally promote individual health and wellness, biometric screenings and smoking and drinking cessation programs – do fall short of really instituting change. Indicators such as work-family conflict, lack of job control, perceived fairness at work, as well as layoffs and economic insecurity, all play a huge role in workforce health, he added.

“The higher you are [in the organizational structure of your company] the more control you have; the lower you are, [the] more flows down hill,” Pfeffer said, while noting that low control over one’s work increases a person’s likelihood of having a cardiovascular event.

That this Stanford researcher told this to a conference of employers means I’m surprised he wasn’t howled down on the spot. If companies can charge workers higher premiums if they don’t live up to their standards of health, even more money stolen from workers!

Capital Mobility and the Death of Steady Work

[ 103 ] April 7, 2014 |

Once again, capital mobility is the biggest threat to modern labor.* Companies already outsourced much work from the United States, contributing to the decline of unions, the split between labor and environmentalists, the end of steady work, the corporate domination over American politics, Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and the rapid decline of working-class voices in American debates.

Well, it’s no better for Indian workers since companies will dump those workers to in order to fight ever cheaper labor, making the conditions necessary for a permanent middle class nigh well impossible.

NEW DELHI: Struggling to diversify the delivery footprint to take advantage of low-cost centres, India’s BPO industry is currently losing 70 per cent of all incremental voice and call centre business to competitors like Philippines and countries in Eastern Europe, says a report.

“It is estimated that in the ongoing decade India might lose $ 30 billion in terms of foreign exchange earnings to Philippines, which has become the top destination for Indian investors,” Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat said. Thus there is a need to reduce costs and make operations leaner across the BPO industry,” he added.

BPO companies could reduce the total operating costs by 20-30 per cent by moving to a low-cost city within India, with a cost differential of around 10-15 per cent for non-voice processes and upwards of 20 per cent for voice processes, the report pointed out.

Several Indian firms have set up substantial operations in Philippines which has a large pool of well-educated, English-speaking, talented and employable graduates. Almost 30 per cent graduates in Philippines are employable unlike 10 per cent in India where the training consumes considerable amount of time, according to the report.

David Atkins on the importance of this.

The labor arbitrage game continues worldwide as corporations shift from country to country looking for highly trained workers to sell their labor for next to nothing on the global marketplace. These corporations are like parasites, putting jobs in one country for a decade or two, only to destabilize them and move the jobs elsewhere the moment something cheaper and better trained comes along.

Combined with increased capital mobility, labor arbitrage is giving corporations the upper hand in the battle with governments worldwide. The fate of the world’s economy–and, given the realities of climate change perhaps even the human race itself–will depend largely on whether the governments of the world can cooperate to neutralize the parasitic, plutocratic threat of global corporations.

I agree entirely. Fighting capital mobility needs to be at the very highest level of the progressive agenda. It is not today.

*One can make an argument for automation here as well.

UPS Labor Intimidation

[ 46 ] April 3, 2014 |

In February, 250 UPS workers staged a 90-minute strike in response to the firing of a union activist.

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UPS has now fired all of them, despite their Teamsters membership. Because this is in Queens, the City Council is powerful enough to push back against UPS. We’ll see if it makes a difference. At the very least, it sends a message to the non-New York part of the nation to not challenge management.

Sex Work Prohibitionism

[ 440 ] April 3, 2014 |

Melissa Gira Grant’s new book is causing all sorts of discomfort among liberals who are just flat not comfortable with thinking of sex work as labor. Katha Pollitt’s latest piece is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, while Pollitt is writing in the language of second-wave feminism, she’s also writing in the language of prohibitionism. She tries to stigmatize a reality of the world as immoral, but in fact just reinforces a system by which women are in fact victimized. Even the poor women she accuses Grant of ignoring are not helped by keeping sex work illegal. If you legalize sex work, you are going to make it harder for underground sex operations that treat women terribly to continue because a major reason why they exist is that sex work is illegal and therefore stigmatized. That’s not to say sex work is great–it’s a bad job—but keeping it illegal does not promote the equality that Pollitt wants to see.

…To clarify one point, I realize Pollitt is not really calling for sex work to remain illegal, but by using language that separates it from other kinds of work as inherently and perhaps uniquely awful, it reinforces long-standing arguments used to keep it illegal. Quibble with my characterization if you’d like, but I just wanted to clarify this point a bit.

Structural Inequality and Infant Mortality

[ 114 ] April 2, 2014 |

I can’t recommend this Stephen Bezruchka essay on structural inequality and infant mortality strongly enough. Just a quick excerpt:

Everyone in a society gains when children grow up to be healthy adults. The rest of the world seems to understand this simple fact, and only three countries in the world don’t have a policy, at least on the books, for paid maternal leave—Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. What does that say about our understanding, or concern, about the health of our youth?

Infant death rates, those occurring in the first year of life, are a particularly sensitive measure of health in a population. According to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in 2013, our infant mortality rate is about 6.1 deaths for every thousand live births. Sweden has an infant mortality rate less than half of ours, 2.1 deaths per thousand births. If we had Sweden’s rate of infant deaths, the United States would have around forty-seven fewer infants dying every day in the United States. That is what is achievable: every day forty-seven babies wouldn’t die if we had Sweden’s rate of infant deaths.

Differences in mortality rates are not just a statistical concern— they reflect suffering and pain for very real individuals and families. The higher mortality in the United States is an example of what Paul Farmer, the noted physician and anthropologist, calls structural violence. The forty-seven infant deaths occur every day because of the way society in the United States is structured, resulting in our health status being that of a middle-income country, not a rich country.

There is growing evidence that the factor most responsible for the relatively poor health in the United States is the vast and rising inequality in wealth and income that we not only tolerate, but resist changing. Inequality is the central element, the upstream cause of the social disadvantage described in the IOM report. A political system that fosters inequality limits the attainment of health.

Resist changing? For Republicans, rising inequality is the stated goal, with an underlying racial tone that gets poor whites to buy in against their own economic interests.

The only thing I’d add that Bezruchka leaves out is how the decline of labor unions has played into this problem. He suggests worker-owned businesses as part of the strategy to overcome this structural inequality, but that he mentions this and not unionized workplaces says a lot about just how desperate organized labor’s situation has become. In all of American history, only labor unions have allowed workers to have a real voice on the job and provided a powerful and long-term voice for the American working class. Without that voice and the potential of delivering (or withholding) votes and money, politicians have little reason to care very much about structural inequality.

But otherwise, an outstanding essay.

World Cup Deaths

[ 16 ] April 2, 2014 |

It’s not only in Qatar that workers are dying to build World Cup stadiums. It’s also in Brazil, but unlike Qatar, which uses largely very poor migrant laborers, these are workers empowered to take matters into their own hands:

Builders at the Itaquerao Arena in São Paulo downed tools in protest at another death of a construction worker.

Organisers now fear the ground will not be completed in time for the curtain-raiser between the hosts and Croatia.A source said: “The stadium was originally due to be handed over last year. It is extremely worrying that deadlines keep being missed.”

Worker Fabio Hamilton da Cruz, 23, plunged 26ft to his death while installing seating, making him the eighth labourer to die at Brazil 2014 sites. Three deaths have been in São Paulo. Building firm Fast Engenharia, in charge of seating at the Itaquerao, have now vowed to put extra safety measures in place.

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