Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "labor"

Marshawn Lynch and Work to Rule

[ 176 ] January 28, 2015 |

Is Marshawn Lynch actually engaging in a labor action by his refusal to talk to the press? Sarah Jaffe makes a compelling case that Lynch’s continued defiance of the NFL and his refusal is actually a work-to-rule action:

Lynch may be alone in his actions at the moment, but it seems fairly clear that in following the letter of the NFL’s law — showing up to the press conference, and verbalizing an answer to a question — he’s demonstrating that he, not Roger Goodell or anyone else, controls the conditions of his labor.

Jaffe also connects Lynch’s actions to a topic she writes a lot about: emotional labor.

There is no doubt that Lynch gives the game everything he’s got and more — we should always remember when we watch football or any other physical, contact sport that we are watching people literally putting their safety and lives on the line for our entertainment. So why, on top of all that, does the NFL demand that its players show up at press conferences and answer the same inane questions with a ready smile?

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild defines “emotional labor” as the work we do to manage our emotions so as to produce a desired emotional state in others. We expect pro athletes to paste on a smile and explain why they won, how they lost, what it felt like to fumble the ball or throw that interception that put the other team ahead, minutes after they’ve been pounded within an inch of their lives.

The NFL doesn’t only demand emotional regulation at press conferences, though. It wants its players to behave a certain way on the field as well. Remember last season, when Lynch’s teammate Richard Sherman was fined for taunting San Francisco 49ers players and excoriated by the (mostly white) press for an emotional interview in which, among other things, he crowed to reporter Erin Andrews, “I’m the best corner in the game!”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

It’d be nice to see the NFL Players Association step in here and at least say something about the league’s constant harassment of Lynch. Except that the NFLPA is absolutely worthless, with far less power than any of the other professional sports unions. Thus this devastating article at Deadspin today calling for the NFL players to unionize and acting like the NFLPA doesn’t even exist. Because that’s not far off. This might be the single best put-down of a bad union I have ever read.

Could the Fast Food Industry Pay $15 an Hour?

[ 122 ] January 25, 2015 |

Of course it could pay $15 an hour. It just prefers its workers living in poverty. At least it provides helpful advice on how to live on the minimum wage. From the report:

This paper considers the extent to which U.S. fast-food businesses could adjust to an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $15 an hour without having to resort to reducing their workforces. We consider this issue through a set of simple illustrative exercises, whereby the U.S. raises the federal minimum wage in two steps over four years, first to $10.50 within one year, then to $15 after three more years. We conclude that the fast-food industry could absorb the increase in its overall wage bill without resorting to cuts in their employment levels at any point over this four-year adjustment period. Rather, we find that the fast-food industry could fully absorb these wage bill increases through a combination of turnover reductions; trend increases in sales growth; and modest annual price increases over the four-year period. Working from the relevant existing literature, our results are based on a set of reasonable assumptions on fast-food turnover rates; the price elasticity of demand within the fast -food industry; and the underlying trend for sales growth in the industry. We also show that fast-food firms would not need to lower their average profit rate during this adjustment period. Nor would the fast-food firms need to reallocate funds generated by revenues away from any other area of their overall operations, such as marketing.

I also found this amazing:

This is true, despite the fact that, after correcting for inflation, today’s $7.25 federal minimum is about 33 percent lower than the $10.85 figure as of 1968—46 years ago. This long-term deterioration in the real value of the minimum wage is even more dramatic after we recognize that average labor productivity has risen by roughly 135 percent since 1968. This means that, if the federal minimum wage had risen in step with both inflation and average labor productivity since 1968, the federal minimum today would be $25.50 an hour.

This Day in Labor History: January 25, 1984

[ 7 ] January 25, 2015 |

This is a guest post by Paul Adler, lecturer at the Harvard History and Literature program. He received his PhD in history from Georgetown University in 2014. Paul’s dissertation, Planetary Citizens: U.S. NGOs and the Politics of International Development in the Late Twentieth Century examines efforts by U.S. groups like INFACT and the Sierra Club to influence international institutions like Nestle and the World Bank during the 1970s and 1980s. Previous to graduate school, Paul worked for several years on global justice issues at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

On January 25, 1984, William Thompson, a leader with the International Nestle Boycott Committee (INBC) met with Nestlé executive Carl Angst in New York City. There, the two men announced a surprise: after seven years of a global boycott of Nestlé, U.S. organizers were suspending this effort in light of new Nestlé initiatives intended to address activists’ critiques. Ending ten months later, the Nestlé boycott set important precedents for liberal and left-wing activists in challenging multinational corporate power. However, the memory of the campaign as a great success does not stand well against close scrutiny.

The controversy that prompted the campaign concerned the marketing practices employed by multinational companies selling breast milk substitutes throughout the Global South. Given living conditions often characterized by lack of access to clean water, the use of products such as infant formula heightened the possibility of newborns contracting any number of dire, even deadly diseases.

Multinational companies advertised breast milk substitutes as embodying a “modern” lifestyle. To spread this message, they used an array of aggressive marketing practices. Among other techniques, companies produced booklets on infant feeding that accentuated the difficulties of breastfeeding and hired nurses to serve as salespeople in newborn wards.

Untitled

Example of Nestlé advertising, Malaysia, 1978

During the 1960s and early 1970s public health experts labored to publicize the dangers associated with breast milk substitutes. They met with little success however, causing one doctor to muse in 1974 that some “group may have to take a more aggressive, Nader-like stance.” Fortunately for him, that same year, activists in the United Kingdom released a pamphlet on the crisis called The Baby Killer followed soon after by activists in Switzerland becoming embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with Nestlé.

