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‘The Economy Runs on Our Toil’: Record Protests Sweep Bangladesh September 22, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Bangladesh, Human Rights, Labor.
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Roger’s note: the myth is that we are living in a post-industrial society (as if somehow the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the houses we live in, etc. somehow are magically made).  In reality exploited industrial labor has been shifted for the U.S. and Europe to the third world, mostly Asia.  Just about anything we buy, from running shoes, to screw drivers, to pillow cases, is manufactured by some exploited worker, quite possible a child working 12 hours a day for slave wages, in Bangladesh or the Philippines.  It is an iron law of  capitalist production to continually search out sources of cheap labor.  Capital accumulation originated on the backs of indigenous miners in Peru and African slaves.  Today, while it is mainly low paid services industry workers who are subjected to exploitation in the former industrial nations, the beat goes on for dark skinned factory workers in the third world.

Over 50,000 demand ‘dignity’ in garment industry where majority-female worke-force faces dangerous conditions and some of lowest wages in world

 

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Garment workers rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, September 21 (Photo: Reuters / Andrew Biraj)

50,000 garment workers demanding higher pay flooded the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh Saturday, and 20,000 shut down dozens of factories by walking off the job, in the largest demonstrations to ever sweep the notoriously dangerous and low-wage Bangladesh garment industry.

The protests continued on Sunday, with workers and their supporters blocking traffic, marching along a key highway, and clashing with police who shot rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds of thousands, the AFP reports.

“Our backs are against the wall, so we don’t have any alternative unless we raise our voice strongly,” Nazma Akter, president of the United Garments Workers’ Federation, which groups 52 garment worker’s groups, told Saturday’s protest, Reuters reports. “We will not hesitate to do anything to realize our demand.”

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the second largest in the world, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s annual exports. Its estimated 4 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women from rural areas, earn a paltry $38 U.S. dollars a month, making them some of the lowest-paid garment workers in the world.

Unions have demanded a wage increase that would bring them to a monthly wage of $100 dollars to lift workers out of deep poverty, but factory owners rejected the demand, offering a paltry 20 percent raise.

“We are not the object of mercy, the economy moves with our toil,” Akter declared addressing Saturday’s rally.

Bangladesh’s garment industry has been swept with protests since the collapse of a factory in April killed more than 1,200 workers and injured over 2,500, with most victims women—one of many tragedies to sweep the country’s dangerous garment industry. While the catastrophe captured global headlines, little has been done to improve the bleak conditions of an industry that sells to numerous U.S.-based corporations, including Walmart, Gap, Sears, Disney, and Benetton.

“[W]e want these jobs with dignity,” Akter declared previously, “with safe working conditions, decent wages, and a voice in the workplace, and a unionized work place.”

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A Free-Speech Victory at the ‘University of Nike’ September 22, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Education, Labor.
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Friday Sep 20, 2013 6:12 pm

 

By Rebecca Burns

The University of Oregon’s ‘Football Performance Center,’ which was paid for by Nike founder (and U of O alum) Phil Knight. (Photo by Wolfram Burner via Flickr)  

 

The “University of Nike” sounds like an institution straight out of a dystopian novel. But that moniker has actually been embraced by the University of Oregon, where Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight is one of the school’s most important donors. A gleaming new football center, complete with a locker room requiring biometric thumbprints to enter, isn’t the only sign of the corporation’s influence on campus: During negotiations with the school’s faculty union over its first-ever contract, critics say that the university pulled out some fancy footwork meant to preserve the patronage of Nike and other major donors, including provisions that would have narrowed protections for faculty who speak out against university policies. But an ultimate victory this week by the union, which faculty voted to form last year, helped beat back these measures and uphold the academic freedoms that are increasingly endangered by campuses’ corporate ties.

Unionization rates among U.S. faculty members are traditionally lower than those of their counterparts in other countries, and faculty at private colleges and universities are barred from collective bargaining entirely. But the tussle at the University of Oregon demonstrated that dwellers of the Ivory Tower are also workers under attack—and that their ability to take collective action is essential to the future of higher education.

