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Tag: "labor"

Solidarity Unionism and Two-Tiered Contracts

[ 13 ] December 26, 2015 |

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This story on the solidarity shown by Kohler’s workers in their recent strike in which 94% of the workers voted yes for striking shows how counterproductive two-tiered contracts are for corporations. The story of the two-tiered contracts is fairly well known, where companies force unions to accept a lower-paid tier for new workers without any way for them to rise to the wages made by the coworkers. Most notoriously, the auto companies forced the United Auto Workers into this during the recession. It has really infuriated workers for years now, with older workers not just looking out for their own interests, but rather voting to strike to help the newer workers achieve living wages. It’s really hard to eliminate these tiers entirely, but at least Kohler’s workers forced the company to significantly raise the lower tier. One wonders if it isn’t just worth it for the companies to eliminate these tiers entirely.

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This Day in Labor History: December 22, 1988

[ 13 ] December 22, 2015 |

On December 22, 1988, the Brazilian rubber worker, union leader, and environmental activist Chico Mendes was murdered by a rancher named Darcy Alves who wished to clear the Amazon rainforest where Mendes and his fellow rubber tappers worked, lived, and tried to preserve from exploitation and destruction. His assassination showed both the power Brazilian developmentalists have over those who try to conserve forests but also the connections between labor and environmental movements that exist around the world.

Rubber is a South American native crop, but it cannot grow in plantations there due to disease called South American leaf blight that wipes it out when it is too concentrated. Despite attempts by Henry Ford and other to develop plantation agriculture in the Amazon rainforest, it failed and the world’s key rubber production moved to southeast Asia where rubber could grow without its natural predators. With the exception of Ford’s failure, this was basically fine by the U.S. and industrial users of rubber like tire companies until World War II, when Japan overran most of the world’s rubber supplies. This led to a renewed effort to spur production in nations like Brazil, as well as investments in synthetic rubber that eventually did much more to solve the Americans’ rubber needs. But the Brazilian rubber tappers maintained a reasonable market share for natural rubber, which they could only continue with a relatively undisturbed forest. Families began to create traditions of multiple generation rubber tappers. One of them was Chico Mendes. Born in 1944, he followed his father into the forests to work the rubber trees from the age of 9, in 1953. He couldn’t read until he was 18 as the rubber plantation owners did not want schools or an educated workforce. But Mendes eventually received a rudimentary education and became a fighter for his fellow rubber workers.

But the Amazon became desirable for people far more powerful than poor rubber tappers. Cattle ranchers saw this forest as waste that could be cut down and turned into pasture for the vast South American (and to some extent North American) beef market. The dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in 1964 encouraged this investment as a way to bring more money into the nation’s coffers, reward supporters, and pull a region far away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the nation’s orbit. This investment began in earnest in the 1970s. The dictatorship ended in 1985, but the ranchers sought to use extralegal violence to defend their investments, creating the ironically named Rural Democratic Union to fight against any land reform and to use violence against both worker and environmental activists.

These cattle ranchers and the violence inherent to them was disastrous to Mendes, his fellow rubber tappers, and the forest in which they worked and lived. So he and his rubber tappers’ union, founded in 1975 with Wilson Pinheiro as president and Mendes as secretary, sought to defend the forest and their own livelihood from these ranchers. In this case, the work environment and forest environment were one and the same, with the rubber tappers and rubber trees needing an non-industrial forest to survive. Mendes began organizing his fellow rubber tappers to fight for their future. Using nonviolent tactics, the tappers and their families created human barricades to machines trying to log the forest. He called for large forest reserves, not fully preserved, but there for traditional harvesting techniques for workers, including rubber tappers and nut gatherers. In 1985, with the Brazilian dictatorship finally over, Mendes founded a new union, the National Council for Rubber Tappers, that was a leftist union dedicated not to the modernist ideas of development that led to so many terrible environmental policies from communist governments, but to a politics of both ecological and labor stability. At the National Council’s first meeting, rubber tappers from around Brazil’s forests arrived and came to common agreement about their major problems, including deforestation for cattle and the roads that cut through the forest to make that happen.

