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Legal Responsibility, Not Voluntary Codes of Conduct, Is Necessary to Ensure Ethical Trade

[ 17 ] June 10, 2016 |

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Last month, I spoke about Out of Sight to a class at Brown. These were, naturally enough, pretty wealthy kids. They liked the book, which was assigned to them in a class, but found one thing uncomfortable. That was the open contempt I have toward corporate behavior, seeing them as enemies of both labor standards and environmental sustainability. In their questions to me, they kept coming back to this, asking about “good corporations” or voluntary codes of conduct. I of course rejected all of this, stating that even if you have a “good” CEO, if that person leaves, the corporate culture can very easily change and that the ultimate point of corporations is to profit, not be responsible citizens. This story about the berry company Driscoll’s, which claims to have a fair trade standards and advertises that they do, is why I feel this way.

Farm workers, mostly undocumented and Indigenous, doubled their movement for a union contract this year, inspired by the winning Fight for 15 campaign but demanding more.

“It’s almost the same fight,” Ramon Torres, berry picker and director of Families United for Justice, told teleSUR. The differences, though, are important.

Since most migrant farm workers do not have U.S. citizenship, they are not protected under labor law, nor by their employees, no matter how progressive their labor policy. They also see much more cases of child labor and of wage theft.

The fruit producer is heavily backed by supermarket chains like Costco and Whole Foods, who insist that its practices comply with fair trade standards.

After the Sakuma workers brought attention to their dismal conditions — poor housing, up to 15 hours of work a day without no breaks, racial harassment — Driscoll’s responded that, “Sakuma is in compliance with our standards and is making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers.”

Because Families United for Justice is not able to register as a union under state law, Driscoll’s said there is nothing else they can do.

Still, Torres said that it proudly distributes a sticker that guarantees fair trade practices, essentially a lie that covers up continuing mistreatment of its employers.

Simply put, voluntary fair trade standards without legal requirements are utterly meaningless. That doesn’t mean they are terrible in themselves or anything. If a company wants to engage in fair trade standards and then actually does so, then good. But if nothing is forcing them to and there’s no monitoring of it by outside organizations, the chances is that it’s just the labor version of greenwashing.

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This Day in Labor History: June 8, 1917

[ 7 ] June 8, 2016 |

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On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine in Granite Mountain, near Butte, Montana, caught on fire. 168 miners died in the largest death toll in American history for a hard-rock mining disaster. This horrible event spurred a strike and union campaign in Butte that owners responded to through anti-union hysteria and organized violence, showing the sharp limits of organizing, especially in the American West, during World War I.

In the late 19th century, Butte became one of the most important mining districts in the United States, thanks to its rich copper deposits. In 1883, there were 2000 miners in Butte. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners. The mines lacked basic safety standards, as was common throughout the nation. Without mine safety laws, there was no reason for companies to ensure there workers didn’t die or to teach mine safety for them. On June 8, 1917, a crew strung an electrical cable to the rock 2400 feet below the surface. But part of it fell down. A crew descended to fix it. But as it fell, the protective sheathing around it frayed. An assistant foreman reached down to pick it up. When he did, he brushed his carbine lamp against the cable. It caught fire and exploded. It quickly spread through the mine, killing 168 workers. As sad as this was, it was also somewhat ironic, as it spread so quickly because the mine was well ventilated and because the affected cable was part of a fire suppression system the mine was implementing.

There were 410 miners working in Granite Mountain that night. 168 died. One went in to save 25 lives before he finally succumbed to the fire and poisonous gas. Montana law stated that all the cement bulkheads in the mine must have an iron door that could be opened in case of emergency for miners to escape. But Butte mine owners routinely ignored the laws, a major problem with workplace safety legislation in these years. Some miners were found with their fingers ground down to the bone as they desperately tried to claw through the cement.

Butte had a long union history by 1917. During the late nineteenth century, Butte was known as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” as the largely Irish miners organized and won stable contracts during a deeply anti-union period. But in 1903, the Anaconda Mining Company gained control of the Butte mines and began undermining union power. This could not happen overnight because the unions were fairly powerful, but by 1912, the Butte Miners Union was significantly weakened after Anaconda successfully introduced the rustling card, which gave employers power over who worked in their mines that they used to get rid of union activists. 500 union members were fired. Moreover, miners were being paid at 1878 rates even though the price of copper was over twice as high by 1914. In that year, the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Butte and also sought to undermine the BMU. The union fell into civil war, leading to the dynamiting of the BMU mining hall. This led Anaconda to withdraw all recognition from the union. After nearly 30 years of recognition from mine owners, the Butte Miners Union was destroyed. In this case, IWW participation was utterly disastrous. Some accused the Wobblies of collaborating with the mine owners. While this is certainly not true, there’s no question that the owners took advantage of the dissension the Wobblies caused.

The mine fire also reignited the unionist sentiment in Butte. Union newspapers started publishing again and calls for higher wages and safer working conditions rallied workers. On June 11, miners at the Elm Orlu mine, owned by the notoriously corrupt William Clark, went on strike. Although many wanted to blame the strike on the IWW or German secret agents, the Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry publicly stated the cause was the fire at the Speculator. On June 13, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers Union to try and once again organize Butte. It wanted recognition as the workers’ bargaining agent, abolition of the rustling card, the mine owners to actually observe the state mining laws, the firing of the state mining inspector, a wage increase, and the right to free speech and assembly, which was being denied in Butte and many other western towns during World War I. Accusing the workers of being a bunch of Wobblies and determined to keep the open shop, the mine owners refused to speak to the unionists. A few days later, the city’s electricians went on strike to demand recognition of the miners and the others followed. Butte seemed to be on the verge of again becoming a union town.

Because it was World War I, the post-Speculator fire strike received national attention. The Wilson administration sent an arbitrator while American Federation of Labor representatives arrived to work toward a settlement so that the miners would get back to work to support the war effort. Unfortunately, the AFL prioritized this over the workers’ demands and wanted the workers to go back on the job before receiving recognition, which they refused to do. Meanwhile, the miner owners and their newspapers were calling for open violence against the strikes, laying the groundwork for the brutal crushing of organized labor many employers hoped they could achieve thanks to the war.

