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Walmart Workers Arrested in Peaceful Protest August 22, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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BREAKING: Ten current or recently fired Walmart workers were just arrested in Washington, DC for peaceful civil disobedience near Walmart’s downtown office. This action comes after the company fired or disciplined more than 70 workers for going on strike. Now workers say that if Walmart does not reinstate the illegally fired workers and publicly commit pay a decent wage by Labor Day, the company will face some of the most intense actions it has seen to date. Below is a letter from one of the arrested workers.

http://action.changewalmart.org/page/m/86f1ab2/3529af95/17464875/9cb5f48/3020380531/VEsH/

 

I was arrested today for standing up to Walmart. Can you sign my petition to call on Walmart to respect workers’ rights and pay a living wage?

I was raised by a strong single mother. I owe everything to her. She taught me how to work hard and stand up for what is right.

I did well in high school and loved sports. In college, I became a collegiate athlete and my future looked bright. That’s when my mom got sick. She wasn’t able to support herself, so I made a tough choice. I moved home and got a job at Walmart to help support my mom.

I soon found that Walmart didn’t pay me enough to get by. We were constantly understaffed and stretched thin. Worst of all, we were treated with such a lack of respect they made you feel like you weren’t even a human being.

That’s why I decided to stand up. I went on a legally protected strike in June and travelled all the way to Walmart’s headquarters in Arkansas to defend my coworkers’ right to stand up.

But when I got home, Walmart fired me. I’m not the only one. Since June, Walmart has fired or disciplined more than 70 of us for standing up. The company has written us up, cut our hours, bullied us, called the cops on us and even fired us for going on strike.

We’re not backing down. Today, we peacefully demonstrated in front of Walmart’s office in Washington, DC calling on the company to reinstate the illegally fired workers.

Instead of listening, Walmart had me and 11 other people arrested (19 of us workers and 2 activists).

It’s time to draw a line in the sand. Let’s send Walmart a clear message: If you fail to act by Labor Day, actions will intensify around the country.

Can you please send them this message by signing my petition today?

www.action.changewalmart.org/ARealWage

Thanks,

Brandon

Brandon Garrett
Baker, Louisiana

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: UFCW and OUR Walmart have the purpose of helping Wal-Mart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Wal-Mart over labor rights and standards and their efforts to have Wal-Mart publically commit to adhering to labor rights and standards. UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Walmart employees

Fast Feud Nation August 14, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Food, Humor, Labor.
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It seems like everybody’s talking about the low wage worker strikes that just swept the country, and we need to make sure that they keep talking.

After hundreds of fast food and retail workers in 7 cities walked off the job demanding decent wages, more and more people are finally waking up to the fact that the millions of workers making minimum wage are scrambling to survive while profits and executive pay skyrocket. Even the mainstream media is starting to discuss how badly big, profitable fast food chains like McDonald’s are exploiting their workers — but as usual, no one is doing it as well as The Daily Show. This hilarious clip from the week of the strikes captures why this burgeoning movement is so important — and it’s a perfect introduction for people who haven’t paid attention to the strikes yet.

Thanks for all you do,
Rob, Kaytee, and the team at SumOfUs

 

Obama and GOP Speak Same Language: Corporate Tax Cuts = Jobs August 5, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, Labor.
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A Black Agenda Radio commentary by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

 

There is no jobs creation plan, only a series of corporate tax giveaway programs.”

 

President Obama went to a low wage warehouse in Chattanooga in the right-to-work state of Tennessee to renew his offer to massively lower corporate tax rates – from 35 to 28 percent – and had the nerve to call it a Grand Bargain for the middle class. Surrounding the president were employees who do backbreaking work for $11 or $12 an hour – and can by no stretch of imagination be considered middle class. Obama praised their cutthroat Amazon corporation bosses as the sort of benign masters that he’s depending on to bring the country back to economic health – once they’ve been properly incentivized with lower tax rates, on the one hand, and outright public subsidies, on the other. Amazon is only invested in Tennessee because the state has given the corporation huge tax breaks that will allow it to undercut other book sellers, forcing them out of business and their workers into unemployment. Amazon’s 7,000 new, low wage jobs come at the cost of lay-offs and bankruptcies among its competitors. It’s the Wal-Mart business model, which is quite popular at the White House.

