jump to navigation

Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor May 25, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Immigration, Prison Industrial Complex.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

Roger’s note: the NY times never ceases to amaze me with its euphemisms.  For the Times torture is often “enhanced interrogation.”  Here, slave labor is “cheap labor.”  Slave labor is alive and well in the United States of America, from the tomato fields of Florida to the government’s own more and more privatized prison system.  Unless, of course, you believe that payment that ranges from zero to thirteen cents an hour is not slave labor. 

From the article:

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Mr. Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention.  A Guatemalan native, he was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error.

Well, since prisoner “cheap” labor is saving the tax payer and the private prison corporations so much money, it must be loved by the Democrats and the Republicans.  Clerical errors do happen, and Human Rights can be such a bore.

HOUSTON — The kitchen of the detention center here was bustling as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees. Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work — mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves.

As the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.

This work program is facing increasing resistance from detainees and criticism from immigrant advocates. In April, a lawsuit accused immigration authorities in Tacoma, Wash., of putting detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike. In Houston, guards pressed other immigrants to cover shifts left vacant by detainees who refused to work in the kitchen, according to immigrants interviewed here.

 

Detained Immigrants, Working for the U.S.

Every day, about 5,500 detained immigrants work in the nation’s immigration detention centers. Some are paid a dollar a day; others earn nothing. The locations shown are facilities that the federal government reimburses for this work.

Buffalo Federal Detention Facility

BATAVIA, N.Y.

195 workers

Northwest Detention Center

TACOMA, WASH.

346 workers

Number of workers on April 1, 2014

Houston Contract Detention Facility

HOUSTON

288 workers

300

Privately run center

Public facility (like county jails)

10

The federal authorities say the program is voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers. But immigrant advocates question whether it is truly voluntary or lawful, and argue that the government and the private prison companies that run many of the detention centers are bending the rules to convert a captive population into a self-contained labor force.

Last year, at least 60,000 immigrants worked in the federal government’s nationwide patchwork of detention centers — more than worked for any other single employer in the country, according to data from United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. The cheap labor, 13 cents an hour, saves the government and the private companies $40 million or more a year by allowing them to avoid paying outside contractors the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some immigrants held at county jails work for free, or are paid with sodas or candy bars, while also providing services like meal preparation for other government institutions.

Unlike inmates convicted of crimes, who often participate in prison work programs and forfeit their rights to many wage protections, these immigrants are civil detainees placed in holding centers, most of them awaiting hearings to determine their legal status. Roughly half of the people who appear before immigration courts are ultimately permitted to stay in the United States — often because they were here legally, because they made a compelling humanitarian argument to a judge or because federal authorities decided not to pursue the case.

“I went from making $15 an hour as a chef to $1 a day in the kitchen in lockup,” said Pedro Guzmán, 34, who had worked for restaurants in California, Minnesota and North Carolina before he was picked up and held for about 19 months, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. “And I was in the country legally.”

Mr. Guzmán said that he had been required to work even when he was running a fever, that guards had threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late for his 2 a.m. shift, and that his family had incurred more than $75,000 in debt from legal fees and lost income during his detention. A Guatemalan native, he was released in 2011 after the courts renewed his visa, which had mistakenly been revoked, in part because of a clerical error. He has since been granted permanent residency.

Claims of Exploitation

Officials at private prison companies declined to speak about their use of immigrant detainees, except to say that it was legal. Federal officials said the work helped with morale and discipline and cut expenses in a detention system that costs more than $2 billion a year.

“The program allows detainees to feel productive and contribute to the orderly operation of detention facilities,” said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency. Detainees in the program are not officially employees, she said, and their payments are stipends, not wages. No one is forced to participate, she added, and there are usually more volunteers than jobs.

Marian Martins, 49, who was picked up by ICE officers in 2009 for overstaying her visa and sent to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., said work had been her only ticket out of lockdown, where she was placed when she arrived without ever being told why.

Ms. Martins said she had worked most days cooking meals, scrubbing showers and buffing hallways. Her only compensation was extra free time outside or in a recreational room, where she could mingle with other detainees, watch television or read, she said.

“People fight for that work,” said Ms. Martins, who has no criminal history. “I was always nervous about being fired, because I needed the free time.”

Ms. Martins fled Liberia during the civil war there and entered the United States on a visitor visa in 1990. She stayed and raised three children, all of whom are American citizens, including two sons in the Air Force. Because of her deteriorating health, she was released from detention in August 2010 with an electronic ankle bracelet while awaiting a final determination of her legal status.

Natalie Barton, a spokeswoman for the Etowah detention center, declined to comment on Ms. Martins’s claims but said that all work done on site by detained immigrants was unpaid, and that the center complied with all local and federal rules.

The compensation rules at detention facilities are remnants of a bygone era. A 1950 law created the federal Voluntary Work Program and set the pay rate at a time when $1 went much further. (The equivalent would be about $9.80 today.) Congress last reviewed the rate in 1979 and opted not to raise it. It was later challenged in a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets workplace rules, but in 1990 an appellate court upheld the rate, saying that “alien detainees are not government ‘employees.’ ”

Immigrants in holding centers may be in the country illegally, but they may also be asylum seekers, permanent residents or American citizens whose documentation is questioned by the authorities. On any given day, about 5,500 detainees out of the 30,000-plus average daily population work for $1, in 55 of the roughly 250 detention facilities used by ICE. Local governments operate 21 of the programs, and private companies run the rest, agency officials said.

These detainees are typically compensated with credits toward food, toiletries and phone calls that they say are sold at inflated prices. (They can collect cash when they leave if they have not used all their credits.) “They’re making money on us while we work for them,” said Jose Moreno Olmedo, 25, a Mexican immigrant who participated in the hunger strike at the Tacoma holding center and was released on bond from the center in March. “Then they’re making even more money on us when we buy from them at the commissary.”

A Legal Gray Area

Some advocates for immigrants express doubts about the legality of the work program, saying the government and contractors are exploiting a legal gray area.

“This in essence makes the government, which forbids everyone else from hiring people without documents, the single largest employer of undocumented immigrants in the country,” said Carl Takei, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, said she believed the program violated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime. “By law, firms contracting with the federal government are supposed to match or increase local wages, not commit wage theft,” she said.

Immigration officials underestimate the number of immigrants involved and the hours they work, Professor Stevens added. Based on extrapolations from ICE contracts she has reviewed, she said, more than 135,000 immigrants a year may be involved, and private prison companies and the government may be avoiding paying more than $200 million in wages that outside employers would collect.

A 2012 report by the A.C.L.U. Foundation of Georgia described immigrants’ being threatened with solitary confinement if they refused certain work. Also, detainees said instructions about the program’s voluntary nature were sometimes given in English even though most of the immigrants do not speak the language.

Eduardo Zuñiga, 36, spent about six months in 2011 at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, awaiting deportation to Mexico. He had been detained after being stopped at a roadblock in the Atlanta area because he did not have a driver’s license and because his record showed a decade-old drug conviction for which he had received probation.

Gary Mead, who was a top ICE administrator until last year, said the agency scrutinized contract bids from private companies to ensure that they did not overestimate how much they could depend on detainees to run the centers.

Detainees cannot work more than 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, according to the agency. They are limited to work that directly contributes to the operation of their detention facility, said Ms. Christensen, the agency spokeswoman, and are not supposed to provide services or make goods for the outside market.

But that rule does not appear to be strictly enforced.

At the Joe Corley Detention Facility north of Houston, about 140 immigrant detainees prepare about 7,000 meals a day, half of which are shipped to the nearby Montgomery County jail. Pablo E. Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, which runs the center, said his company had taken it over from the county in 2013 and was working to end the outside meal program.

Near San Francisco, at the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility, immigrants work alongside criminal inmates to cook about 900 meals a day that are packaged and trucked to a county homeless shelter and nearby jails.

A Booming Business

While President Obama has called for an overhaul of immigration law, his administration has deported people — roughly two million in the last five years — at a faster pace than any of his predecessors. The administration says the sharp rise in the number of detainees has been partly driven by a requirement from Congress that ICE fill a daily quota of more than 30,000 beds in detention facilities. The typical stay is about a month, though some detainees are held much longer, sometimes for years.