Unfortunately for the miners, labor solidarity was not strong in Butte. The other unions quickly accepted everything they asked from their own employers except recognition of the miners’ union. The miners were isolated. The owners offered the workers, but not the union, a small wage gain, weekly pay, and a slight change to the rustling system. Some miners took this deal by the end of July but most stayed out of work.

Coming to the mine soon after the disaster was the IWW organizer Frank Little. Arriving on July 18, Little wanted to turn Butte into a Wobbly stronghold. He gave public speeches in Butte telling the miners to resist the draft and that workers of the world should not kill each other for the benefit of capitalists. On August 1, a mob probably consisting of members of the Butte business elite rounded Little up and lynched him. Interestingly, Little had plenty of warning to leave town and his fellow unionists were urging him to do so, but he refused. Given that Little was already physically broken by this time and also was a true radical, even compared to other Wobblies, it’s entirely plausible that becoming a martyr was something he was prepared to accept.

On August 10, federal troops were sent to Butte to patrol the streets from Wobblies and other agitators. Montana then had a special legislative session where it basically ended free speech in the state. The mine workers finally called off the strike in December, after 90 percent of the miners had already returned to work. The strike caused by the Speculator fire would achieve nothing.

The extreme behavior of employers in Butte during World War I was part of the larger national reaction against unions during this period that this series has examined in Everett, Centralia, Blair Mountain, the arrest of Eugene Debs for violating the Espionage Act, the crushing of the Boston police strike, and no doubt additional events in the future.

Many of the details of the union organizing campaign in Butte come from Arnon Gutfeld’s 1969 article in Arizona and the West, “The Speculator Disaster in 1917: Labor Resurgence in Butte, Montana.”

This is the 180th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Can We Control Imports Based Upon Labor Standards in Production? Yes.

[ 8 ] June 6, 2016 |

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There’s no good argument to be made that the United States can’t get a handle on the global exploitation of labor by placing bans on products made under certain conditions or from nations and companies that don’t open their factories to international inspectors. You can argument whether we should or the details about how such a program would work, but there’s no real argument that we can’t do it. That’s because we already do it.

Imports of the sugar substitute stevia, both extracts and derivatives, produced by PureCircle Ltd. in China will be detained at all U.S. ports of entry, after Customs and Border Protection announced June 1 that those products are made with the use of convict labor.

Customs Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said companies must examine their supply chains “to understand product sourcing and the labor used to generate their products.” He said the agency “is committed to ensuring U.S. values outweigh economic expediency and as part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, will work to ensure products made with forced labor do not cross our borders.”

Producers use the leaves of the stevia plant to produce a sugar substitute.

U.S. law requires Customs to block imports that are made in whole or part by forced labor, including convict labor, indentured labor and forced child labor.

This is a result of the recent bill closing the loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act that allowed prison labor to make products if the products could not be acquired in any other way. China and American companies had blown that loophole wide open and now it is closed. If we care about labor standards overseas, if we don’t want 1100 workers to die when their factory collapses upon them, if we don’t want children to be exposed to massive pollution at school from clothing produced for the American market, etc., we can make the choice to stop it. We simply don’t make that choice. We don’t even have a national conversation around it. Closing the prison labor loophole and banning products made by convicts is not the end of creating international labor standards that provide workers dignity. It’s just the very beginning.

Today in Evil

[ 211 ] June 2, 2016 |

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Fortune magazine has an advice column. It’s very special.

Frank has been with us for more than 20 years. He works in the warehouse and has done a good job for us. I like him. But, to be honest, for the work he performs I could easily replace him someone younger and… cheaper. Would it be wrong to let him go?

Um, yes?

No, of course not. Go for it!

And the costs are rising, right? You’re increasing Frank’s salary every year, at least by the cost of living. And that’s not all. You’re contributing to his healthcare and his 401(K). He’s earning more and more vacation each day that he’s working for you. And as he gets older, you’re increasing the risk that he will cost your company more – maybe he gets injured or needs financial assistance because he’s not putting enough away for his retirement. Sure, he’s got experience. He’s proven. He’s a known card. But he’s costing you. And you know you can get the same job done by someone else for less money. I see this with many of my clients, and it’s a complicated issue. Are you a heartless cad if you let this guy go? Doesn’t loyalty count for anything? The guy’s given you 20 years of his life, and you’re just going to cut him loose? You must be some kind of awful person.

Actually, no you’re not an awful person. I am not encouraging that you should discriminate based on your employee’s age. Age discrimination is against the law. However, your job is to make the decisions. The hard decisions that are necessary to grow your business and ensure it as a going concern for years to come. Why? Because you have employees, customers, partners, suppliers and everyone’s family members (including yours) that rely on you and your company for their livelihoods. And their interests should rise above the interest of any one specific person. OK, maybe you don’t have to be so harsh. Maybe you can ease him out over the next two years. Or find another role for him where he could actually be more productive for you (Driving a forklift? Maintenance? Customer service?) as he gets older. But if you’re letting your overhead get too high and your profitability becomes negatively-impacted because you’re unable to make those hard choices, then you’re hurting everyone who depends on you.

I’m not telling you to discriminate against older workers. That would be illegal. I’m just telling you to discriminate against older workers.

Fortune had to walk this back:

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on May 31 at 5:45 p.m. ET to make clear that age discrimination is illegal. We regret that this piece was published without closer scrutiny.

Whoops!

Verizon: Why You Are a Fool if You Don’t Want to Join a Union

[ 32 ] June 2, 2016 |

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The Verizon strike is over and it is a landslide victory for the workers and their unions, the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The four-year contracts would give workers a nearly 11 percent increase in pay over all, up from the 6.5 percent increase that Verizon had proposed before the strike, as well as modest ratification bonuses and profit-sharing.

