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Tag: "labor"

How Not to Talk About Sweatshops

[ 35 ] June 25, 2015 |

Sweatshops

Active defenders of sweatshops really get under my skin because they combine a celebration of labor exploitation with cherry picking historical examples in order to create a false narrative of sweatshops leading to future national economic success.

Not so, says Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics and business at Texas Tech University who, controversially, argues that sweatshops are economically and socially beneficial to the countries they’re in.

“If you care about the consequences for the lives of developing nations workers I believe it is ethical to buy products made with sweatshop labor,” he says. Powell argues that sweatshops are not exclusive to poor countries in our modern, globalized world.

“My ancestors worked in the mills in Massachusetts. For the United Kingdom and the US, the process of development took more than 100 years to move through the sweatshop phase,” in which women and children worked in cotton mills, factories and manufacturing, he says.

Powell doesn’t suggest that sweatshops should be permanent fixtures but a stage in the development of developing nations, and they “often pay far above the levels of extreme poverty that exist in these countries and often even better than the countries’ average incomes. In 1960, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had sweatshops,” he says, but “in a generation they jumped from a pre-industrial standard of living to first world status.”

Major eyeroll here. First, sweatshops are not beneficial for these countries. They are rank exploitation. The sweatshops themselves did not lead to the economic explosion of South Korea and Taiwan. It’s not like those sweatshop workers were gaining skills that led to an information economy in Korea. And it’s not like the long-term sweatshops of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to those nations rising economically. Rather, they have just been a next stage in a century of post-colonialist exploitation by American corporations. Note that the people making these arguments that sweatshops are great never reckon with the Latin American examples. They only focus on the Asian Tigers. But those nations have alternative reasons for their economic rise that include a) being close Cold War allies of the United States that led to massive economic growth as part of US foreign policy and b) steel and other heavy industries building huge new factories that out-competed the outdated US steel mills of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forcing them to close. The heavy industry of China is a big reason why that nation has risen economically. Neither of those factors are likely to repeat themselves in the low-wage sweatshop economy of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In other words,

And Lowell and the Triangle Fire were not necessary moments in the history of the rise of the American economy. The idea that the heavy exploitation of women workers in apparel factories is somehow required to have economic growth is completely absurd. Rather, these are highly avoidable situations where modern companies could still take advantage of relatively cheap labor while also not killing these workers, forcing them to undergo sexual harassment, pregnancy tests in order to work, stolen wages, etc. These are false choice offered by the defenders of the global race to the bottom. Back to the linked article:

“About 4 million people in Pakistan work in the textile industry and 95% of them never get the paperwork to prove it,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy director of Pakistan’s Nation Trade Union Federation. “This means there’s no way for them to fight for their rights if something isn’t right.” The garment sector, he says, has some of the worst conditions for workers in the country.

“All garment factories, by law, have to register with the Pakistani government, but we estimate that 90% fail to do so and the government doesn’t enforce the law. It wasn’t too long ago that even inspecting the factories that were registered became outlawed in some provinces so there was no way to know what was happening in them either.”

It was only after the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012 that killed nearly 300 people and injured a similar number that the inspection ban was lifted.

Sajida Khanum, a 45-year-old, has only ever worked in sweatshops. She doesn’t want to disclose which factory she’s working in now for fear of losing her job and being blacklisted from working in factories again.

She says there is no security in her job, and that sometimes, when there is not enough work to do, she has to beg her contractor for work. Khanum gets paid about 40 cents per item she makes. “We have to work fast because we get paid per dozen garments.”

Khanum has been working in garment factories for 15 years. She says most workers live the contradictions of working in sweatshops. “We all do it because its necessary, what else are we to do? I’m uneducated, all I know is this job.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but what Pakistani garment industry workers Ahmad and Khanum say reflects what Powell has found in his research.

“When workers choose to take employment in a sweatshop, it demonstrates that they believe it is the least bad option available to them,” he says. “That means that, relative to their previous situation, these sweatshops improve their lives.”

Despite the rather specious reasoning over worker choice offered above (what other choice do these workers have, starvation? prostitution?), I do agree that we should not shut down these factories if we aren’t going to replace them with something else for these workers. After all, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, urges developed world consumers not to boycott these clothes because these workers need jobs.

So how do we fix these conditions while also empowering women workers and helping the world’s poor increase their economic status? As I’ve said in Out of Sight (now available for a Madison presidential election price of $18.08!), we have to create international standards that allow the poor of the world to live dignified lives and create middle classes of their own in ways that do not accept rampant exploitation. That must place power in the hands of workers to sue these corporations like Walmart and Gap if they or their contractors violate international standards of wages, working conditions, and pollution. This is how you create middle classes in nations like Bangladesh while taking away the incentive for these multinational corporations to move to the next nation as soon as these workers succeed in forming a union or enforcing a minimum wage. This is how you work toward international labor solidarity and it’s how you push back against defenders of the exploitation and murder of poor workers on the job.

Labor Picketing

[ 19 ] June 24, 2015 |

Portrait

This opinion piece by Catherine Fisk and Edwin Chemerinsky is quite interesting. Did the Supreme Court accidentally set a precedent to eliminate bans on labor picketing?