 

The Obamas have a special place in their hearts for corporations of all kinds, as long as they’re big. The president told the Amazon warehouse workers, whose jobs are not very good, that he wants to create good jobs in other industries through renewable energy and electric cars and cheap natural gas – that is, “fracking.” Of course, by that he means providing additional government subsidies and tax breaks to corporations. Good jobs, presumably, will trickle down. Obama urged Congress to pass his Fix-It-First program to rebuild bridges and other public infrastructure, while blaming the Republicans for gutting government through “sequester” of spending. But it was Obama who proposed the sequestration disaster in the first place, as part of his earlier Grand Bargain with the GOP, in 2011.

 

Good jobs, presumably, will trickle down.”

 

Obama used the Chattanooga visit to re-pitch much of his last State of the Union Address, in which he pledged to work for a public private partnership to upgrade the privately-owned U.S. infrastructure, such as energy grids and ports. That’s a euphemism for spending billions in public monies to subsidize private, profit making corporations. Obama calls that a jobs program.

 

He also thinks workers should be appreciative of the Free Trade deals whose proliferation has coincided with the destruction of the U.S. manufacturing base and the loss of millions of jobs that really were “good.” Obama promised to call a meeting of the CEOs of the same corporations that sent the jobs overseas, to ask them to do more for the country – as if they haven’t done enough, already. He’s got another program, called Select USA, that offers tax breaks and other incentives to foreign corporations that locate facilities in the U.S. Since so many U.S. headquartered high-tech corporations, like Apple, are actually Chinese companies for purposes of employment, Obama might as well combine his various tax break programs and hand out the goodies to CEOs regardless of nationality. In fact, that’s close to the actual practice. There is no jobs creation plan, only a series of corporate tax giveaway programs.

 

For workers, there’s the minimum wage, now set at $7.25 an hour. Obama promised, once again, in Chattanooga, to try to raise that to $9.00. But, back in 2008, candidate Obama vowed to fight for $9.50. I guess, somewhere along the way, he lost his incentive. For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.

 

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.

 

Migrant Workers and America’s Harvest of Shame August 2, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Labor, Race.
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Roger’s note: I participated in the Cesar Chavez lead farmworkers struggle in California in the late 1960s, and it is more than disheartening to know that fifty years later things have not improved.  But why am I not surprised?  Under capitalist economic relations, things always get worse, with only occasional temporary mitigation that results from intense labor organizing.  That exploitation and degrading working conditions are rife in the realm of harvesting the very food we eat is a tribute to the dehumanizing world of capitalism we inhabit.  Big agri-business and the whores (with apologies to honest sex trade workers for the use of the term) in all three branches of government that are responsible for this disgrace are criminals by any logical definition of the term.

The great reporter Edward R. Murrow titled his 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame on the merciless exploitation of the migrant farmworkers by the large growers and their local government allies. Over fifty years later, it is still the harvest of shame for nearly two million migrant farmworkers who follow the seasons and the crops to harvest our fruits and vegetables.

(Photo: FLOC)

As a student I went through migrant farmworker camps and fields and wrote about the abysmally low pay, toxic, unsafe working conditions, contaminated water, housing hovels and the complete absence of any legal rights.

It is a perversely inverted society when the people who do the backbreaking work to harvest one of the necessities of life are underpaid, underinsured, under-protected and under-respected while the Chicago commodity brokers – where the white collar gamblers sit in air-conditioned spaces and speculate on futures in foodstuffs’ prices – are quite well off, to put it modestly.

It probably won’t surprise you that the grapes, peaches, watermelons, strawberries, apricots and lettuce that you’re eating this week are brought to you from the fields by the descendants of the early migrant workers. Their plight is not that much better, except for the very few working under a real union contract.

Start with the exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Then go to the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS), which is aimed at protecting farmworkers and their families from pesticides but is outdated, weak and poorly enforced.

Continue on to the unyielding local power of growers and their campaign-cash indentured local, state and Congressional lawmakers. The recent shocking description of the tomato workers in central Florida in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, shows how close defenseless migrant workers can come to involuntary servitude.

In a recent television interview, featuring Baldemar Velasquez – a vigorous farm worker organizer – Bill Moyers summarized the period since Harvest of Shame: “Believe it or not, more than fifty years later, the life of a migrant laborer is still an ordeal. And not just for adults. Perhaps as many as half a million children, some as young as seven years old, are out in the fields and orchards working nine to ten hour days under brutal conditions.” (See the full interview here.)