During the past week, several proposals advanced by the Oregon administration have alarmed campus free-speech advocates and captured national attention. Colleen Flaherty reported at Inside Higher Education on the attempt to insert a “civility” clause into a section of the contract on “faculty responsibilities,” a measure that the watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE) says is often abused on campuses in order to “punish unpopular viewpoints.” Even after this proposal was withdrawn last week, City University of New York Professor Corey Robin, who blogs about the politics of higher education, noted that the administration’s insistence on its right to monitor faculty e-mails and even review non-work e-mails “to the extent that they address work-related subjects” represented a “draconian assault on faculty autonomy and privacy.”

Another proposal to limit the ability of faculty members to consult for outside organizations when the Provost deemed it “contrary to the university’s best interests” drew particular concerns that the administration might kow-tow to corporate donors eager to silence their academic critics. Given that Oregon’s Board of Trustees includes “CEOs from the state’s timber and construction industries, the wife of the CEO of Microsoft, and a retired executive from Nike,” wrote Robin, “it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a professor is forbidden by the provost from consulting with an organization critical of Nike’s labor policies or Microsoft’s market practices.”

But at a bargaining session on Wednesday, the administration backed off these measures, and the two sides reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that also includes average salary increases of 11.75% over the two-year agreement. United Academics (UA), which is comprised of both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, also won new contract protections for contingent faculty. Full details of the agreement have not yet been released, but Susan Anderson, a German professor and member of the bargaining committee, tells In These Times that it includes “robust protections” for free speech, including language referring to the First Amendment. The union will vote on whether to ratify the contract on October 8.

In a statement released yesterday by the university, U of O President Michael Gottfredson said that he also welcomed the agreement: “Our students benefit from the talents of professors who share their knowledge and passion for research and scholarship every day and this first contract reflects a fiscally responsible agreement that rewards excellence and invests in our faculty—strengthening the University of Oregon for all of our community.”

The administration’s shift is a particularly significant one because its initial proposal eschewed a union demand to guarantee the right to free speech outside the classroom, including where this concerns debate about institutional policies. Instead, Flaherty notes, the university’s proposal “decouples academic freedom and free speech, addressing them separately. Academic freedom is ‘necessary to teaching and research,’ it says, with no mention of the role of academics in speaking out if not related directly to teaching and research.”

The ability of faculty members to criticize university policies was a key tenet of academic freedom when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) codified the concept in 1940. But the free-speech rights of university faculty have fallen into murky territory since 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that public employees were not entitled to these rights for speech “pursuant to their official duties.” The Supreme Court did not address whether this ruling applied to professors at public universities, leaving the question in a legal limbo. Advocates are hopeful that a decision earlier this month from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco—which ruled that a controversial proposal circulated by a former Washington State University Professor David Demers to overhaul the school’s communications department should have constituted protected speech—will form the basis for more robust protections in the future.

But apart from legal uncertainty, academic freedom faces another threat: the growing reliance of universities on corporate patronage. To make up for stunning shortfalls in state funding, public universities have both hiked tuition and courted investment by private donors. “When universities are dependent on the money of private donors, administrators may feel pressure to enact policies that jeopardize the status of the university as a place of free inquiry,” says Anderson. Oregon has already seen this kind of influence wielded—the university reportedly terminated its involvement in the anti-sweatshop Workers’ Rights Consortium following pressure from Nike’s Knight.

Yet in the face of creeping academic commercialism, writes Jen Washburn, author of University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, the AAUP and other advocates have been slow to respond, adhering to a “narrow, individualistic interpretation of academic freedom” that disregards the broader politics of today’s universities.

According to Joe Lowndes, an associate professor of political science and member of the union’s organizing committee, the contract fight at the University of Oregon “has shown that a unionized faculty can, among other things, act to safeguard academic freedom—a freedom we have learned not to take for granted within the changing structure of American higher education.”

 

 

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

A Death in the Family — and the Question Is: Whodunit? December 3, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Food, Labor.
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Published on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 by Creators.com

twinkies

Born in 1930 in Schiller Park, Ill., the deceased was 82 years old at the time of passing, which ironically was the day before Thanksgiving.

Having long enjoyed the sweet life, the end was a bit bitter, for the dearly departed’s estate had been mercilessly plundered in recent years by unscrupulous money managers. This left 18,500 surviving family members in dire straits. Indeed, the family contends that the octogenarian’s death was not due to natural causes, but to foul play — a case of corporate murder.