In the United States, the key figure who transformed the breast feeding controversy into an activist campaign was Leah Margulies. The daughter of a staffer at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (her parents met through the Young People’s Socialist League), Margulies was, by the early 1970s, a veteran of the civil rights and radical feminist movements. In 1974, working as an organizer for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Margulies began devising ways to make the breast milk substitutes scandal into a campaign.

To Margulies, this controversy appeared a perfect issue to use in energizing activists to engage with questions of economic inequality and multinational corporate power. As she explained to Mother Jones in 1977, “it is very difficult to make graphic that the world is starving, not because of drought or floods, but because of economic dependency.” From 1974 to 1977, Margulies worked with church groups to spread awareness, launch several shareholder resolutions, and mount a lawsuit against Bristol-Myers. However, these efforts produced few tangible results. Looking to escalate her efforts, Margulies reached out to fellow anti-poverty activists with the intention of starting a boycott of Nestlé. The Swiss multinational offered a promising target: not only was it the world’s largest purveyor of breast milk substitutes, but it also sold household products (such as coffee) around which a consumer boycott could easily be organized.

Teaming with activists in Minneapolis, in early 1977 Margulies helped to found the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT). On July 4, 1977, INFACT commenced a nationwide boycott of Nestlé. Organizing through a broad array of organizations (from public health associations to churches to left-wing solidarity groups), INFACT rapidly assembled local boycotts in towns and cities across the country.

projection_action_nyc_11_resized

A Nestlé Boycott Picket Line

One constituency the boycott’s organizers sought out was organized labor. Activists tried to enlist labor in part by portraying the boycott as an experiment in corporate campaigning. Writing to a number of union presidents in 1982, Americans for Democratic Action president Robert Drinan illuminated this point, describing the boycott as “an act of international solidarity with working people in the Third World” and arguing that “organized labor has long recognized the need to develop an international capability to deal with the problems presented by multinational corporations. The leaders of the infant formula campaign have shown that it is not only necessary, but possible.”

Even as they built the boycott coalition, the leaders at INFACT searched for other avenues to influence. After months of organizing focused on the U.S. Senate, on May 23, 1978 activists descended on Washington, D.C. to participate in a hearing chaired by Ted Kennedy. While activists effectively presented their case, the representative sent from Nestlé delivered a calamitous performance. He accused church groups of being part of a “world-wide church organization” conspiring to “undermin[e] the free enterprise system,” while also arguing that Nestlé bore no responsibility for ensuring that consumers safely used its products.

Excerpt from the Kennedy hearing

Feeling humiliated after the hearing, Nestlé and the other multinationals searched for a way to end the boycott. Negotiating among the activists and the companies, Kennedy helped to steer both sides towards finding a solution under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In October 1979, a meeting cosponsored by the WHO and UNICEF in Geneva ended with the WHO agreeing to draft a global code of conduct for the marketing and promotion of breast milk substitutes. For the next year and a half, lobbyists from activist groups and multinationals each tried to influence the code’s language, while activists also intensified and internationalized the boycott.

In the end, companies (backed by the U.S. government) succeeded in ensuring that the code would take form as a voluntary “recommendation,” as opposed to a legally-binding regulation. However, the code’s strictures significantly constricted corporate advertising, causing the companies to condemn the code (while activists offered critical support). When the code was voted on at the WHO in May 1981, the only nation to oppose it was the United States, acting at the behest of the Reagan administration. Following the May 1981 vote at the WHO to create the code, activists and Nestlé spent the next two and a half years battling over the company’s implementation of the code, leading to the January suspension and then the October announcement by Nestlé that it would fully abide by the WHO code.

The Nestlé boycott was an early example of a coordinated, international effort targeting a multinational industry. During the early 1980s INFACT coordinated closely with boycott efforts in Western Europe, as well as in Australia. Even more significantly, NGO activists from the Global North and Global South came together to work under the auspices of a single organization, International Baby Food Action Network. The connections forged in this era continued through the 1990s anti-WTO fights and remain significant to the present. While the boycott did terminate with a seemingly monumental victory in October 1984, subsequent events have been more dispiriting. Four years after this triumph, activists relaunched the Nestlé boycott, accusing the company of not abiding by its commitments to the code. The boycott, while mostly dormant in the U.S., is active abroad to this day, in part reflecting the difficulty of monitoring the code (given the ease with which improper advertising can occur) and in part the vast power of multinationals like Nestlé.

This is the 130th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Haywood

[ 37 ] January 21, 2015 |

tumblr_meox32JvHi1rmdewso1_400

Who wants a feel bad story about a hero of the American left?

As you may know, Big Bill Haywood jumped bail in 1921 to avoid a return to prison for violation of the Espionage Act. He fled to the Soviet Union, where he died a miserable, lonely drunk in 1928. It’s a sad story.

But sadder still was the cost of Haywood’s decision to leave. Not only did it break any unity the IWW still had after the World War I repression and show that the most famous radical of the era would not do what hundreds of his followers did and go to prison for their beliefs, but it had real effects on the people who had put up the money for his bail. Two people had split the cost. The first was a wealthy man by the name of William Bross Lloyd. The loss of his money didn’t matter all that much. But the second was the radical journalist Mary Marcy. She put up her house for his bail. When he jumped bail, she lost her house. She then killed herself in 1922.