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This got the attention not so much of North American labor activists but of environmentalists, who saw Mendes’ cause as both a way to build alliances in South American to defend the rain forests they probably had not seen but loved in an abstract way and a way to push back against the commonly held belief by the 1980s that greens did not care about the plight of workers. In 1987, Mendes won the UN’s Global 500 Award for his work protecting the forest. He said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Mendes’ activism in defense of his tappers and his forest was seen as a threat by the ranchers, who believed themselves above the law in a wild area far away from the big cities and administrative bureaucracies of the nation’s highly populated south. Darcy Alves and his father Darly were big ranchers in the forest. Mendes specifically targeted their ranch expansion plans as a major threat to the forest and to tappers’ livelihood because they had purchased land that was supposedly in a forest reserve near where Mendes’ own relatives worked as tappers. As was common for these ranchers, when local residents protests, Alves used intimidation tactics and violence to drive them away. Mendes also personally delivered an arrest warrant to the police in another state where Alves had killed someone in order to expand his holdings, but the police did nothing. When the tappers’ union continued resisting, it led the Alves family to decide to simply murder Mendes, despite his increased international fame. After Darcy killed Mendes while the two policemen supposed protecting him were busy playing dominoes, enough international outrage took place that both Alves men were arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet the killings of environmental and labor activists continues in the Amazon, including to the American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. And while deforestation rates did decline after Mendes’ death in 1988, the recent governments of Lula and Dilma in Brazil, while on the left, have significantly rolled back forest protection and deforestation rates have again risen.

Mendes has become something of an iconic figure in Brazil and there were celebrations and remembrances of him on the 25th anniversary of his death. But the ranchers and developmentalists hold as much sway today as they did in 1988 and violence on these frontiers is still endemic.

Gomercindo Rodrigues’ Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes is an excellent place to start if you want to read more.

This is the 165th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Gold Standard of Union-Hating Retailers

[ 49 ] December 19, 2015 |

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That’s what Hamilton Nolan called Menard’s, a Midwestern home improvement store chain. It’s CEO, John Menard is an anti-union extremist and is close friends with Scott Walker. For years, it’s had a policy that if you are a Menard’s manager and you allow a union to form at the store, you the manager will lose 60% of your salary, which is essentially firing you. But the company made a mistake in actually placing this in its contracts with managers, creating a major backlash that forced the company to withdraw the offending clause. But that’s not going to change the massive pressure corporate places on managers to ensure that workers have no voice on the job. Just another day in the New Gilded Age.

Uber Unions

[ 48 ] December 16, 2015 |

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Yay for Seattle ruling that Uber and Lyft drivers are not independent contractors and thus have the right to join a union.

Of course Uber and Lyft are as anti-union as any other company in history and so are going to fight this to the bitter end, especially their business model is predicated on exploiting independent contractors’ exemption from labor law.

And let’s also remember the long-term impact of the gig economy, which can create people not accruing any sort of benefits for years on end and leaving them with no safety net.

OUR Walmart, RIP

[ 21 ] December 15, 2015 |

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Peter Olney’s post-mortem for the OUR Walmart campaign seems more or less right on to me. In short, it simply never had any real support inside the stores that could resist the corporation’s blunt anti-union tactics, including firing workers and did not reflect a clear ability from United Food and Commercial Workers to organize so many other stores in the United States that have fewer resources to fight and could build to a broader Walmart organizing campaign. A couple of choice excerpts:

While the few workers would return to work successfully after this strike and others, the campaign was unable to defend them months later when the company canned them for other alleged violations. These minority actions were often glorified as an example of the “militant minority” strategy employed by the fledgling UAW against the giant auto manufacturers in the 1930s. While it is true that much of the successful organizing of the auto industry was done by a militant minority, it was a militant minority of thousands of strategic workers positioned to inflict real damage on the production chain—not a handful of symbolic “strikers.”

OUR Walmart was a public relations irritant to the company, but it never was a strategic challenge to Walmart’s power or its business model. Perhaps the campaign contributed to recent increases in minimum wages; perhaps it contributed to the growing national conversation about increased inequality; perhaps Walmart’s recent increase in its starting hourly wage to $10 was result of this campaign (though it may also have been the result of tightening labor markets because other employers have raised their wages as well).

But none of these is “organizing,” and none builds a powerful union.