Verizon had long argued that it needed to cut costs and increase its flexibility to manage its work force and preserve the competitiveness of its wireline business, which includes landlines, video and Internet service that run through wires.

Perhaps the most consequential issue at stake in the standoff was Verizon’s ability to outsource work. The previous contracts included a provision requiring that a certain percentage of customer calls originating in a state be answered by workers in that state — ranging from just over 50 percent for some types of calls in some states to more than 80 percent in others. Verizon sought to significantly lower those numbers.

Under the tentative new contracts, a similar percentage of calls must be answered by a unionized worker somewhere in Verizon’s wireline footprint, which runs from Virginia to Massachusetts, rather than the particular state from which the call originates.

Both sides claimed victory in the change.

“We only care that our members somewhere in the footprint are doing the work,” said Robert Master, assistant to the District 1 vice president of the Communications Workers of America. “The push to outsource call center work was rebuffed.”

Lending partial vindication to this claim was a commitment by the company to create over 1,000 unionized call center jobs over the next four years to accommodate new demand from customers. The company also agreed to reduce the number of call center closings.

The company also won the right to offer buyout incentives to employees once a year without first getting the union’s blessing, making it easier to eliminate jobs that the new rule could eventually render obsolete.

Elsewhere, the outcome appeared more one-sided. The unions managed to beat back proposed pension cuts, including a cap on the accrual of pension benefits after 30 years of service.

The company also agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have allowed it to relocate workers for up to two months anywhere in its geographic coverage area, although it had already expressed an openness to withdrawing the proposal before the strike.

Proposals to change seniority rules and to make the company’s sickness and disability policy more strict were also withdrawn, and the company agreed to change a performance review program in New York City that many workers considered abusive.

Significantly, the new contracts also cover some 65 unionized workers at Verizon Wireless stores, signaling the first time that retail wireless workers at the company have been included in a union contract, a potentially important precedent.

This is an incredible contract. The workers win nearly twice as much money as they originally asked for. They force Verizon to cave on all the benefits and the relocation drive that infuriated workers. They make Verizon back down on outsourcing jobs overseas. They force the company to create 1000 new union jobs and allow Verizon stores to become part of the bargaining unit. In return, the workers give up basically nothing. They allow individual workers to take a buy out if they want it. OK. And they open up slightly on who precisely takes a given call, but maintaining that the worker taking it is a union worker. Who cares. They also had to do some givebacks on health care, but these are the compromises that must be made sometimes. Overall, this is an outstanding contract and a gigantic win for workers.

Importantly, the settlement was mediated by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who, once again, has been absolutely fantastic and is my top choice to be Clinton’s Vice-President, far more than Elizabeth Warren, who is perfectly effective in her current job. It’s also important to step back here and remember what would have happened if Verizon workers hadn’t won unions in the past. If that doesn’t happen, their healthcare is far worse, most of those jobs Verizon wants to outsource are already overseas, workers are sure not getting 11 percent raises, the pension is already gone, workers are being forced to relocate if they want a job, etc. This all happened because workers joined a union and went on strike to demand dignity on the job. Clearly, the next step for CWA and IBEW is to start organizing the Verizon stores. Allowing those workers into the bargaining unit is an enormous concession by Verizon. Moreover, employees in the service industry are almost totally unrepresented by unions and breaking into that sector could have transformational effects. Organize!

Speaking of Perez’s DOL, soon to be announced National Labor Relations Board rules declaring graduate student workers is already having an effect.

Graduate student unions on a number of private campuses have for years sought recognition from their universities and federal officials, to little avail. But organizing efforts at Cornell University are moving forward, in the form of an agreement on how to proceed until and if a legal barrier to collective bargaining is reversed.

The development sets Cornell apart from most other elite privates institutions, which have maintained that teaching and research assistants are students — not employees entitled to collective bargaining rights — ahead of a major decision on the issue from the National Labor Relations Board.

“Should current federal labor law change to deem graduate students at private universities employees, we believe the terms of this agreement will assist our graduate assistants as they make their own decisions about whether or not to join the union,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell, said in a statement Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide them with an open environment to make that decision that ensures dignity and respect for all parties involved.”

Cornell’s new agreement with its American Federation of Teachers- and National Education Association-affiliated graduate student union does not signal voluntary union recognition. So it’s not the kind of decisive agreement that New York University reached with its United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate student union outside of NLRB channels in 2013. Nor does Cornell express neutrality about the campaign, despite union requests that such language be included.

But the new agreement does outline a possible path to Cornell having one of the few graduate student unions among private institutions, and establishes formal communication and election procedures, voter eligibility guidelines, and a dispute resolution mechanism. It offer protections for those involved in union organizing and says that a fair and expeditious election will be held outside of NLRB channels should the board decide that graduate students at private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining — a decision that other institutions have indicated they would fight in court. Cornell would grant “immediate” recognition in the event of a majority vote.

This is huge news as well. Universities are some of the worst anti-union institutions in the country. While many public university faculty and staff have organized in states that aren’t right to leech, private universities have simply refused to even consider it. Breaking down that wall, especially for some of the most exploited people on campus–graduate students–is a major victory for justice. This only happens because of a Democratic administration committed to advancing worker rights, as the Obama administration has largely supported, especially in the second term under the Perez regime at DOL.

For Hamilton Nolan, the lesson is that strikes work and that we should all go on strike when we feel the need to do so.

Strikes work. Strikes have always worked. Strikes still work. Pro-business forces like to deride unions as socialist parasites, but strikes are, in a sense, one of the purest free market actions that workers can take: the refusal to sell labor at a price that is deemed too low. This has the effect of raising the price of labor. Though “Economics 101″ idiots like to pretend that the free market will always magically produce the perfect wage for every job, the reality is that working people—people with less money—are always at a disadvantage when it comes to asserting the leverage necessary to raise their own wages, because they can’t afford to stop working and lose a paycheck. This is the biggest hurdle that strikes have to clear. It’s hard for working people to leave work, demanding better wages and working conditions. It’s a gamble. But it tends to pay off.