This is the drama behind the sudden death of Twinkies. Fondly remembered as “the cream puff of the proletariat” (and less fondly as a sugar-and-fat bomb that delivered a toothache in one bite and a heart attack in the next), this industrial concoction of 37 ingredients became, for better or worse, an icon of American food processing.

The father of the Twinkie was James Dewar, a baker at the old Continental Baking Co. who saw the goo-filled tube cake as a way to keep the factory’s confection machinery busy after strawberry shortcake season ended. Yes, the Twinkie was actually conceived as “food” for idle machines. How fitting is that?

But us humans happily swallowed this extruded marvel of comestible engineering. As a teenager, I probably downed my weight in Twinkies each year — and my long years on this Earth might well be due to the heavy dose of preservatives, artificial flavors and other chemicals baked into every one of those cellophane-wrapped two-packs that I consumed.

The Twinkie was the best-seller of Hostess Brands, a conglomerate purveyor of some 30 nutritionally challenged (but moneymaking) brand-name food products, ranging from Wonder Bread to Ho Hos. In the past year, Hostess racked up $2.5 billion in sales — yet it suffered a staggering $1.1 billion in losses. Thus, on Nov. 21, Ripplewood Holdings, the private equity outfit that had taken over the conglomerate in 2009, pulled the plug, solemnly announcing that Hostess simply couldn’t survive.

Why? Because it was burdened with overly generous labor contracts, the firm’s executives declared, adding that greedy union officials refused to save the company by taking cuts.

Wait a minute. They claim that the bereaved loved ones of the Hostess family killed the Twinkie? Holy Agatha Christie, that can’t be right.

Remember the horrible murders in 1978 of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk? At the killer’s trial, his lawyer argued for leniency on the grounds that his client subsisted on a steady diet of junk food, which had addled his brain. This claim entered the annals of American jurisprudence as the “Twinkie Defense.”

Even less defensible is the campaign by Ripplewood financial manipulators to lay the death of Hostess at the feet of loyal, longtime employees who, after all, need the jobs. In fact, far from greedy, Hostess workers and their unions have been both modest and faithful. Their wages are decent but not at all excessive — only middle class. And the charge that unions would not make sacrifices to help the company is a flat-out lie, for they had previously given back $100 million in annual wages and benefits to help it survive.

The true perfidy in this drama is not in the union, but inside Ripplewood’s towering castle of high finance in New York City. After buying Hostess in a bankruptcy sale, these equity hucksters proceeded to feather their own nests, rather than modernize Hostess’s equipment and upgrade its products, as the unions had urged. For starters, these profiteers piled an unbearable debt load of $860 million on Hostess, thus diverting its revenues into nonproductive interest payments made to rich, absentee speculators. Also, they siphoned millions of dollars out of Hostess directly into their corporate pockets by charging “consulting and management fees” that did nothing to improve the snack-makers financial health.

But it was not until this year that their rank managerial incompetence and raw ethical depravity fully surfaced. While the Ripplewood honchos in charge of Hostess were demanding a new round of deep cuts in worker’s pay, health care, and pensions, they quietly jacked up their own pay. By a lot! The CEO’s paycheck, for example, rocketed from $750,000 a year to $2.5 million.

Like a character in a bad Agatha Christie whodunit, Ripplewood — the one so insistently pointing the finger of blame at others — turns out to be the one who killed the Twinkie. Along with the livelihoods of 18,500 workers

© 2012 Jim Hightower

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Jim Hightower

National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.

In Support of WalMart Strikers on Black Friday: “The Belly Button Theory of Economics” November 23, 2012

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Roger’s note: Several years ago while I was in Los Angeles, workers in three major supermarket chains were on strike because their employers wanted to lower them to WalMart standards of salaries and benefits.  I spent some time at one of the picket lines and had the opportunity to speak with several of the shoppers who were crossing the picket line.  It was disheartening to hear shoppers, working people themselves, complain that supermarket workers had benefits that they lacked and therefore deserved no sympathy.  It reminded me of the world’s oldest political strategy: divide and conquer.  Instead of advocating for higher standards for everyone, employer, politicians and the media play on the emotion of envy to promote the notion of lowering standards to the bottom.  This experience inspired me to write the following essay, which I re-post here in solidarity with the striking WalMart workers.