Secondly, the OUR Walmart campaign never really organized around the company’s strategic weak points. OUR Walmart organized brief mini-strikes mostly among Walmart retail workers, but the company’s real strength as a company is its logistics model. Edna Bonacich and Jake B. Wilson write about Walmart’s business model in their essay “Hoisted By Its Own Petard” in New Labor Forum:

Giant retailers like Walmart are no longer simply the outlets for the goods produced by other companies. Rather, they exercise increasing control over suppliers, shaping every aspect of their production and distribution, including their pricing and labor practices. Although their stores and sales are the most visible aspect of the company to the public, there is a whole underbelly of procurement and logistics that rarely receives the same notice.

If we really seek to build power among Walmart workers, it will require the organization of their supply chain.

Organization of retail workers at stores is not sustainable without the company’s proprietary distribution centers (DCs). The Warehouse Workers United effort in Southern California (which was folded in late 2012) evolved into organizing Walmart third party logistics (3PL) providers. These are independent companies that giant big box retailers hire to handle a piece of their supply chain management. Walmart relies on 3PLs for gross cargo moves, but the order fulfillment for particular stores is done in over 200 Walmart-owned million square foot DCs, often located in semi-rural areas. These warehouses do not primarily use temps and Walmart directly hires its own truck drivers for the transport of goods from the warehouses to the stores. These workers are better compensated than 3PL contracted temps, and they have benefits. Walmart knows where the strategic workers are in their operation and they take care of them to try to mollify discontent. This is where power lies in the Walmart model.

Many regional and ethnic markets remain non-union. UFCW Local 770 and 324 in Los Angeles are engaged in a multi-year campaign to organize El Super grocery stores. This is a regional chain in the Southwest with 56 stores catering to the Latino market and owned by the Chedraiu Group, the third largest retailer in Mexico. This battle has gone on for three years and could benefit from the national focus and attention that Walmart got.

If we can’t win El Super, how do we win Walmart? Why not build up your organizing muscle and build up the passion and commitment of the members who see the strength of their union and can be apostles to Walmart workers?

Yes to all three of these points. Obviously Walmart plays the role of gigantic evil corporation to target in the same way as McDonald’s and you can see why targeting it is appealing. It will get a lot of publicity, a lot of people already have a negative view of the corporation (at least compared to other corporations), and a victory would be a spark for larger reinvigoration of the labor movement. The problems Onley discusses however are too much to overcome and that’s why it’s hard to blame UFCW for pulling the funding. I know everyone wants labor to be a social movement but after awhile, you have to ask how was this is a good use of members’ dues. It just wasn’t. Going after the supply chain, building density among Walmart’s competitors, and focusing campaigns on stores with real in-store militancy among workers is simply more likely to be more successful. May not be very sexy but might lead to a lot more real victories for American workers in the end. Including maybe at Walmart.

What Should Labor Do?

[ 16 ] December 13, 2015 |

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Rather mixed on this In These Times article on how unions should deal with the post-Friedrichs world. Yes, Friedrichs is an assassination attempt on unions in the United States. Yes, some workers will sign up for an organization that can’t directly bargain for them but will be a social movement for all workers. And these are good ideas, at least in the pie in the sky way of thinking about the future:

Opening up the labor movement and pursuing new rights for all workers would help get labor out of the box of thinking mostly about unionized workplaces and appearing to be a special interest. Unions’ recent embrace of ambitious efforts to raise state-level minimum wages to $15 has so far been at the heart of these efforts. Upwards of 24 million working people would receive a raise if the pathetic federal floor of $7.25 an hour was raised to just $10, so the Fight for $15 has a huge built in constituency beyond just fast food workers.

Unions should add to this a state-by-state effort to change the legal standard of employment relations to “just cause.” “Just cause” is the principle that an employee cannot be fired unless it’s for a good reason—basically, that the punishment (losing your livelihood) should fit the crime (stealing, lying, just not being good enough at the job). This often means that an employee has been given some advance notice of her supposed shortcomings and an opportunity to improve and/or be presented with the documentary evidence to back up the employer’s claims of sub-standard performance with an opportunity to contest it.

This is very commonly negotiated into union contracts. Non-union workers generally labor under an “at-will” standard of employment, a holdover from English common law that basically tells a worker, “Congratulations, you are not a slave. That means you are free to quit your job—and your boss is free to fire you.” It’s a kind of liberty, I guess, but not one that’s particularly appealing.

The only job protection that at-will employees currently have is to try to shoehorn their case into one of a handful of legally “protected categories” of workers: be a woman, be a racial minority, be over the age of 42, be disabled, be a whistleblower. And even if a case does fit in one of those categories, a worker can only receive some financial recompense—generally not retaining her job—if she can prove that she was fired because of their protected status. It’s a lousy framework, but the best that an at-will employee has.

Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit advocate for union activists to be added as a protected class through an amendment to civil rights laws. They do us a favor by getting unions to think outside of the National Labor Relations Act for labor law reform. But their proposal is still too limited. We should not merely be fighting for “special” rights for union activists. As union density has declined, the remaining unionized workplaces come to be seen as islands of relative privilege. Bosses and the media exploit this and try to whip up a degree of working-class support for stripping our last few rights away, seen most clearly seen in the public debate around teacher tenure protections (which is simply the just cause standard by a different name).

Imagine how quickly the debate would change if unions fought for and won meaningful job protections for all workers in a state! Call it a “right to your job” law. Such a law would lay bare just how cynically manipulative and hollow the so-called “Right to Work” laws are.

To be meaningful, such just cause laws would have to include some kind of a court in which to hear cases. This could be as simple as mandating private mediation and arbitration or as complex as creating new state regulatory agencies to hear such cases. If workers did have a court in which they could defend their employment, unions would have something real to offer at-large members as a part of joining the union. And with that offer comes the potential for substantial membership growth.

That’s fine, I think of ways to craft legislation for international labor standards that has no chance of passing tomorrow. But I think asking unions to be the leaders here is a step too far. They can and should be a leader in coalitions fighting for this. But unions with dues-paying members also have to represent those members’ interests in grievances and at the bargaining table and with legislators. And I feel like these fundamental jobs of unions are often dismissed by union activists who want to see unions be social movements. The problem is that someone has to fund that social movement and that’s the dues-paying members. And those members are going to have other interests as well. Yes, if labor can sign up a million workers for this social organization type movement than, sure. But let’s not ignore the very good reasons why unions protect their membership while also calling for new ideas on how unions can move forward.

This Day in Labor History: December 10, 1789

[ 25 ] December 10, 2015 |

On December 10, 1789, Moses Brown, a Rhode Island businessman, hired Samuel Slater to build an English-style factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This began the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Samuel Slater was a farmer’s son in England who started working in an early cotton mill in 1778 at the age of 10. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there was room for fast learners to rise rapidly. Slater became close to the mill’s owner, who trained him in its various workings. As the British developed this mill technology, it sought to protect its advantages by banning the transporting of this knowledge outside of its borders. But Slater had a great memory. Once he knew how the mill ran, he decided to go to the United States to make his fortune in that new nation.

Moses Brown was a Rhode Island businessman who decided to start a spinning factory in Pawtucket along with other members of his family. They wanted to use the Arkwright system developed in England but could not figure out how to operate the technology. Hearing of this, Samuel Slater, who had just arrived in New York looking for an opportunity to build his own mill, offered his services. The contract between Slater and Brown combined the former’s technological skills with the latter’s money. It made both of them very wealthy.

Slater began constructing his new factory in early 1790. By December, it was partially operational, with about 10 employees. In 1793, the factory opened in full. Slater then used his own education to train the new mechanics in how to operate these industrial machines. Slater relied very heavily on child labor, again borrowing from his own personal life. Given the close-knit New England family economy, this was not a particularly difficult transition to make. Slater soon split from his original partners, opening mills around southern New England.

This, along with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, transformed the New England and broader American economy. The cotton gin drastically reduced the labor necessary in the cotton mills, allowing for more spinning and thus higher production rates. The British still held the majority of the world’s spinning production during these years but the growth of American industry was spurred by the tensions with the British during the Early Republic, including Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and 1808 and the War of 1812, lasting until early 1815. By 1815, there were 140 mills within 30 miles of Providence, employing 26,000 people.

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The growth of this industry made Americans nervous, for they feared the Dickensian industrial cities of Britain. Slater built his own company town, Slatersville, that attempted to create a ruralesque village around a factory. It included a company store and tenement housing for workers. These concerns also led to experimental towns like Lowell which would allow American industry to grow while retaining its fundamentally rural values. But growing competition undermined Lowell, creating some of the first strikes in the United States and eventually leading to the importation of largely Irish labor to replace the native-born women in those factories. The awful conditions of British cities would indeed be replicated in the United States, with social problems and unrest that would mark American industry through the New Deal unionization of the industrial workforce.

