Obama and GOP Speak Same Language: Corporate Tax Cuts = Jobs August 5, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, Labor.
Tags: amazon workers, corporate tax, Free Trade, glen ford, job creation, middle class, minimum wage, Obama, reaganomics, roger hollander, tax cuts, trickle down
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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, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Labor, Race.
Tags: agri-business, agribusiness, agriculture, farm workers, farmworker justice, farmworkers, labor, labor standards, labour, migrant workers, Ralph Nader, roger hollander, ufw, worker protection
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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.
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.)
Tags: bangladesh, bangladesh safety accord, bangladesh workers, Gap, garment workers, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, labor, labor rights, labour, lauren mccauley, Macy’s, Nordstrom, rana plaza, roger hollander, Sears, target, walmart, worker safety, workers rights
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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.’
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, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Bangladesh, Labor.
Tags: bangladesh, fashion industry, Gap, garment industry, jake blumgart, labor, labor unions, labour, rana plaza, roger hollander, sweatshop, sweatshop labor, walmart, workers rights
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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?
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, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: bangladesh, bangladesh safety, garment industry, labor, roger hollander, sum of us, the gap, walmart, worker rights, worker safety
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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: agriculture, anna lappe, christina bronsing, fair food, farm labor, fast food chains, immokalee, immokalee workers, labor, labour, roger hollander, taco bell, wendy's, workers rights
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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.”
Tags: adriana perez, alan gross, bob menendez, Criminal Justice, Cuba, cuban five, fidel castro, foreign policy, john kerry, Latin America, oakland ross, raul castro, roger hollander
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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.
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, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Labor.
Tags: bangladesh, bangladesh facdory, benetton, child labor, Gap, garment industry, J.C. Penney, jacob chanberlain, labor, labour, Loblaws, Primark, roger hollander, sweatshop, sweatshop leabor, wal-mart
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Hundreds of thousands protest dangerous “sweatshop” conditions as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets
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.”
Care about Your Food? Then Care about Your Farmworkers Too January 31, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Food, Human Rights, Labor.
Tags: fair food, farm workers, farmworker, farmworker wages, food, food justice, labor, labour, laura-anne minkoff-zern, organic farming, organic farms, organic food, roger hollander, worker rights
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It’s organic. It’s local. But did the workers who picked it have health insurance?
These days, most people involved in buying and advocating for local and organic food say they want to support their farmers. They imagine (Photo: MRader)
the people that grow their vegetables as sweating in the fields, cheerfully smiling as they pull carrots from their own land, which they till until the sun goes down.
The image of the independent and industrious farmer is upheld in places where “alternative” or sustainable food is sold and promoted, such as farmers markets and food stores, which often encourage consumers to “get to know their farmer.” Grocery stores that carry natural, local, and organic foods, such as Whole Foods and food purchasing cooperatives, commonly post large, glossy photographs of local growers.
But who, exactly, is a farmer? Is it the person who owns a farm? The person who sells food at a farmers’ market? Or could a farmer be the immigrant who follows the work from place to place and picks the fruit of the season?
Almost all farms, even small and organic ones, require hired help. In most cases, that consists of immigrant farmworkers who are paid less than a living wage.
People need to ask not only, where does my food come from, but also, who performs the labor to grow this food? For a food system to be truly sustainable, we must prioritize the well-being of workers as well as consumers.
For a food system to be truly sustainable, we must prioritize the well-being of workers as well as consumers.
Who’s behind your food?
Farm labor is one of only a few occupations exempt from most federal and state minimum wages and work-hour limitations. Of the farmworkers who responded to the most recent National Agricultural Workers’ Survey (NAWS), about one-third earned less than $7.25 an hour and only a quarter reported working more than nine months per calendar year. The California Institute for Rural Studies found that one-fourth of farmworkers live below the federal poverty line, and 55 percent are food insecure on average. (An individual or family is considered food insecure when members of a household lack access to enough food for an active, healthy life at all times, according to the USDA.)
In reality, however, farmworker conditions are even worse than those numbers suggest. Much of the research concerning farm labor is based on information gained from formal systems of employment, such as labor contractors. That leaves the majority of farm laborers who work informally, such as daily workers, unaccounted for.
Are conditions better on organic farms? Not as much as you’d think. Entry-level workers on organic farms in California make only 29 cents an hour more than their counterparts on non-organic farms do. That’s still less than a living wage.
And those workers on organic farms are actually less likely to have paid time off, health insurance for themselves and their families, and retirement or pension funds. Certified organic farmers have proven resistant to including labor standards in organic certification, according to a study published in 2006 in the journal Agriculture and Human Values.
