The Cost of Lower Prices August 1, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Capitalism, Labor.
Tags: capitalism, labor, political cartoon, political satire, roger hollander, triangle factory, worker rights, worker safety
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Roger’s note: human beings are both producers and consumers. As consumers we enjoy a good bargain. As producers we NEED a decent job. Collectively labor should always trump consumption, although we are seduced by lower prices to betray the solidarity essential to the human community of producers (i.e. those of us who work for a living, which is the 99 percent). This cartoon shows us graphically how capitalist economy is destructive of the human community, in this case globally.
Tags: Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, income inequality, labor, labour, minimum wage, pam ramos, poverty, roger hollander, wal-mart, working poor
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Roger’s note: Barack Obama, soon to be if not already a millionaire, shows just how out of touch he is with reality by his visit to one of the most exploitative enterprises on the face of the earth.
The president’s visiting my store Friday. He won’t see how I sleep on my son’s floor and eat potato chips for lunch
Thursday, May 8, 2014 12:23 PM -0500, http://www.salon.com,
When I woke up to see the news, I could hardly believe it: President Obama is planning a visit to the Mountain View Wal-Mart where I work.
But the excitement quickly passed when I found out the store would be shutting down hours in advance of his visit. I wouldn’t be able to tell the president what it’s like to work at Wal-Mart and what it’s like to struggle on low wages, without the hours I need. I am living at the center of the income inequality that he speaks about so often, and I wanted to talk to him about how to change this problem.
My situation is not unlike that of many of the 825,000 Wal-Mart associates – and many other Americans – who are working hard, but just can’t keep up. Most of us aren’t even paid $25,000 a year even though we work at the largest employer in the country and one that makes $16 billion in profits.
I wanted to tell the president what it’s like working – and living – like this.
Things have always been tight. After four years working at Wal-Mart in Mountain View, I am bringing home about $400 every two weeks (I’d like to get more hours, but I’m lucky if I work 32 hours a week). That’s not enough to pay for bills, gas and food. All I can afford to eat for lunch is a cup of coffee and a bag of potato chips. I’ve always done everything possible to stretch paychecks and scrape by. Sometimes it means not getting enough to eat.
But then I got some bad news that made stretching my budget impossible.
Two months ago, I started feeling ill. My doctor told me I needed to take a week off to have a series of medical tests. Every day for a week I went to the hospital and had to pay $30, $60 or $100 in co-pays for each appointment, test and X-ray.
With these additional expenses and without a paycheck for the week I was out, it pushed me over the edge. I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent.
Right now, I don’t have a place to call home.
I sleep on the floor of my son’s living room because I can’t afford my own place. All of my belongings are in my car. I don’t know where to send my mail.
I used to think, “At least I have my health and my family.” But my doctor thinks I may have colon cancer, and with all of the money I still owe the hospital, I’m not sure how to finish the tests and get treatment. Even though I do have insurance through Wal-Mart, the co-pays are more than I can afford with only $400 every two weeks.
I wanted to tell the president I am scared. I am scared for my health. I am scared for the future for my grandkids. And I am scared and sad about the direction that companies like Wal-Mart are taking our country.
I don’t wish the struggle I’m facing onto anyone. But sadly, my situation isn’t unique. I know that I am one of many living in the Wal-Mart economy who has no financial stability. We expect to work until our deaths because we don’t have any retirement savings and are concerned about the future in front of our children and grandchildren.
There are so many of us who have it so hard – trying to live paycheck to paycheck. While the president is here visiting my store, I want him to look inside at what is really happening at Wal-Mart.
I want the president to help us and tell Wal-Mart to pay us enough to cover the bills and take care of our families. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask from such a profitable company, a company that sets the standard for jobs in this country. And I hope it’s not too much to ask from a president who believes that income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.
Pam Ramos has worked for four years at the Walmart in Mountain View, California. President Obama is visiting this Walmart on Friday. Ramos is also a member of OUR Walmart, the worker organization calling on Walmart to publicly commit to paying workers $25,000 a year, providing full-time work and ending illegal retaliation.