The rise of factory work would transform American labor. While this could not be predicted in 1789 or 1793, a process had begun that would bring Americans in from the fields to the factories, from the farms to the cities, and from relative control over their own labor to an increasingly centralized and deskilling work under control of managers. For decades after Slater’s Mill opened, Americans primarily believed that in the principle of controlling their own labor, whether in urban shops or on farms, with large-scale factory labor something of an afterthought or something that could be done by the Irish. But in fact, it, and the profits it engendered in the hands of the very, very few, would come to define American work and create the proletariatization of the working class. It would lead to rapid advances in transportation technology, including the canals of the 1820s and the beginning of the railroads by the late 1830s. And it would create a new legal regime that would allow an ideal of “progress” to run roughshod over the rights of workers or property owners, as the mill owners demanded the right to dam rivers in order to power the mills, even if it caused erosion to farms upstream or ended shad runs that interior communities relied on for both food and trade. The also demanded the right to not take responsibility for workers’ getting hurt on the job, which Massachusetts would encode in law in 1842 and would continue largely unchallenged by the American legal system until the early 20th century.

Samuel Slater died a millionaire in 1835, in an age when there were very few.

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Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket and the company town of Slatersville are part of the new Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and should help to tell the story of American labor within the National Park Service more effectively once the sites are fully transformed into NPS locations. Already, Slater’s Mill is well worth a visit.

This is the 164th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Job Retraining

[ 46 ] December 9, 2015 |

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This is an interesting piece on job retraining program, using Appalachian coal miners as an example. The reality is that job retraining programs are usually disastrous because there aren’t actually decent paying jobs in the places these people live. Yet politicians love them because it makes it sound like government cares about these workers and is preparing them for some good old fashioned bootstraping. But then they finish these programs and where are the jobs? They aren’t in Kentucky or West Virginia. Or Flint or the Oregon timber towns for that matter. But can the government do more to make these programs effective? Possibly:

It would be wrong, however, to write off coal country completely, or to underestimate the abilities of former coal miners. In a fascinating article in Matter, Lauren Smiley highlights an intriguing initiative in Kentucky to offer specialized job re-training to former coal miners in a well-paid, in-demand field that doesn’t necessarily require relocating: coding. Smiley’s piece focuses on BitSource, Kentucky’s first Web development firm that was founded by the former owners of a land-moving company. BitSource is still new, and small—the first trainee class included only 10 former miners (out of 900 applicants)—but if the model can be scaled, miners might just have a shot at landing high-paying jobs without having to move or wait for a new industry to set up shop in Appalachia. Efforts are also underway to expand other tele-working opportunities in the region, although coding generally offers higher wages.

Coal mining, as Smiley notes, involves more than pure physical labor. Miners “calculate daily shock reports, operate complex machinery, and draft plans to get coal out of a mountain”—all tasks that make them better-suited to coding than one might expect. BitSource’s coders underwent an intensive, 22-week training program (during which time they were paid $15 per hour, from federal funds). The start-up pieced together the open-sourced curriculum from websites like Lynda.com. BitSource is hoping to again train a new group of former miners early next year.

Well, maybe? A job retraining program needs to do two things. First, it needs to train workers for existing jobs. Second, it needs to train workers for jobs in the places where they live. You can’t expect mass migrations out of West Virginia to Texas if there are more jobs there. That’s not realistic and many workers simply can’t leave for reasons ranging from family to poverty. So maybe the coding thing makes sense. Despite stereotypes, these aren’t stupid people. They are just regular people. No doubt a lot of them could be retrained for something like coding.

Also, direct subsidies of workers’ income should happen, especially in circumstances where industries have shut down because the government decided environmental protection is more important:

The TAA program includes a feature designed for older workers who chose not to undergo job re-training, but were able to find a lower-paying job: a wage subsidy. “I think it’s an interesting alternative to job training for older workers that may not have the time to reap the benefits of training in a new occupation,” Berk says.

Barnow, the George Washington University economist, points out that such a program might be particularly sensible for coal workers suffering the health effects of decades of coal mining. “A lot of them have lung damage too, so taking a lower-paying job that’s indoors might make a lot of sense,” he says. “The subsidy would help cushion that.”

I would certainly support this, although no doubt those who freak out about “welfare” will call this process of keeping 60 year old men with black lung out of poverty a giveaway we can’t afford. I would say that it’s a question of doing the right thing by people who have given up their lives and their health to heat American homes.