Detention centers are low-margin businesses, where every cent counts, said Clayton J. Mosher, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, Vancouver, who specializes in the economics of prisons. Two private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, control most of the immigrant detention market. Many such companies struggled in the late 1990s amid a glut of private prison construction, with more facilities built than could be filled, but a spike in immigrant detention after Sept. 11 helped revitalize the industry.

The Corrections Corporation of America’s revenue, for example, rose more than 60 percent over the last decade, and its stock price climbed to more than $30 from less than $3. Last year, the company made $301 million in net income and the GEO Group made $115 million, according to earnings reports.

Prison companies are not the only beneficiaries of immigrant labor. About 5 percent of immigrants who work are unpaid, ICE data show. Sheriff Richard K. Jones of Butler County, Ohio, said his county saved at least $200,000 to $300,000 a year by relying on about 40 detainees each month for janitorial work. “All I know is it’s a lot of money saved,” he said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that promotes greater controls on immigration, said that with proper monitoring, the program had its advantages, and that the criticisms of it were part of a larger effort to delegitimize immigration detention.

Some immigrants said they appreciated the chance to work. Minsu Jeon, 23, a South Korean native who was freed in January after a monthlong stay at an immigration detention center in Ocilla, Ga., said that while he thought the pay was unfair, working as a cook helped pass the time.

“They don’t feed you that much,” he added, “but you could eat food if you worked in the kitchen.”

Qatar’s World Cup Spectacle Brought to You by Slavery November 23, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Qatar, Sports.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

 

The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.

Migrants laboring in Qatar. Most are underpaid and face torture or abuse. (Photo by WBUR/ Flickr)

Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.

Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.

Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough—or any—food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”

Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers.

Unfortunately, while horrific, these stories are far from unique in Qatar. More than 90 percent of the labor that fuels the country’s oil-slicked economy is imported, typically brought in by recruiters from South Asian countries. Not only are these migrant workers non-citizens; in the eyes of their employers, they are barely human. They live in barbaric, squalid dormitories, their movement restricted, invisible under Qatari law and cut off from their home communities.

Under the transnational migrant “sponsorship” system, according to Amnesty, workers were drawn into the labor trade by recruiting agents who falsely advertised decent, high-paying work abroad–sometimes taking on heavy debt to secure a job. The byzantine residence permit system further disenfranchises workers. When employers illegally fail to arrange permits for workers, as was frequently the case in the shadowy migrant labor market, they generally cannot return home without paying extremely heavy fines. The restrictions on migrant workers’ movement mean that “rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation,” Amnesty contends.

Underlying the whole system are fundamentally weak protections for labor organizing on the part of Qataris and migrants alike, as well as prohibitions on migrants forming trade unions. The lack of organization among workers means many migrants remain in the dark about their labor rights. One Nepalese worker explained to Amnesty, “There are many workers who keep working like donkeys, without asking a question. They don’t understand what is legally our entitlements, what our rights are.”

Some have tried to challenge employers. According to the report, the Labour Ministry and the courts have each received thousands of worker complaints, many related to basic wage and hour and other labor issues. But due to fear of retaliation and the difficulty non-Qataris face in navigating the justice system, most aggrieved workers, according to investigators, probably do not go through with the complaint process in the first place.

One worker with the U.S.-based electro-mechanical engineering contractor Krantz Engineering wrote in a desperate letter to Amnesty in April 2013 about his lack of legal recourse for his abuse:

I am writing this email after lots of pain and struggle … I have complained in several places like Labour court, Indian Embassy, High court, CID and National Human Rights Council Qatar but no any positive response from anyone of them … I don’t have money to eat food from last five days as I didn’t get salary from last nine months.

Not all of the employers using this labor are Qatar-based—the report linked multinationals such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction and OHL Construction to the subcontractors building the World Cup-related facilities. In the case of Krantz, Amnesty discovered that one of the company’s subcontractors was receiving technical training from a company called TEEX, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University. When questioned by Amnesty about the treatment of migrants, Texas A&M argued the firm “does not have any role in the management and supervision of the labor force at the facility.”

Amid international criticism from Amnesty and other organizations like the UN, Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee, a managing body for the preparation for the games, has vowed to address the reported abuses, and FIFA has issued similar comments. In a formal response to the Guardian published in September, the committee cited numerous labor protections available to migrants, including restrictions on passport confiscation.

But Sharran Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation tells Working In These Times via email she is unconvinced by Qatar’s promises. “Qatar continues to announce that it will reform the visa sponsorship system, yet nothing changes,” she says. In the wake of mounting criticism over the human rights issues surrounding the event, she adds, “Unless Qatar reforms its ways, FIFA should re-run the vote for the 2022 World Cup.”

There is also a question of who is directly responsible for regulating labor issues. Amnesty’s report focused on infrastructure construction related to the World Cup but not just the stadium itself—including transportation and supporting commercial facilities. In any case, the primarily responsibility, argue human rights advocates, lies with Qatar to reform its overall labor laws and to tighten oversight of private sector labor practices, particularly for international-sporting projects aimed at creating a global commercial spectacle.

This is not the first time FIFA has come under political pressure; earlier this year, populist protests erupted over the lavish costs of the preparations for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Though FIFA generally urges host countries to comply with international human rights, the World Cup is notorious for inducing local labor violations. For example, labor activists have condemned FIFA for not taking strong enough action against Russia’s temporary suspension of key labor protections for the migrant workers at the building sites for the 2018 World Cup.

The human rights crises haunting World Cup stadiums reveal global sport’s economic realities: the commercial spectacle that brings the world together is built on vast inequalities.

=

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

Walmart’s Forced Labor: We Feel Like We Are Slaves June 20, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
20 June 2012, www.commondreams.org

 

by Abby Zimet

How does Walmart keep its prices so low? The so-called guest workers from Mexico who peel crawfish at a Louisiana seafood supplier for Wal-Mart know: They are locked inside the plant, forced to work 24-hour shifts, cursed and threatened with beatings by shovel if they fail to make their quota, and endure constant surveillance at their nearby trailers from a boss who warns them, “You don’t want to know me as an enemy.” Having gone on strike from C.J.’s Seafood and filed federal complaints, they head to New York today to protest Wal-Mart, its subsidiaries and related boards – including Goldman Sachs – at their corporate headquarters and homes. Brought to you by the feisty National Guestworker Alliance.

Private Prison Corporations Are Slave Traders May 4, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Labor, Race, Racism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

 

 

Tue, 04/24/2012 – 21:23 — Glen Ford
 
www.blackagendareport.com
 

 

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Crime has been going down for nearly a generation, and the states have finally put the brakes on prison growth in response to the fiscal crunch. But Wall Street prison profiteers see the crisis as an opportunity. The Corrections Corporation of America has offered to buy nearly all the nation’s state prisons. “To ensure their profitability, the corporation insists that it be guaranteed that the prisons be kept at least 90 percent full.”

 

Private Prison Corporations Are Slave Traders

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

The Corrections Corporation of America believes the economic crisis has created an historic opportunity to become the landlord, as well as the manager, of a big chunk of the American prison gulag.”

The nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, is on a buying spree. With a war chest of $250 million, the corporation, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, this month sent letters to 48 states, offering to buy their prisons outright. To ensure their profitability, the corporation insists that it be guaranteed that the prisons be kept at least 90 percent full. Plus, the corporate jailers demand a 20-year management contract, on top of the profits they expect to extract by spending less money per prisoner.

For the last two years, the number of inmates held in state prisons has declined slightly, largely because the states are short on money. Crime, of course, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years, but that has never dampened the states’ appetites for warehousing ever more Black and brown bodies, and the federal prison system is still growing. However, the CorrectionsCorporation of America believes the economic crisis has created an historic opportunity to become the landlord, as well as the manager, of a big chunk of the American prison gulag.

The attempted prison grab is also defensive in nature. If private companies can gain both ownership and management of enough prisons, they can set the prices without open-bid competition for prison services, creating a guaranteed cost-plus monopoly like that which exists between the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

If private companies are allowed to own the deeds to prisons, they are a big step closer to owning the people inside them.”