Consumer Activism and Global Pressure

[ 8 ] January 21, 2015 |

…Sorry, I meant to write something about this instead of just have a link but was so excited last night about not watching the State of the Union address that I forgot…

The Harry Potter Alliance is the type of activism we could all do to improve conditions of work around the world. By creating consumer activism over production around a product that has a huge fan base, like with college students and apparel licensing agreements, it provides a entryway into fighting for change and forcing companies to listen to you. As I argue in Out of Sight, this is the type of thing we need far, far more of and it is a sign that people can make a difference. Ultimately, we need legal codes and regulatory enforcement to really ensure that goods are made in a dignified manner that does not exploit people, but it will take these sorts of social movements to make it happen.

Another Way the Airlines Hate Their Customers: Fire Unionized Employees and Replace Them with Contractors

[ 91 ] January 10, 2015 |

United ended its baggage handling contract at Denver International Airport with SkyWest, which has a unionized workforce, replacing it with a contractor that pays many workers the minimum wage. What happened next is predictable:

United Airlines’ baggage-handling issues at Denver International Airport have gotten so out of hand that airport CEO Kim Day has personally reached out to the airline to offer assistance.

“She asked if there was anything the airport can do,” airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said. “The offer has been extended. We are confident United is doing everything they can.”

United’s troubles with lost luggage, delayed flights and a chaotic baggage-claim area, with bags tossed everywhere, have gone on for weeks and are extending beyond the airline to color travelers’ perceptions of the airport as a whole.

Several passengers say they will try never to travel through Denver again, including tourist Jonathan Huckabay, whose luggage went missing when he connected through DIA on Saturday.

He was returning home to Edmonton, Alberta, from a vacation in Mexico when his flight was delayed for more than an hour because of issues getting luggage loaded onto the plane in Denver.

“I will definitely avoid going through Denver if I can help it,” he said. “I was looking forward to seeing the airport and perhaps visiting the city as I hadn’t passed through that hub before, but the experience has soured me on this particular city’s airport.”

Huckabay still did not have his bag Tuesday.

More here.

It’s hardly worth blaming the employees themselves, either. They are, almost to a person, new hires and woefully underpaid. United has recently made the mind-boggling decision to cut ties with its veteran airport staff (through the unionized company SkyWest) and instead hire the lowest bidding contractor they could find. SkyWest’s workers are paid an average of $12 to $24 an hour. Instead of paying employees those wages, United contracted a company ironically called, “Simplicity,” which advertises wages of just $8 an hour — the lowest legal wage a company can give in the city of Denver.

I’m sure that if people complain too much, United can always move to another city that will appreciate the company as the deity that it sees itself as being.

This Day in Labor History: January 5, 1914

[ 92 ] January 5, 2015 |

On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced his famous $5 a day wage to his workers. Ford is often lauded for his efforts here and he was surely forward-thinking in creating this salary. But this post will also challenge his reputation as a good employer, for Ford expected plenty in return from those employees, far more than any employee should have to accept.

Turnover was a massive problem for employers through the early 20th century. The horrors of industrialization combined with callousness of employers to lead to workers constantly seeking a job that was just a little bit less terrible than the last. The growth of assembly line work made this worse because it was so boring. Treating a worker like a machine, as Henry Ford did, deskilled and depressed workers who had once partially defined themselves through their physical labor. This labor was just as physical and exhausting, but required no thinking and provided no satisfaction. Thus the Ford Motor Company had the same turnover problems as other industries. In 1913, the turnover rate for the company was 370 percent. Ford decided he needed to do something about this turnover. So he began to think about what would become known as welfare capitalism. He thought that if he paid his workers a bit more and helped them take care of their basic needs, they would live with the fact that the work was so mindless.

So on January 5, 1914, he announced a reorganization of his company. Workers could be part of a profit-sharing system that would raise their salary to $5 a day. While this has been remembered as Ford wanting to pay his workers enough that they could buy the cars they made, that really wasn’t what this was about. Reducing labor turnover was the reason, which is fair enough. Ford also took power away from the foreman and centralized hiring decisions. Like many industrial worksites, foremen had almost complete authority over workers, including the power to hire and fire, as well as the setting of pay rates to some extent. Ford did not want these little dictators making these decisions and instead created a personnel department that the foreman had to check with before firing. If the personnel department disagreed, the worker would merely be transferred. The introduction of standardized wages (the number of wage rates were reduced from 69 to 8) also took power away from foremen.

image-20090518141200

The Ford assembly line

Ford had a requirement for acquiring those wages. Workers had to live up to his moral standards. Ford romanticized rural life and what he saw as traditional values. He wanted to inculcate this in his workers and seeing himself as a father figure, he believed he had the right to interfere in their personal lives. Thus if they wanted to work, they had to subject themselves to inspections from his Sociological Department. The department inspected workers’ habits and lives, discharging those seen as unfit. It gave advice, expected to be followed, on money management and family relations. Ford’s foreign employees had to undergo Americanization programs if they wanted their wages. Fore required English on the shop floor in a society and industrial workforce that was very heavily dominated by immigrants. Ford, a staunch prohibitionist, banned his workers from drinking alcohol. The SD would visit the homes of employees to inspect their lives. They would do so without warning so they could see what the inside of your home really like and whether you had liquor in the house. To say the least, no Jews were hired. Some workers were upset about this intrusion, but it seems that most accepted it, even if they complained about the violation of their personal liberties, because they needed the money.