Among the conditions Moyers was referring to are the daily exposures to pesticides, fertilizers and the resulting chemical-related injuries and sicknesses. Far more of these pesticides end up in the workers’ bodies than are found in our food. President of Farmworker Justice, Bruce Goldstein writes: “Short-term effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, blindness, nausea, dizziness, headache, coma and even death. Pesticides also cause infertility, neurological disorders and cancer.”

In a recent letter appeal by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the beleaguered small union representing farmworkers, these ailments were connected to real workers by name. Focusing on the large grape grower – Giumarra Vineyeards of California – the UFW describes one tragedy of many: “After ten hours laboring under a blazing July sun, 53-year-old Giumarra grape picker Asuncion Valdivia became weak, dizzy and nauseated. He couldn’t talk. He lay down in the field. The temperature was 102 degrees.

Asuncion’s 21-year-old son, Luis, and another worker rushed to his aid. Someone called 911. But a Giumarra foreman cancelled the paramedics. He told Luis to drive his father home. They reached the emergency room in Bakersfield too late. Asuncion died on the car seat next to his son.”

For backbreaking work, kneeling 48 hours a week on crippled joints, 29-year-old Alejandro Ruiz and other farmworkers are not making much to live on. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour does not apply to farmworkers. Workers without documents are often paid less than those with documents. In most cases, they are too frightened to consider objecting.

It is so deplorable how little the members of Congress from these farm Districts have done to improve the plight of migrant farm workers. Members of Congress could be raising the visibility of deplorable working conditions faced by farmworkers and allying themselves with urban district Representatives concerned about food safety. This partnership could raise awareness of the safety of the food supply, the careless use of agricultural chemicals, and press the EPA to issue a strong WPS that emphasizes training, disclosure of chemical usage, safety precautions prior to spraying and buffer zones.

Is there a more compelling case for union organizing than the farm workers who sweat for agri-business? Federal labor laws need to be amended to improve national standards for farmworkers and eliminate existing state fair wage and health barriers. California has the strongest law, passed under the first gubernatorial term of Jerry Brown in 1975. Even this law needs to be strengthened to overcome the ways it has been gamed by agri-business interests.

Next time you eat fruits or vegetables, pause a moment to imagine what the workers who harvested them had to endure and talk up their plight with your friends and co-workers. Remember, every reform starts with human conversations and awareness. (For more information see the United Farm Workers of America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.)

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His latest book is The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Other recent books include, The Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood, Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism: Build It Together to Win, and “Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us” (a novel).

Critics Blast US Retailers’ Corporate-Dominated Factory Safety “Sham” July 11, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Bangladesh, Labor.
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Labor Rights Groups: ‘This confirms what we have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep.’

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Names of killed Bangladesh workers are strung outside a GAP shareholders meeting in May 2013. (Photo: Anirvan/cc/flickr)

In what is being blasted as a “sham” and an “expensive PR stunt” by workers’ rights groups, 17 North American retailers—including the Gap and Wal-Mart—launched a Bangladesh worker safety plan Wednesday as a means of sidestepping a legally binding international agreement.

The plan, called the “Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety” was devised as an alternative to the Bangladesh Safety Accord—a union-led and legally binding agreement signed by over 70 international brands and retailers.

“Gap and Wal-Mart’s safety plan is a sham which won’t make factories safe and only serves to undermine the Bangladesh Safety Accord,” said Murray Worthy, sweatshops campaigner at the human rights watchdog group War on Want.

Both agreements were spurred by the enormous international outcry following the Rana Plaza disaster in April when over 1,100 workers were killed in the collapse of a substandard Bangladesh factory. Previous to the collapse, a series of devastating garment factory fires highlighted the dangerous working conditions in the country and the enormous risk posed to millions of workers paid as little as $40 a month.

“This is just more of the same corporate-dominated voluntary measures that were so clearly proven to have failed in the Rana Plaza disaster,” Worthy continued. “Gap, Wal-Mart and the other brands behind the Alliance must scrap this expensive PR stunt and join the rest of the clothing industry in signing the comprehensive, legally binding and life-saving Bangladesh Safety Accord.”

Other signers of the Alliance include Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Sears, L.L. Bean and J.C.Penney.

The deal alleges to inspect all factories used by the signatories within a year and establish a common set of safety standards. Further, the retailers will reportedly pay up to $1m a year each to support mandatory training for factory staff and managers and to support “worker participation committees” in every factory to deal with complaints about working conditions, the Guardian reports.

However, according to a response by a half-dozen labor rights groups reported by IPS, “companies that decide to withdraw from the alliance are only penalized by being forced to pay their share of administrative costs. For large companies, this would work out to around five million dollars – while Wal-Mart alone brings in more than 400 billion dollars annually.”