But, for a better analogy, we must go back to the American slave system, a thoroughly capitalist enterprise that reduced human beings to units of labor and sale. The Corrections Corporation of America’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission read very much like the documents of a slave-trader. Investors are warned that profits would go down if the demand for prisoners declines. That is, if the world’s largest police state shrinks, so does the corporate bottom line. Dangers to profitability include “relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.” The corporation spells it out: “any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.” At the Corrections Corporation of America, human freedom is a dirty word.

But, there is something even more horrifying than the moral turpitude of the prison capitalists. If private companies are allowed to own the deeds to prisons, they are a big step closer to owning the people inside them. Many of the same politicians that created the system of mass Black incarceration over the past 40 years, would gladly hand over to private parties all responsibility for the human rights of inmates. The question of inmates’ rights is hardly raised in the debate over prison privatization. This is a dialogue steeped in slavery and racial oppression. Just as the old slave markets were abolished, so must the Black American Gulag be dismantled – with no compensation to those who traffic in human beings.

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.

 

The Tomatoes of Wrath September 26, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Published on Monday, September 26, 2011 by TruthDig.com

  by  Chris Hedges

It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.

Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.

“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”

Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicates medieval serfdom and at times descends into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.

“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”

The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.

“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt at intimidation.”

If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can be found on the CIW website.

Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The $10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.

The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Bon Appétit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields difficult if not impossible.

“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or accountability.”

One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh such documented case of slavery in a decade.

“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these practices.”

“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do not want people to question how their profits are created. We have to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”

Members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will march from a Trader Joe’s store at 604 W. Huntington Dr. in Monrovia, Calif., to the market chain’s headquarter a mile away, starting at noon Oct. 21. The farmworkers organization is demanding that Trader Joe’s support the human rights of the men and women who harvest tomatoes sold in its stores. For more information, click here, send an email to damara@justharvestusa.org or telephone (510) 725-8752 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            (510) 725-8752     end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

© 2011 TruthDig.com

<!–

–>

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

25 Comments so far

Show All

Posted by corvo
Sep 26 2011 – 10:50am

Well, expecting that Aldi (a hyperconservative German family that owns Trader Joe’s) will budge is kind of unrealistic, noble as it may be.  Even more extremely than Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s sells a feel-good lifestyle for liberals who’d rather not think too long or too hard about where their money is going.

Of course the laborers deserve to be treated fairly.  But really, who in his/her right mind and with three functioning taste buds buys tomatoes from a supermarket to begin with?

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 10:51am

Sorry Chris, this is all the price of supporting illegal immigration. Until these workers adopt the methods and restrictions of Caesar Chavez they will continue to be exploited. And there will continue to be cases of virtual slavery discovered.

How anyone can call themselves Progressive and support the exploitation of these workers is beyond understanding.

Posted by redballoon
Sep 26 2011 – 11:14am

Titus Pullo – do you eat tomatoes, ketchup, pizza, etc. Nothing we consume is free of evil.

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 2:53pm

You have a point, however, buying the produce is not the same as actually supporting the business’s involved and helping them exploit these poor workers. And the thing that strikes me most is remembering what Chavez said about it’s not just the undocumented that suffer, it’s the American worker too. Our fields are not just serviced by the undocumented, no matter what the Right say’s.

But, you have a point, none the less.

Posted by Paranoid Pessimist
Sep 26 2011 – 4:30pm

Good point indeed.  If we tried to consume only products produced by people who were paid American standard-of-living wages, there would be nothing.  People can understand the situation and purchase responsibly as much as possible, but all that’s accomplishing is salving their personal consciences — like ecologically correct consuming (“It’s not my fault; I bought only green socially responsible stuff”).  It won’t help to have lived that way once the big crunchdown begins in earnest.

The business wing of the right wing says that they have to offsource jobs because the American workers are paid so much more than third world peasants.  They say that it’s because American workers are selfish (not because our way of life is barely affordable even with “living” wages) and that if we had real competitive community spirit, we’d give up all that minimum wage b.s. and enthusiastically join in on the race to the bottom, assured that because we’re God-blessed Americans we’d somehow come out on top.

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 11:47am

Two wrongs don’t make a right. “Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.” I’ll bet it’s considerably more than 50%. The workers don’t belong here. They are exploited by big and small Agra business. The tomato industry makes billions for its wealthy owners. We have to pay $2 a pound in the grocery store for tomatoes. Losers: American consumers & Illegals;   Winners: Wealthy Agra Business owners

Simple solution is to grow your own. I grew cherry tomatoes this years. It was fun and easy. I’m not a gardener. I think we should be given tax credits for planting fruit trees. Zucchini is easy to grow and produces so much that the excess could be given to food banks. If the masses started to grow food big time, prices would come down. Grocery stores would not be able to charge so much.

Supporting our illegal problem is not a solution. Illegals need to fight for their rights in their own countries. If we stopped illegal immigration and tomatoes rotted in the fields and the price of ketchup skyrocketed then we would start growing our own. Local small organic farms would spring up. The price of tomatoes would go down. We would not have an illegal problem and the only losers would be those getting rich charging $2 for tomatoes.

Posted by pjd412
Sep 26 2011 – 2:26pm

I don’t know what is worse, your suburban-bourgeois-liberal self-absorbed smugness or your complete lack of understanding understanding of basic economics.

The Mexican/central American workers worker’s alternative is either to come up here for work or watch themselves and their families starve.  Understand?  What would YOU do if you were in their situation?

Posted by Galenwainwright…
Sep 26 2011 – 2:31pm

Eat the rich?

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 2:42pm

The Mexican/Central American worker’s should overthrow their masters or remain poor for a few more centuries. How about a Mexican/Central American Spring? The easy way is to head north. We have problems of our own.

Posted by Sonmi451
Sep 26 2011 – 2:56pm

Easy way?  Define easy.  And we?  Excuse me, but I think most of us have more solidarity with the poor Mexican/Central American workers who may “remain poor for a few more centuries” than with you.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:03pm

Those Mexican/Central American workers have been governed by “masters” installed and protected by higher and mightier masters in New York (and the politicians they own in Washington DC) for more than a century. Any overthrows during that time would have resulted in a subsequent US-approved master replacing the previous one.

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 4:26pm

“…most of us have more solidarity with the poor Mexican/Central American workers…”

I do not agree. I believe you’re claimed solidarity is a liberal myth. Jobs, jobs, jobs are on the minds of most Americans. Illegals flood the job market and suppress wages. Jobs Americans won’t do, they would do for more money. No more money is offered because ‘Manuel’ the laborer from south of our border will work for slave wages.

Tomatoes need to rot in fields year after year till wages and working conditions improve. It would be a form of strike that will never happen because ‘Manuel’ and his friends are waiting every morning at 6 am in parking lots across the south to work for slave wages. Gandhi marched to the sea and made salt. We could certainly grow a few tomatoes! (tomatoes – cook and add salt and you have ketchup; cook and add sugar you have tomato soup)

Illegal immigration needs to be dealt with. No more kicking the frijoles can down the road. I’m all for putting the no vacancy sign on the Statue of Liberty. We no longer have a western frontier to explore and settle. We need all the jobs we can get for our own children and our own ex-slaves. All liberals are not bleeding hearts.

Posted by Siouxrose
Sep 26 2011 – 3:04pm

SJRyan: You appear to be morphing into Thomas More here!

As for me, I will write that letter to Publix. There must be ten Publix supermarkets in Gainesville, and many cater to “upscale” community members. The university, added to two hospitals, seems to fuel a complex of well paid employees and the shelves at Publix all but glitter like gold. The extra penny or so is NOTHING to this operation or the vast majority who shop at Publix.

I will be writing a letter in support of this initiative.

Some in this forum are so adamant that they can only accept radical, immediate solutions. These are not likely to happen. By discarding what CAN be done, they show no respect for, nor tolerance of increments that just might make a difference in someone else’s life. Sure, I’d love to see Wall Street overthrown, the covert government coup disabled, the MIC put on virtual house arrest, the tax money collected directed at matters that actually improve human lives… but in the meanwhile, maybe small acts of decency can insure that a few more might not find themselves in slavery.

Posted by corvo
Sep 26 2011 – 4:20pm

Publix is a viciously conservative operation.  But then, most supermarket chains are.