As much as workers need wages, businesses need labor even more. The free market has not raised your wages in decades. The government has not raised your wages in decades. You need to raise your own wages. Organize. Then strike. It’s always good to be reminded that it works.

I’m a bit less sanguine about this. After all, there certainly have been disastrous strikes. But he’s mostly right. If workers stand up and act upon their demands, their chances of living a dignified life are much higher.

For me, the real lesson is that if you don’t support joining a union, you are a fool because you are only hurting yourself. Almost all of us should have unions. Even if you are a faculty member or public employee in the South and live in a right-to-work state, you should still have a union because it will serve as an organized voice and point of power, even if you can’t win a contract. I know, because I helped one get off the ground. Entry-level lawyers at big law firms should have unions. Workers at every private factory or establishment should have unions. Starbucks and McDonald’s workers should have unions. We should all have unions. Organizing like the Verizon workers is not a throwback to the past. It should be an entryway into the future.

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1924

[ 46 ] June 2, 2016 |

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On June 2, 1924, a constitutional amendment to ban child labor passed the Senate and was sent out to the states for ratification. Unfortunately, the states never ratified it, although they still could today.

The fight against child labor had been a major part of both the struggle of organized labor and of middle-class reformers for decades. For unionists, they not only saw child labor as degrading to children, but also as undermining the wages of working class. Get rid of the children, they argued, and you eliminate a major source of competition driving wages down. The wages would rise and children could go to school instead of working. For Progressives like Florence Kelley and Lewis Hine, child labor was a horror of American society, contributing to long-term poverty and social unrest that hurt the entire nation. Kelley’s Consumers’ League, as well as the National Child Labor Committee, lobbied Americans, especially middle-class women, to fight against the scourge of child labor through the early twentieth century, first focusing on the state level and then moving into the realm of national politics.

On the other hand, many working families, especially in the South, relied on child labor. But they had little political power. The real opposition came from corporations, especially the textile industry, which relied heavily on children in their mills and which had moved from the northeast to the South during these years in order to take advantage of states that had not passed child labor laws. It was in southern mills where Hine took many of his most powerful images of child labor. The need for a constitutional amendment became apparent when the conservative Supreme Court overturned federal legislation regulating child labor in 1918 and again in 1922. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act, which the National Child Labor Committee had lobbied for, overwhelmingly passed Congress and was signed by President Wilson. In 1918, the 1918 Supreme Court overturned it in Hammer v. Dagenhart, deciding that Congress had no authority to regulate products made by children. For anti-child labor activists, the only remaining strategy was a constitutional amendment.

On April 26, 1924, the child labor amendment passed the House of Representatives and on June 2, the Senate. The text was simple:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress

Given the relatively easy passage of the amendment through Congress, the failure of it to gain traction at the state level was striking. Between 1924 and 1932, a resounding 6 states ratified it and 32 state legislatures had voted it down. It was seen as a dead letter. Employers rallied to oppose it. Comparing child laborers to Civil War soldiers, Manufactures Record noted that 850,000 soldiers under the age of 18 had fought in the war and opined, “If they were old enough to fight for their country, they ought to be old enough to regulate the matter of their own employment.” The same editorial added a new twist to this old freedom of contract canard: redbaiting. Passing the amendment,

would mean the destruction of manhood and womanhood through the destruction of boys and girls in this country. The proposed amendment is fathered by Socialists, Communists and Bolshevists…aimed to nationalize the children of the land and bring about in this country the exact conditions that prevail in Russia. If adopted, the amendment would be the greatest thing ever done in America in behalf of the activities of hell. It will make millions of young people under eighteen years of age idlers in brain and body, and thus make them the devil’s best workshop.

I wonder if the person who wrote this had to smoke a cigarette and then shower after that rant.

This sort of pressure, coordinated by the National Association of Manufacturers, is why so few states jumped on board the amendment. But in 1933, it received a jolt of life, thanks to the Great Depression and the overwhelming victories of the Roosevelt administration and reformers at the state level in 1932. Child labor was still a major problem in many states in 1933. In 1933, 12 more states passed it, 10 of which had previously rejected it. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration decided to get behind it directly as a way to build on the National Recovery Administration’s goals to reduce competition and stabilize the economy. The NRA had prohibited labor for anyone under the age of 16, at a time when only 4 states had a similar law on the books. FDR stated in a letter to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters:

Of course, I am in favor of the child labor amendment. A step in the right direction was achieved by demonstrating the simplicity of its application to industry under the N. R. A. Those connected with industries which had, been the worst violators were the first to see the wisdom of the step. It is my opinion that the matter hardly requires further academic discussion. The right path has been definitely shown.

But momentum was fleeting. 4 more states ratified in 1935 and another 4 in 1937. Kansas was the 28th and last on February 25, 1937. Overcoming intransigent or indifferent state legislatures was just too much, as it often is with constitutional amendments.

The child labor amendment would fail, but eliminating child labor was still a leading goal of the Roosevelt administration. It was incorporated into the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which covered most industries, but not agriculture, where child labor remains an issue until the present. Interestingly, Congress did not set a time frame on the amendment. Thus, it theoretically still could be ratified today. Ten more states would need to ratify it. Perhaps even more interestingly, this issue led to its own Supreme Court decision, with the Court ruling in Coleman v. Miller in 1939 that if Congress doesn’t set an end date for an amendment sent to the states, there is no end date. This actually led to the ratification of the 27th Amendment, which 7 states ratified between 1789 and 1792, Ohio ratified in 1873, and no other states ratified until 1978.

The good quotes in this post are borrowed by Chaim Rosenberg, Child Labor in America: A History.

This is the 179th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

[ 18 ] May 31, 2016 |

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On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam, on the land of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. Over 2200 people died in the one of the worst disaster in American history. The Johnstown Flood is not only a horrible disaster but deeply reflective of class divisions during the Gilded Age and the complete lack of legal or moral responsibility the wealthy had toward the working class.