Memorializing Triangle

[ 5 ] December 7, 2015 |

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What a great project to give the Triangle Fire victims a proper memorial.

The memorial would include several long steel panels running along the building’s facade. One horizontal panel would be 13 feet high and have 146 names stenciled into the steel; below it would be a shiny, shin-high panel that would reflect the names from the stenciled panel above. The bottom panel would contain a narrative history of the fire, and a vertical panel would extend to the ninth floor.

New York University now owns the former factory building, at 29 Washington Place, and uses it mainly for its biology and chemistry laboratories. The university is backing the memorial.

The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition sponsored a design competition in 2013 and selected a proposal by Richard Joon Yoo, an architectural designer, and Uri Wegman, a professor of architecture at Cooper Union. The winner of the competition was awarded $5,000, which was donated by the faculty union at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“What makes this memorial unique is it’s about the past, but also so much about the present,” said Mr. Yoo, who noted that around the time of the competition in 2013, 112 workers died in a factory fire in Bangladesh and then over 1,100 died in a factory collapse there.

“It’s 100 years after the Triangle fire, but some of the exact same factors were at work,” he said. “It’s appalling. It’s like you can have the Holocaust happen all over again, and zero lessons were learned.”

Lessons were learned. And then corporations managed to escape those lessons by sending those jobs abroad to recreate the Triangle Fire in other nations. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have lower workplace standards. Someday maybe they can have a cool memorial to their tragedies too!

Right now, the Asch Building just has a couple of small plaques. People make pilgrimages there. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a powerful place and will be more so once it is finally memorialized in a proper way. The U.S. actually puts a lot of resources into official remembrances of its past, primarily through the National Park Service. Yet our labor struggles are not part of the battles for American freedom that get remembered. The new Pullman National Historic Site will help remedy that a little bit. Private action can help too and this project is commendable.

Construction Deaths

[ 12 ] December 7, 2015 |

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You may not be surprised that the combination of non-union worksites and a weak regulatory enforcement structure kills construction workers:

Most construction sites where workers died failed to take basic steps to prevent them from falling. Workers frequently did not wear harnesses or helmets, as required by law. Supervision was often lacking. In many of the projects, a premium was placed on speed, causing workers to take dangerous shortcuts.

About a quarter of the deaths took place in Midtown, attracting a vast majority of news media attention for such accidents. But the rest occurred, largely unnoticed, all over the city. They usually involved smaller projects, using nonunion workers, who were often poorly trained. Often the contractors had been previously cited for safety violations and failed to pay penalties.

Seven workers have died on the job since July, including three in a nine-day stretch before Labor Day, according to records of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

The city’s Buildings Department keeps its own count of construction deaths, injuries and accidents, offering a broader look at safety year over year. There were 10 construction-related fatalities in the most recent fiscal year, from July 2014 to July 2015, according to city figures. In contrast, the annual average over the previous four years was 5.5.

Meanwhile, 324 workers were injured in the last fiscal year, a jump of 53 percent, and the Buildings Department recorded 314 accidents over all, an increase of 52 percent from the year before. The total was more than two and a half times what the city tallied in 2011. In comparison, permits for new construction projects grew by only 11 percent in the last fiscal year and permits for renovation and other work by 6 percent.

“There is absolutely no doubt that there is a real problem with construction safety,” said Mark G. Peters, the commissioner of the city’s Investigation Department, which looks into construction fatalities.

An improving economy and low interest rates helped fuel the current building boom, but there are signs that more is to come. Mayor Bill de Blasio is embracing vertical construction to help make housing more affordable. And uncertainty over the future of a lucrative tax abatement program for developers caused many to rush to file new construction permits this year.

The deaths make clear that the city is being built, or in some cases rebuilt, heavily on the backs of recent immigrants, particularly from Latin America, most of them not authorized to work in this country.

It’s quite simple really. If you want safe workplaces, two things need to happen. First, union contractors should be strongly encouraged. Unions often ensure safe workplaces because safety is not laughed at, nor left up to individual workers who may in fact chafe at the union’s efforts to keep this safe (I talk about this point among loggers in Empire of Timber). Second, you fine the hell out of contractors with safety violations, you follow up with those fine, and you seize the contractor’s assets if they don’t pay and prosecute them personally for violations and contempt. But there are far, far too few regulators for the amount of places they need to inspect, a problem throughout the American regulatory structure. This is a major advantage for employers, who fight with their Republican allies to undermine these regulatory agencies for exactly this reason. The result is dead workers.