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 3:05pm

SJRyan

I would like to point out that it is hard to do as you say when they are harnessed to NAFTA, etc. no less than our own workers.

Can we afford to subsidize business in using the undocumented? No. Should they be allowed to come here illegally. Of course not. Now that those things are out of the way, how does anyone blame someone for trying to support their family? We cannot and must not blame these exploited workers for our faults. And the fault is ours.

One question. If you were a corn farmer and your government agreed to a trade agreement (NAFTA) that put you out of the business of farming and just across the border were business’s, a government and other’s for political reasons that enticed you to come here illegally but offered to pay you far more than you could get at home (nada) and not to enforce their laws so you could work and they could pay you slave wages there (but to you is a high wage), what would you do?

I know exactly what I would do.

Posted by shipleye
Sep 26 2011 – 12:12pm

I would suggest reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland which talks about the terrible working conditions of the migrant farm worker and the poisons that are sprayed on the fields and by “accident” the workers themselves.
I believe that a shorter version was published in Gourmet under the title: The price of tomatoes.

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 12:27pm

I am not positive of this, but in most cases the greatest cost of doing busiess is usually employees wages… I am going to (assume) that would be true for the tomato business.

So,,, a field worker is paid (fifty cents) to pick 32 ponds of tomatoes, the same wages as they were paid in 1980… Something is very, very wrong here.

Two years ago a can of Cambell’s tomato soup cost between 55 cents up to 65 cents…  Now the price is more than a dollar and in some supermarkets a buck and a quarter… That steep rise is for all varieties of canned soups however…The price of all canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauses, has also about doubled in just two years.

One would think, it would be fair to have doubled the field workers wages in the past two years, or at least a fair pay hike.

Someone is makeing LOTS, tons  of unfair profit… Who? __ Who really controls the price of food? __ Fuel cost is currently about the same as two years ago and a lot less than four years ago, it isn’t just the cost of fuel that has raised the price of food so high.

Is it all due because they started using a FOOD crop (corn) to make ethanol, (instead of hemp),  and the price of corn very quickly went way up and so then did all other food prices go way up? __  I’d like to know. why the cost of food has skyrocketed in two to three years time.. .

And Trader Joes?__ We love TJs,,, much lower prices for almost everything and a great selection of breads, spices, unusual food items, etc… Paper bags too.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:06pm

As WayneWR pointed out, the price of food in the US (not just food containing tomatoes) has doubled during the past two years While wages for the workers producing the food have been flat or declining.

Note that many third world nations have seen food costs more than double during the same period.

Doubling the cost of food in the US is the result of several factors, including the following:

Skyrocketing medical insurance costs for the workers producing, processing, transporting and selling food.

Serial regressive Federal Reserve monetary policy combined with unregulated speculation of the commodities (including fossil fuel) needed to produce, process, and transport food.

Higher electrical power costs caused by security costs and risk-shifting from owners to ratepayers.

A weak US dollar.

Posted by Heavyrunner
Sep 26 2011 – 2:56pm

The price of oil has also doubled in that time. Without oil, our global agricultural system collapses.

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 12:46pm

I just thought of something else…  When I was a teen, in the 50s, living in New Jersey,  when harvest time came, all of us school kids, college students picked tomtoes, cukes, apples and peaches, blueberries, etc…  I was paid 50 cent for every half a bushel of apples back then., never saw any pickers from Mexico or South America.

What the heck has happened to us here in America?  This isn’t the America I grew up in.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:10pm

ALL of the jobs  I worked at from age 12 through 25 (newspaper delivery, picking crops, construction, factory work) are now done by immigrants.  Parents today want their kids to have jobs that lead to one of the few careers that actually pay a decent salary.

Posted by NateW
Sep 26 2011 – 12:53pm

Perhaps Chris Hedges needs to do a bit more research as to where the majority tomatoes sold in Trader Joe’s come from (Mexico).  This sort of sloppy action really muddies the waters and reeks of ‘activism for hire’ along the lines of what the American Conservative Union did at the behest of FedEx against UPS a few years ago (notice the admonition to shop at the ultra-faux progressive Wal-Mart of chain markets, Whole Foods?).  While Trader Joe’s & their owner, Aldi Nord, are no paragons of shopping virtue by any stretch of the imagination, it will be a cold day in Hell before I ever step foot into John Mackey’s ‘Whole Paycheck.’

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 1:56pm

Well ~~Nate~~ where do you think the tomatoes sold at Trader Joes, other than perhaps ‘organic’ grown come from? __ Have you done any resarch on that? __ How do you know how much research ~Chris Hedges~ has done or has not done on the tomato subject?

I know one thing,,, about 40% of our food is now imported and most of our veggies now arrive from Mexico and or South America…  And Wal-Mart can kiss my rear. I hate walking a half mile to get from the auto parts to the cookie jars and seeing 90% of the stores junk comes from China…   We once found swollen cans of diced carrots in a Wal-Mart.

Got a red vested “May I Help You” fellow to see it and he immediatly cleared the shelves… He said those canned carrots came from China… Scary huh?

Posted by Sonmi451
Sep 26 2011 – 2:16pm

What a perfect microcosm of our entire corrupt and contemptible system.  Most people are still under the destructive assumption that corporations “give” us jobs.  That the market will regulate itself and pay workers what they are “worth”.  Any study of capitalism, whether historical or contemporary, will reveal how corporations always have and always will maximize profits by ANY means necessary. Of course, that is their raison d’etre.  Employers will do as little as possible, until they are forced to do more.  It is what you get when you order a system based on greed and avarice.

Posted by Galenwainwright…
Sep 26 2011 – 2:37pm

The had a civil war once over shit like this.

You had people, your own citizens, suffer incredible hardship and destitution like this in the Lesser Great Depression.

The plight of the migrant worker, whether illegal immigrant or American born poor, has been popularized by the “liberal’ intelligentsia since the 1980’s.

AND NOTHING HAS CHANGED!

So either shit or get off the pot. Either these people are human beings deserving of basic dignity, or they are utterly expendable slaves who exist only to fuel the Corporations. Decide. Now.

Join the discussion

Hershey’s ‘No Charlie’s Chocolate Factory’ August 23, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
Roger’s note: I am personally boycotting Hershey’s chocolate.  Now that’s dedication!
 
Published on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 by The Sydney Morning Herald

 

  by Jon Swaine

 

NEW YORK – It sounded like the perfect summer job.

Anger … a student protests against the working conditions at a Hershey’s factory. (Photo: AP)

Students from China, Africa and eastern Europe would work in a Hershey’s chocolate plant before using their earnings to travel the US and learn English.

“We have all seen Charlie’s chocolate factory,” said one student, 19-year-old Harika Duygu Ozer. Another said: “I thought we would see America like in movies.”

The factory, in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, did not live up to Roald Dahl’s thrilling world of chocolate waterfalls and infinite treats, however.

The 400 students, who each paid up to $US5940 ($5700) to join the State department’s cultural exchange scheme, claimed they were forced to become “captive workers”.

Shifts, often at night, consisted of lifting dozens of heavy boxes, trying to control fast-moving production lines, they said.

“They don’t care if you are small, you don’t have the power, you didn’t eat – they just care about their production,” one of the students said.

A spokesman for the National Guestworker Alliance, which is backing the group, said: “They were warned to stop complaining or they would be kicked out.”

The students walked out last week in protest at their conditions and pay, which after deductions and rent charges allegedly amounted to between $US40 and $US140 for 40 hours of work per week. They marched with dozens of supporters through Hershey itself.

Hershey said the plant was run by Exel, a logistics company. Exel said temporary workers were overseen by a third company, and that it had been told to stop hiring students from the scheme. It said students were informed of likely working conditions.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald
 
5 Comments so far
Posted by Stonepig
Aug 23 2011 – 8:54am
      Please boycott Hershey.  This is frigging ghastly.  Now instead of shooting aliens, we are making them pay to come here, (to learn English? are you kidding me?) and be treated like this?   Who the fuque are we?  Amnesty and the HRW and ACLU should be all over this.  Outrageous.   
Posted by Stonepig
Aug 23 2011 – 8:59am
      Hey Hershey…couldn’t find any Americans to work your lines for floor dropped peanuts?????   
Posted by Stonepig
Aug 23 2011 – 9:09am
      Hey Hershey…couldn’t find any Americans to work your lines for floor dropped peanuts?????        
Posted by pjd412
Aug 23 2011 – 11:17am
      They probably DO employ plenty of USAns. But unlike the foreigners, the USAns sullenly accept the conditions and wages of their work without complaint.  After all, the USA is the very best place in all the world, so surely, it couldn’t be any better than 60 hours of toil at a generous $7.50 per hour (less if you  are called a ‘1099 contractor”), couldn’t it?