In 1840, the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, in order to stop the floods that frequently hit the mountainous area. Over time, the canal system that had spurred the original construction fell into disuse. The land where the dam was located was purchased by the steel capitalist Henry Clay Frick and a group of speculators, many of whom were connected to Carnegie Steel, for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. For convenience sake, Frick had the dam lowered in order to build a road across it and built a screen that built up debris behind it. The club opened in 1881. The dam frequently sprung leaks and was only patched with mud. People in Johnstown were concerned about the long-term stability of the dam but Frick and his friends did nothing. By 1889, the club had 61 members. They included Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. This was the peak of the Gilded Age elite. Mellon of course would have a very long career, serving as the staunchly conservative Secretary of the Treasury under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. His policies contributed significantly to the development of the Great Depression.

By 1889, Johnstown was a big steel town of about 30,000 people. Like many Pennsylvania cities, it’s existence was largely based around the industry. The Cambria Iron Company began in Johnstown in 1852. The company was one of the nation’s most important early blast furnace steel works. By 1858, the company was the nation’s largest producer of rails for railroads and Johnstown grew rapidly. Like the rest of the region’s steel mill towns, after 1880, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Johnstown to take these incredibly difficult, hot, and deadly jobs in an industry with terrible working conditions. By 1889, the national importance of Johnstown was diminishing, as bigger cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland established much larger steel works and had access to significantly larger labor forces, but Cambria Iron Works was still a major industry player. The company controlled nearly everything in the town, from churches to libraries. It also did not allow for labor unions. Like other steel towns, the labor force frequently organized over these terrible conditions. After the Panic of 1873 began, the company began laying off workers, lowering wages, and paying workers in company store credit rather than cash. Workers responded by organizing a union called the Miners National Association. 400 workers joined. The company refused to recognize it. The company then simply shut down operations rather than deal with organized workers. The union quickly collapsed and the company hired everyone back on the condition that they sign a contract pledging never to join a union. The company received glorious praise from The New York Times, among other national publications, for taking such a strong stance against unions. By 1889, the Cambria Iron Works remained union free.

In late May 1889, a powerful storm began to develop over Nebraska and Kansas. It moved east and dumped rain on the mountains of Pennsylvania on the evening of May 30. The next morning, the lake behind the dam had risen precipitously. Johnstown began to flood. In some parts of town, the water rose to as high as 10 feet, trapping some people in their houses. But things got tremendously worse in the fourteen miles the water rushed downstream. Towns on the way were blown away, with 314 dead in the iron town of Woodvale.

When the dam collapsed, there was no way to let the people of Johnstown know in time to escape. The water behind the dam rushed forward at 40 miles an hour, wiping away everything in its path. It just completely wiped out the city. A total of 2209 died, one of the two largest single losses of life in American disasters to that date. 99 entire families were wiped out. The event received immediate national media coverage and relief poured into the city, starting with Clara Barton and quickly becoming a national effort. The Cambria Iron Works was relatively untouched by the flood and its steel production continued almost unabated.

Newspapers attacked Frick and the club members after the flood. The Chicago Herald ran an editorial titled, “Manslaughter or Murder.” It soon became obvious that the dam collapse was the direct responsibility of the club members, both for not maintaining it and for modifying it for their own pleasure, indifferent to the thousands of people below the dam. The club members offered a bit of relief to put themselves in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000. Henry Clay Frick had the club give some blankets.

After the flood, the survivors wanted compensation. But the laws of the Gilded Age allowed the rich to essentially do whatever they want. They could kill their own workers through terrible workplace safety conditions and the courts would find in favor of the companies. They could destroy farmland through the erosion or flooding they caused and the farmers would lose their suits in the name of progress. Given that Frick and the club leaders had adjusted the dam for their own convenience and didn’t maintain the dam effectively. The hunting club hired the preeminent law firm of Knox and Reed to defend them. Both men were club members and Pennsylvania elites; Philander Knox would go on to be Secretary of State in the administration of William Howard Taft. The lawsuits from the survivors were easily fended off by Knox and Reed. The survivors received nothing; Frick and his friends continued as if nothing happened. For them, nothing really had happened. The people of Johnstown didn’t matter.

Henry Clay Frick went on a few years later to manage the busting of the union at Homestead in 1892, becoming the most hated man in America.

This is the 178th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Waste Workers

[ 20 ] May 29, 2016 |

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Tonight, I put out my trash and my recycling. What will happen to it tomorrow morning when the workers come pick it up? Almost no one thinks about this. Especially when it comes to recycling, we are convinced of our own good behavior to an extent that we usually assume that something goods come of it. But the reality is that these are hard, nasty jobs with employers who often heavily exploit the workers and provide highly unsafe working conditions. The Teamsters have organized some waste workers, but many remain unorganized. This report on waste workers in New York, where you have a panoply of private companies who contract with the city and therefore a mix of union and non-union shops, is pretty disturbing.

IN THE BEST SCENARIO, A WASTE collector will suffer chronic back pain, joint fatigue and sleep deprivation. In the worst, his life is what Thomas Hobbes might have called “nasty, brutish and short.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists refuse collection, both public and private, as one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in America based on fatalities, far more than those of police or firefighters. When one accounts for physical degradation and quality of life, the statistics become far more perilous.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation is among the most respected in the country. Its workers, who are Teamsters, work no more than eight hours a day, are paid close to $80,000 a year and enjoy generous benefit packages. They collect 10,500 tons of refuse each day from city residents and institutions.

In comparison, the private carting industry in New York City is a largely unregulated enterprise where more than 100 carting companies, large and small, compete to pick up the refuse of 100,000 businesses. In one night, some 20 trucks from different companies could visit a single city block, bringing with them all the concomitant emissions, traffic and safety concerns.

“AS A WORKER, YOU ARE TREATED like the truck. You are treated like a machine,” said Carl Orlando, a former sanitation worker for Liberty Ashes who says he has worked in all aspects of the industry, from hauling garbage to office work to customer relations. He and several former co-workers have sued the company, accusing it of wage theft and other pay violations.