“Companies that sign onto the alliance but fail to meet a commitment face no adverse consequences beyond expulsion from the scheme. Instead, workers will continue to pay,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told IPS.

Further, Trumka notes that the “so-called” Global Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was developed without consulting with workers or union representatives and other critics point out that the “worker participation committees” will likely undermine workers’ rights to join trade unions and organize freely.

“This confirms what labor rights advocates have long predicted: that Wal-Mart, Gap and companies like them simply do not want to make any promises they actually have to keep,” said the labor rights coalition. “What they want is to be able to make promises now, at a time of major public and media scrutiny, that they can walk away from whenever it suits them, at a token cost.”

_____________________

Even After One of Worst Worker Atrocities in Human History, Gap & Walmart Won’t Get Serious About Preventing Another July 4, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Bangladesh, Labor.
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AlterNet             /               By Jake Blumgart           
<!–

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–>Should the government of Bangladesh or the companies that sell products manufactured in the country be held responsible for working conditions?

 

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Photo Credit: Fight for Philly

July 1, 2013 |

On Saturday, June 29, Center City Philadelphia hummed with activity as shoppers and gawkers surged across the sidewalks, enjoying the first sunny day all week. But outside of the Gap outlet on Walnut Street, the crowds pause to look at the dozen people lying on the sidewalk. Again and again people came up to those standing at the fringes of the recumbent group: “What’re they doing?”

Amy Offner was quick to engage passersby. She explained the garment industry’s troubled history in Bangladesh, culminating in the April 24 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza. Almost 1,130 people were killed, most of them garment workers who were forced to return to work in the obviously structurally compromised building. Following the disaster, which was the deadliest in the history of the global garment industry, many European and a few American companies signed the “ Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” (U.S. signatories include Sean John, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the company that runs Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.) The agreement is legally binding and would require independent inspection of all factories by an investigator “with fire and building safety expertise…who is independent of and not concurrently employed by companies, trade unions or factories.” When problems are found the companies must fix them and cover lost wages for the duration of the renovations.

But many prominent American companies, including Walmart and Gap, refused to sign. Hence the corpse-like bodies strewn on the sidewalk covered in signs reading “GAP: Death Traps” and “Workers Shouldn’t Die for Fashion.”

“People were really curious, and most people were surprised Gap even uses sweatshop labor,” says Offner. “They assumed sweatshops had been wiped out a hundred years ago, or at least by the actions in the 1990s. They were shocked to find out Gap uses sweatshops and is refusing to seriously try and improve the industry.”

The Philadelphia action coincided with similar protests in 35 other cities, representing a further escalation the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) campaign against Gap. The protests came two days after the Obama administration announced it would be severing Bangladesh’s trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. The move ends duty free privileges that were extended to some Bangladeshi products. It is explicitly meant to be a punishment for Rana Plaza and other recent industrial accidents. Although the dollar value of the sanction is only estimated to be $40 million annually and does not affect the garment industry, some Philly activists used the administration’s decision as a rallying cry, urging passersby to “support Obama’s executive order.”

“This is one of the stronger actions our government has taken—it sends a very strong message to the government of Bangladesh that our country takes seriously the egregious labor rights violations that have been going on,” says Cathy Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, which has been pushing such a punitive policy since at least 2007.“What is happening is a struggle to really figure out issues around global governance. The binding accord is really significant because it’s the first time we’ve seen corporations do something [besides] the traditional voluntary route. It will complement the political message coming from the U.S., because they are not just suspending GSP but engaging the Bangladeshi government so it can [improve] and get those benefits returned.”

The White house has stated that there isn’t a timetable regarding the possible reinstatement of trade privileges. The AFL-CIO expected the Obama administration to release a road map of necessary reforms when it announced the suspension of benefits last Thursday, but so far no such document has been forthcoming. The AFL-CIO suggestions include assurances that the right to collectively bargain be respected. Currently there are very few formal worker organizations in the Bangladeshi garment sector and labor organizing is often met with brutal force. (In May a new law was passed allowing garment workers to unionize without the permission of factory owners.)

Gap and Walmart Dishonesty June 4, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Human Rights, Labor.
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Last week, Gap made a big announcement. After weeks of pressure by people across the globe to sign the binding Bangladesh Safety Accord and end death traps in its factories, Gap put out a press release about its big new plan: partnering with Walmart on a fake “safety plan” that is not accountable to anyone.