Nothing new here.  The entire US labor movement in the late 19th/early 20th century was founded by foreign immigrants.  The anglo-saxon protestant natives accepted their lot in life, or even filled the ranks of the scabs and Mr. Blocks (look it up).   

Posted by PEAdvocate
Aug 23 2011 – 10:19am
      How long will it take before people realize that capitalism is akin to slavery?  Now the slave-drivers are subcontracted to insulate those who are really responsible.  I’ve mentioned this before but it just doesn’t seem to sink in – labor law today still refers to “the master-servant relationship”.  That is what capitalism is – just a different form of slavery; wage slavery and debt slavery.  We need to be talking about emancipation from capitalism.       
 

21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor July 22, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Labor, Race, Racism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

AlterNet /
By Rania Khalek

 

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant
strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.

 

July 21, 2011  |

//
There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that corporations
are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their
political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class
citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from
speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from
society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change
their plight.

They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we
cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
21st century.

Incarceration Nation

It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other
nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population,
the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008,
over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48
working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of
thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners
awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison
pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds
the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the
hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at
large.

According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy
Research
(CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and
1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000
people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more
rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980
to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed,
with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on
African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black
males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5
that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three
times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.

Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were
enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates
of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses,
possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.

Incentivizing Incarceration

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it
gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market,
and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners
as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the
eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor
pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily
controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like
health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no
wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for
vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never
late or absent because of family problems.

If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their
sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use
of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under
the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers
earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a
reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent
of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”

Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet
rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, the use of p
rivate
prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does
not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.

The disturbing
implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the
possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion
of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies
that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are
the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or
more separate occasions.  People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like
shoplifting
.

The
Reinvention of Slavery

The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized
to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of
prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery
. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic
blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil
War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was
created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black
workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to
illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:

“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of
Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now
expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working
the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”

The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict
Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American
servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for
African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of
newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison
to surpass whites for the first time. Convict
leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state
a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during
the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at
night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for
plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.

Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable
state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created
enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
actually disappeared.

Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private
corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake
in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by
running prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in every
state, and throughout the federal prison system, where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the
state.

In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the
chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in
America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or
face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a
day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of
driving under the influence. In a press release he boasted that the
inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
and driving.

The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia,
where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the
country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off
their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.

There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which
should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage
any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off
on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine
counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the
era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further
increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.

Who Profits?

Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison
labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement
in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the
labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least
37 states
have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private
enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.

Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its
principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
approximately 53
percent
of its sales. Some  21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently,
the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services
sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now
employs more people
than any Fortune 500 company
(besides General Motors), and
generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:

“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working
full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of
them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities
and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take
hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S.
military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates.”

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the
expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing,
Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,
Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern
Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and
many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the
prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the
profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.

In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a
number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:

“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female
South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California
prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to
replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the
USA.'”

According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:

“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding,
shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including
those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses
for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal
News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid
union wages of $30 on the outside.”

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the
explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably
damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents
desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence,
were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.

In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe
Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing
the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup
workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few
people.

Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable
as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying
closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open
operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of
American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The
move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod
along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid
$20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for
less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease”
prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own
personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf
hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death
penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the
scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national
prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995.

In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York
Times
recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in
federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record
unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses,
sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by
private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once
held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious
anti-union law.

Why You Should Care

Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for
rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to
meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive,
menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While
little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison,
there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be
useful.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of
incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11
percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor
market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time
of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move
toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders,
and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety
concerns.

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop
labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into
prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement
must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work
environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can
only do so much from inside a prison cell.

As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration
rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Checkout her blog Missing Pieces or follow her on Twitter @Rania_ak. You can contact her at raniakhalek@gmail.com.

Corporate Criminals – Chevron June 5, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador, Environment, Latin America.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

BP is not the worst criminal conspiracy dressed as an oil company. Royal Dutch Shell (more later) and Chevron are much worse.

The Crimes of Chevron
Slavery, Vandalism, Murder by Proxy

One of Chevron’s Amazon oil pits.
(Here’s Daryl Hannah at another.)

Chevron is partnered with the Myanmar (Burma) military junta in building a gas pipeline project. Finding workers for this huge project was no problem – the Myanmar military simply impressed the indigenous people into slave labor gangs.

The recruiting system is simple. The junta burns their villages to the ground, herds the population at gunpoint into relocation (concentration) camps, doesn’t allow them to grown their own food and tells them the only way to eat is to work. They work clearing the forest, as porters (slaves are cheaper than trucks), and sex slaves for the project engineers. It should be noted that Chevron does not directly impress the workers. The Burma junta does the “hiring,” Chevron just profits from the arrangement. Chevron nobly claim they are providing “jobs” for the people in the region. Chevron neglects to note they are non-paying jobs with benefits that include torture and rape. Some reports say the workers are being paid a token for their forced labor. Burmese citizens who protest the pipeline project are murdered by the government. (See also Burma Digest about oppression in Karen State, End Human Trafficking on Chevron’s link to forced labor, the Free Burma Rangers, and Rebecca Tarbottom on the True Cost of Chevron in Burma)

In Ecuador, Chevron’s attack on indigenous people involves the destruction of their land and the poisoning of their rivers. When shareholders met last week in Houston, Chevron used the Houston police department to forcibly exclude shareholders who disagreed with management on its conduct in Ecuador from attending the annual meeting.

Chevron is an American corporation with headquarters in California. In California slavery is punished by at least three years in prison per count. What Chevron dumps in the Amazon River violates the Clean Water Act (if it were done in the US), it violates Ecuador law too.

Chevron has revenues of $167 billion last year and is the third largest business in the United States. Their CEO made nearly $9 million last year, 85% of it from non-salary bonuses and options.

Private Prison as Stimulus April 6, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Economic Crisis, Human Rights, Immigration.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Matt Kelley, http://immigration.change.org/blog

Published April 02, 2009 @ 05:00AM PST

 

 

 

[Change.org’s Criminal Justice blogger Matt Kelley guest blogs here today about the consequences of privatization and proliferation of immigration detention.  Check out Matt’s blog today for my guest post there about the DREAM Act. - DB]

Cities and towns from coast to coast are struggling to stay afloat in this recession and they’re grasping for any new industry that will move to town  – including one that profits from locking up immigrants, private prisons. It’s sad that the warehousing of immigrants is one of few stable industries in the United States today, but it’ll stay that way as long a cycle of profit surrounds our immigration policy.

Local governments are tripping over one another to get a piece of the private prison pie. Two news stories this week – from Baldwin County, Georgia and Morton, Mississippi – make plain the unapologetic drive of municipal governments to become prison towns to create jobs and industry when manufacturing and other industries are dying and moving away. The destructive immigration policies that siphon thousands of people into these prisons are viewed as nothing more than fodder in an economic machine.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of locking up undocumented immigrants, we could focus on enabling hard-working people to pursue their dreams and stimulate the economy through work and innovation rather than through prison profits.

Today on the Criminal Justice blog, Dave Bennion writes about the promise of the DREAM Act, which – as you know – would allow undocumented immigrants to pursue legal status through college education or military service. Passage of the DREAM Act would be a big step in the right direction, for an America that should allow us to pursue our personal and professional goals. But until progressive reforms like this take root, we’re dangling the American Dream before the eyes of millions, only to divert them to being warehoused in our private prisons, working and living for someone else’s profit.