747 Farnsworth

House purchased by Ford worker after Sociological Department assistance

Not all workers could earn those wages. Only men over the age of 22 shown to be taking care of their families, single men who were seen as thrifty, and men younger than 22 who were the sole breadwinner for their family. Female workers could also qualify after 1916 after women’s movement leaders protested their exclusion. The Sociological Department would make the judgment as to which workers qualified. Ford hated quitters, thinking them slackers and undeserving. So he also worked to reduce turnover by making the process to get hired onerous, with full inspections from the SD each time a worker quit. What this really led to was a certain amount of bribery of Sociological Department inspectors. Eventually over 200 SD inspectors pried into every corner of workers’ lives to see if they fit Henry Ford’s personal standards of how they should live. If workers didn’t follow the line, their pay was reduced back to $2.34 and if they didn’t improve in six months, they were fired.

And Ford would work these employees to the bone. Agreeing to work at Ford not only meant agreeing to the moral standards. It meant a lifetime of hard drudgery that gave you little real pride in the work you did. Said one of Ford’s production managers, “Ford was one of the worse shops in town for driving the men. I have been an S.O.B. with everybody in town.” But with wages so bad in 1914, the impact of Ford’s announcement was overwhelming. A crowd of 15,000 people descended on Ford to ask for jobs. They were dispatched with fire hoses.

Ford-Headline

Workers themselves certainly took the $5 day as a good deal at the time. But Ford became increasingly ossified in his ideas of labor relations and refused to raise the pay. What was a good wage in 1914 became less so year by year. In the 1920s, the Sociological Department’s influence declined and conditions worsened in the factories. By 1927, Ford was driving his men with a bunch of ex-boxers and thugs led by Harry Bennett, who violently put down any protest. By the 1930s, workers were furious with Ford’s labor relations and the plants became centers of labor resistance to employer domination of their lives and home to some of the great battles of the 1930s struggle for unionization.

In other words, we can certainly say that Ford was forward-looking in the sense that he advanced the corporate control over the workforce by giving them a small amount in return for the control over their lives. And the money was real enough, at least for awhile. But to point to the $5 wage as a good thing without placing it in context is problematic and should be avoided by people on the left.

I used Sanford Jacoby’s Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions, and the Transformation of Work in American Industry, 1900-1945, Joan Shaw Peterson’s American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, in the writing of this post.

This is the 129th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Book Review: Victoria Vantoch, The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

[ 42 ] January 4, 2015 |

Victoria Vanoch’s history of flight attendants and beauty is a highly readable and enjoyable history of one of the most unique sets of workers in the twentieth century United States. The Jet Sex follows how airline stewardesses became symbols of beauty, modernity, and Americanness in the mid-twentieth century, how those images became part of the Cold War ideological battlefield, and how women challenged the limitations of these standards, eventually transforming the industry.

In a nation where women had few well-paid or prestigious career options, the creation of the stewardess with the first commercial airlines in the 1930s provided opportunities. Soon this became a desirable profession that offered glamor and an opportunity to travel that was all too rare for Americans during these years. Women, including Vanoch’s own mother, greatly enjoyed the job. But the airlines quickly placed restrictions upon these employees that they hoped would ensure both a pliant labor force and the standard of beauty it was developing. Not surprisingly, this work became defined by women’s work as part of the airlines’ attempt to keep their planes union-free. Women were seen as more pliant and craft unions did not accept women, so giving these jobs to women would forestall unionization, or so the airlines hoped. Airlines also ensured frequent turnover by banning married stewardesses from the job. Defining the job as a step between school and marriage, this rule prevented long-term workers and created frequent turnover, both reinforcing the control over this labor force.

Early stewardesses had to be trained nurses but with the rise of international jet travel (which went far to reduce the air sickness and turbulence of the low-flying, non-pressurized cabin), beauty and glamor replaced first aid as the defining characteristic of the job. Part of this was airlines advertising itself to men as a space where men were men and women were women. Men could be served and women would quietly serve while looking great. So the airlines placed severe height and weight restrictions upon attendants, constantly evaluated them for their flaws, and trained them on serving men. In 1960, Pan Am gave stewardesses 27 hours of training on personal grooming and 20 on first aid. Vantoch points out that airlines streamlined the commodity of the woman’s body as much as they did the airplanes themselves. The vast majority of Pan Am hies were between 5’4″ and 5’7″. Weight was constantly monitored. Bosses made sure women were wearing girdles. The supervisor handbook for American Airlines stated, “The first fundamental is appearance. A stewardess must be attractive. We can sometimes pretend a person is attractive, if we admire them for some other reason. This should be avoided.” (112).

The airlines’ standard of beauty was meant to reinforce mainstream notions of beauty. As slim women became fashionable after World War II, the airlines began to desire this as well. Before World War II, 34 percent of Pan Am stewardesses had a BMI over 21. By 1958, that number was 3.4 percent. Slim, naturally colored hair (until Marilyn Monroe and others made this acceptable within mainstream America), and wholesome was the desired image. By the 1960s, this began to change as the increasingly open sexuality of the period forced the airlines to abandon the wholesome girl image and turn to the portraying stewardesses as sex kittens. It was during these years that the idea of the stewardess as a sexually promiscuous woman began to develop and Vantoch points to several pornographic films of the period that reinforced this. TWA even forced its stewardesses to wear paper uniforms that were easily torn.