Reed v. Town of Gilbert’s reasoning makes it clear that restrictions on labor picketing can no longer survive First Amendment scrutiny. Sections 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) of the National Labor Relations Act prohibit speech, including peaceful picketing, if a “labor organization” or its agents is the speaker and based on the message. Section 8(b)(7) prohibits picketing urging workers to join a union or employers to recognize one if the picketing lasts longer than “a reasonable time” not to exceed 30 days. Thus, the National Labor Relations Board’s enforcement arm sought to enjoin workers affiliated with Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) from picketing with signs saying “Stand Up, Live Better,” “Walmart, respeta a los trabajadores” (Walmart, respect workers), and “Let Walmart Associates Speak Out.” And under 8(b)(7) fast food workers can picket outside restaurants with signs asking to be paid $15 an hour or that the city adopt a $15 minimum wage ordinance, but they cannot picket for more than a reasonable time urging workers to demand $15 and a union. Section 8(b)(4) prohibits picketing urging secondary boycotts, and thus prohibits members of a labor union from picketing at a retail store urging a boycott of the store because its low prices are the result of low wages paid by a subcontractor that produces goods sold in the store or that operates the warehouse whence the store’s goods are shipped. But a store employee would be allowed to picket to urge customers to shop at the store because of its low prices.

The 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) restrictions on picketing clearly violate the First Amendment as the Court interpreted it in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. They prohibit speech based on its content because they, as the Court explained, “single[] out specific subject matter for differential treatment.”

Therefore, the picketing restrictions in section 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) can be upheld only if they are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that the government has a compelling interest in regulating aesthetics and traffic, but rejected the Town’s contention that the regulations were narrowly tailored to protect the Town’s aesthetic appeal or traffic flow because the law was under-inclusive – it allowed signs with some messages but not others. The government might argue that 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) serve the compelling interest of preventing unjustified work stoppages and consumer boycotts. Eliminating work stoppages and consumer boycotts is, in our view, not a compelling governmental interest. But even if it were, prohibiting picketing is both overbroad and under-inclusive. Any group other than a labor organization is free to urge a consumer boycott or that workers strike to demand higher wages, and even labor organizations are allowed to use leaflets (rather than picket signs) to urge boycotts or strikes. The picketing prohibitions are under-inclusive if the goal is to eliminate encouragement of boycotts and strikes. And 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7) are over-inclusive to the extent that they prohibit peaceful advocacy rather than actually striking or boycotting.

I guess my views on this are like my usual belief about the Supreme Court–that the justices will create ways to enforce their own personal political preferences. This is quite the development and may create a path forward but it’s hard for me to believe that Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia care one whit for precedence when it might help a labor union.

How Fast Track Hurts American Families

[ 102 ] June 23, 2015 |

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There are somewhat weird arguments liberals make about trade that allows people to easily justify the loss of millions of American jobs because of slight improvements in income for the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi workers who replace them. There are a couple of serious problems with these arguments. First, it is essentially pro-capitalist, reinforcing the idea of employers as “job creators” who ultimately benefit society, as opposed to the profit-seekers who are willing to undermine any nation’s working class for the next quarterly report. Second, it shows shockingly little sophisticated analysis over how this process actually affects their own nation. The rise of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers’ control over American politics is directly linked to the decline of working-class voices in those politics that happened when the industrial unions were crushed. If you like high levels of income inequality and plutocrat control over America, fast track is for you. Third, these arguments allow for a sort of consumer myopia over their own role in the supply chain. By saying that American employers are improving the lives of workers overseas, it means that we don’t really have to worry about the actual conditions of work in these factories–child labor, slave labor, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, beating by supervisors, unsafe working conditions, low wages, buildings collapsing on workers. All of these things are terrible and unnecessary.

Finally, it also undermines a basic fact–that nations need to have an interest in creating good jobs for its own citizens. I’m no believer in old-school protectionism, but unless the nation is creating good jobs for working Americans–moving the emphasis in our job creation from the creative class and highly-educated to average Americans–income inequality will continue to grow, as will societal instability. This is where United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard comes in, telling stories about how fast track hurts his members and working Americans.

They should, for example, pay attention to Kori Sherwood. When she got a job two years ago as a millwright at U.S. Steel’s Minntac facility in the Minnesota Iron Range, it changed her life and that of her young daughter. But in March, U.S. Steel sent layoff notices to 680 of Minntac’s 1,500 workers, citing an international glut of steel. Prices are at a 12-year low as mills in China continue to produce and ship massive amounts of steel and sell it at below market prices made possible by improper government subsidies and support.

Under international trade law, countries can prop up industry with government subsidies when the products are sold internally. Beijing may give its steel industry no-interest loans and free electricity when the rebar or pipe or I-beams are sold for construction projects in China. But international trade law forbids such subsidies when the goods are sold internationally because government aid suppresses product prices in what is supposed to be a free market. Some countries, however, routinely flout the rules. Then American companies that don’t get no-interest government loans or free electricity or other subsidies can’t compete on price.

They shut down mills and lay off workers. Unions and manufacturers are forced to pay millions to petition for import duties on the subsidized foreign goods to level the playing field. To win such a case, industry must prove financial injury and workers must suffer layoffs and lost income.

Kori Sherwood got one of U.S. Steel’s layoff notices and lost her job at Minntac on May 26. China’s violation of international trade rules dashed Sherwood’s hopes and plans. “You finally think you get your life in order – buy a truck, buy a home, and it all falls apart,” she said.

Import-adoring lawmakers should talk to tire builders from Tuscaloosa and Gadsden Ala., Findlay, Ohio, and Salem, Va., who have watched with endless anxiety over the past decade as American manufacturers closed plants and cut production because Chinese producers dumped subsidized passenger and light truck tires into the U.S. market.

After the USW petitioned for relief, the U.S. imposed import duties on Chinese tires beginning in 2009 and imports declined significantly. American producers regained market share and invested in American factories. They recalled laid off workers and even hired new ones.