 

The Belly Button Theory of Economics

 

Roger Hollander

 

Call it the belly button theory of economics, if you will.  Every one knows there are two types of umbilicals: innies and outies.  Well, when all is said and done, all complexities aside, doesn’t one’s economy simply break down into what comes IN and what goes OUT?

 

Let’s talk about the ordinary working person.  She earns from her job (IN), and she meets her needs and pleasures by making purchases (OUT).  The well-being of her “economy” depends upon there being at least enough IN to take care of all the OUT.

 

One might be tempted to say that both are equally important, that is income (IN) and the cost of things (OUT).  Here is where I would argue that many economists miss the boat.  I believe that what one does through her work to acquire the means to live (IN) is fundamental, whereas the cost of things (OUT), while important, is secondary.  Think of is this way.  If you are unemployed you sure appreciate a good bargain, but what you really need is a good job.

 

There can also be a “dialectic” between IN and OUT.  Take health care.  It is something we purchase (an OUT).  However, for millions of Americans, their health care comes as a benefit attached to their work (an IN).  In other words, health insurance as a benefit is an IN that offsets the cost of health care, an OUT.

 

That is why I believe it is so important for all working people that in the current labor dispute that grocery giants — Safeway, Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons — do not succeed in their efforts to cut drastically the wages (IN) and health benefits (IN) of their workers.  They argue that this is necessary in order to compete with the Wal-Mart super stores, who pay their workers substantially less in wages and benefits[note: cf. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America] Wal-Mart does this by keeping its prices (OUT) lower than anyone else.  Interestingly, and here is that dialectic at work again, Wal-Mart is able to offer such low prices (OUT) by pressuring its suppliers to cut labor costs (their workers’ IN) in order to provide Wal-Mart with its goods at cut-rate prices.

 

In the end, you see, it always boils down to IN(come).  Of course, the worker is also a consumer and naturally loves low prices.  We all appreciate a bargain, and who can blame us?  But if the price of bargains is that, in the long run, we don’t have a living wage (IN) that meets our needs to provide for our expenses (OUT), then the bargain is, in effect, no bargain.  It is a cruel trick disguised as a bonus.

 

Human beings are by nature, first and foremost, producing animals.  We produce the means by which we survive and thrive.  Only then are we able to “consume.”  I am no great fan of capitalism because it treats human labor as a commodity, just one more expense for the capitalist along with things such as materials, rents and other overhead costs.  But as long as capitalism exists, working people have no choice but to demand wages and benefits that meet their fundamental needs.  Health care, along with food and shelter, is one of the most basic of human needs.  Because the United States government, the only one in the world of industrial nations, has not seen fit to provide universal health coverage for its people, then this need for most of its working people gets fulfilled through employer health care plans.  It is not an “extra.”

 

I have spoken with shoppers crossing the picket lines at the supermarkets, fellow working people, who justify their non-support of the grocery workers on the basis that they too must pay part of their health care costs (“If I can’t have it, you can’t have it either”).  This sad lack of worker solidarity is a product of the divide and conquer strategy of the supermarket chains, and it is in contrast to the solidarity the chains themselves have shown by sharing their profits amongst themselves, possibly in violation of anti-trust legislation.  How ironic that the supermarket industry is turning around that famous dictum to read: “chains of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your workers!”

 

Think of this the next time you are tempted to support them by shopping in one of the on-strike or locked out supermarket chains.