Tags: garment workers, haiti, Haitian workers, hanes, levi strauss, minimum wage, obama administration, rod bastanfmehr, roger hollander, wikileaks
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Roger’s note: I just watched the playing of the national anthem in Seattle at the NFC championship game. The usual orgy of patriotism, with a flag on the field the size a battleship. After I cleaned up the vomit, I sat down to post this article. The story of using government bullying to screw Haitian workers is what the red white and blue really stands for around the globe. The misery caused by American imperial economic, diplomatic and military might worldwide is incalculable. Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world, due largely to U..S. interventions over the years, is only one small example of the American government wielding its power in the service of corporate interests at the cost of the welfare of millions of third world victims.
Strike another one for Wikileaks. The ever-controversial leaker of the world’s best-kept secrets has published a wire on The Nation that reveals the Obama Administration fought to keep the Haitian minimum wage to 31 cents an hour.
According to the published wire (which came to light thanks in large part to the Haiti Liberte, a newspaper based in Port-au-Prince and New York City), Haiti passed a law in 2012 raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour. America corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss vociferously objected, claiming such an increase would irreparably harm their business and profitability. According to the leaked U.S. Embassy cable, keeping these garment workers at “slave wages,” was better for the two companies The corporations in question allegedly stated that they would only fork over a seven-cent-an-hour increase, eventually going so far as to involve the U.S. State Department.
Soon, the U.S. Ambassador put pressure on Michel Martelly, the president of Haiti, to find a middle ground, resulting in a $3-a-day minimum wage for all textile companies. To put it in perspective, the United States’s minimum wage—already considered extremely low—works out to roughly to $58 a day.
Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers, who are somehow getting by on these abysmal wages. According to Business Insider, if each garment worker was paid just $2 more a day, it would cost their given corporate employers $50,000 per working day, or $12.5 million a year. Hanes, the garment company best known for their t-shirts, had roughly 3,200 Haitians working in their factory. An increase of $2 a day would cost the company a mere $1.6 million a year—for a company that had $4.3 billion in sales last year alone.
Homeless Japanese Being ‘Recruited’ To Clean Up Fukushima Disaster December 30, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Housing/Homelessness, Japan, Labor, Nuclear weapons/power.
Tags: fukushima, fukushima cleanup, homeless, homeless men, japan, japan nuclear, jon queally, labor, minimum wage, nuclear disaster, Obayashi, worker rights
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Investigation reveals systematic exploitation of homeless by big business and organized crime
Private labor contractors in Japan are “recruiting” homeless individuals throughout the country, luring them to perform clean-up work in the areas near the destroyed nuclear power plant at Fukushima for less than minimum wage.
That’s the finding of a new special Reuters investigation which says that shady business operators are employing men like Seiji Sasa to “prowl” train stations and other places throughout the country targeting “homeless men” who are “willing to accept minimum wage for one of the most undesirable jobs in the industrialized world: working on the $35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan larger than Hong Kong.”
The investigation found a shady but systematic labor scheme—much of it run by organized crime but also involving some of the nation’s top construction firms—in which day laborers are exploited by contractors receiving state funds to clean up areas near the plant.
“We’re an easy target for recruiters,” said 57-year-old Shizuya Nishiyama, a homeless man recruited at a train station in the city of Sendai. “We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we’re easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven’t eaten, they offer to find us a job.”
In exchange for bringing workers to the sites, the middlemen receive a cut of their wages.
“I don’t ask questions; that’s not my job,” said Sasa, one of these so-called “middle men,” in an interview with Reuters. “I just find people and send them to work. I send them and get money in exchange. That’s it. I don’t get involved in what happens after that.”
Reviewing police records and conducting interviews with some of the people directly involved, Reuters reveals the ongoing and perilous nature of the clean-up work at Fukushima and the ways in which society’s most vulnerable are being exploited for profit in the aftermath of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
According to Reuters, the scheme plays out when large construction firms like Obayashi, the nation’s second biggest and major contractor at Fukushima, employs sub-contractors like Sasa:
Seiji Sasa, 67, a broad-shouldered former wrestling promoter, was photographed by undercover police recruiting homeless men at the Sendai train station to work in the nuclear cleanup. The workers were then handed off through a chain of companies reporting up to Obayashi, as part of a $1.4 million contract to decontaminate roads in Fukushima, police say. [...]