But the second the duties expired, Chinese producers resumed dumping. American companies once again cut production, reduced workers’ hours and furloughed staff. The USW petitioned for trade relief again a year ago, and the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed preliminary duties. Since then, U.S. tire companies have ramped up production and increased workers’ shifts.

In testimony earlier this month before the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking permanent duties, David Hayes, president of the USW local union at Goodyear’s tire plant in Gadsden, talked about how the waves of dumped foreign tires have denied his fellow 1,500 workers job stability as layoffs followed each import surge.

These are actually important issues that liberals need to take seriously. The Kori Sherwood’s of the world need good jobs if we want the United States to be a stable nation in the 21st century that treats its citizens with respect. Supporters of the Trans Pacific Partnership need to articulate what happens to Kori Sherwood. NAFTA supporters used to say that the creative economy would take care of these people. Of course those were delusional statements of true believers in the religion of free trade. Now supporters of the TPP aren’t even trying to answer that question, including President Obama.

If we are going to have these trade agreements, we need to have international rules that protect workers wherever the jobs are located. Out of Sight is my answer to free trade advocates who claim that Americans who want the American working class to have good jobs don’t care about the poor overseas. But I haven’t heard any reasonable articulation of what happens to Kori Sherwood from advocates of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Maybe she can get a job at McDonald’s or work a temp job that never becomes permanent.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1922

[ 24 ] June 22, 2015 |

On June 22, 1922, a night and early morning of angry United Mine Workers of America members massacring strikebreakers and mine guards ended in Herrin, Illinois. Twenty-one people died, 19 of which were the strikebreakers and guards. This spasm of violence is a rare example of American labor history where workers killed more people than the forces of order. It’s also a sign of the desperation and anger of coal miners by the 1920s over the terrible treatment of themselves and their unions. Finally, the UMWA strategy of avoiding blame for this incident by blaming nonexistent communists for leading the mob proved a pioneering incident of a long history of American organized labor redbaiting.

In April 1922, the United Mine Workers of America, led by their new president John L. Lewis, began a nationwide coal strike. Lewis wanted to establish his union as a power in the labor movement and his members took a strong stance against strikebreakers. Herrin, Illinois was in the center of an area called Little Egypt, a bituminous mining zone in the southern part of that state.

Owners did not want to cave but some did not want to have a showdown with the UMWA either. The Southern Illinois Coal Company was one of those, as it was a union shop. Originally, it agreed that while its members would continue to mine coal, it would not ship any of it until the strike ended. The UMWA agreed with this because the mine was newly opened and heavily indebted. The miners did not want the mine to close permanently, so this somewhat odd arrangement developed. By June, the miners had dug out 60,000 tons of coal that waited for shipment.

But when coal prices rose because of the strike, William Lester, the company’s owner, could not resist selling it, even though he had earlier counseled the state to let the strike go on without interference. Realizing he would pull $250,000 in profit if he broke the agreement, he hired 50 strikebreakers and private guards for them. The private guards soon intimidated local residents and hoped to bully the UMWA out of the strike. On June 16, he shipped out sixteen rail cars filled with coal, guarded by his private police force armed with machine guns.

Tensions rose quickly. 30,000 UMWA members lived in the area and they were shocked. They held a mass meeting. Lewis sent a message to them saying the local was “justified in treating this crowd [the scabs and private police] as an outlaw organization.” The head of the Illinois National Guard came to meet with Lester to get him to ease those tensions. By this time though, the coal owner was determined to crush the union. On June 21, a group of miners attacked a train of scabs, killing its driver. Later that afternoon, another group looted a local hardware store for its guns, went to the mine and started shooting the guards. The county sheriff was a UMWA member and did nothing to prevent this.

Eventually, the guards and strikebreakers surrendered after a night of shooting. But the miners and town residents were infuriated over the lies of Lester and how the guards had treated them. The scabs were beaten and pistol-whipped by the union members. Someone evidently said they should be killed, but it’s impossible to really know what started the next stage, which was opening fire on the guards and scabs. One of the first to die was mine superintendent C.K. McDowell, who had led the guards. The killing lasted into the morning of the 22nd. Some were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to the town cemetery before being killed. By the end of it, 19 strikebreakers and guards lay dead, along with 2 UMWA members. The local police force, evidently sympathetic with their miner friends and families, never showed up.

Nationally, opinion was strongly against the UMWA. President Harding and General John Pershing demanded prosecutions against the guilty while the Illinois Chamber of Commerce put out a fundraising appeal to subsidize the case. But while an inquest took place and 214 indictments were handed down for murder, riot, and conspiracy, no one was ever convicted of any crime for the Herrin Massacre. The first jury acquitted everyone within an hour. The second acquitted seven more. The prosecution gave up. Part of this was an inability to actually prove who did what. Part of it was overwhelming hostility from the townspeople toward the investigators. They refused to assist the investigation at all and blamed it all on vague people from other towns.

Prominent in Herrin Massacre Trial

The UMWA responded to the criticism of its members’ actions by claiming the incident was led by communist insurgents that had nothing to do with the union. Union officials had previously told investigators that while they didn’t know anyone involved (which was certainly not true), there were certainly no radicals involved in the incident. But in 1923, John L. Lewis said at the UMWA convention, “in every instance where there has been any disorder or disturbance of the public peace in mining regions there has been there secretly men of this type.” The United Mine Workers Journal began publishing articles backing this up, albeit without actual evidence. One said, “in fact, the miners’ union was in no manner responsible for what took place. This revolting, inexcusable, terrible crime was fomented, promoted, and caused solely by the Communists.” The following year, it issued an pamphlet titled “Attempts by Communists to Seize the Labor Movement” to take this campaign to a wider audience. The coal operators rejected this of course, but the UMWA did find out how effective anticommunist politics could be for a labor union. Interestingly, the UMWA did actually uncover claims by communists that they were involved in Little Egypt, but historians have rejected this, saying there is no evidence of any meaningful communist organizing in southern Illinois during the 1920s. That the Communist Party would take credit for its own opportunistic reasons served Lewis’ purpose like nothing else.

