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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labor leaders, who were among the strongest supporters of the citywide minimum wage increase approved last week by the Los Angeles City Council, are advocating last-minute changes to the law that could create an exemption for companies with unionized workforces.
The push to include an exception to the mandated wage increase for companies that let their employees collectively bargain was the latest unexpected detour as the city nears approval of its landmark legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
For much of the past eight months, labor activists have argued against special considerations for business owners, such as restaurateurs, who said they would have trouble complying with the mandated pay increase.
But Rusty Hicks, who heads the county Federation of Labor and helps lead the Raise the Wage coalition, said Tuesday night that companies with workers represented by unions should have leeway to negotiate a wage below that mandated by the law.
“With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them,” Hicks said in a statement. “This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.”
One can make the argument that such a position makes sense for local unions, in that the idea is to incentivize employers accepting a union in return for lower wages. Except that is a terrible idea for everyone is not a union official. First, it’s not good for the actual workers, who would now be making LESS money thanks to their union representation. Not more, not equivalent, but less. Second, it undermines labor solidarity since it is providing an out for employers who don’t want to pay that wage, albeit with a significant cost. Third, the optics are just terrible. While I don’t have data, I am sure that for most activists, minimum wages are more important than unionization rates. This looks like labor selling out low-wage workers. Because that’s what they are doing. Fourth, it reinforces right-wing talking points about minimum wages. Now conservatives can say that not even unions support higher minimum wages.
Let’s say you care about the exploitation of nail salon workers. Rather than just decide to change your habits and not get your nails done or do them yourself, which does nothing to alleviate the workers’ plight, what can you do. Let me direct you to two similar statements. First, our own valued commenter Karen24:
1. Don’t use acrylic nails. Most of the health problems have been traced to the really nasty chemicals in fake nails, especially the particulates. So, just don’t.
2. Don’t go to the super cheap salons. Here in Texas, $15 is about the minimum for a manicure and $25 for a pedicure. Anything below those numbers should be suspicious.
3. Look around the place first. Does it look clean? Is there an overwhelming chemical smell? Most states — except apparently New York — require salons to be ventilated. Complain to the state board if the place is stifling. Cleanliness is a matter of customer safety, but also indicates that the salon owner is invested in keeping the place open and cares enough to follow cleaning rules. A clean salon is also an indication that the owner is hiring experienced and licensed operators. Having a license is no guarantee that the worker isn’t being exploited, but it does mean she has completed the state requirements and can get a job someplace else pretty easily. (One of the problems with the New York system is its use of apprentices, who have to work at one salon until they complete enough hours to qualify for an individual license, meaning the operator can’t leave without losing all her accumulated hours.)
4. Notice the names of the operators and notice whether the same ones are at the salon over a period of time. High turnover usually indicates that the salon owner is doing something wrong.
5. Be aware of your state’s regulatory bodies and file complaints if anything looks off. I’m not aware of any state that doesn’t have a labor board or agency regulating cosmetology, and all of ‘em should have a website that instructs consumers how to file complaints. (New York’s is terrible; but it does exist.) Note that in most states the labor board and regulatory authority are different agencies. File a complaint if anything looks like a problem. There is of course no guarantee that your complaint will lead to anything, but it is absolutely certain that nothing will happen if you don’t complain. Texas at least accepts anonymous complaints and will investigate them.
6. Tip generously, in cash.
Personal grooming is a delight, and the democratization of little luxuries like mani/ pedis is a genuine achievement. We can, with little effort, make sure that the people who provide these luxuries get to enjoy them as well.
Second, Liza Featherstone:
Support workers’ groups. For example, Woodside-based Adhikaar organizes in Nepali-speaking communities and has been educating workers and consumers on health and safety problems faced by nail aestheticians. The group presses for policy changes on its own and as part of the NY Healthy Nail Salons Coalition. Adhikaar’s website explains how to donate or volunteer — its fundraising gala is on June 4, so there is plenty to do.