Only a third of the money allocated for wages by Obayashi’s top contractor made it to the workers Sasa had found. The rest was skimmed by middlemen, police say. After deductions for food and lodging, that left workers with an hourly rate of about $6, just below the minimum wage equal to about $6.50 per hour in Fukushima, according to wage data provided by police. Some of the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and housing were deducted, police say.
Read the complete investigation here.
Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery November 23, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Qatar, Sports.
Tags: 2022 world cup, construction workers, fifa, labor, michelle chen, qatar, qatar labor, qatar world cup, slave labor, soccer, sports, teex, texas a&m, worker rights, world cup, world cup facilities
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The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.
Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.
Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.
Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough—or any—food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”
Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers.
Unfortunately, while horrific, these stories are far from unique in Qatar. More than 90 percent of the labor that fuels the country’s oil-slicked economy is imported, typically brought in by recruiters from South Asian countries. Not only are these migrant workers non-citizens; in the eyes of their employers, they are barely human. They live in barbaric, squalid dormitories, their movement restricted, invisible under Qatari law and cut off from their home communities.
Under the transnational migrant “sponsorship” system, according to Amnesty, workers were drawn into the labor trade by recruiting agents who falsely advertised decent, high-paying work abroad–sometimes taking on heavy debt to secure a job. The byzantine residence permit system further disenfranchises workers. When employers illegally fail to arrange permits for workers, as was frequently the case in the shadowy migrant labor market, they generally cannot return home without paying extremely heavy fines. The restrictions on migrant workers’ movement mean that “rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation,” Amnesty contends.
Underlying the whole system are fundamentally weak protections for labor organizing on the part of Qataris and migrants alike, as well as prohibitions on migrants forming trade unions. The lack of organization among workers means many migrants remain in the dark about their labor rights. One Nepalese worker explained to Amnesty, “There are many workers who keep working like donkeys, without asking a question. They don’t understand what is legally our entitlements, what our rights are.”
Some have tried to challenge employers. According to the report, the Labour Ministry and the courts have each received thousands of worker complaints, many related to basic wage and hour and other labor issues. But due to fear of retaliation and the difficulty non-Qataris face in navigating the justice system, most aggrieved workers, according to investigators, probably do not go through with the complaint process in the first place.
One worker with the U.S.-based electro-mechanical engineering contractor Krantz Engineering wrote in a desperate letter to Amnesty in April 2013 about his lack of legal recourse for his abuse:
I am writing this email after lots of pain and struggle … I have complained in several places like Labour court, Indian Embassy, High court, CID and National Human Rights Council Qatar but no any positive response from anyone of them … I don’t have money to eat food from last five days as I didn’t get salary from last nine months.
Not all of the employers using this labor are Qatar-based—the report linked multinationals such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction and OHL Construction to the subcontractors building the World Cup-related facilities. In the case of Krantz, Amnesty discovered that one of the company’s subcontractors was receiving technical training from a company called TEEX, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University. When questioned by Amnesty about the treatment of migrants, Texas A&M argued the firm “does not have any role in the management and supervision of the labor force at the facility.”
Amid international criticism from Amnesty and other organizations like the UN, Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee, a managing body for the preparation for the games, has vowed to address the reported abuses, and FIFA has issued similar comments. In a formal response to the Guardian published in September, the committee cited numerous labor protections available to migrants, including restrictions on passport confiscation.
But Sharran Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation tells Working In These Times via email she is unconvinced by Qatar’s promises. “Qatar continues to announce that it will reform the visa sponsorship system, yet nothing changes,” she says. In the wake of mounting criticism over the human rights issues surrounding the event, she adds, “Unless Qatar reforms its ways, FIFA should re-run the vote for the 2022 World Cup.”
There is also a question of who is directly responsible for regulating labor issues. Amnesty’s report focused on infrastructure construction related to the World Cup but not just the stadium itself—including transportation and supporting commercial facilities. In any case, the primarily responsibility, argue human rights advocates, lies with Qatar to reform its overall labor laws and to tighten oversight of private sector labor practices, particularly for international-sporting projects aimed at creating a global commercial spectacle.