Looking beyond the city
Some in the sustainable food movement work with the goal of directly addressing human rights issues in the food system. These groups and individuals make up what many call the “food justice movement.” Yet even in these circles, some organizations seem to have trouble focusing on the rights of farmworkers.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance has worked to bring farmworker injustice into the picture on college campuses.
Why are these workers so hard to see? Maybe it’s because most of our organizations are located in cities and staffed by young people attracted by urban life. Consider a group like Planting Justice, an organization in Oakland, Calif., which describes its work as “democratizing access to affordable, nutritious food.” It does this by “empowering disenfranchised urban residents with the skills, resources, and inspiration to maximize food production, economic opportunities, and environmental sustainability in our neighborhoods.”
Groups such as Planting Justice often work on initiatives to encourage and popularize urban gardening and to increase the availability of fresh food in poor urban neighborhoods. Although these are important efforts to improve the health of often underserved urban residents, they tend to limit the conversation to the urban core. Issues that affect rural places—including the plight of farmworkers—are left out of the discussion.
If the growing food justice movement is to truly confront injustice in the food system, it must address the rural poor as well as the urban poor. The fact that the workers who actually grow and harvest the food we’re talking about are also poor provides a natural opportunity for solidarity and makes this even more important to the movement.
Good news and next steps
Some in the food justice community are starting to work more broadly on issues of farm and food system labor, coordinating with farm, food processing, and restaurant worker unions. These new coalitions include The Food Chain Workers Alliance, The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, The Rural Coalition, and the Student/Farmworker Alliance.
Working together, many groups are finding more power to motivate policy change and raise working standards, increasing the visibility of food worker issues in the mainstream food movement.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance, for example, has played a major role in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Campaign for Fair Food, bringing farmworker injustice into the picture on college campuses. In addition, The Food Chain Workers Alliance is working directly with rural as well as urban food justice groups, bringing labor issues into the conversations of foodies who may previously have thought only about whether their carrots were local and not about whether the people who picked them had health insurance.
By working in coalition, people who are used to advocating for healthier food in urban centers are beginning to learn from rural activists, as well as the other way around. If we are to truly see the creation of a more just food system, then organizations, individuals, and communities that claim sustainable and food justice ideals must start to expand their vision for a food system that is just in both environmental and social terms. That may mean pushing for revised agricultural trade and immigration policy, including stricter labor regulations and higher minimum wages.
Both sustainable food proponents and food justice organizers have shown interest in addressing labor-related injustice. But to truly make that change, those that care about our food system must broaden their views of food sustainability to include the rights and health of all producers and consumers of food.
Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern has spent many years working on farms and with agriculture and food organizations in Guatemala, New York State, and California. She holds a doctorate in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Goucher College in Maryland.
Boycott of Standardized Tests Spreads as Seattle Teachers Revolt January 14, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Labor.
Tags: academic progress, arne duncan, ballard high, education, garfield high, map, public education, roger hollander, school boycott, school reform, seattle schools, standardized tests
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Teachers in Seattle schools refuse to administer ‘specious’ standardized tests. Will others follow their lead?
Opponents of the nation’s relentless push for standardized testing in public schools have new champions in Seattle this week as teachers at one high school and now another have refused to issue such exams to their students, calling them a waste of “time and money” amid “dwindling school resources.”
The entire teaching faculty at Garfield High School (with only three abstentions) voted to support a boycott against administering the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) this week or ever again. Garfield is the largest of thirteen high schools in the Seattle Public School (SPS) system.
In a press release, Kris McBride, Garfield’s academic dean and testing coordinator, said the test “produces specious results, and wreaks havoc on limited school resources” during the weeks the test is administered.
On Friday, teachers at Ballard High School said they would join the boycott as well. National support for the teachers was also growing online, as a petition circulated and a facebook page for the teachers materialized.
Following some fear that the Garfield teachers could face disciplinary action, well-known education policy expert Diane Ravitch was among those using social media to garner additional support for their cause on Saturday:
In an interview with Seattle’s KUOW Radio, Ravitch said, “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the entire staff of a school has said ‘no, we will not do this. It’s not good for the students, and it’s a waste of time and money.’”
A letter issued by the Garfield teachers said they would all “respectfully decline to give the MAP test” to any of their students this year.
“I’m teaching by example. If I don’t step up now, who will?” –Mario Shauvette, Garfield High math teacher
“We have had different levels of experiences with MAP in our varied careers, have read about it, and discussed it with our colleagues,” they said. “After this thorough review, we have all come to the conclusion that we cannot in good conscience subject our students to this test again.”