“There’s no training. There’s no safety meetings. There’s no gear. There is no taking days off. There’s no benefits. They don’t even pay overtime,” he said.

He, like others, stressed that not all private waste companies are the same, and that they vary widely in how they treat workers. But in his experience, the so-called “low-road” companies routinely put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

Like many workers in the industry, Orlando said he was paid for a fixed number of hours no matter how long he worked — something he and others say incentivizes dangerous habits. He said he was paid for a 10-hour day but routinely had to work 12-, 13-, even 14-hour shifts to complete his route.

“You want to get through it as quick as possible, because you don’t want that truck on the road as people are trying to go to work, and you have one truck out there trying to do the work of three,” Orlando said. “I’ve driven all night, didn’t stop for any red lights, went from one side of the street to the other, on the wrong side of the street, and I still couldn’t get it done.”

Wage theft is a common accusation against such companies. Three other workers — Marco Flores, Antonio Santos and Oscar Tudon — filed a class-action lawsuit against Five Star in July 2015 for unpaid wages.

The suit alleges the men “were not paid overtime premium pay for hours worked over forty (40) hours per week, did not receive wages for all hours worked, had meal breaks automatically deducted from their wages regardless of whether they actually took the full break, did not receive prevailing wages when they worked on public works projects, did not receive wage notice or proper wage statements.”

Workers say the companies have other means of skirting their obligations, too.

Juan Feliz worked for Mr. T’s Carting for close to 10 years. In 2013, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. He now speaks through a voicebox after surgery left a hole in his trachea.

After his diagnosis and first surgery, Feliz said his bosses treated him differently.

“When I went back to the company, I was treated worse than the garbage I was supposed to pick up,” he said.

Feliz said the company asked him to change doctors. Then he said the boss, Peter Toscano, told him he would have to wait for further treatment.

“Toscano said I had to wait until next year because I had exhausted my funds,” Feliz said.

As his medical bills piled up, Mr. T’s Carting suddenly asked Feliz to do something it never had before: take an off-site drug test. He typically took drug tests on site, according to a judge’s ruling.

He agreed to the off-site test, but it was scheduled for a cold day in January. As Feliz tried to get to the facility, he had trouble breathing. Blood started pouring from his tracheal tube, and he canceled the appointment. He rescheduled again, but when he arrived there was a long wait, and he left to pick up his 9-year-old daughter from school.

Mr. T’s fired him, accusing him of refusing to take the drug test. When he tried to collect unemployment, the company rejected his claim. Feliz filed an appeal.

Better conditions for these workers should be part of our civic responsibility. They are picking up our trash and recycling. We owe it to them that they don’t get hurt or die doing it.

The New Labor Regulations Make Republicans Cry

[ 49 ] May 26, 2016 |

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Republicans continue to freak out over the Obama administration’s continuing advancements in giving American workers a fair shake. They are going to do whatever they can to repeal those regulations, even though these strategies won’t work.

Buried on page 523 of the Senate’s proposed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 is a provision that would weaken Obama’s “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.” That July 2014 order, which has not yet been implemented, would require that federal agencies crack down on private contractors who repeatedly violate labor law. The order would also require that private companies disclose recent labor law violations when they apply for federal contracts.

The Senate NDAA stipulates that Defense Department contractors and subcontractors will not be “compelled or required to comply with the conditions for contracting eligibility” outlined in the executive order. The House version of the NDAA, which passed last week, also includes a provision intended to undermine the order.

The proposed exemption for military contractors is part of a broader Republican campaign to roll back the Obama administration’s labor regulations.

Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced that he would lead the fight to undo a recent expansion of paid overtime eligibility. Business groups have vigorously lobbied against the expansion, which could make 4.2 million workers in the United States newly eligible for paid overtime.

I understand, Republicans need to go to the mat to attack such horrors as overtime pay and disclosing labor law violations. Wait, what? But of course.

No doubt they are extra sad today, because the Seventh Circuit just ruled that companies can’t force workers into mandatory arbitration instead of allowing them to file class action lawsuits.

In a case with major implications for mandatory arbitration agreements, the seventh circuit today struck down an arbitration clause that prohibited employees from pursuing class proceedings. The appeals court, in an opinion by Chief Judge Wood, held that by banning collective actions, such an agreement violates the National Labor Relations Act. The decision, Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., conflicts with the Fifth Circuit’s holding in D.R. Horton and thus creates a circuit split.

As the seventh circuit correctly observes, Section 7 of the NLRA protects not only collective bargaining but also “other concerted activities.” These “other concerted activities,” moreover, have for decades been held to include “resort to administrative and judicial forums.” Thus, courts and the NLRB have long concluded that filing collective or class action legal proceedings constitutes protected “concerted activity” under the NLRA. By prohibiting workers from pursuing class proceedings, a mandatory arbitration clause with a class action waiver therefore requires workers to waive their section 7 rights, something no employment agreement can do.

….

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this decision for the evolving law of mandatory arbitration agreements. Unless and until the Supreme Court intervenes, the decision calls into question the legality of all mandatory employment arbitration agreements in the seventh circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) that contain class action waivers. It also raises the possibility that other circuits will follow suit.

Since the Department of Labor and the judiciary obviously don’t matter, the only conclusion we can make is that if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, both parties are the same and therefore it’s Jill Stein or bust.

When “Public Interest” Means “Oppressing Workers”

[ 102 ] May 23, 2016 |

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Scott referred to this in his post yesterday, but PIRG’s statement opposing the new overtime rule is outrageous and entirely appropriate given its founding, history, and mode of operation. The argument itself is pure Lochner (public interest indeed!)

Doubling the minimum salary to $47,476 is especially unrealistic for non-profit, cause-oriented organizations. Organizations like ours rely on small donations from individuals to pay the bills. We can’t expect those individuals to double the amount they donate. Rather, to cover higher staffing costs forced upon us under the rule, we will be forced to hire fewer staff and limit the hours those staff can work – all while the well-funded special interests that we’re up against will simply spend more.