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Ultimately, the United Mine Workers came out of the Herrin Massacre completely unscathed as an organization. Yet the 1920s ultimately would prove disastrous for the UMWA and it would not be until the Roosevelt administration that it would rise to become the power in the labor movement it is known as in the mid-twentieth century.

I borrowed from Jennifer Luff, Commonsense Anticommunism: Labor and Civil Liberties between the World Wars in the writing of this post.

This is the 148th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Busting Don Blankenship

[ 24 ] June 20, 2015 |

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Don Blankenship is one of the worst human beings living in the United States today. The CEO of Massey Energy, the horrible safety record in his mines led to the deaths of 29 miners in a coal dust explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010. Blankenship was a micro-manager and prided himself on buying West Virginia politicians and judges, thwarting regulators, intimidating workers into not report safety violations, and implementing not even the most basic safety systems. In other words, Don Blankeship modeled himself after the 19th century coal mine barons who ruled West Virginia as a personal fiefdom.

What’s remarkable, as this New York Times article points out, is that Blankenship is being held accountable by the federal government for his actions
. He is under indictment on 4 counts that could lead to 31 years in prison. That might seem as not all that notable–Blankenship is directly responsible for these deaths, especially so because he managed every part of that mine. But it is notable because this has never happened in West Virginia before. Coal operators have long expected to operate their mines and the state as they will. Where the article falls short is in really getting into why the federal government has acted so differently now. I imagine the reason is a Mine Safety and Health Administration and federal prosecutions invigorated by an Obama administration taking issues like regulation and workplace safety seriously. But this part of the equation only addressed obliquely.

I will also note that for all the talk in Appalachia about Obama’s War on Coal and how environmentalists are killing jobs, the coal industry now employs all of 28,000 people in central Appalachia. And while some of that is because of tighter environmental regulations, cheaper natural gas, the movement of the coal industry to the West, and mechanization all play a larger role.

This Day in Labor History: June 18, 1954

[ 29 ] June 18, 2015 |

On June 18, 1954, the CIA-trained coup against democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz began, an event that crushed Guatemalan labor, happened with the complicity of the American labor movement, and significantly destabilized Guatemala, helping to create the violence that afflicts that nation and the large-scale undocumented migration to the United States today.

Born in 1913, Jacobo Árbenz became a top military officer under the leadership of the United Fruit (and thus U.S.) supported dictator Jorge Ubico. Árbenz was forced to escort chain-gangs of prisoners, which disgusted and radicalized him. In 1944, he assisted in a coup against Ubico and was offered the position of Minister of Defense from the democratically elected new president of the nation, Juan José Arévalo. After Arévalo died in 1950, Árbenz won the election to replace him.

United Fruit had a significant presence in Guatemala from the first decade of the twentieth century, using its power over that poor nation to suppress any labor activity on its banana plantations. For example, in 1923, UFCO had the strong support of the current military dictatorship to violently repress a strike; said dictatorship had come to power with the company’s support after a government opposed its interests. In 1928, Guatemala nearly went to war with Honduras on UFCO’s orders over a disputed region on the Honduran border, with the latter nation doing the bidding of UFCO rival Cuyamel Fruit. By the mid-1940s, Guatemala had around one-fourth of the company’s Latin American operations. United Fruit had been major supporters of Ubico, who effectively followed its orders. Ubico and other presidents gave significant concessions to United Fruit, robbing the nation of both its land and tax revenues that could have built infrastructure and social programs for the nation’s poor. In fact, Ubico actually asked UFCO to lower its wages to 50 cents a day as to not cause other employers to have to pay workers more. You can guess UFCO’s response to that request.

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United Fruit plantation in Central America

Árbenz’s primary goal was modernizing Guatemala. To do so, he needed to wrest control of his nation’s future from the single corporation that controlled it: United Fruit. So Árbenz made his number one priority land reform, which through much of Latin American history has been the major goal of left-leaning movements against the church, conservatives, and outside corporations. He issued Decree 900, giving the government the right to expropriate unused land from agricultural corporations, compensating the owners. That included United Fruit, which had a lot of land now out of production thanks to banana monocultures leading to diseases that kill trees. During the 18 months of the program’s existence, 1.5 million acres were distributed to 100,000 families.

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Jacobo Árbenz

Árbenz had significant support from labor unions in Guatemala for his reforms. He had started forging links to the Guatemalan labor movement early in his rise. The Guatemalan labor movement had significant ties to the Communist Party and the CP supported Árbenz, thus helping to deliver that rank and file labor support. With United Fruit and conservative elements of the Guatemalan industry shouting that Árbenz was a communist, even though he was just a nationalist, he embraced the idea of it since the policies the U.S. supported in his nation were so awful that being a communist could not be all bad.