Cheap American Labor

[ 20 ] December 5, 2015 |
Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz (left) and Lian Ning (center) gesture with Schmitz's signature go-go-go sign after announcing that his company, Nanjing Zijin-Lead Electronics, would open a small 3D printer manufacturing facility in Dothan during the U.S.-China Symposium inside the Dothan Civic Center on Friday.

Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz (left) and Lian Ning (center) gesture with Schmitz’s signature go-go-go sign after announcing that his company, Nanjing Zijin-Lead Electronics, would open a small 3D printer manufacturing facility in Dothan during the U.S.-China Symposium inside the Dothan Civic Center on Friday.

It’s hardly surprising that if American companies are scouring the globe looking for the cheapest and most easily exploitable labor possible that Chinese companies would do the same within the United States when it is in their interests to do so. This story of how Alabama gave a ridiculous package of tax breaks and benefits to a Chinese company in order to draw low-wage work with no chance of advancement is quite depressing.

To help push the deal, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) dined with Li. Company executives visiting the region were greeted with imported Chinese tea and Mandarin video messages. Alabama’s state workforce team explained how, if chosen for the job, they would visit Golden Dragon’s Chinese headquarters, study the process, and make videos and training courses for the new U.S. employees. In Alabama, Golden Dragon wouldn’t pay taxes for 20 years; it would get free roads and land.

Alabama also did something no other state was willing to try: Its legislature passed the “Made in Alabama” act, a tailored law that allowed the state to reimburse Golden Dragon for several prior years of tariffs. A version of the law had first been drafted by Cheng and a lawyer, according to Cheng and a lawmaker who sponsored the bill.

Ultimately, the company was given the choice of the reimbursements or an extra $20 million in cash. Golden Dragon chose the cash.

All told, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, Golden Dragon received subsidies worth some $200 million — the bulk of it in local and state tax abatements, plus the cash, $5 million in land and road costs, and nearly $2 million in worker training. County leaders say they had little choice: They had spent years trying to lure companies, reaching out unsuccessfully to more than 100. Even Golden Dragon only settled on Wilcox after a site in a neighboring county proved too small.

The problems here are multiple. First, if the poorest counties in the country are giving these tax breaks, that means that there are no taxes to improve the reasons why the counties are so poor to begin with–poor education, underdeveloped infrastructure, under-trained workforce, etc. Second, the workers, as this article explains in good detail, simply cannot live middle-class lives with these jobs. They barely make enough money to survive. The promises of the Asian companies that this will benefit the states and the workers aren’t proving out. These jobs are better than unemployment–but they aren’t that much better. These jobs don’t build hope and they don’t build a future. The county is no better off than before.

Given that it’s Alabama, I’m amazed that the workers voted to form a union–but it passed by a single vote, giving the company little reason to take it seriously and it has naturally dragged its feet. Good luck to them. But as a whole, this is no way for Alabama to build up its economy.

It’s also worth noting that today is the anniversary of Alabama repealing its child labor law in 1894 in order to attract New England textile factories fleeing worker agitation and state restrictions on how it treated labor. That really built the Alabama economy too.

Placing Bangladeshi Sweatshop Workers in Sight

[ 28 ] December 4, 2015 |

In the Progressive Era, the photographs of Lewis Hine brought the horrible conditions of child laborers in the United States into the sight of the middle class, helping to bring about the end of most child labor in this country. It was part of the larger Progressive effort to mobilize middle class opinion to create fair and decent conditions for the poor in this country, even if they weren’t particularly interested in empowering those workers.

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Part of the advantage for sourcing apparel production overseas is so that department stores can once again demand just-in-time clothing made for cheap by easily exploitable women and children. Most of us don’t know this–the clothing magically appears on the hangers at The Gap! But in fact, kids are working to make this clothing instead of going to school. Child labor also lowers the pay standards for adult labor in these countries, as it did in the U.S. a century ago, providing additional advantages to corporations.

So who will be our Lewis Hine today? Can placing the conditions of work for these children back in our sight make us do anything to stop the exploitation of these workers? One would like to see a lot more of these Claudio Montesano Casillas photographs of Bangladeshi child laborers, but at least there are a few featured here that might make you interested in putting a stop to this system.

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