Gap thinks it can fool us with a cheap PR stunt. It’s wrong.

Help us undermine Gap’s PR stunt by spreading the word about Gap and Walmart’s deadly “plan” and sharing this image on Facebook or forwarding this email to your friends.

Click here to share this image and help spread the word about Gap and Walmart’s dishonesty:

http://act.sumofus.org/go/1818?t=2&akid=1772.1024433.pqh3GU

 

Gap and Walmart are strange bedfellows. Walmart has a long record of unethical behavior, from brutally exploiting workers to discriminating against women to bribing Mexican officials, and it’s one of the most hated corporations in the world. Until recently, Gap was seen as a fairly responsible company.

Our sources tell us that Gap’s senior executives get really upset when they hear their company’s name mentioned in the same breath as Walmart. It means the brand they’ve tried to create for years is crumbling. But if they’re going to get in bed with Walmart to avoid taking responsibility for workers’ safety, they’re going to have to deal with the consequences. If Gap doesn’t like it, it can join the Bangladesh Safety Accord like dozens of brands already have.

Thanks for keeping the pressure on Gap to actually protect its workers from death traps,
Marguerite, Rob, Kaytee, and the rest of The Sum Of Us

 

P.S. We’ve created a new tumblr to spread the word about Gap and Walmart’s blossoming friendship: gapheartswalmart.tumblr.com. If you want to make your own submission (and make Gap’s bosses angry), just go here or here and email a link to reportback@sumofus.org. We’ll take the best submissions and put them on the tumblr.

Wendy’s, What Are You Waiting For?: Calling on the Fast Food Giant to Stand up For Farmworkers May 18, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
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Who has freckles, pigtails, and is still holding out from joining the Fair Food Program? If you guessed the fresh-faced mascot of Wendy’s, give yourself a gold star. As part of its efforts to improve conditions in the fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farmworkers based in Florida, is calling on the fast food giant Wendy’s to step up for farmworkers and their families.

The Coalition has had an impressive wave of wins as many companies — eleven to date — have signed an agreement to improve conditions for farmworkers.  Of the top five fast food chains, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and A&W) have all joined the Fair Food Program. In response to pressure from the Coalition and its allies, the list has grown to include Chipotle, food retailers (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s), and food service companies (BAMCO, Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group). The overwhelming majority of tomato growers now participate in this farmworker-driven commitment through the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of the industry.

By signing on to the agreement, companies must now comply with a code of conduct that includes protections for cases of wage theft, sexual harassment, and forced labor. Companies also agree to pay a small premium for tomatoes — just a penny more per pound. As a result, workers have safer working conditions and have started seeing increases in their paychecks for the first time in more than 30 years.

Think a penny a pound doesn’t sound like much? It adds up. Over $10 million has been paid out through these victories since January 2011. That number will only keep growing as more companies sign on.

Hey, Wendy’s, are you listening?

Wendy’s, of all companies, can afford paying this premium. One of the highest earning fast food chains in the country, Wendy’s comes in at number two behind McDonald’s. Nearly 6,600 restaurants in the U.S. and around the globe afford the company serious market power– influence that can go a long way to shift purchasing practices. Instead of leveraging that power to demand lower prices from suppliers, Wendy’s could be rewarding growers who respect workers’ rights.

Other fast food companies have stepped up, like Taco Bell. The fast food giant was the first company to sign on to the Coalition agreement back in 2005, after four years of pressure and organizing. In its announcement, Taco Bell said:

“As an industry leader, we are pleased to lend our support to and work with the CIW to improve working and pay conditions for farmworkers in the Florida tomato fields… We recognize there is a need for reform… We hope others in the restaurant industry and supermarket retail trade will follow our leadership.” – Emil Brolick, Taco Bell President (2005)

 

Brolick and Taco Bell showed that signing on to the agreement wouldn’t threaten a company’s bottom line. In fact, Brolick’s tenure is credited with boosting sales and ‘turning things around at Taco Bell. Proof that profits don’t come at the expense of workers’ rights.

Seven years later, Wendy’s is still dragging its feet instead of following Taco Bell’s example — or more accurately Brolick’s own example, since he has now taken over as CEO of Wendy’s.

This week, as Wendy’s convenes its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York City, the Coalition is in town to make sure the company has its priorities straight. On Saturday, May 18th, farmworkers and allies will march from Union Square to nearby Wendy’s locations, reminding shareholders that farmworkers aren’t an abstract budget line item, but hardworking women and men who deserve respect. (And, sure, to give Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick a dose of déjà vu. He already has some experience with this, after all.)