(more…)

Dubois’s Revenge: Reinterrogating American Democratic Theory … or Why We Need a Revolutionary Black Research Agenda in the 21st Century March 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in History, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment
 

William (Bill) Strickland

www.blackcommentator.com, March 26, 2009

I.  PROLOGUE

In 1899, one year after completing what many consider to be the first real Black Study, his magisterial sociological analysis, The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois addressed the American Academy in Philadelphia and proposed what might also be considered the first real Black Research Agenda.

To the white scholars gathered in Philadelphia, Du Bois proposed a path-breaking study of the Negro people:

The American Negro deserves study for the great end of advancing the cause of science in general. No such opportunity to watch and measure the history and development of a great race of people ever presented itself to the scholars of a modern nation.  If they miss this opportunity—if they do the work in a slipshod, unsystematic manner—if they dally with the truth to humor the whims of the day, they do far more than hurt the good name of the American people; they hurt the cause of scientific truth the world over. . .” (emphasis mine) [1]

However, persuaded that they were already in possession of ‘the truth’ about race, and perhaps equally unpersuaded that Negroes belonged to ‘a great race of people,’ the Academy declined to participate in Du Bois’s project.

 

Characteristically then, and largely unaided, Du Bois, for the next twenty years—first from Atlanta and later from New York—pursued the racial research we now know as the famous Atlanta University Studies; constructing virtually single-handedly, to all intents and purposes, what was the first Black Studies program in America.  (By celebrating Du Bois in this way, there is no intent to slight George Washington Williams, who Vincent Harding calls “the first substantial scholarly historian of Blacks in America,” [2] and whose 1883 opus, History Of The Negro Race In America From 1619-1880 V2: Negroes As Slaves, As Soldiers, And As Citizens , still stands as the original foundational text of black history.  Nor can one overlook Carter G. Woodson, generally regarded as the Father of Negro History.  Rather one wishes simply to call attention to the fact that in regard to Black Studies, Du Bois was, as in so much else, there “at the creation.”)

But Du Bois’s work in pursuit of the truth about the race’s past and present increasingly led him into a collision with America’s self-definition as a “democratic land” which, despite its negligible “negro problem,” still saw and proclaimed itself, in the classical Panglossian sense, “the best of all possible worlds.”

Du Bois vs. the Historical Establishment

Du Bois’s confrontation with the American historiography that had not changed its opinion of the essential unworthiness of the Negro in the three plus decades since Philadelphia, came to a head in 1935 when he published his seminal reinterpretation of the Reconstruction era, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

 

Concluding the volume with a chapter entitled, “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois charged that “the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed.  The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery, the North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and establish democracy” (emphasis mine). [3]

This critique was both revolutionary and heretical since it not only attributed what we now routinely describe as “agency” to black people but it also struck a Joe Louis-like blow against white supremacy by asserting that black people had been the Salvationists of the Civil War Republic!  Therefore what Du Bois’s perspective represented and what it called for, implicitly, was a new history of America.

Du Bois made that implication explicit on the global level as well in a 1943 letter to Will Alexander, a special assistant in the office of the War Manpower Commission who had written Du Bois from Washington that “there is a small group of scholars here, men of wide experience in international matters, who feel that there is need of a universal history of racism as it has appeared in various places around the world.” [4]

Two weeks after receiving Alexander’s November letter, Du Bois responded from Atlanta “that a universal history of racism would be an excellent undertaking but . . . if you are going to take the wide definition of race including nationalism, minorities, status, slavery, etc., it would be attempting a new universal history on a vast scale” (emphasis mine). [5]

Du Bois’s view that applying a “wide” definition of race to world  history would, ipso facto, produce a new historical paradigm, a virtual reformulation of the way that one thought about the past and present world, is what I want to suggest is also both true and necessary for American political history and theory; that the need to reinterrogate the various ways that race and racism have impacted upon and, indeed, shaped the American nation state is also a history that must be reconceptualized “on a vast scale” if we wish to take up Du Bois’s crusade for “scientific truth.”

At bottom, the question that underlies such an enquiry is quite simple: Since public policy and constitutional law in America have sanctioned slavery, segregation, discrimination and institutional racism, how is it possible to reconcile the democratic theory of the state with the black civic experience?  For example, the state may be conceptualized as an autonomous actor, a neutral arbiter, a gendarme, or an instrument of race, class and gender oppression.  But whichever way the state is conceived, it unquestionably performs a certain role in allocating wealth, status, privilege and resources to some while withholding those perquisites from others.  Moreover, although a taboo subject in conventional American appraisals, the chief means employed by the state and society to maintain and perpetuate the racial social order has been the resort to violence. 

 

Slavery was violent and was only overthrown by violence.  Reconstruction was dismantled by violence.  The system of Jim Crow rested upon the theory and praxis of violence and the resistance to the freedom movement was, at its core, violent.  The challenge, therefore, is to look longitudinally at American political history to try and gain a more accurate understanding of how the Republic has related actually, rather than mythically, to the black presence in its midst.   Consider this example both of one problem unexamined and the kind of research needed to bring it to light.

The Southern Question

In 1944, Adam Clayton Powell was elected to Congress from Harlem and arrived in Washington in 1945, the last year of World War II’s fight against fascism. [6]

But what did Adam have to contend with once he had taken his seat?  He had to contend with the racist rantings of Southern Congressmen like John Rankin of Mississippi who were still freely indulging the epithet “nigger” on the House floor.  (Rankin was an equal opportunity bigot since he also assailed columnist Walter Winchell as “a little kike.”) [7]

To his credit, and despite the expectation that freshmen Congressmen were to be seen and not heard, Adam rose after another Rankin outburst to say that “the time has arrived to impeach Rankin, or at least expel him from the party.” [8]

So how do we theorize about this incident?  Were Rankin’s fulminations simply an individual expression of racist sentiment or symptomatic of something more organic to American political life?  What, for example, did the apparent tolerance of the behavior signify?  And how far back did this normative racism go?  All the way back to 1790?  Or was it only a twentieth century phenomenon?  That is, did racial insults abate in Congress during the thirty years, from 1871 to 1901, when black men sat in the Congress?  In fine, what is the historical record of racist discourse—and the advancement of racist interests–in the House and Senate of the United States?  Researching that question in the Congressional Record, the Congressional Globe, et al., would be a massive undertaking—and aside from William Lee Miller’s Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress (Knopf, 1995) which details the 1830’s Congressional fight over petitions against slavery–so far as I know no one has yet done it.  But questions such as these need to be answered if we are ever to truly fathom the nature of the American racial state.

Also one might raise many other questions about Dixiecrat power for one’s research agenda, like the political side of the reparations question.  For while the subject of reparations for unpaid slave labor has generated heated political discussion for decades, there has been no similar effort to systematically appraise the cost of federal programs and public policy which the South steered to itself on the backs of the expropriated political power of disenfranchised Blacks.

We know, for example, that the Freedmen’s Bank was burgled by government-affiliated speculators after the Civil War.  We know that many black veterans of World War I were never given their pensions.   We know that the Union army paid its black soldiers only half of what they paid white soldiers until black soldier protest and war exigencies forced the government to relent in the last year of the war.  And we know that the funds of the New Deal programs were discriminatorily disbursed during the Depression.  But we can’t put a dollar figure on these serial betrayals by the national government nor on the spin-off benefits which the South enjoyed because of its stolen political power.  How many public projects and military bases were sited in the former Confederacy, one wonders?  And government subsidies?  And tax breaks?

 

The questions are endless but the answers will help us illuminate the suppressed dimension of the American racial state.

So where might we begin?  At the beginning, of course, with the sacrosanct foundation myths of American exceptionalism.

II.   ON THE POLITICS OF MISREPRESENTATION

“The United States was the land of captivity, of slavery rather than liberty, and the discovery of the New World represented not the founding of a shining city on a hill but the start of the crime against Africans.” [9]   –Manisha Sinha

The problem of reinterpreting America’s history and politics is only partly a problem of new discovery since much of the actual history is known.  It exists in records, documents, oral history and in books, both old and new.