The logic of the rule, as applied to non-profit, cause-oriented organizations, makes no sense. A person of means – in service of a cause to which they feel deeply committed – can volunteer to work for our organization for free for as many hours as they wish, but a person of lesser means – who is no less committed to the work we do – cannot agree to work for our organization for less than $47,476 without having their work hours strictly limited in order to keep our costs affordable. This raises First Amendment concerns.

Yes, paying people overtime is a violation of their First Amendment rights! If this theoretical and entirely non-existent individual who wants to work for low wages specifically for PIRG and finds themselves limited to a mere 40 hours a week of this work, there are clearly no other outlets for their speech! Of course, this is complete garbage. Said individual could always donate the extra pay she made back to the organization, for instance.

PIRG is an utter disaster of an organization. It identifies an always available source of labor–young people, usually college or immediate post-college students, who don’t have a good job lined up and want to do some good. That’s actually a good thing–I wish other left-leaning organizations could find a way to take idealistic people and put them to work doing some good. But all PIRG uses them for is door-to-door fundraising. PIRG has no interest in building organizing skills in these people, no interest in long-term movement building, no interest in helping these people advance to long-term investment in either the organization or larger progressive causes. You can work there for years and advance no further than supervising other fundraisers. All it does it burn out those idealistic people.

I suspect most of us here have known people who worked for PIRG and many of you have probably considered it yourself or even done it. I considered it at one point, but the idea of going door to door asking for money is incredibly distasteful to me. But the working conditions are awful and the pay is low. The complaints listed by former workers here are almost always the same and would be recognizable for people 25 years ago. PIRG is basically a scam to fund a lobbying organization on the work of self-sacrificing true believers. In other words, it shares a lot in common with a religious cult.

None of this should be surprising because Ralph Nader, founder of PIRG, has always hated unions in his own shop.

As it turns out, Nader as a nonprofit entrepreneur has had his own experience with union organizing — from the employer’s side. In one case, unhappy workers at Public Citizen were persuaded to drop their drive to hold a vote on affiliating with the United Auto Workers, and an in-house union was created that over the years won important benefits and worker protections for employees. But in another case, labor-management relations weren’t so smooth.

Amid a dispute with the staff of one of his flagship publications in 1984 over its editorial content and a bid by staff members to form a union, Nader responded with the same kind of tactics that he has elsewhere condemned: He fired the staff, changed the locks at the office, unsuccessfully tried to have one employee arrested, and hired permanent replacements.

When the fired workers appealed the action to federal authorities, Nader filed a countersuit. Applying a legal tactic that employers commonly use to resist union-organizing efforts, Nader claimed that the fired workers were trying to appropriate his business. Nader spurned efforts by other progressives to mediate the fight, and he refused an offer to settle the litigation by simply signing a declaration that his workers thenceforth would have the right to organize.

But that’s not what Nader said at the time. In a June 1984 article in The Washington Post, Nader said his employees and others at nonprofit organizations don’t have a need to organize. “I don’t think there is a role for unions in small nonprofit ’cause’ organizations any more than … within a monastery or within a union” itself, he said. “People shouldn’t be in public-interest groups unless they believe in it and are ready to work for it.” Early on in his career, Nader said, “I worked weekend after weekend after weekend… Now people come here and say they want to fight polluters and unresponsive agencies, but not after 5 o’clock and not on weekends.”

Many employers, especially those who build small companies from the ground up, feel the same way about their businesses. But U.S. labor law is clear — two or more employees can file a letter with National Labor Relations Board noting their intention to try to form a union, and, in theory, they are immediately protected from firing and other retaliatory actions while the case is pending. In practice, however, years of litigation await workers who pursue these cases, even when management doesn’t pursue a countersuit.

In 1984, Tim Shorrock was exactly the kind of crusading journalist that Nader often attracted to his publications. At 33, he was just beginning a career as a reporter that would see him write about foreign affairs, human rights, labor issues, and progressive causes for The Nation and other publications. (Shorrock and I worked for the same publication in the mid-1990s, which is when I first heard his story about working for Nader. I hadn’t spoken with him for several years before contacting him for this article.) Shorrock considered the top editing job at Multinational Monitor a great opportunity. With a staff of two others — Kathleen Selvaggio and Rose-Marie Audette — Shorrock did everything from writing the stories to supervising the printing.

A son of missionaries, Shorrock had grown up in South Korea and Japan and retained an interest in America’s role in South Korea, which had yet to emerge from decades of U.S.-sponsored dictatorship. This interest led him to what proved to be a big story — the news that federal authorities were investigating whether giant contractor Bechtel had paid bribes to South Korean officials while then-Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were top Bechtel officials. Shorrock says that Nader, who often read the magazine’s copy in advance, was unreachable when the magazine’s deadline came. Since Nader had also been absent at some deadlines in the past, Shorrock printed the story. Newspapers and television quickly pounced on the news, which portrayed exactly the kind of corporate malfeasance that Nader was targeting, and the attention raised the profile of Multinational Monitor. This was the kind of publicity that was supposed to attract fundraising for Nader’s anti-corporate cause.

But Nader wasn’t pleased. He was furious. Shorrock said that, at first, Nader seemed to be overreacting to what Shorrock saw as a misunderstanding about the final editing on a story that other news stories later validated. But then, Shorrock said, Nader started complaining that the story unfairly maligned Weinberger, who had been general counsel of Bechtel during the period when investigators were looking into South Korean bribes. In 1985, a U.S. News & World Report story on odd friendships in Washington mentioned Weinberger and Nader. The story said that Nader had recommended to Weinberger a former protege who later ended up as Weinberger’s deputy at Defense. Richard says today that Nader was a fearless opponent of the Reagan administration and elsewhere criticized Weinberger along with other Reagan appointees. Richard says that Shorrock willfully defied Nader’s instructions to hold the story. Richard produced an August 14, 1984, letter to subscribers that said that management had offered to bargain collectively with workers.