If you’re in or around New York, show your support: join the march from Union Square this Saturday at 2pm. And if you’re miles from the action: raise your virtual voice and sign the e-petition!
As farmworker and organizer with the CIW, Gerardo Reyes Chávez says, “The change we are seeking is underway–and it is unstoppable. And it is unstoppable not because we say it is — but because there’s people like you taking action.”

Anna Lappé

Anna is the author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen and Hope’s Edge. She is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute.

Christina Bronsing

Christina Bronsing is an activist and researcher supporting social movements that protect the rights of producers and farmers in the face of a largely industrial, corporate food system. Based in New York, she is currently engaged in research, writing and web roles with Food MythBusters, ongoing research around the social and environmental impacts of global quinoa production with Food First, and editorial support for the Food Security Learning Center at WhyHunger.

U.S. gives Cuba cold shoulder over prisoners and their suffering families April 27, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Cuba, Foreign Policy, Labor.
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Roger’s note: here is just another example of Obama following the same  foreign policy as bush and his predecessors  with respect to Latin America, as with  his ((and Secretary of State Clinton’s) tacit support for the coup in Honduras and Paraguay, not to mention Venezuela.  As a Latin Americanist I am more than disgusted with Obama and his phony campaign gimmick about change you can believe in.
cuban_five.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox
JOSE GOITIA / Toronto Star file photo

The Cuban Five, who were convicted in Miami of espionage, are portrayed on a billboard near Havana as then Cuban president Fidel Castro delivers a speech, in this photo from June 23, 2001

She’s 43 years old, childless, and lives in Cuba, while her husband of a quarter-century is incarcerated in a U.S. maximum-security prison, having served just 14 years of a soul-crushing sentence — two life terms plus 15 years.

So what are the odds that Adriana Perez and her spouse, Gerardo Hernandez, will ever have a child together?

Right now, those chances are looking extremely slim.

Or, as Perez put it just the other day: “It’s another one of our rights that is being violated.”

In this case, the right to bear children.

An intense, somewhat diminutive woman with dark, striking features and a crown of wavy black hair, the Cuban activist was in town last week to address an assembly of about 160 mostly left-leaning Torontonians. They crowded into the United Steelworkers Hall at 25 Cecil St. to hear a tale of American hard-heartedness and duplicity, at least as it’s framed by one of its victims.

Perez’s husband belongs to a group of convicted men who are now widely known as the Cuban Five, men long regarded as national heroes in Cuba, their pictures splashed across billboards, posters, TV screens and car bumpers.

In the United States, however, the same individuals are vilified as foreign spies, criminals who broke the law and who richly deserve to be behind bars.

Behold the core configuration of Cuba-U.S. relations in the early years of the third millennium: a tale of five Cuban convicts — plus one yanqui detainee.

The gringo in this story is a 63-year-old American by the name of Alan Gross, who is currently doing time in a Cuban jail.

Put them together, and what you’ve got is possibly the main obstacle to progress on what may well be the most bizarrely dysfunctional bilateral relationship in the world, a state of bitter enmity that has alternately fumed and flared for more than 50 years, pitting Washington and Havana in what some regard as the final battleground of the Cold War.

The Cold War, of course, is over — and ideological disagreement no longer has much to do with the stubborn antipathy that continues to dominate U.S.-Cuba relations.

Even the experts seem stymied by the remarkable and seemingly illogical persistence of the dispute.

“There is no explanation,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think-tank. “This is the war without end — the war against Cuba.”

To some degree, that war can now be reduced to a conflict over prisoners — five Cubans and one American.

Where the Cubans are concerned, time is fast running out.

“The real fear is that the United States is essentially destroying the prospects of these families to have children,” says Birns. “The inability to have children confronts all of them.”

It is certainly staring Adriana Perez straight in the face, as she travels the world trying to drum up support for her husband and his four comrades.

In fact, her hopes for children may already be moot.

Here’s the story so far.

Dispatched to south Florida in the 1990s, the five Cuban men were on a long-term clandestine mission — no one denies that — but they were not spies in the conventional sense, according to their defenders. They were not interested in undermining the U.S. government or its institutions. Instead, they spent their time monitoring the activities of radical Cuban-American groups fiercely opposed to the government of Fidel Castro and not averse to violence.

Later, Havana offered to share its intelligence with the U.S. government.