This is not the first time FIFA has come under political pressure; earlier this year, populist protests erupted over the lavish costs of the preparations for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Though FIFA generally urges host countries to comply with international human rights, the World Cup is notorious for inducing local labor violations. For example, labor activists have condemned FIFA for not taking strong enough action against Russia’s temporary suspension of key labor protections for the migrant workers at the building sites for the 2018 World Cup.
The human rights crises haunting World Cup stadiums reveal global sport’s economic realities: the commercial spectacle that brings the world together is built on vast inequalities.
Tags: Black Friday, Business News, capitalism, food banks, LA Walmart Strike, labor, labour, minimum wage, Our Walmart, poverty, poverty wages, retail workers, roger hollander, wage slavery, wal-mart, Walmart Arrests, Walmart Chinatown, Walmart Civil Disobedience, Walmart LA Protest, Walmart Los Angeles, Walmart Protest, Walmart Protesters Arrested, Walmart Protests, walmart strike, Walmart Wages, workers rights
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Roger’s note: welcome to wage slavery in capitalist America, the land of freedom. Freedom to vote. Freedom to watch your children starve.
Surrounded by about 100 police officers in riot gear and a helicopter circling above, more than 50 Walmart workers and supporters were arrested in downtown Los Angeles Thursday night as they sat in the street protesting what they called the retailer’s “poverty wages.”
Organizers said it was the largest single act of civil disobedience in Walmart’s 50-year history. The 54 arrestees, with about 500 protesting Walmart workers, clergy and supporters, demonstrated outside LA’s Chinatown Walmart. Those who refused police orders to clear the street after their permit expired were arrested without incident. Those who fail to post $5,000 bail would be jailed overnight, Detective Gus Villanueva, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman, told The Huffington Post.
Their primary demand to Walmart: pay every full-time worker at least $25,000 a year.
One of the protesting Walmart workers, Anthony Goytia, a 31-year-old father of two, said he believes he will make about $12,000 this year. It’s a daily struggle, he said, “to make sure my family doesn’t go hungry.”
“The power went out at my house yesterday because I couldn’t afford the bill,” Goytia told HuffPost. “I had to run around and get two payday loans to pay for my rent from the first” of the month. “Yesterday we went to a food bank.”
To make ends meet, Goytia said he sometimes participates in clinical trials and sells his blood plasma. He has been asking his managers for full-time employment for a year and a half. Instead, he said, they hire temporary workers, who can be fired at any time.
Goytia was one of several dozen Walmart workers in Southern California who went on strike Wednesday and Thursday, calling for an end to low wages, unpredictable part-time hours and retaliation for speaking out. They were joined by other employees on their days off and dozens more who rode buses from Northern California.
The strike, protest and arrests are the latest in a series of worker actions across the country coordinated by OUR Walmart, an advocacy organization with ties to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The strike and protest in Los Angeles this week are the first in what organizers said would be a series of protests leading into the holiday shopping season.
The protesters said Walmart can afford to pay every worker at least $25,000 a year — pointing to Walmart’s $17 billion profit from the latest year and the founding Walton family’s fortune, which equals the wealth of the bottom 42 percent of American families.
Walmart CEO Bill Simon disclosed in a presentation recently that 475,000 Walmart workers are paid more than $25,000 a year. That leaves 525,000 to 825,000 Walmart workers earning less than $25,000. House Democrats seeking to boost the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour have criticized Walmart for its low wages.
Walmart invited HuffPost to speak to a couple associates working in the Chinatown store during the protest Thursday. In the presence of a consultant working for Walmart, two employees — Do Nguyen, 29, and Aldo Hernandez, 55 — said that they are treated well at Walmart. Nguyen, who has worked for Walmart for almost a year, said that asking for a minimum of $25,000 is “a national issue, not a Walmart issue.”
Hernandez, who has worked for Walmart for almost five years, said he gets good health benefits through Walmart and doesn’t struggle to support himself and his son. Both Nguyen and Hernandez declined to say how much they make.
Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for Walmart, said that the company has hundreds of thousands of associates who earn $25,000 or more and that others have the opportunity to do so.
“There are unparalleled opportunities at Walmart,” Lundberg said. “We’re going to be promoting 160,000 associates this year. That’s larger than the total workforce of most companies out there.”
“Folks can come in as entry level or whatever level they’re at and can work up as far as they’re willing to go,” Lundberg said. “That’s one of the things we’re proudest of.”
After working full time at Walmart in Paramount, Calif., for 10 years, Martha Sellers, 55, makes $25,400 a year. In the last few years, she said, her managers have been cutting her weekly hours, sometimes to as few as 12 hours a week.
With that income, she said, she has to pay her rent in pieces. “If I pay all my rent at one time, then I have $12 to live on and put gas in my car until I get paid again,” Sellers, who attended Thursday’s protest, said.
“I have a very nice neighbor who lends me money. But then the next month, I’m short again,” Sellers said. “I never get caught up.”
LA’s Chinatown Walmart, about one-fifth the size of the company’s regular stores, opened in September despite thousands of Angelenos protesting it during the summer. It is the retailer’s first store in central LA.
In October 2012, for the first time in Walmart’s history, some workers went on a one-day strike, even though Walmart jobs have never been protected by a labor union. More than 70 LA Walmart workers from nine stores walked off the job, followed by over 80 Walmart workers walking off the job in a dozen other U.S. cities.
Last year, through online organizing, OUR Walmart coordinated strikes on Thanksgiving and Black Friday in 46 states and 100 stores. The actions put a spotlight on the world’s largest retailer during one of the biggest shopping periods of the year. Walmart had its best Black Friday ever, according to the company.
Regarding associates being required to work earlier on Thanksgiving, Lundberg said, “Folks understand that when they come to work for Walmart, that we’re a 24-hour store, and Thanksgiving is one of those days that we serve our customers.”
Sellers went on strike on Black Friday last year and said she plans to do so again this year. “Walmart claims to be a family-oriented company,” she said. “But where’s the family time? They took away Easter too.
“Where is the American economy going if we’re all working poverty wages?,” Sellers said. “There will be no working class. We’ll all be in a poverty class.”
Bolivian government authorizes workers to take over closed or abandoned firms October 20, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Bolivia, Labor, Latin America.
Tags: Bolivia, bolivia labor, Evo Morales, labor, labor unions, labour, richard fidler, roger hollander, workers rights
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Richard Fidler, La Paz, Life on the Left, http://boliviasc.org/
On October 7, President Evo Morales issued a government decree that allows workers to establish “social enterprises” in businesses that are bankrupt, winding up, or unjustifiably closed or abandoned. These enterprises, while private, will be operated by the workers and qualify for government assistance.
Morales issued Supreme Decree 1754 at a ceremony in the presidential palace marking the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Confederación General de Trabajadores Fabriles de Bolivia (CGTFB – the General Confederation of Industrial Workers of Bolivia). The Minister of Labour, Daniel Santalla, said the decree was issued pursuant to article 54 of Bolivia’s new Constitution, which states that workers
“in defense of their workplaces and protection of the social interest may, in accordance with the law, reactivate and reorganize firms that are undergoing bankrupty, creditor proceedings or liquidation, or closed or abandoned without justification, and may form communitarian or social enterprises. The state will contribute to the action of the workers.”
In his remarks to the audience of several hundred union members and leaders, President Morales noted that employers often attempt to blackmail workers with threats to shut down when faced with demands for higher wages.
“Now, if they threaten you in that way, the firm may as well go bankrupt or close, because you will become the owners. They will be new social enterprises,” he said.
Labour Minister Santalla noted that the constitutional article had already been used to establish some firms, such as Enatex, Instrabol, and Traboltex, and that more such firms could now be set up under the new decree.
Business spokesmen predictably warned that the new provisions would be a disincentive to private investment and risk the viability of companies.