Pressure politicians. Contact your City Council representative and ask her (or him) to support a bill introduced earlier this month by Public Advocate Letitia James to improve the health and safety working conditions of nail salon employees.
Contact Cuomo’s office, too, and praise him for responding so quickly, but pressure him to do more than create a task force. Adhikaar and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health are calling on the governor to increase the number of health and safety inspectors dedicated to this industry.
Demand nontoxic salon products. If your neighborhood salon won’t switch to nontoxic polish and remover, take your business to any number of organic, toxin-free salons around the city.
Tip big! Adhikaar advises at least 20%, but remember that tip theft is also common. Tip in cash and directly into the hands of the person who helped you, so the boss won’t steal it.
And, don’t forget that this isn’t the only exploitive industry in our fair city.
Of course, Featherstone’s advice is largely New York based, but the principles are universal. Engaging in any of these actions will play a small role in improving the lives of workers, certainly much more so than withdrawal. Each of us can only do a little bit, with a few exceptions who can do more, but collectively we all matter if we are aiming for the same or similar goals. This is what consumer support of workers’ movements is about.
The worst kind of liberalism is responding to a story of oppression by deciding to do your own nails instead of going to a nail salon so you as a consumer can feel guilt-free. Never mind that such an action actually takes money out of a worker’s pocket. It’s not about changing the system or placing pressure on the state to intervene. Nope, this can be solved by me taking care of myself. Now that’s activism!
The global berry industry is probably not one you think about much but you should. The terrible conditions of food production around the world is something that I cover quite a bit both here at in Out of Sight. The food production system is as hidden from you as apparel or plastics or oil, but with the difference that because food affects our bodies so profoundly, there is more interest by consumers to act when they find out about exploitation. One thing consumers can do is to boycott Driscoll’s berries.
While Driscoll’s is a family-owned company, it’s no mom-and-pop operation. According to its website, over 40,000 people are involved in its berry production worldwide. The company has a code of conduct for its suppliers, called the “Promise for Workforce Welfare,” which includes obeying minimum legal requirements and avoiding egregious labor violations like human trafficking and conditions “posing immediate risk to life or limb.” Driscoll’s says it is committed to hiring suppliers that “show a sincere commitment” to such principles.
But Bonifacio Martinez questions whether those requirements are enough. Martinez picked strawberries and blackberries destined for Driscoll’s boxes for 10 years. Now he’s a leader in the farmworker movement that erupted last month in the fields of San Quintin, in the Mexican state of Baja California. Thousands of farm laborers picking multiple crops stopped work for nearly two weeks, demanding higher wages and legally required benefits, among other protections.
“The principal demand is for [growers] to actually respect the workers’ rights,” says Martinez. He wants them to honor labor laws that are, at the moment, he says, just “dead words.” Those include health benefits and freedom from sexual harassment.
Many of the San Quintin protesters are indigenous people from some of Mexico’s poorest states, like Oaxaca and Guerrero. Indigenous people make up more than half of Mexico’s agricultural workers.
The striking pickers initially wanted wages increased to 300 pesos a day, then lowered the demand to 200 pesos, about $13. Most of them earned $7 to $8 a day before the strike.
Protests turned acrimonious when demonstrators threw rocks at government vehicles and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, reported the Los Angeles Times. Workers also blocked 56 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway. By April, the strike had effectively ended after growers signed agreements raising wages 15 percent—far less than the pickers demanded.
The leaders of the movement rejected the meager increase, saying the unions that signed those agreements, which are affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which held power for nearly three-quarters of the 20th century and has strong connections to many unions throughout the country, do not represent workers. The workers continue protesting even as many have returned to the fields.
A note here: PRI-associated unions are not real unions that have actual worker voices. They are fully part of the party structure and serve the party, not workers. A major issue within the Mexican labor movement is trying to undermine these “unions,” which often are part and parcel of the same grotesque corruption that flows throughout the whole PRI. So to some extent this is a matter of convincing workers that they can get more by defying the agreements, which is possible.
There’s a U.S. side to this as well.