The problem is that non-mainstream history is an embarrassment to the national myths that make up America’s identity so it is banished from the national memory; hidden from national view; concealed behind what Du Bois called The Veil.  What we are left with is invented history, abetted by various “masking devices” such as historical patterns that go uncommented upon; euphemistic language such as “landed gentry” instead of slave-owners; “racial riots” instead of pogroms; “violence” instead of murder; “harassment and intimidation” instead of racial terror, ad infinitum. (emphasis mine)  Another ploy is the examination of the “thoughts” and “minds” of Great White Men while shying away from their deeds.

But the most persistent disguising tradition has been simply to ignore the messenger. . . the fate of most black critical voices over the ages.  Indeed, Manisha Sinha, in the January 2007 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, points out that “Historians have yet to fully appreciate the alternative and radical nature of black abolitionist ideology. . . [that] not only pointed to the shortcomings of American revolutionary ideals but also exposed their complicity in upholding racial slavery.” [10]   And, if ignoring the messenger did not suffice, then the reaction was to professionally slay the renegade scholar.  That was the fate meted out to the late Fawn Brodie whose 1974 volume, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, dared to suggest an “intimate relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. . .”   Her reward was to be almost unanimously pilloried by the academic establishment.  So what, at bottom, are we dealing with?

Is America just another case of national vanity run amok since nearly all societies, like nearly all religions, tend to think of themselves as special and adhere to creation myths which attest to their uniqueness?   Or is something more at stake?  Something like America’s aspiration to world leadership based on its self-image of being specially favored and specially blessed?  It is to answer that question that one turns to the past because it is the past which best contextualizes today’s diabolical policies of preemptive war, international kidnappings, secret prisons, sanctioned torture, the gulag of Guantanamo, the excesses of the FBI and the administration’s scornful disregard of the Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and the right of habeas corpus.

 

The past conceptualizes these practices because, although chronologically new, they are remarkably akin to deeds which Du Bois deplored some fifty years ago:

There was a day when the world rightly called Americans honest even if crude; earning their living by hard work; telling the truth no matter whom it hurt; and going to war in what they believed a just cause after nothing else seemed possible.  Today we are lying, stealing and killing.  We call all this by finer names: Advertising, Free Enterprise, and National Defense.  But names in the end deceive no one; today we use science to help us deceive our fellows; we take wealth that we never earned and we are devoting all our energies to kill, maim and drive insane men, women, and children who dare refuse to do what we want done.  No nation threatens us.  We threaten the world. [11] (emphasis mine.)

Seem familiar?

The significance of Du Bois’s critique is that he saw America not as most Americans see it but through his own racial lens; utilizing the second sight he had gained as a lifelong racial outsider in the land of his birth:

Had it not been for the race problem early thrust upon me and enveloping me, I should have probably been an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order and of the economic development into which I was born. But just that part of this order which seemed to most of my fellows nearest perfection, seemed to me most inequitable and wrong; and starting from that critique I, gradually, as the years went by, found other things to question in my environment. [12]   (emphasis mine)

So Fawn Brodie questioned an icon while Du Bois questioned the “social order.”  Both interrogations suggest new interpretative spaces where the meaning of America can be remapped in order to investigate the line of historical continuity from the international slave trade to the multi-national corporation, from the Indian “wars” of yesterday to the Iraqi occupation of today, from America’s oft-invoked democratic claims to its oft-enacted undemocratic actions.

III. ON RACIAL (AND OTHER) CONTRADICTIONS
OF AMERICA’S FOUNDING HISTORY

To review American political history from top to bottom is obviously beyond the scope of this paper.  What it seeks to do is reanalyze America’s founding years by piggy-backing on some of the excellent works written both recently and in past years, which have significantly contributed to our understanding of non-mythical American history.

 

In that connection James Loewen’s pioneering, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Revised and Updated Edition (New Press, NY, 1995) must be mentioned as well as THINKING AND RETHINKING U.S. HISTORY , edited by Gerald Horne and published by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1988.  (In fact, Horne has been exemplary in resurrecting neglected history as in his Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920 (American History and Culture Series) (NYU Press, 2005). [13]   He has also provided us with a critically new perspective on the role of race in World War II in his Race War!: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire (NYU, 2004) which “delves into forgotten history to reveal how European racism and colonialism were deftly exploited by the Japanese to create allies among formerly colonized people of color.” [14] )

The methodology of inquiry will be to carry on a dialogue with these books; outlining what new historical hypotheses they seem to represent and what new questions and issues arising from them might deservedly constitute a research agenda of the future.

IV.  THE FOUNDING UNROMATICIZED: COLONIALISM, CAPITALISM, AND CITIZENSHIP BEFORE THE MAYFLOWER

In 1964, Eli Ginsberg and Alfred Eichner published their book Troublesome Presence: American Democracy and the Black-Americans (hereafter G&E) which painted quite a different picture of American settlers from the archetypical image of freedom-seeking Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620.   They wrote that. . . “of the several million persons who reached Great Britain’s North American colonies before 1776, it is conservatively estimated that close to 80 percent arrived under some form of servitude.” [15]   (emphasis mine)

Since we are accustomed to think of servitude and/or slavery as being the lot only of Africans and their descendants and also know that, as of the first official census in America in 1790, these persons comprised approximately 20 percent of the American population, we are left to wonder about the status of this majority of  unknown white settlers.  Who were they, these non-Pilgrims? 

A partial answer can be found in G&E and also in Gary Nash’s classic work of colonial history, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America (5th Edition).   Both direct our attention to the Jamestown Landing of 1607 where the two constituent elements of American exceptionalism first came into being, i.e., the awarding of “free” land to the settlers and their gaining of the right to vote.  However, both of these bestowals by the architects of the Jamestown project, the Virginia Company of London, arose out of the financial imperatives of settlement not out of any sentiments of democratic idealism.  More importantly these concessions were made by the London businessmen whose desperate hope was to turn Jamestown into a successful profit-making enterprise as the Spaniards had done in Mexico and Peru. 

Witness Gary Nash:

The English founded their first permanent settlement in the Americas at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  But it was not a colony at all. . . Rather it was a business enterprise, the property of the Virginia Company of London, made up of stockholders and a governing board of directors who answered directly to James 1.” [16] (emphasis mine)

Thus America was birthed by capitalism, not by freedom.  Indeed the Jamestown Project’s partnership between the corporation and the state was to serve as a useful model later in the century when the Royal African Company was granted a monopoly of the English slave trade with West Africa in 1672 by King Charles II.

Not Colonists But Conquistadors

We have come to think of slavery and the slave trade as the prime incubators and instigators of American racism with the American South as its birthplace.  Except. . . the first racial slaves in America were not Africans but Indians and the first state to legally sanction slavery was not Virginia in 1661 but Massachusetts in 1641. [17]

 

Moreover Massachusetts’s involvement in the slave trade antedates even their first slave law, e.g., “The first definitely authenticated American-built vessel to carry slaves was the Desire built in Marblehead [Massachusetts] and sailing out of Salem in 1638 [carrying] a cargo, among other things, of seventeen Pequot Indians, whom she sold in the West Indies.” [18] (emphasis mine)   What this neglected history of Indian slavery suggests is that we must see the Indian as well as the African as the original racial “other,” the negation of whose humanity was the dialectical affirmation of white superiority in America; that slavery and the slave trade tie Massachusetts and Virginia together and demonstrate the North-South national pattern of racial exploitation that evolves so seamlessly into racism.