As the Cold War developed, these standards of beauty took on additional importance. The Soviets defined the ideal woman as an economically productive member of society. This became a joke in a 50s America that defined the ideal woman as an attractive homemaker. Even growing up in the 80s, I remember commercials of Soviet women being portrayed as masculine. Stewardesses became a sign of the superiority of American gender roles, American beauty, and American consumerism. Vantoch got a bit of access to Russian archives, finding Soviet training manuals for its flight attendants. In the USSR, professional dress, efficient service and political appropriateness ruled (especially given the USSR’s travel restrictions), but as Aeroflot began flying internationally more often, American standards of beauty eventually began to transform those workers as well. Like for American airlines, Aeroflot stewardesses began to sell the experience of flying, as opposed to providing expert service.

Women soon challenged these standards of beauty, marriage, and race. African-American women were among the first, as the airlines’ kept the skies segregated. By the mid-1950s, black women were demanding equal access to the airlines. Like everything else in the civil rights movement, this would be a long, slow struggle. The airlines didn’t explicitly segregate. They just said that kinky hair (or hooked noses) meant women couldn’t work for them. Thus, no blacks or Jews. Lawsuits eventually forced the doors open in the 1960s, but even then, stewardesses had to stay in segregated hotels in southern cities, faced hostility from fellow workers, and still faced very long odds to being hired.

Even before feminism became a political force, white women were already challenging the standards of 50s gender norms because they were career oriented as well as being glamorous and feminine, which is one of Vantoch’s central points. When second-wave feminism rose in the 60s, stewardesses had a complex relationship with it. Because flight attendant organizations embraced rather than challenged the beauty of their members, there was a lot of discomfort with the more radical aspects of the feminist movement. On the other hand, Gloria Steinem, who received no small amount of criticism herself from some for her own conventional beauty, was someone many of these women could relate to. Despite the industry’s desire to keep the skies union-free, the rise of the first flight attendant unions after World War II eventually successfully challenged the beauty standards, as well conducted a long fight to end the marriage restriction. This was a good job and the evidence suggests less sexual harassment from pilots and airline management than you’d might think, with passengers being evicted from planes for bad behavior toward stewardesses. But without worker power on the job, they still faced all sorts of discrimination. The unions couldn’t really do much about that however until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII, opened up gender discrimination to federal lawsuits, finally forcing the airlines to cave on any number of issues and creating the more gender, age, weight, and height diverse flight attendant labor force of today.

If I have to criticize anything, I guess I’d like to see the last 30 years receive a chapter of its own. Certainly the opening of the job to men, to older women, to women with a greater variety of heights and weights, etc., would have interesting insights on gender and beauty as well. It would also be interesting to know more about the Jewish side of the story. The hooked nose restriction is mentioned, but then dropped. When did Jews start becoming stewardesses? These are minor critiques however.

The Jet Sex is not only a fun and well-researched history, but is also excellent for the classroom. I would have no reservation in assigning it to courses in gender or labor history.

Can We Create an International Trade System that Protects Labor Standards?

[ 50 ] December 30, 2014 |

In yesterday’s Trans-Pacific Partnership thread, Brian asks:

I understand the issue with “shipping jobs overseas” and how major corporations get near slave labor when they do that. And obviously, there is extensive corruption of the ruling class in the exploited labor’s home countries.

But what I am wondering, what kind of policies (not protests) could the United States realistically implement to better the working conditions of the labor forces in other countries?

And hypothetically, if the working conditions were all up to a general standard considered humane, would free trade agreements still be considered bad? And if so, why?

These are good questions. Let me answer them with some specific examples from the American past and some ideas for the future.

The United States has attempted in the past, on relatively rare occasions, to create and enforce conditions on trade overseas. It can happen and it must happen.

In the 1910s, conditions for seaman were terrible around the globe. When the U.S. improved standards, it undercut its shippers’ ability to compete with its foreign competitors in an industry that was perhaps the first in the world to be truly global. As Leon Fink shows in Sweatshops at Sea, the response of the International Seaman’s Union and the Wilson Administration was to pass the Seamen’s Act of 1915. To quote from Out of Sight:

The ISU publicized the horrors of what happened on the ships, far out of sight from American consumers. It used the Triangle Fire to make its case: “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and then to lock the doors.” Furuseth furiously lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to sign what became known as the LaFollette Seaman’s Act, which he did in 1915. The law banned corporal punishment on ships, gave seamen the right to break their contracts in exchange for half their wages earned to that point on a voyage, and most importantly, made the law applicable to any vessel sailing to an American port. As Fink states, this law created a “race to the top,” as the U.S. government used its power to force foreign nations to agree to American working standards if they wanted to trade in American ports. Conditions for seamen improved around the world as they had the option to walk away any time their ship landed in the trading behemoth that was the United States.

It didn’t work all that well because soon after the U.S. also banned most immigration, which meant that most of these workers couldn’t actually immigrate to the U.S. Moreover, the Harding and Coolidge administrations, not to mention the Department of Commerce, had no interest in actually enforcing this law. The Supreme Court ended up declaring some of the provisions unconstitutional in the 1950s.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 also banned goods made by slave labor, with the 1997 Treasury-Postal Appropriations Bill adding goods from forced labor or indentured child labor to this list. Similarity, the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) was enacted in 1975. Today, 176 nations have signed the accord. There’s no question these laws are regularly violated. The Chinese used prison labor all the time to make goods for export to the U.S. Just having the laws on the books is far from enough for them to work and there’s not a lot of incentive for the U.S. government to enforce these laws against the Chinese. That’s because we don’t pressure the government to do so. But without the laws, there is no chance of them helping. Right now, we have tools at our disposal that can work if we choose to use them. In the case of CITES, where there is some will to enforce the law, there’s no question it has been a positive force to reduce illegal wildlife trafficking.