United Fruit had urged the U.S. to overthrow what it claimed were communist-led governments in Guatemala going back to 1945. Those calls were heard when the Eisenhower administration took power in 1953. United Fruit had very close connections to Eisenhower’s foreign policy team, especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA head Allen Dulles. The Dulles brothers had both done legal work for United Fruit before joining the administration. They and Eisenhower were aggressive about using the CIA to undermine left-wing movements in the developing world and quickly moved to eliminate Arbenz. The CIA went so far as to personally select his replacement, Carlos Castillo Armas. The initial CIA-funded invasion was pathetic and made little impact, but Árbenz was afraid that an overwhelming victory over these forces would provoke direct American action. That happened anyway through airpower and the use of napalm against ships exporting goods out of the nation. By June 27, the CIA won through creating a crisis of confidence against Árbenz in the military, who forced him to resign.

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Castllo Armas entering Guatemala City. CIA agent at wheel.

Always vociferously anti-communist at home, the American Federation Labor happily worked with the CIA during the Cold War to undermine left-leaning labor unions in the developing world and foster politically conservative unionism that would promote the goals of American foreign policy. Shortly before the coup, the AFL’s Latin American Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT) established an organization in Mexico called Guatemalan Workers in Exile. Effectively, it was an operation to create a right-wing labor movement for the post-coup government. Ten days after the coup, Serafino Romualdi, the AFL’s ambassador to Latin America, was in Guatemala City with the figurehead of ORIT and the leader of the right-wing labor movement in Batista’s Cuba to take over the former Guatemalan trade union building and reestablish the labor movement on lines friendly to the U.S. government and United Fruit. This attempt to create a moderate anti-communist trade union that would be a respected member of a U.S.-friendly government failed completely as the new military regime didn’t care less about the roots of unions and sought to crush all organized labor.

Guatemala suffered under decades of military dictatorships supported by the United States and its corporations, culminating in the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Reagan supported military leader in the early 1980s who engaged in a genocidal campaign against the nation’s indigenous population, defining them as communists for being indigenous.

For years, Árbenz floated around Europe, trying to find a place to live. The CIA muscled western European nations to deny him. The Czechs didn’t want him because they were nervous he would seek financial remuneration for the shoddy guns they sold him before the coup. The Soviets took him for awhile but he wanted to return to Latin America. He eventually ended up in Cuba after the Revolution. Later he moved to Mexico. Over all this time, he sunk into desperation and alcoholism before drowning in a bathtub in 1971.

Today, Guatemala is one of the world’s most violent and dangerous nations thanks in no small part to the destabilization caused in 1954. The U.S. continues to engage in a post-colonial relationship with Guatemala and its workers, including the exploitation of the poor by apparel industry sweatshops who will just jump 20 miles to Honduras or El Salvador if the nation enforces labor regulations or allows its workers to form strong unions. Repression of labor has been the hallmark of Guatemala governments in the 21st century.

I borrowed from Deborah Levenson-Estrada, Trade Unionists Against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-85 and Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer, and John Coatsworth, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala in writing this post.

This is the 147th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Feminist Language and the Exploitation of Women Workers

[ 9 ] June 17, 2015 |

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I go into this a bit in Out of Sight, but Hester Eisenstein goes into much greater detail into how the global export industries have engaged in the widespread exploitation of women, often using the language of feminism to justify them doing so. Eisenstein also notes how many scholars have fallen into this trap, assuming that the limited gains women might make from a job in an apparel factory is a real path to women’s liberation. That’s not because work, even low paid work, can’t play a role in women’s liberation, but because the global economy simply does not provide a path for most of the world’s workers to improve their lives anymore.

There is no doubt that working in EPZ factories, which provide young women with an independent income, can have a liberating effect. These women are following the path prescribed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: instead of doing unpaid and exhausting work on a farm, subject to feudal and patriarchal controls, seek employment in factories, which can bring economic autonomy and a consciousness of one’s capacities. But what may be true in theory is often less so in practice, especially given the harsh conditions under which most women in EPZs work.

Conditions in EPZs vary from country to country, but nearly all are exempt from national labor laws, and as a 2004 report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions shows, employers are ruthless in crushing unionizing attempts and in going after labor organizers.

Even if they don’t try to unionize, female EPZ workers face constant harassment. At CODEVI, a company located in Haiti’s Ouanaminth free-trade zone, workers producing Levi’s jeans for the clothing group Grupo M have experienced “abductions, beatings, arbitrary dismissals, verbal abuse, unpaid overtime, intimidation with firearms, and interrogations.”

In Mexico, workers are usually on short-term contracts, with no job security. Women applying for jobs can be subjected to health tests, including pregnancy testing, which can involve being examined naked and “asked intrusive personal questions such as, “‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘How often do you have sex?’ and ‘Do you have children?’”

Jeremy Seabrook, who has also observed factories in Bangladesh, agrees with Kabeer that the women workers of Dhaka, Bangladesh go through epic struggles to get factory jobs, having to overcome the obstacles placed in their path by patriarchal families and communities. But he argues that the women have no power to decide which industries settle in Bangladesh to take advantage of them.

They work fourteen-hour days, with wages often delayed, and endure brutal overseers and extremely dangerous working conditions; he witnessed a fire in Dhaka on August 27, 2000, that killed a dozen people and in recent years, more than two hundred factory workers have died in fires. More recently, the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse outside Dhaka killed more than one thousand workers. As Seabrook remarks, “This is scarcely a model of self-determination.”

Any reasonable definition of feminism must support the right of women to organize unions, to not be sexually abused on the job, to not have employment hinged on pregnancy tests, to make a living wage. Certainly we must be willing to read through how corporations co-opt the language of feminism (feministwashing???) in order to justify and even promote how they exploit women. Walmart, Gap, Target, and the many other western corporations operating in Asia and Latin America absolutely could ensure that the women their contractors hire do use those jobs to live a better life that not only emancipates them from reliance on men for income but also allows them to have dignified lives at work and home. They choose not to do that. We should recognize that and call out those who use feminist language to justify the exploitation of women.