Any new research agenda thus needs to reconceptualize white–Indian along with white-African relations to gain a fuller understanding of the role of race in shaping both the racial and cultural identity of America and in making possible its political and economic development.  Volumes such as Almon Lauber’s Indian Slavery in Colonial Times (Amsterdam, NY, 1969 but originally published in 1913), Allan Gallay’s The Indian Slave Trade, 1670-1717 (Yale, New Haven, 2002), and others like Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Cornell, NY, 2000) and her most recent book, The Jamestown Project (Harvard, Cambridge, MA, 2007) tell the more inclusive story of how considerations of race dominate early American relations. . .  As we can see by returning to the saga of Virginia:

“In the autumn of 1607. . . when food supplies were running perilously low and all but a handful of Jamestown settlers had fallen too ill to work, the colony was saved by Powhatan, whose men brought sufficient food to keep the struggling settlement alive until the sick recovered and the relief ship arrived.” [19]   (emphasis mine)  So Powhatan, more famous in the white-washed history as the father of Pocahontas, saves the Jamestown settlers in 1607, years before the Pilgrims landing and years before the holiday we now celebrate as Thanksgiving.  But Powhatan’s life-saving graciousness has gone unlearned, unappreciated, unspoken of—even this year, the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s Founding.  Perhaps that is because, as Du Bois wrote about the black contribution to the Civil War, the settlers were ashamed of being indebted to those whom they considered their inferiors. Or maybe it’s the historians who should be held accountable. Whatever….  In the historical scheme of things, this oversight does not seem to have mattered because the new settlers soon re-righted their racial world at the behest of their superiors; to wit:

In 1609, the royal governor of Jamestown was ordered by the Virginia Company “to effect a military occupation of the region . . . to make all tribes tributary to him rather than to Powhatan, to extract corn, furs, dyes, and labor from each tribe and, if possible, to mold the natives into an agricultural labor force as the Spanish had done in their colonies.” [20]   (emphasis mine)

“As the Spanish had done in their colonies” meant, of course, that the settlers, told to emulate the Spanish conquistadors, were to subjugate the Indians to their will, establish racial rule over them, divide and conquer where possible, appropriate anything of value the Indians might possess—from food provisions to trade goods—and, first and foremost, enslave them . . . or as the company delicately put it—“mold them into an agricultural labor force.”

But the 30,000 Indians of the Chesapeake would not be “molded.”  They perished from the white man’s diseases.  They fought back.  So the Company had to try a new business plan of luring settlers to Virginia by promising them free land at the end of seven years labor.  But after five years the strategy of trying to turn a profit from these white indentured servants had also not succeeded so the company again raised the inducements for settlement:  “This time 100 acres of land was offered outright to anyone in England who would journey to the colony. . . [Thus] Instead of pledging limited servitude for the chance to become sole possessor of the land, an Englishman trapped at the lower rungs of society at home could now become an independent landowner in no more time than it took to reach the Chesapeake.” [21] (emphasis mine)

It is in this fashion that American exceptionalism is born via the gift of land which in Europe is owned by the monarchy, the church and the aristocracy.  But in America it is made available in a transaction of profit-making speculation.  Englishmen “trapped at the lower rungs of society” can then rise to become “independent landowners.”

But there was still one more “gift” to come: “In 1619 the resident governor was ordered to allow the election of a representative assembly, which would participate in governing the colony and thus bind the colonists emotionally to the land.” [22] (emphasis mine)

 

The pillar of democracy, the right to vote, was conferred upon the settlers not by the Goddess of Liberty but by the Goddess of Capitalism, as was the means of social and economic uplift, the land of the Indian.  And all of this occurred, we are reminded once again, by 1619—and before the fantasy-ennobling year of 1620.  Two other momentous things, whose significance, historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. reminds us, cannot be overstated, also took place in 1619.

Speaking of the first Africans to arrive in British America whom he calls the Jamestown Twenty, Lerone sums up the contradictions of Jamestown which were to become America’s own:

“In the months preceding the arrival [of the Africans], the colony had installed the new House of Burgesses [i.e., House of Citizens], formalized a new system of white servitude, shipped its first load of tobacco to England, inaugurated a new system of private property, and welcomed a shipload of brides, who were promptly purchased at the going rate of 120 pounds of tobacco eachThus, white servitude, black servitude, private property, ‘representative democracy,’ and bride purchase were inaugurated in America at roughly the same time.” [23] (emphasis mine)

Or to put it another way, the Jamestown Experiment codified the race, class, gender and political identity of America.  It also demolishes the myth of American exceptionalism because it establishes America as simply one of a number of white settler states like the former Rhodesia, South Africa and French Algeria, and those like New Zealand, Australia, et al. who have  morphed from those origins to the “civilizations” we see today.  Speaking of Australia, we can now answer the question that we posed pages ago about who these non-Pilgrim white colonists were.

 

Some were servants, and some were indentures and redemptioners as we have seen.  Others were  slaves like the white women sold at Jamestown, and many were the victims of kidnappings because:

Exporting white indentured servants became a big business… and closely resembled the African slave trade.  Drunkards were carried on shipboard.  Children were lured away with promises of candy and officials were bribed to turn over convicted criminals to the procurers. . . called ‘spirits’ because their victims were spirited away. . . [24]

But many of these “settlers” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were criminals .  Between 1718 and 1785 Britain banished 50,000 convicts to America, a fact rarely cited in American textbooks. [25]   In fact, it seems a matter of some historical discomfort to reveal the fact that America was Britain’s first penal colony.  Australia only assumed that role after the American Revolution when America’s shores were closed to that traffic.  Indeed the whole subject of white servitude and convict labor has received scant historical attention.  But the evidence is there.  It just is not permitted to confront or alter the tenets of mainstream history.

Again, Gary Nash:

“The colony had been initiated not by men seeking political or religious freedom but by profit-hungry investors in England and fortune-hunting adventurers and common riffraff from the back alleys and prisons.” [26]   The truth about Jamestown’s history, like the truth about American history itself, is gagged, shunted away in the closet to protect the myth of American perfection.  One re-engages with that history not simply to expose unflattering and suppressed truths but because so long as the myth of American perfection reigns, there will be no momentum for change in America.  And look at the world around us today.  Does it not suggest that change, more than likely, is the only hope that we have left?

“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over.”  — W.E.B. Du Bois, 1935

his commentary also appears in Souls.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board Member William L. (Bill) Strickland Teaches political science in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is also the Director of the Du Bois Papers Collection. The Du Bois Papers are housed at the University of Massachusetts library, which is named in honor of this prominent African American intellectual and Massachusetts native. Professor Strickland is a founding member of the independent black think tank in Atlanta the Institute of the Black World (IBW), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Strickland was a consultant to both series of the prize-winning documentary on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize (PBS Mini Series Boxed Set), and the senior consultant on the PBS documentary, The American Experience: Malcolm X: Make It Plain.  He also wrote the companion book Malcolm X: Make It Plain. Most recently, Professor Strickland was a consultant on the Louis Massiah film on W.E.B. Du Bois – W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices. Click here to contact Mr. Strickland.


[1] Du Bois, W.E.B., Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, International Press, NY, 1988,

p. 200.

[2] Vincent Harding, “Beyond Chaos: Black History and the Search for New Land,” in Amistad I: Writings on Black History and Culture, ed. John A. Williams and Charles F. Harris (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 271.

[3] Du Bois, W.E.B.  Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. Athenaeum, NY, 1983, p. 711.

[4] Aptheker, Herbert. Correspondence of the W.E.B. Du Bois, 1934-1944, vol. 2, UMass Press, 1978, p. 369.

[5] Ibid., p. 370.

[6] The irony of Amerca’s fighting fascism abroad while segregating Blacks in the military and permitting lynching at home inspired the black community in those war years to launch “the double V” campaign: Victory over the enemies without and within.

[7] Haygood,  Wil. King of the Cats. Houghton Mifflin, NY. 1993, p. 118.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sinha, Manisha.  “To ‘cast just obloquy’ on oppressors: Black radicalism in the age of revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 64, #1, January 2007, p. 153.

[10] Ibid., p. 160.

[11] Du Bois, W.E.B. Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, International Press, NY, 1988,

p. 415.

[12] Ibid., p. 155.

[14] Horne, Gerald, Race War: White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire, New York University Press, 2004, book jacket.

[15] Eli Ginsberg and Alfred Eichner, Troublesome Presence: Democracy and Black Americans, New Jersey, p. 11.

[16] Nash, Gary.  Red White and Black: The People of Early North America, Prentice Hall, NJ, 1974, p. 46.

[17] G&E, p. 16.

[18] Mannix & Cowley, Black Cargoes, Viking, New York, 1962, p. 6.

[19] Nash, p. 56.

[20] Ibid., p. 59.

[21] Ibid., p. 52.

[22] Ibid., p.52.

[23] Johnson, The Shaping of Black America, Chicago, 1975, p. 8.

[24] Mannix & Cowley, p. 56.

[25] A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The transportation of British convicts to America, 1718-1785, (Clarendon, Oxford, 1990).

[26] Nash, ibid., p. 52.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 232 other followers