Santalla also said that firms that do not comply with their workforce obligations under the law will lose preferential mechanisms to export their products to state-managed markets. And he cited some recent cases in which the government had intervened in defense of workers victimized for their attempts to form unions. In one such case last month, Burger King, the company was fined 30,000 Bolivianos ($4,300 US), ordered to reinstate the fired workers and to recognize the union.
In the following article Alfredo Rada, Bolivia’s Deputy Minister of Coordination with the Social Movements, draws attention to some important developments within the country’s labour movement and suggests some means by which the unions can be more effectively incorporated within the “process of change” being championed by the government of the MAS-IPSP, the Movement for Socialism – Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples.
My translation from the Spanish.
– Richard Fidler
‘The Economy Runs on Our Toil': Record Protests Sweep Bangladesh September 22, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: bangladesh, benetton, child labor, disney, Gap, garment industry, garment workers, labor, labor unions, roger hollander, sarah lazare, Sears, third world, unions, walmart, worker protest
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Roger’s note: the myth is that we are living in a post-industrial society (as if somehow the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, etc. somehow are magically made). In reality exploited industrial labor has been shifted for the U.S. and Europe to the third world, mostly Asia. Just about anything we buy, from running shoes, to screw drivers, to pillow cases, is manufactured by some exploited worker, quite possible a child working 12 hours a day for slave wages, in Bangladesh or the Philippines. It is an iron law of capitalist production to continually search out sources of cheap labor. Capital accumulation originated on the backs of indigenous miners in Peru and African slaves. Today, while it is mainly low paid services industry workers who are subjected to exploitation in the former industrial nations, the beat goes on for dark skinned factory workers in the third world.
Over 50,000 demand ‘dignity’ in garment industry where majority-female worke-force faces dangerous conditions and some of lowest wages in world
50,000 garment workers demanding higher pay flooded the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, and 20,000 shut down dozens of factories by walking off the job, in the largest demonstrations to ever sweep the notoriously dangerous and low-wage Bangladesh garment industry.
The protests continued on Sunday, with workers and their supporters blocking traffic, marching along a key highway, and clashing with police who shot rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds of thousands, the AFP reports.
“Our backs are against the wall, so we don’t have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly,” Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers’ Federation, which groups 52 garment worker’s groups, told Saturday’s protest, Reuters reports. “We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand.”
Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second largest in the world, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s annual exports. Its estimated 4 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women from rural areas, earn a paltry $38 U.S. dollars a month, making them some of the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.
Unions have demanded a wage increase that would bring them to a monthly wage of $100 dollars to lift workers out of deep poverty, but factory owners rejected the demand, offering a paltry 20 percent raise.
“We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil,” Akter declared addressing Saturday’s rally.
Bangladesh’s garment industry has been swept with protests since the collapse of a factory in April killed more than 1,200 workers and injured over 2,500, with most victims women—one of many tragedies to sweep the country’s dangerous garment industry. While the catastrophe captured global headlines, little has been done to improve the bleak conditions of an industry that sells to numerous U.S.-based corporations, including Walmart, Gap, Sears, Disney, and Benetton.
“[W]e want these jobs with dignity,” Akter declared previously, “with safe working conditions, decent wages, and a voice in the workplace, and a unionized work place.”
A Free-Speech Victory at the ‘University of Nike’ September 22, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Education, Labor.
Tags: aaup, academic freedom, education, first amendment, free speech, higher education, labor, labour, nike, phil knight, rebecca burns, roger hollander, unions, united academics, university of oregon, workers rights
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The “University of Nike” sounds like an institution straight out of a dystopian novel. But that moniker has actually been embraced by the University of Oregon, where Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight is one of the school’s most important donors. A gleaming new football center, complete with a locker room requiring biometric thumbprints to enter, isn’t the only sign of the corporation’s influence on campus: During negotiations with the school’s faculty union over its first-ever contract, critics say that the university pulled out some fancy footwork meant to preserve the patronage of Nike and other major donors, including provisions that would have narrowed protections for faculty who speak out against university policies. But an ultimate victory this week by the union, which faculty voted to form last year, helped beat back these measures and uphold the academic freedoms that are increasingly endangered by campuses’ corporate ties.