Uber Drivers Ruled Employees

[ 114 ] June 17, 2015 |

Uber drivers protest against working conditions outside the company's office in Santa Monica

This is a huge decision.

In what could be an explosive decision, the California Labor Commission has found that a driver for Uber in San Francisco is an employee of the company. That’s from a ruling filed in state court on Tuesday and first reported by Reuters. It’s pretty damning. “Defendants hold themselves out as nothing more than a neutral technological platform, designed simply to enable drivers and passengers to transact the business of transportation,” the commission writes. “The reality, however, is that Defendants are involved in every aspect of the operation.”

Why so huge?

Just as importantly, drivers who are contractors, and not employees, also aren’t required to get benefits and other labor protections that employees are traditionally awarded. For Uber and all its peers in the so-called 1099 economy, this is another key thing that helps to keep costs low, rides cheap, and thin margins viable.

Determining whether workers should be classified as contractors or employees is rarely a simple matter. Uber points to its drivers’ abilities to set their own schedules as evidence that they operate independently and shouldn’t be considered traditional employees. Drivers, on the other hand, argue that Uber sets strict standards for how many rides they need to accept while on the road, and how they ought to interact with passengers—and reserves the right to deactivate their accounts (basically, the equivalent of firing) if they don’t comply. In California, where the issue of whether drivers for Uber and its main rival Lyft are employees is headed to trial, U.S. district judges have in two separate rulings declined to make a final decision. “The test the California courts have developed over the 20th Century for classifying workers isn’t very helpful in addressing this 21st Century problem,” one wrote.

So until now, the big, scary question—the one that could decimate Uber, and Lyft, and all the 1099 companies like them—has basically remained a hypothetical. Which is why it’s so important that the California Labor Commission has finally stepped in to say yes, this Uber driver is an employee, and she’s owed $4,000 in expenses. Imagine if Uber suddenly had to pay $4,000 back to all of its drivers in California, much less across the U.S. Even its $5.9 billion in funding would presumably wilt at the thought. It’s undeniable that Uber drivers becoming employees would be a huge blow to Uber’s business model. What we still don’t know is: How huge?

Effectively this entire industry is developed around a principle of labor exploitation. By forcing all of the costs of being an employee onto the worker, defining a worker as an independent contractor is part of the corporate toolkit to control workers’ lives without taking responsibility for them or having to pay into the social welfare net. Other tools include temp work (which today often means permanent work without benefits and multiple employees on the same Toyota shop floor in Kentucky working for different “employers.”), subcontracting, franchising, and outsourcing. Industries around the country have attempted to classify workers as independent contractors to avoid labor law and now we have seen new industries develop where this is the fundamental model. In all of these circumstances, the corporation at the top actually dictates terms of employment, often including hours and wages, or in the case of Uber, how many rides the drivers can accept. Moreover, Uber has full firing rights.

In other words, “disruption” actually means “finding new ways to exploit the working class.” Good for California for cracking down. Given the power of the Silicon Valley people in that state, we’ll have to see where this goes from here, but it’s a very promising decision.

Republicans know this too, which is why Grover Norquist thinks Uber is key for Republicans retaking the cities.

Out of Sight Excerpt

[ 15 ] June 16, 2015 |

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In These Times published an excerpt of Out of Sight. If you’ve been wondering what it’s about it, you can read a chunk of it at the link. A bit of it:

Women make up the vast majority of the workforce, but men make up the supervisors. Sexual harassment is endemic. A 2006 report by Mexican labor and feminist organizations detailed massive sexual harassment in maquiladoras. Labor authorities ignore or downplay this harassment, not wanting to anger the corporations who could move again at a moment’s notice. A Human Rights Watch survey from 2002 found widespread unreported sexual harassment and intimidation at Guatemalan maquiladoras, where women made up 80 percent of the eighty thousand workers. Forty-six percent of these factory workers had experienced mistreatment from their boss, and five percent had been subjected to sexual advances. Analysts consider these numbers underestimates, arguing that many women naturalize sexual harassment and refuse to report it or admit that it is happening to them.

Employers also discriminate against pregnant women. This has a long history: RCA fired pregnant electronics workers in its Bloomington, Indiana, plant in the 1940s. Preemployment pregnancy examinations are common today, as contractors do not want to give pregnant workers paid leave. Kimberly Estrada, a worker at a Dong Bang Fashions factory in Chimaltenango, reported that she had to undergo a gynecological exam by a company doctor at the factory before she could work. If workers became pregnant while employed, their bosses would not give them time off to go to the doctor nor the maternity leave mandated by the Guatemalan labor code. Women have miscarried at work, unable to get the medical treatment they needed to save their babies.

Human rights groups in the United States and Mexico filed a complaint in 1997 over what they called “state-tolerated sex discrimination against prospective and actual female workers in the maquiladora sector along the U.S.-Mexico border,” focusing on pregnancy testing and discrimination against pregnant workers. This pressure led to American companies announcing the end of pregnancy testing in the maquiladoras and Mexico issuing new directives to labor officials to stop it. Members of Congress introduced legislation to make pregnancy testing in American-owned factories illegal, suggesting that in fact American politicians could do much more to regulate the conditions of work overseas than they usually claim. But the textile companies found Mexican wages too high anyway, and they simply moved the jobs to Central America and Southeast Asia, forcing the struggle to start anew.

