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Out of Sight Reading Group I – Introduction

Clara Lemlich. (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University.)

Hello and welcome to the 1st OS virtual online reading group thing. Today we’ll cover the Introduction, but if you haven’t read it, don’t be shy, feel free to join in.

A couple of days ago I sent Loomis a few questions to start things off. I believe he’s around now (Hello?) if you want to ask him about the Introduction. If we could keep the ketchup/vodka/dead horse comments to a minimum … Ah who am I kidding? You all will do what you want.

Here are two of the questions, his answers are below the break. Thanks again to everyone for taking part.

  1. You write “Nothing spurred meaningful reform until wealthy and powerful New Yorkers saw workers die.” And you also write about the way imagery (dying wildlife, burning rivers) spurred change in the U.S. Why do you think the images of the Rana disaster and the testimony of survivors didn’t have the same impact?
  2. You’re very frank about the fact that jobs that left the U.S. will not come back. That being the case, why should someone like a person who’s just been laid off by U.S. Steel care?

1. Fundamentally, the answer is that most people didn’t see them. Rana Plaza did not receive that much U.S. news coverage. When Americans are genuinely exposed to terrible things happening internationally, they will act to some extent.

For example, consider the charity relief given by Americans after the Haitian earthquake. Regardless of charity’s effectiveness, everyday Americans were genuinely moved and wanted to help. Newshounds knew about Rana Plaza. People watching CNN likely muttered, “oh, that’s terrible” to their spouse over dinner if coverage of it came on. But there just wasn’t anymore than that. And given the lack of coverage on international issues in the United States, it’s hardly surprising. This benefits the corporations outsourcing production to factories like Rana Plaza. We can’t even find Bangladesh on a map. Forget about understanding what is going on there. The farther that production is out of sight, the less likely we are to act.

2. Why should that steel worker care? I’m not going to go to that unemployed steel worker and say “hey, here’s what you should know about why you lost your job” if I don’t have an immediate solution to help that worker find a new job. The last thing timber workers needed in the 1980s was people from Portland saying “hey, here’s this whole new Oregon economy you can find a job in!”

But let me put it a somewhat different way. I have a well-meaning colleague who works on international economic issues. A local union hall asked him to talk to them about the global economy. He went and was like, “all these poor people in Bangladesh have jobs now so really it’s OK that American workers don’t have these jobs anymore.” This is of course a common argument made in our comment sections by proselytizers of globalization. My colleague couldn’t understand why they didn’t like what he had to say. Well, duh! It’s all too easy for workers who don’t have a lot of education or a lot of time or inclination to understand the global economy to blame people in Mexico or China for stealing their jobs. But that’s counterproductive.

What we have to do is articulate actual alternatives to the global race to the bottom that give workers hope and a concrete plan for the future. And no, a slightly expanded earned income tax credit is not enough. We have to have plans for people to have jobs both in the United States and in Bangladesh. In my view, the only way to do this is to strip away large parts of the incentive for capital mobility by creating corporate responsibility no matter where they move. This may not be sufficient to create a stable working class in the United States either, I don’t know. But it’s a necessary component of whatever that solution is ultimately going to be.

So by telling that steel worker, “Here’s the problem. Here’s how you are getting screwed. Here’s how the company is screwing over everyone. Here’s how we stop them.” it’s at least trying to move this anger the steel worker has in a constructive direction.

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