We can also borrow from the EU. Again, to quote Out of Sight:

In 2013, the European Union created a new logging code on sourcing timber from tropical nations. Throughout the tropics rainforests are declining in the face of cattle ranches, mining operations, and illegal logging. The EU code places hard penalties upon those trafficking in illegal timber. Timber suppliers must provide documentation of where and how the timber was harvested, keeping detailed paperwork for five years about the timber traders selling the wood. This forces timber companies to take responsibility for the actions of their suppliers. For us, it provides legal precedent for national and regional governance over corporate behavior in a contracting regime. This far outpaces any U.S. law on the timber trade and provides an excellent example of how government can force companies into compliance on standards of sourcing products. There is no reason the U.S. cannot do the same thing with apparel and electronics, as well as timber.

Perhaps the most useful and relevant historical example is not that old. In 1994, organized labor was angry at Bill Clinton for signing NAFTA. When the House initially rejected Clinton’s request to negotiate new trade deals in 1997, it forced him to bargain. One sop he threw labor was its proposal to include in a new trade deal with Cambodia a clause to incentivize the Cambodian government giving more rights to workers. The 1974 Multi-Fibre Agreement placed textile import quotas on the developing world in order to discourage a race to the bottom in the apparel industry. This Cambodian deal increased their quotas in exchange for more workers’ rights, including unionization. And it worked. Workers received $50 a month for a 48-hour week, received a dozen federal holidays, vacation days, sick leave, and maternity leave. This became the only free trade agreement with an enforceable labor provision. Overseen by the International Labour Organization, the deal included inspections and real incentives for apparel factory owners to comply. It wasn’t perfect of course, but it was the best agreement for workers yet made in a trade deal.

But at the end of 2004, both the Cambodian agreement and the Multi-Fibre Agreement expired. With the latter, the modern race to the bottom in apparel production began. And the Cambodian workers’ protections immediately collapsed. Once again from Out of Sight:

Cambodia now had to compete with the rest of the world without inspections or union contracts. Within weeks of the quota ending in 2005, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Now even freer than ever before to concentrate in nations with the worst workplaces standards, Cambodian labor saw its union pacts quickly scuttled and its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by 17 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011. This story starkly demonstrates the differences between a global labor system with and without regulation.

There are more examples as well. In short, the U.S. government can do a lot in these trade deals and in the global economy to ensure basic rights are respected and enforced. But it does not. It rarely has incentive to do so. The elites of most all of the nations involved have little incentive to care about these issues. The U.S. wants good relations with the leaders of Bangladesh and Cambodia and Vietnam, which have little accountability on these issues with their own people. Bangladesh is largely run by the apparel contractors, who hold several seats in Parliament. So of course the Bangladeshi government isn’t going to do anything about the problems of their apparel factories except kill some union organizers. U.S. labor isn’t strong enough anymore to force the American government to enact the kind of international trade standards that would actually protect workers overseas and undermine some of the incentive for American companies to ship production abroad. Meanwhile, the American corporations who can openly buy politicians in a post-Citizens United world very much want the current system to continue, which is part of the reason for Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But none of this means we shouldn’t or can’t make global production standards that give workers rights. We have a few useful historical precedents that should inspire us to know that we can do this. But for the most part, we need to envision what global production standards should be, how we would empower workers to be able to take the lead in enforcing them, what the inspection system would be, and what the enforcement mechanism would look like. These are not easy questions to answer. They are conversations we need to have. I think the U.S. should pass a set of basic standards around labor and environmental regulations and force companies to comply with them by giving workers the right to sue companies in American courts for their enforcement. I’d also like a pony. But if we don’t talk about the world we want to see, that world will never come to pass. I know this isn’t happening as a result of the 2016 elections, no matter who we vote in. But we must fight to make these issues central in the American political system, if for no other reason that the fleeing of American jobs overseas undermines the American working and middle classes.

And it’s important to note that the mere threat of enforcement can make a difference. Again from Out of Sight:

In 1992, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act that would have prohibited importing goods made with child labor to the U.S. that called for both civil and criminal penalties for violators. Indian carpet makers, reliant upon child labor, began moving toward an independent monitoring system working with German unions, although when it became clear that Harkin’s bill would not pass, the Indian carpet industry resisted meaningful monitoring and therefore the system was weakened and easily avoided by the carpet makers. Unfortunately, Congress has never passed the Child Labor Deterrence Act, but the case of the Indian carpet makers suggest suppliers and importers are watching American labor law and will react positively to mandates.

For the last question on the potential of supporting a trade regime that actually protected people and the environment, the answer is that it depends. Were we to see real, enforceable standards on these trade agreements that held corporations and their CEOs specifically accountable for the actions of the companies, we could then debate whether trade agreements were worth it. But it’s pretty clear that, first, fewer American jobs would go abroad if this was the case and, second, that those jobs that are moved abroad would have less reason to again move if workers organized or a government decided to protect its citizens. So the immoral aspect of the global economy would decline and the rate of jobs leaving our borders would too. That’s a win-win. Ultimately, what we need is not all the jobs in the United States and none in poor nations. We need workers to have safe jobs with living wages and the right to organize without worry that the factory will move somewhere else. We need rivers running clean and kids not unable to study because the chemicals from apparel factories in the air and water give them headaches. If this happened, my objections to so-called free trade agreements would probably disappear, but then they wouldn’t be anything like current free trade agreements.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Could Be the Worst Thing Obama Ever Does

[ 79 ] December 29, 2014 |

Most discussions of politics in the next two years focus on gridlock, with no appointees being confirmed, no bills being signed, effective rule by temporary executive order. But there is one significant area where Obama and the Republicans agree and that is on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a free trade deal that would straddle the Pacific Rim, including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the U.S., and Vietnam. It would create the world’s largest free trade zone. If you liked NAFTA sending millions of jobs out of the United States with no labor or environmental protections for the nations receiving these jobs, you will love the TPP.