Unionization rates among U.S. faculty members are traditionally lower than those of their counterparts in other countries, and faculty at private colleges and universities are barred from collective bargaining entirely. But the tussle at the University of Oregon demonstrated that dwellers of the Ivory Tower are also workers under attack—and that their ability to take collective action is essential to the future of higher education.
During the past week, several proposals advanced by the Oregon administration have alarmed campus free-speech advocates and captured national attention. Colleen Flaherty reported at Inside Higher Education on the attempt to insert a “civility” clause into a section of the contract on “faculty responsibilities,” a measure that the watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE) says is often abused on campuses in order to “punish unpopular viewpoints.” Even after this proposal was withdrawn last week, City University of New York Professor Corey Robin, who blogs about the politics of higher education, noted that the administration’s insistence on its right to monitor faculty e-mails and even review non-work e-mails “to the extent that they address work-related subjects” represented a “draconian assault on faculty autonomy and privacy.”
Another proposal to limit the ability of faculty members to consult for outside organizations when the Provost deemed it “contrary to the university’s best interests” drew particular concerns that the administration might kow-tow to corporate donors eager to silence their academic critics. Given that Oregon’s Board of Trustees includes “CEOs from the state’s timber and construction industries, the wife of the CEO of Microsoft, and a retired executive from Nike,” wrote Robin, “it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a professor is forbidden by the provost from consulting with an organization critical of Nike’s labor policies or Microsoft’s market practices.”
But at a bargaining session on Wednesday, the administration backed off these measures, and the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that also includes average salary increases of 11.75% over the two-year agreement. United Academics (UA), which is comprised of both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, also won new contract protections for contingent faculty. Full details of the agreement have not yet been released, but Susan Anderson, a German professor and member of the bargaining committee, tells In These Times that it includes “robust protections” for free speech, including language referring to the First Amendment. The union will vote on whether to ratify the contract on October 8.
In a statement released yesterday by the university, U of O President Michael Gottfredson said that he also welcomed the agreement: “Our students benefit from the talents of professors who share their knowledge and passion for research and scholarship every day and this first contract reflects a fiscally responsible agreement that rewards excellence and invests in our faculty—strengthening the University of Oregon for all of our community.”
The administration’s shift is a particularly significant one because its initial proposal eschewed a union demand to guarantee the right to free speech outside the classroom, including where this concerns debate about institutional policies. Instead, Flaherty notes, the university’s proposal “decouples academic freedom and free speech, addressing them separately. Academic freedom is ‘necessary to teaching and research,’ it says, with no mention of the role of academics in speaking out if not related directly to teaching and research.”
The ability of faculty members to criticize university policies was a key tenet of academic freedom when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) codified the concept in 1940. But the free-speech rights of university faculty have fallen into murky territory since 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that public employees were not entitled to these rights for speech “pursuant to their official duties.” The Supreme Court did not address whether this ruling applied to professors at public universities, leaving the question in a legal limbo. Advocates are hopeful that a decision earlier this month from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco—which ruled that a controversial proposal circulated by a former Washington State University Professor David Demers to overhaul the school’s communications department should have constituted protected speech—will form the basis for more robust protections in the future.
But apart from legal uncertainty, academic freedom faces another threat: the growing reliance of universities on corporate patronage. To make up for stunning shortfalls in state funding, public universities have both hiked tuition and courted investment by private donors. “When universities are dependent on the money of private donors, administrators may feel pressure to enact policies that jeopardize the status of the university as a place of free inquiry,” says Anderson. Oregon has already seen this kind of influence wielded—the university reportedly terminated its involvement in the anti-sweatshop Workers’ Rights Consortium following pressure from Nike’s Knight.
Yet in the face of creeping academic commercialism, writes Jen Washburn, author of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, the AAUP and other advocates have been slow to respond, adhering to a “narrow, individualistic interpretation of academic freedom” that disregards the broader politics of today’s universities.
According to Joe Lowndes, an associate professor of political science and member of the union’s organizing committee, the contract fight at the University of Oregon “has shown that a unionized faculty can, among other things, act to safeguard academic freedom—a freedom we have learned not to take for granted within the changing structure of American higher education.”
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.