Driscoll’s responded swiftly to the BerryMex fracas. But it was not as quick to act to resolve a dispute that escalated while the San Quintin protests raged: a bitter labor fight in Burlington, Washington.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), which says it represents over 400 berry pickers, has been locked in a labor struggle with Driscoll’s supplier Sakuma Brothers Farms since 2013. FUJ has long held a boycott against Sakuma berries and its largest customers, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. On March 24, it doubled down on the boycott when the fair trade advocacy organization Fair World Project sent a letter to Driscoll’s, signed by nearly 10,000 consumers, asking it to suspend buying from Sakuma Brothers until the dispute is resolved. The signatories pledged not to buy Driscoll’s berries until then.
FUJ’s list of complaints is long: poor wages, squalid labor camps, firing and retaliating against workers for organizing and hiring guestworkers from Mexico to replace FUJ’s members. The H-2A guestworker program Sakuma Brothers participated in is meant to be used only when there aren’t enough workers domestically. FUJ says it had plenty of willing workers, but that Sakuma Brothers used guestworkers to avoid hiring back FUJ’s members.
“The only thing we want is a fair contract for both of us,” says FUJ president Ramon Torres.
Sakuma Brothers denies that FUJ represents the berry pickers, calling them “outside agitators” who “have attempted to fabricate the impression that this is a worker movement.” Danny Weeden began his tenure as the company’s CEO just this year and says FUJ’s campaign is hard to understand.
Outside agitators. Can we just assume that anyone who uses that term has just declared themselves a bad human being? And hard to understand? Workers are poor, live in terrible camps, and don’t like being fired for organizing. This does not seem hard to understand.
Notably, these workers in both Washington and Baja California are largely indigenous people from southern Mexico. We usually think of Mexicans as a homogenous group of people, but that’s really untrue. Indigenous people are routinely exploited within Mexico including at the workplace, where they are paid less and toil at the hardest and most dangerous jobs. That gets repeated in the United States, as large number of poorly paid field workers are not only not native English speakers but also not native Spanish speakers. There are cases of indigenous Mexican children in U.S. schools being labeled as developmentally disabled because they don’t respond to their Spanish speaking teachers. But they don’t speak Spanish so why would they? They speak Zapotec or Mixtec or languages with even smaller number of speakers.
This also passes my boycott test, which is that it is called by workers and their representatives (in both Mexico and the U.S.) as opposed to consumers personally boycotting to feel good about themselves by, say, buying second-hand clothing and then saying they have done something about sweatshops (a position rejected by the Bangladeshi workers movement among others). Driscoll needs to take responsibility for its suppliers. Like we need to hold Walmart and Gap responsible for its suppliers in the apparel industry (as well as food for the former), we need to hold Driscoll responsible as well. Ultimately that has to happen by a number of ways, including reforms to U.S. labor law making unionization easier, greater inspections of farms in the U.S., and international labor standards that would not allow berries produced under the awful labor conditions so common for fruit and vegetables for the American market. Oaxacan indigenous peoples in Baja California and Washington, Bangladeshi workers in sweatshops, slave labor on shrimp boats in southeast Asia–all of these workers are part of a system of global exploitation for western companies, all of which happens far away from the eyes of consumers. And that’s how the companies want to keep it.
We examine the causes of the rise in inequality and focus on the relationship between labor market institutions and the distribution of incomes, by analyzing the experience of advanced economies since the early 1980s. The widely held view is that changes in unionization or the minimum wage affect low- and middle-wage workers but are unlikely to have a direct impact on top income earners.
While our findings are consistent with prior views about the effects of the minimum wage, we find strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010 (for example, see Chart 2), thus challenging preconceptions about the channels through which union density affects income distribution. This is the most novel aspect of our analysis, which sets the stage for further research on the link between the erosion of unions and the rise of inequality at the top.
You can read the whole report. There’s really no reason for anyone to deny the connection. Greater income inequality is the open goal of the Republican Party and that’s why they attack unions. Higher unionization rates are necessary to reduce income inequality, which is why there is a war to eliminate the last of them in the United States.