That was a mistake.

Instead of saying gracias, compañeros, American authorities responded by arresting the five Cubans and charging them with a raft of espionage-related crimes.

Lawyers for the five sought to move the trial out of Miami, with its volatile anti-Castro community, but those efforts were rebuffed.

“That was quite shocking,” says Birns. “In south Florida, it’s hard to imagine you could get an impartial jury.”

Impartial or not, the Miami jurors subsequently convicted the defendants on all counts, and the men were sentenced in 2001 to sometimes astoundingly long prison terms, most notably the sentence meted out to the husband of Adriana Perez.

With one exception — Rene Gonzalez, who was released from a federal prison in 2011 but is still serving three years of parole — the Cubans have remained behind bars ever since.

“In spite of this, they have not lost their optimism that they will return to Cuba,” said Perez, who hasn’t seen her husband since the 1990s — and not for lack of trying.

On at least 10 occasions, she has sought a U.S. visa in order to visit Hernández in jail, only to be turned down each time.

This past week, she called on a highly sympathetic Toronto audience to step up their efforts to win the release of the five.

“I ask each one of you, when you leave here, to think, ‘What would I do if it was my son or brother or father who was in jail?’ ” she said. U.S. President Barack Obama “is not going to give freedom to the five spontaneously or because he is a good person.”

What’s needed, she said, is political pressure.

That pressure could take many different forms, but it seems unlikely they will include a prisoner exchange, although the Cubans have earnestly sought one.

Cue Alan Gross, a possibly somewhat naive American who was arrested in Havana in 2009, while working on a “pro-democracy” project funded by the United States Agency for International Development, a contract that involved providing electronic communications equipment to the island’s minuscule Jewish community.

For that activity, the Cubans arrested the American and put him on trial. He is now serving a 15-year sentence for crimes against the Cuban state.

Havana has left no doubt that it would agree to a swap — Gross’s freedom in return for the release of some or all of the five. But Washington says no.

“The U.S. position is these are not comparable detainees,” says Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas, a research and analysis forum based in New York. “I don’t think the United States is going to budge on this.”

As a result, the two neighbours remain suspended in the same state of mutual hostility and diplomatic paralysis that has prevailed for almost as long as Cuba has been governed by someone named Castro.

Nowadays, the man in charge in Havana is Raul Castro, Fidel’s slightly younger brother and a considerably more pragmatic individual than his elder sibling ever was.

By most accounts, Raul badly wants to ease tensions with Washington — for economic reasons, above all, given the dilapidated state of the island’s economy. But his government also seems deeply committed to securing the release of the Cuban Five.

“They have tried every conceivable measure to show they are conciliatory,” says Birns in Washington. “They are giving away the store in terms of the concessions they are granting. You would think that Washington would want to dance around the maypole.”

Instead, the Obama administration continues to include Cuba on its list of “terrorist” states — a tired anachronism at best — and to maintain its long-running economic embargo against the island.

“We’re in a complete stalemate,” says Sabatini.

It sometimes seems that nothing short of the Second Coming could inspire a change in the official U.S. stance on Cuba.

Consider the recent appointment of John Kerry as U.S. secretary of state. Many observers expected the former Democratic presidential candidate to provide a fresh new look to Washington’s outmoded policy toward the island. After all, he has long advocated a range of measures that would reduce tensions between the two sides. So far, however, there is little sign that Kerry is sparing much time pondering the fate either of the Cuban Five or of the remaining 11 million islanders still sweltering in the Antillean sea breeze roughly 100 kilometres across the Straits of Florida from Key West.

“That’s the shamefulness of it,” says Birns. “This is the great curse. It’s an unvisited policy.”

According to Sabatini, Cuba receives little attention from the State Department in Washington at least partly because the U.S. has far bigger foreign-policy concerns, from North Korea to China to the Middle East.

Besides, he says, improved relations with the island would spell only minor economic and political benefits for the United States, while risking a much more formidable downside — the outrage of Cuban-Americans in south Florida.

“The amount of noise they would cause is huge,” he says. “So why do it?”

In the absence of a clear directive from the White House, he believes it is inevitable that Cuba policy will remain mired in bureaucratic inertia and outdated thinking.

After all, the U.S. Senate’s foreign affairs committee is chaired by Bob Menendez, a retrograde Cuban-American who would not look fondly on ambassadorial candidates with a history of progressive-minded ideas about his ancestral island home.