So far the TPP has gone nowhere because of Harry Reid and Democrats in the Senate. This law is anathema to senators like Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and should be for any of us who value American jobs and the dignity of the working class. The Obama Administration last year sought fast-track authority for the TPP from the Senate. Democrats refused. Republicans won’t, even with the fireeating caucus who wouldn’t vote to declare war on Japan on December 7, 1941 if a Democrat was president. Obama has said that the TPP will actually improve labor conditions but this is simply not true. Whatever limited agreements are in the agreement that would technically require higher labor standards would not come with any punishment for American corporations using Vietnamese factories and without those legal restrictions, you are looking at the expansion of the post-NAFTA world where Mexico became a home for companies seeking to avoid environmental regulations and labor standards. The limited and non-binding parts of NAFTA to guarantee labor and environmental standards have been almost entirely ignored while Mexican laborers get exploited and the American working class goes into a deep decline.

These trade deals are constantly touted by their promoters as something that will ultimately help the working and middle class in the U.S., if we are willing to sacrifice a bit up front. These are lies. Harold Meyerson on the impact:

By now, even the most ossified right-wing economists concede that globalization has played a major role in the loss of American manufacturing jobs and, more broadly, the stagnation of U.S. wages and incomes. Former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alan Blinder has calculated that 22 percent to 29 percent of all U.S. jobs could potentially be offshored. That’s a lot of jobs: 25 percent would translate to 36 million workers whose wages are in competition with those in largely lower-income nations. Of the 11 nations with which the United States is negotiating the TPP, nine have wage levels significantly lower than ours.

Meanwhile, the promoters of the TPP just blithely ignore where NAFTA has failed, focusing instead on what they see as its good points (i.e., making a lot of money for corporate leaders and shareholders). Meyerson again:

But perhaps the most devastating argument against the kind of trade accords the United States has entered into over the past quarter-century has been that inadvertently made by those defenders of such agreements who have used the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement — it went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994 — to celebrate its achievements. I’ve read many commemorative editorials, columns and speeches in praise of NAFTA, and not one of them has so much as mentioned the agreement’s effect on U.S. employment, wages or trade balance. In October, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who was one of NAFTA’s architects in the administration of George H.W. Bush, delivered a lengthy, glowing assessment of NAFTA’s achievements that managed to avoid any of those topics. The champion of avoidance seems to be Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. At a San Diego conference in October, a public radio reporter asked her, “And where has NAFTA not lived up to some of the hopes and promises?” Pritzker replied: “I don’t think about where NAFTA hasn’t lived up.”

And really, why should the Obama Administration think about how NAFTA hasn’t lived up to its promises. It’s only trying to recreate it over the entire Pacific Rim after all.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers has said of the TPP, “Let’s not exacerbate the pollution problems of the world and perpetuate human exploitation by including nations like Malaysia and Vietnam in a free trade pact, as the TPP would do.” Now, you can say the IBB has its own interests in mind–which it should. But regardless of how you feel about unions, free trade without legal restrictions on the behavior of international corporations has led to the widespread exploitation of both people and the planet without any ability for the citizens of those nations to win protections for themselves on the job or so their water and air don’t become cesspools of filth. Vietnam has a minimum wage of 28 cents an hour, assuming it is even enforced.

The TPP also includes provisions that would make it far harder for the U.S. to raise global standards on environmental and labor issues:

Based on those drafts, we also know that the draft agreement includes a provision for what’s called “investor-state dispute settlement.”

This little-known mechanism was initially created to protect corporate investments in countries where the rule of law is immature or at risk. In reality, it often empowers corporations to sue sovereign nations over any policies that conflict with their supposed right to the profits of free trade – including health and environmental policies designed to serve the democratically determined public interest.

If that sounds far-fetched, one need look no further than the Lone Pine Resources Inc v The Government of Canada lawsuit, filed in 2013, which arose out of Quebec’s moratorium on hydraulic fracking. Lone Pine claims that the moratorium is “in violation of Canada’s obligations under Chapter 11 of the Nafta”. The case is under arbitration.

Or consider Phillip Morris’s multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the Australian government over cigarette-packaging regulation, which uses an investor-state-dispute-settlement clause established in a 1993 free-trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong.

These corporate-friendly provisions in trade agreements can and have been used on far-ranging issues, from minimum wage laws in Egypt to environmental remediation in developing countries. The troubling, explosive growth of such cases point to a litigious future where corporate interests increasingly appear to trump national sovereignty with billions of dollars at stake.

Is giving American companies even more incentive to move American jobs abroad what we want from a Democratic president? No. Is giving corporations the ability to defeat national attempts to hold them accountable what we want from a Democratic president? No. Is outsourcing pollution to the world’s poor what we want from a Democratic president? No. Fighting the TPP needs to be central to the political agenda of progressives over the next two years.

This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1913

[ 7 ] December 24, 2014 |

On December 24, 1913, striking Italian copper workers in Calumet, Michigan were holding their Christmas party in the town’s crowded Italian Hall building. Someone shouted “fire.” Could have been company thugs, but we will never know. In the ensuing panic, people rushed the exit and 73 died, including 59 children.