The Christian Science Monitor recounts the teachers’ press event in dramatic fashion:
Forty-five minutes after school let out Thursday afternoon, 19 teachers… at Seattle’s Garfield High School worked their way to the front of an already-crowded classroom, then turned, leaned their backs against the wall of whiteboards, and fired the first salvo of open defiance against high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools.
To a room full of TV cameras, reporters, students, and colleagues, the teachers announced their refusal to administer a standardized test that ninth-graders across the district are mandated to take in the first part of January. Known as the MAP test – for Measures of Academic Progress – it is intended to evaluate student progress and skill in reading and math.
First one teacher, then another, and then more stepped forward to charge that the test wastes time, money, and dwindling school resources.
“Our teachers have come together and agreed that the MAP test is not good for our students, nor is it an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress,” McBride told the crowded room. “Additionally, students don’t take it seriously. It produces specious results and wreaks havoc on limited school resources during the weeks and weeks the test is administered.”History teacher Jesse Hagopian discusses Garfield High School teachers’ decision to refuse to the give the MAP test to their students during a press conference in Seattle on Thursday. (Photo by Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
In addition to the detrimental impact on students, teachers also pushed back against the test as a way to evaluate teacher performance.
“To use this (MAP) as a tool to evaluate our teaching makes no sense,” said Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High. “They’re setting us up for failure. And Garfield High School is not a failure. We’re the home of (former students) Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Quincy Jones.”
Hagopian told Common Dreams that Garfield has a proud tradition of teaching to the “whole student” and that its faculty came together because they understand that test results do no adequately tell the story of who students are or will go on to be. “No one cares how Jimi Hendrix scored on a high school math test,” he said. “And no one should.”
“We really think our teachers are making the right decision,” said Garfield student body president Obadiah Stephens-Terry. “I know when I took the test, it didn’t seem relevant to what we were studying in class – and we have great classes here at Garfield. I know students who just go through the motions when taking the test, just did it as quickly as possible so they could do something more useful with their time.”
Asked if teachers were worried about what lessons students might take away from their defiant boycott chairman of the math department Mario Shauvette, stepped forward and said: “I’m teaching by example. If I don’t step up now, who will? I’m taking charge of what I do here.”
For his part, Wayne Au, former Garfield student and now assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, says teachers at his alma mater are offering their students—and others involved in the fight against corporate school reform—many valuable lessons.
Writing at ReThinking Schools, where he is assistant editor, Au explains:
At the most basic level, the national corporate school reform agenda requires teachers’ compliance. So regardless of individual motives, when a group of teachers collectively and publicly says NO, that represents a fundamental challenge to those pushing that elite agenda. The growing support for Garfield teachers’ resistance to the MAP test is a testament to just how much the collective action of teachers at one school means to the rest of the world.
Having all of the teachers at a school decide to support a boycott of a high-stakes, standardized test is a rare and beautiful thing, one that hasn’t happened since some Chicago teachers did it over a decade ago. That is powerful and inspirational stuff, and as far as I’m concerned, because we don’t yet know the district’s response, the teachers at Garfield are showing a level courage and heroism that I love and admire.
When nearby Ballard High School joined the boycott, teachers there cited numerous and various reasons for aligning with their colleagues at Garfield.
The test—teachers at Ballard said in a letter explaining their decision—has “been re-purposed by district administration to form part of a teacher’s evaluation, which is contrary to the purposes it was designed for, as stated by its purveyor, making it part of junk science.”
The Ballard High teachers, who spoke as one unit, said they were in full agreement with and would stand in support of those at Garfield. “Specifically,” they said, “the MAP test program throughout Seattle Public Schools ought to be shut down immediately. It has been and continues to be an embarrassing mistake. Continuing it even another day, let alone another month or year or decade, will not turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
As Reuters points out: “The revolt… comes at a time of fierce political battles over teacher evaluations that has played out in cities from Chicago to Los Angeles.” And continues:
The MAP test that has become a point of contention at Garfield is given at schools around the country but is not required by Washington state.
Unlike the tests required by the state, which are the High School Proficiency Exam and the End-of-Course exams, it has no bearing on students’ grades or their ability to graduate.
Education journalist Valerie Strauss, writing at her Answer Sheet blog, adds:
The boycotts are part of a growing grass-roots revolt against the excessive use of standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, schools, districts and states. The high-stakes testing era began a decade under No Child Left Behind, and critics say that the exams are being inappropriately used and don’t measure a big part of what students learn.
Parents have started to opt out of having their children take the exams; school boards have approved resolutions calling for an end to test-based accountability systems; thousands of people have signed a national resolution protesting high-stakes tests; superintendents have spoken out, and so have teachers. It has been building momentum in the last year, since Robert Scott, then the commissioner of education in Texas, said publicly that the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be.