“The problem is that, for career people in Washington, being behind a Cuba change is a death sentence,” says Sabatini. “They want to be ambassadors. They’d never be approved.”

Still, there may be at least a glimmer of change on the short-term horizon, as Obama prepares to travel to the region next month, a trip that will include stops in Mexico and Costa Rica.

The United States is now the only country in the Americas that does not have normal diplomatic relations with Havana, and Latin American leaders are impatient with what they see as U.S. foot-dragging.

That frustration might be enough to produce a shift in Washington’s tone, if not something more concrete.

“There are rumblings of change,” says Sabatini. “But it will have to come from the White House.”

Meanwhile, Adriana Perez continues to traverse the globe, on an increasingly urgent campaign to secure the release of her husband.

“We hope it comes soon,” she said in Toronto last Saturday, “because it’s already too late.”

For more about Cuba — the good, the not-so-good, and the downright glorious — check out Oakland Ross’s eRead, Cuba Libre. Simply go to stardispatches.com and subscribe for $1/week. Cuba Libre is also available for single-copy purchase at itunes.ca or starstore.ca for $2.99.

As Death Toll Rises, Report Shows Big Retail Brands Chose Profit over Safety in Bangladesh April 26, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Hundreds of thousands protest dangerous “sweatshop” conditions as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

A Bangladeshi woman was lifted out of the rubble by rescuers at the site of a building that collapsed in Bangladesh. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press)

As the death toll soared past 300 in the aftermath of Wednesday’s garment factory disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and over 1,000 remained unaccounted for on Friday, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of thousands of mourning protesters fed up with an international garment industry that continues to place profit over workers’ lives.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports Friday that in 2011 several major western retailers rejected a proposal made by a group of Bangladeshi and international unions that outlined a way to clean up Bangladesh’s garment factories. The plan would have established an independent inspectorate to oversee all factories in Bangladesh “with powers to shut down unsafe facilities as part of a legally binding contract signed by suppliers, customers and unions.”

“The proposal was presented at a 2011 meeting in Dhaka attended by more than a dozen of the world’s largest clothing brands and retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and Swedish clothing giant H&M — but was rejected by the companies because it would be legally binding and costly,” AP reports.

At the time, Wal-Mart’s representative told the meeting it was “not financially feasible … to make such investments,” according to minutes of the meeting obtained by AP.

‘Not Financially Feasible…’: Inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year.

The inspections would have been funded by contributions from the companies of merely $500,000 per year, compared to the $20 billion Western brands such as Walmart, the Gap and H&M make from the garment industry in Bangladesh per year. All told, garment manufacturing is a $1 trillion global industry.

Five garment factories were housed in the eight-story building that collapsed on Wednesday in Dhaka. The factories have been sub-contracted to supply clothing for Wal-Mart in the past, but Wal-Mart officials said that they are still investigating whether their products were being produced in the factory at the time of the disaster.

Among the factory owners in the building were Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd. garment factories, who at the time were making clothing for a number of brands including Benetton, Primark, Loblaws, The Children’s Place and Dress Barn.

On Friday, the New York Times reports, labor groups distributed photos showing that they had discovered garments with labels from J.C. Penney and El Corte Inglés, a Spanish retailer, at the site of the collapse.

The collapse is the latest in a series of factory disasters in Bangladesh tied to western brands including a massive blaze which broke out in the Tazreen factory in November, killing 112 workers. Clothes made for Disney, Wal-Mart and other western labels were found at that factory.

Factory owners from the building ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected in the building’s structure on Tuesday.

On Friday, hundreds of rescuers continued to dig through the masses of factory rubble for the third day in a row as “the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers’ relatives gathered outside the building,” AP reports.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of workers and relatives from the hundreds of garment factories continued to protest throughout the day Friday.

Bangladeshi media reported that two factories have been burned by protesters demanding the death penalty for the owner of collapsed building, said to have broken many building codes, as well as the owners of the factories inside the building.

However, as Dara O’Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley, reminded the New York Times, it is important to remember the source of labor exploitation in places such as Bangladesh: “Even in a situation of grave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver their goods on time,” O’Rourke, said, adding that the prices Western companies pay “are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety.”

“Improvement is not happening,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, who said a total of 600 workers have died in factory accidents in the last decade. “The multinational companies claim a lot of things. They claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system,” Amin said. “But yet these things keep happening.”

Rescue workers, army personnel, police and members of media run after they heard someone shouting that a building next to Rana Plaza is collapsing during a rescue operation in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

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