The copper country of far northern Michigan was dominated by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Like mining companies around the nation, it attempted to control nearly all aspects of workers’ lives, including the use of company housing and company stores. Workers labored 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pay was poor. Workers were charged for all the equipment they needed to stay alive and see well enough to work underground. This was all too typical for miners around the nation and a major reason why it was in underground mining that so many of the era’s major labor battles took place. In fact, this event would take place at the same time that miners in southern Colorado were going on strike in what led to the infamous Ludlow Massacre. Miners were also angry about the new one-man drill that forced them to work alone in the mines. Working in teams significantly improved worker safety since someone was there for you. If something happened with the one-man drill, you were on your own until someone wandered by. Miners were scared.

Into this exploitative system entered the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM had a long history in mining in the West, having formed after the Coeur d’Alene struggle of 1892. It played a key role in the establishment of the IWW in 1905 but then backed away from that movement in the wake of an internal split. WFM organizers understood the violent methods the mine owners would take against organizing workers. The WFM had made real gains for western miners and sought to expand their reach east of the Mississippi. The WFM first arrived in Calumet in 1908 and slowly built its forces until by 1913, it had about 9000 of the 15,000 miners in the area. This was enough to strike, which began on June 23, 1913. The specific demand in the strike was for union recognition, with everything else following that.

copper_strike_picketline

Copper Country strikers

The response of the business owners, police, and “respectable citizens” of northern Michigan was similar to that in other mining regions–to form a paramilitary organization called the Citizens Alliance. The CA would raid and destroy WFM offices, beat workers, and otherwise sought to intimidate the strikers. The mine owners hired the Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency to intimidate the strikers. Violence resulted. In August, the mine company guards and detectives shot and killed workers Aloiz Tijan and Louie Putrich. Early the next month, a deputy policeman shot Margaret Fazekas, a 14-year old girl, in the back of the head. She barely survived. Mass arrests and imprisonments took place, taking strikers off picket lines and intimidating others. As was common during the 1910s, the civil rights of striking workers were ignored. Scab labor was brought in as well and the mines continued to run, albeit well short of full capacity. The vast majority of these scabs, about 75%, were imported from outside the region, from as far away as North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Most were not told they were coming to scab, but rather were being recruited for well-paying work that was all too scarce.

The WFM tried to publicize this strike nationwide. WFM leader Joseph Cannon gave a well-attended speech about it in New York, an event attended by the likes of Carlos Tresca and Alexander Berkman, noted failed assassin of Henry Clay Frick. There was a lot of coverage in national newspapers about the strike as well. But such events and reporting could do little concrete for workers. United Mine Workers president John Mitchell and Mother Jones visited and gave speeches as well.

The Christmas party itself was a union function, sponsored by the WFM Ladies’ Auxiliary. Such events are always important in long strikes because the poverty, lack of food, and boredom really can suck away the momentum of strikers. People get fired up initially, but can be broken down pretty fast. There were over 400 people there. Someone shouted “Fire!” Eight witnesses later said the person had a Citizens Alliance button on. People stampeded toward the door and children especially were quickly trampled to death in the melee. The New York Times editorialized about the strike, writing in part, “The foreign miners of the district are enraged and grief-stricken over the disaster.”

7057_l

Some of the Italian Hall victims

Local officials quickly moved to cover up the situation. Many of the workers did not speak English, yet the coroner’s inquest only spoke to them in English in an attempt to silence the witnesses. The Citizens’ Alliance was furious that the WFM blamed it for the incident. After WFM president Charles Moyer accused the CA of sparking the stampede, on December 26 they attacked him in the nearby town of Hancock, assaulting and shooting him, then placing him on a train with instructions to never return. Moyer quickly returned after holding a press conference in Chicago where he showed off his wound. But the strike faded. The oppression of WFM officials undermined the union’s ability to coordinate the strike. It was also running out of money and workers were getting increasingly desperate. The strikers voted to end the strike in April 1914 and they were required to destroy their WFM cards to regain their jobs.

220px-Charles_Moyer_under_X-ray

Moyer in Chicago hospital after being shot.

The strikers won little. There were some small wage increases and the 8-hour day that the mine owners introduced for scabs and continued for everyone at the end of the strike. The welfare capitalism that dominated the mines before the strike eventually faded while child labor laws drove the children out of the mines. The House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining did investigate the strike, with congressmen coming to Michigan in 1914, in order to understand and hopefully prevent the conditions that led to the strike and its famous tragic incident. However, the mines remained nonunion until the 1930s.

We will never know precisely who shouted “fire.” But the suffering of these workers both in and outside Italian Hall is a sad moment in American labor history.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of his best labor songs about the incident. I personally prefer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version. I’m not sure he really holds to Guthrie’s politics, but his voice can really bring out the suffering of Guthrie’s subjects.

This is the 128th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

On Police Unions

[ 151 ] December 23, 2014 |

While I have linked many times to incidents of police violence, I have very little to say about the actions of police unions, largely because I don’t care about them since they do not show solidarity with other workers, or any other cause I believe in. I will say this–the leaders of police unions may be horrible human beings. But a) they should have the right to collectively bargain and I categorically reject the idea that the police should not be unionized, b) getting rid of police unions will do nothing to reduce police violence nor will it preclude other police officers’ organizations from presenting the same positions, and c) there is no evidence I have seen suggesting that non-unionized police are less effective in promoting these positions than unionized police forces. So criticize the actions of police unions all you want to–I certainly won’t say anything against that. But I don’t think articulating the position of anti-unionists will help.

Page 1 of 6012345...102030...Last »