Low wages, sexual harassment, and poor working conditions continue to plague women in the garment industry. Today, women in Bangladesh toil in apparel factories for the national minimum wage of $37 a month. In one factory, women were forced to work 100 hours a week during peak production periods, and supervisors punched and slapped them. The victims included pregnant women, and at least one miscarried because of the treatment. Other pregnant women were forced to quit or denied their legally mandated maternity leave. Women in Cambodia and Indonesia fare little better, making $75 a month in the former and as low as $80 a month in the latter. In all these countries, women are fighting back through labor unions. In Indonesia, Nike had to pay 4,500 workers a $1 million settlement after having not paid them for more than 600,000 hours of overtime over a two-year period—a decision that came only after Indonesia’s labor federation pressed a lawsuit.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government contributes to these problems through its purchasing practices. The U.S. Marine Corps contracts its shirt production with DK Knitwear in Bangladesh. A 2010 report showed that one-third of DK workers were children, mostly young girls, and that the plant had no fire alarms despite previous fires in the facility. Women at Zongtex Garment Manufacturing in Cambodia soiled themselves at machines making clothes for the U.S. Army and Air Force. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) signed a contract with a Mexican company in February 2013; the same company had previously treated uniforms with chemicals that caused rashes in TSA agents. Yet Republicans attacked TSA for paying too much to the Mexican workers. Like the rest of the apparel industry, the government relies on subcontractors, pays no attention to the working conditions in plants, and pushes for the cheapest price regardless of the social cost.

This Day in Labor History: June 15, 1990

[ 21 ] June 15, 2015 |

On June 15, 1990, 400 striking janitors in Los Angeles who had organized with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and were trying to secure a contract with International Service Systems (ISS), who had the contract to clean many of the city’s downtown office buildings, were beaten by police as they attempted to cross a street. Around 90 strikers were wounded and 38 were arrested. This event galvanized support for the janitors and is an important event both in the history of Latino labor in the United States and the growth of SEIU into arguably the most powerful union in the United States during the early 21st century.

In 1983, the average wage for a janitor in Los Angeles surpassed $7 an hour and included health insurance. By 1986, that had plummeted to $4.50 and insurance had disappeared. This happened through a phenomena we are familiar with today–instead of employing their own janitors, building owners began contracting the work out to an outside company that put enormous downward pressure on wages and working conditions. These companies largely hired undocumented workers, especially from Central America, that they could control and who had little power to resist. Once again, we see how contracting out work so often leads to downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

What was happening in Los Angeles ravaged SEIU locals around the country. After a 1985 lockout in Pittsburgh, the union looked for a new campaign to fight back. SEIU sought to reverse these losses in 1987 with the Justice for Janitors campaign. The plan, developed primarily by Stephen Lerner, targeted building owners rather than contractors as they held the real power and could roll the higher costs of treating workers decently into the contract as opposed to a contractor then losing out to a non-union agency if the campaign targeted them. The campaign had early successes in Denver and Atlanta before moving on to the tougher, larger cities of Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

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It was in Los Angeles that the movement achieved its greatest victories. Local 339 in that city became the center of the national campaign in 1990. Some of this came from the fact that the Central American workers who made up the local’s core already knew social struggle. These were refugees from the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. They were, as a whole, less scared of civil disobedience than native-born workers, despite their undocumented legal status. They began following building owners to their nice restaurants and country club and heckling them, while using leaflets and demonstrations to get the buildings’ tenants to place pressure on the owners to settle the issue. This strategy also avoided the long and often futile process of going through a union election and dealing with the National Labor Relations Board. Given how long such a process takes and how that system has become co-opted by employers, it made sense to pressure employers to accept a union without an election. Effectively, the Justice for Janitors campaign borrowed many of the tactics of the civil rights movement to build public sympathy rather than the classic tactics of the labor movement.

Perhaps the most aggressive building owners and contractors were at Century City, a sizable office complex where International Service Systems had the contract. With the building owner and ISS unwilling to deal, the union led the janitors on a strike in May 1990. It was during these protests, on June 15, that the police attacked the janitors. They did so after shouting orders to disperse only in English with a group of workers who were largely monolingual in Spanish. As the office workers looked on in horror from the buildings, the police attacked the strikers for two hours. They used their riot batons to beat the workers at the front of the line, then engaged in a flanking action that trapped the strikers in a parking garage. When the workers tried to flee, they were arrested for failure to disperse. 90 workers were injured, 19 seriously. One suffered a fractured skull. One pregnant worker miscarried her baby.

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This was an overwhelming error for the police, building owners, and ISS. Public sympathy overwhelmingly supported the janitors after the violence. The mayor of Los Angeles had mostly stayed out of it until this point, but after the beatings, he spoke out for the union. It seemed to many that the police wanted to teach these immigrants a lesson for causing problems. SEIU sued the LAPD for civil rights violations, leading to a $2.35 million settlement in 1993. The building owner finally caved and placed pressure on the contractor to settle. This led to the establishment of a master contract in Los Angeles in 1991.

This of course did not transform the lives of janitors overnight. Other cities, especially Washington, saw even more intransigent resistance than Los Angeles. To coordinate these national campaigns, critics noted how SEIU leadership rode roughshod over locals who refused to follow the international’s strategy. They claimed the aggressive actions against these locals undermined union democracy, while the practice merging small locals into larger state and region wide locals that could have greater collective political power but which isolated the former officials of those locals who didn’t have the power to win office in the larger organizations. I have to admit that I don’t have all that much sympathy for those arguments, as the need to get lame locals to actually do something may supersede idealized union democracy and the benefits of concentrating worker power into large locals has real political advantages. I know many disagree with me on this point and I guess it depends on what one wants out of the labor movement.