Threatening Ralph’s friendship with Cap Weinberger sounds like a good reason to crush unions to me.

In conclusion:

Guestworker Programs Exploit Workers

[ 44 ] May 21, 2016 |

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Guestworker programs have no history of working well for the workers because they lack legal protections, the right to quit and stay in the country, and access to legal services. For whatever labor or immigration problems we have in this country, there is no room for guestworker programs as part of the solution.

H-2B workers are historically the least protected, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. On paper, H-2A workers are entitled to a list of protective regulations that H-2B workers aren’t. These regulations included access to federally funded legal services for employment issues, Social Security tax exemption and free housing. The new 2015 regulations issued by DOL and DHS provide protections against employer retaliation, reimbursement for travel to the U.S. and a guarantee of three-fourths of the hours in the job contract. Congress decided against funding enforcement of the three-fourths rule.

These regulations specifically ban recruitment fees and employer retaliation to protect H-2B workers from labor trafficking scenarios such as debt bondage. In the past, H-2B workers were in danger before they even leave home, the SPLC says. Workers would be subjected to debt bondage after paying recruitment fees and transportation costs. But other structural faults still place H-2B workers at risk. Workers are unauthorized to seek employment other than what’s printed on their visa, regardless of abuse or working conditions. Additionally, employers double as immigration sponsors and may easily retaliate against workers if they protest wages or working conditions, according to the ACLU.

In the Philippines, governing agencies are supposed to protect guest workers from illegal practices by recruitment agencies. But overseas employment is a large industry. Hundreds of employment agencies exist to assist millions of Filipino workers. And Filipino Migrant Center’s Concepcion has seen enforcement fail against illegal practices such contract fraud that add to abuse and trafficking.

It’s possible for U.S. law enforcement to work against traffickers by coordinating with international attachés and host governments, but “it’s tough to hold people accountable. We are dealing with a different set of laws,” says Special Agent Erik Breitzke of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Trafficking in the Philippines is a result of much larger issues, such as poverty and the lack of opportunities, according to Alex Montances, a Community Organizer at the Filipino Migrant Center.

“Some of these human traffickers are also, because of the same root problems, turning to human trafficking,” he says, “so they can support themselves and support their families.”

Back in the U.S., effective governmental oversight of the H-2B program is extremely lacking, according to the ACLU. Once workers are on the job, the Department of Labor is responsible for checking up on workplace conditions, but it only has 1,000 inspectors responsible for all 135 million U.S. workers nationwide, the DOL noted in a statement to BuzzFeed News. H-2B visas alone are capped at 66,000 per year. Additionally, while the DOL identifies certain H-2B jobs as high risk, its workplace enforcement efforts are concentrated elsewhere, according the U.S. Government Accountability Office, or GAO.

Over the past decade employers have systematically violated H-2B regulations because “it’s just too easy,” according to SPLC Staff Attorney Meredith Stewart. Employers often confiscate and withhold immigration documentation, the SPLC finds. Visa petitioners engage in pervasive visa fraud, as documented by the GAO. And Eighty-two percent of the DOL’s H-2B investigations uncovered violations in 2014. Employers owed $2.6 million in back wages to H-2B workers, the DOL reported to BuzzFeed News.

Enforcement is too low and the consequences are too weak to deter violations, Stewart says. Delinquent employers may be suspended from the H-2B program by the DOL for up to three years. Suspension is uncommon and doesn’t always result after abuses and law violations are documented, according to the SPLC. Twenty-five H-2B employers were suspended between 2009 and 2014. And In March 2015, the DOL had let the statue of limitations lapse on more that half its H-2A and H-2B investigations, according to the GAO.

There are lots of reasons for labor exploitation. Certainly in the Philippines or Mexico or Guatemala or wherever, there are lots and lots of reasons why deeply impoverished people are able to be brutally exploited. But the United States does not then have to lend a hand to the exploiters through its own labor and immigration systems. The lack of a robust regulatory capacity by the U.S. government means that the low chances of getting caught and then getting punished gives employers enormous incentive to abuse these workers. Guestworker programs are simply unacceptable. Give people long-term work visas with the chance to quit and move to new jobs is the first step to fixing the problem.

Different Nations Have Different Standards for Allowing Workers to Yawn–And That’s OK!

[ 79 ] May 19, 2016 |

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Above: More beneficiaries of free trade

As I posted about in January, Nike is no longer allowing the Workers Rights Consortium to monitor its Vietnam factory, ending its tradition of allowing for independent monitoring. The WRC has released a report evaluating the plant and it is not favorable to the company.

In the e-mail list sending out the report to supporters, this is the summary:

In spite of Nike’s refusal to assist the WRC, the organization has obtained initial findings through interviews with Hansae employees. These findings, described in further detail in the new report, are, frankly, quite damning. The labor rights violations—all violations of university codes of conduct—identified at the factory include:

Reckless management practices that endanger workers’ health, including extremely high production quotas, forced overtime, and insufficient rest breaks

Excessive heat on factory floors, which has led to many workers fainting from exhaustion at their work stations

Verbal harassment of workers, including yelling, swearing, and profane insults

Degrading restrictions on workers’ use of the factory’s toilets

Denial of legally-guaranteed sick leave

Firing of pregnant workers

Draconian and abusive restrictions such as forbidding workers from yawning

These findings are a stark contrast to Nike’s claim that the October strike was over a “miscommunication.” The gap between the reassuring portrait Nike has painted of this factory and the harsh reality revealed through worker interviews underscores the importance of independent monitors such as the WRC. Nike must be pressed to allow the WRC to conduct an onsite inspection of the factory so that its investigation can be complete and that our universities can obtain full knowledge of the working conditions at this collegiate supplier.

Forbidding workers from yawning. Let that sink in for a moment.

Clearly, we should defend globalization as a fundamentally just system making workers’ lives better! Why bother doing anything about the actual oppression of workers, like firing pregnant workers, banning workers from yawning, or having their factories collapse upon them? Different nations have different standards for yawning, and of course for factory safety, and that’s OK!

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