The campaign was one of the greatest victories for organized labor in the era and announced SEIU’s arrival on the national labor scene. By 2000, the Justice for Janitors had organized janitors around the country with companies seeking to sign new contracts in order to stave off more trouble. By 2005, SEIU represented 70 percent of janitors in 23 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. For the 21st century, that’s impressive density, especially for private sector work.

The campaign is also notable for representing the new inclusion of Latinos in the labor movement. For most of organized labor’s history, unions had been hostile to immigration, feeling that the competition undermined their wages and ability to win contracts. Sometimes this could get quite ugly, such as the Chinese Workingmen’s Party role in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the American Federation of Labor’s active support of immigration restriction in the 1920s. But the decline of immigration helped undermine the labor movement as immigrants have consistently provided new ideas and propensity for direct action to the movement, often in opposition to the relatively conservative unionism of native-born Americans. SEIU’s open embrace of immigrants recognized that Latinos were likely to be very good unionists, in part because of traditions of social justice they experienced in their home nations. Ever since 1990, immigrants have played a larger role in the labor movement, especially with the last industrial-style unions seeking to hold on against the corporate onslaught against unions, such as SEIU and UNITE-HERE.

SEIU has named June 15 Justice for Janitors Day to commemorate the event.

This is the 146th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Labor Unity

[ 8 ] June 13, 2015 |

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Noam Scheiber’s dissection of how labor so successfully torpedoed the Trans Pacific Partnership in the House (thus far anyway, again I’m still suspicious this passes somehow) shows how labor can still win today. First, it is united and pushes very hard on erstwhile allies that are ready to abandon it. Second, it crafts alliances with other liberal groups, including environmentalists.

This time around, not only did the firefighters make a considerable investment — producing ads and paying to broadcast them in five congressional districts — but Mr. Schaitberger personally led the effort within the A.F.L-C.I.O. executive council to freeze all donations to members of Congress by the political action committees of the federation and affiliated unions until after the vote on trade promotion authority. (Mr. Schaitberger, who developed the motion, credits Mr. Trumka with helping create almost unanimous support for it.)

Mr. Schaitberger acknowledged some apprehension within the labor movement about denying money even to longtime congressional allies, but he argued that it had been the most effective way to persuade friendly members of Congress to pressure wavering Democratic lawmakers. “We wanted to encourage those members to use their influence, their passion for our position, to move some of their colleagues,” he said.

Even labor’s opponents marveled at the cohesion unions brought to the fight. John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he was mystified by the position of the Service Employees International Union, which represents two million workers.

“None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports,” said Mr. Murphy. “Yet S.E.I.U. will be there, showing solidarity.”

The across-the-board mobilization by labor unions reflected two pivotal developments since the late 1990s. First was the dawning realization that even public sector workers who appear to be insulated from global competition could ultimately feel its dislocating effects. Mr. Schaitberger said the firefighters had learned all too well that deindustrialization leads to urban decay and declining property values, which can increase demand for public services while it drains cities of the revenue to pay for them.

More recently, the public sector unions, under increasing assault from Republicans in Congress and in several big states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, found that the rapid decline of industrial unions had left them politically vulnerable as well.

It’s not like unity, solidarity with other unions in situations that don’t directly affect your members’ jobs, and alliance-building with other progressives is always that easy to replicate. But this is a clear way forward and I hope organized labor can build on it.

Vietnamese Labor Leaders Oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership

[ 36 ] June 12, 2015 |

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Of all the conversations around the global race to the bottom, I think the one that bugs me the both is the portrayal of these low-wage, dangerous jobs as gifts American corporations are giving to these poor people around the world who would have nothing without our beneficent overlords. This is a paternalistic, colonialist argument that does not take actual workers and their desires into account. Rather, what we need to do in wealthy world nations is to support the workers’ movements of developing world nations so that they can live dignified lives in this system of global production.

This principle provides us another reason to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership as Vietnamese labor leaders urge Congress to reject it.
They do so because they claim the TPP will destroy their attempts to fight for better lives.

The House is expected to vote Friday on a bill that would grant Obama so-called “fast-track” authority, which would prevent Congress from amending or filibustering any trade pact he negotiates. Obama cannot pass his trade agenda without fast-track powers. U.S. labor unions are concerned that the pact will drive down domestic wages by forcing American workers to compete with low wages and abusive practices abroad. Obama and Republican leaders say the pact will benefit all parties involved by boosting economic growth. The vast majority of Democrats in Congress are opposed to both TPP and the fast-track bill.

In their letter, labor leaders in Vietnam noted that many American companies profit from the exploitation of Vietnamese workers, singling out Nike, which operates factories in the country. In May, Obama made a pitch for the TPP deal from a Nike facility in Oregon. The labor leaders also sent lawmakers a separate study on Nike’s practices in Vietnam, detailing poverty wages paid to workers that forced them to borrow money to cover basic expenses. Nike was not immediately available for comment.

“In order for human and labor rights that are clearly spelled out in UN Conventions and in the Vietnamese Constitution to be truly respected in Vietnam, we believe that the U.S. Congress must use the opportunity of granting fast track authority as leverage to make immediate transformative changes so that the citizens of Vietnam can enjoy their human rights and basic freedoms,” the letter reads.

“Immediate and transformative changes.” Yes. They have a lot of specific demands that range from higher wages to the freeing of imprisoned leaders. I would also suggest the creation of labor standards the U.S. demands for any products coming from nations in the TPP with real enforcement mechanisms. It should also allow workers to bring suit against American companies for the violations of these standards, including if contractors are the actual employer. The workers of Vietnam do indeed deserve human rights and basic freedoms.

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