 

Mayor’s Kids Private School is What Public Schools Should Be September 12, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Chicago, Education, Labor.
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Roger’s note: here are some more articles analyzing the Chicago teachers’ strike and issues of public education:
Published on Wednesday, September 12, 2012 by In These Times

Director of Private School Where Rahm Sends His Kids Opposes Using Testing for Teacher Evaluations

CTU President Karen Lewis says she would love to use University of Chicago Lab School as model for public schools

  by Mike Elk

Unlike occasional teacher union opponent Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel does not send his kids to public schools. Instead, Emanuel’s children attend one of the most elite prep schools in Chicago, the University of Chicago Lab School, where the annual tuition is more than $20,000. (Emanuel has repeatedly refused to answer questions about why he eschews public schools for his children, telling reporters that it is a private family decision.)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel eschews the city’s public schools in favor of the University of Chicago Lab School, who director eschews Emanuel’s idea of “reform.”   (Zol87/Flickr/Creative Commons)

The conditions at the University of Chicago Lab Schools are dramatically different than those at Chicago Public Schools, which are currently closed with teachers engaged in a high-profile strike. The Lab School has seven full-time art teachers to serve a student population of 1,700. By contrast, only 25% of Chicago’s “neighborhood elementary schools” have both a full-time art and music instructor. The Lab School has three different libraries, while 160 Chicago public elementary schools do not have a library.

“Physical education, world languages, libraries and the arts are not frills. They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education,” wrote University of Chicago Lab School Director David Magill on the school’s website in February 2009.

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis agrees with Magill, and believes what works for Mayor Emanuel’s kids should be a prescription for the rest of the city.

“I’m actually glad that he did [send his kids to Lab School] because it gave me an opportunity to look at how the Lab school functions,” Lewis told Chicago magazine in November 2011. “I thought he gave us a wonderful pathway to seeing what a good education looks like, and I think he’s absolutely right, and so we love that model. We would love to see that model throughout.”

One of the key sticking points in union negotiations is that Emanuel wants to use standardized tests scores to count for 40 percent of the basis of teacher evaluations. Earlier this year, more than 80 researchers from 16 Chicago-area universities signed an open letter to Emanuel, criticizing the use of standardized test scores for this purpose. “The new evaluation system for teachers and principals centers on misconceptions about student growth, with potentially negative impact on the education of Chicago’s children,” they wrote. 

CTU claims that nearly 30% of its members could be dismissed within one to two years if the proposed evaluation process is put into effect and has opposed using tests scores as the basis of evaluation. They’re joined in their opposition to using testing in evaulations by Magill.

Writing on the University of Chicago’s Lab School website two years ago, Magill noted, “Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current [Obama] administration.”

While Magill could not be reached for direct comment on the specifics of the Chicago Teachers’ strike, his past writings on the school’s site suggest he might be supportive.

“I shudder to think of who would be attracted to teach in our public schools without unions,” Magill wrote on the school’s website in February 2009, adding that, even with unions, many teachers “have had no choice but to take on second jobs to make ends meet.“

But Magill’s writings also note just how fine a line CTU will have to walk to keep public sentiment, which currently supports the strike 47% to 39%, on its side according to one recent poll. Acknowledging the “distressing…generational change in the public’s attitude toward teachers,” Magill writes, “Some would say that teachers are responsible for this change by publicly participating in actions designed to bring attention to sub-standard working conditions and compensation. These actions often cause unintended collateral damage to students. Parents and the public at large have long memories when the education of their children is interrupted. We must find a way to conclude collective bargaining without raising doubts about the professionalism of those whose work should be valued the most.”

© 2012 In These Times

South Africa in shock after police ‘bloodbath’ of striking miners August 18, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Labor, Race, South Africa.
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Roger’s note: the end of “official” apartheid and the ascendency of the ANC was only a first step.  Genuine liberation will not occur in South Africa or anywhere else in the world until the absolute rule of Capital is challenged and destroyed.  Sadly, the ANC in government has continued the neo-Liberal economic policies of its predecessors.
 
Published on Friday August 17, 2012

Toronto Star 
 

South Africa miners

SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS Police shoot at protesting miners outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 km northwest of Johannesburg, on Thursday.

 
Jon Herskovitz
Reuters
 
 MARIKANA, SOUTH AFRICA—The police killing of 34 striking platinum miners in the bloodiest security operation since the end of white rule cut to the quick of South Africa’s psyche on Friday, with searching questions asked of its post-apartheid soul.

Newspaper headlines screamed “Bloodbath,” “Killing Field” and “Mine Slaughter,” with graphic photographs of heavily armed white and black police officers walking casually past the bloodied corpses of black men lying crumpled in the dust.

The images, along with Reuters television footage of a phalanx of officers opening up with automatic weapons on a small group of men in blankets and T-shirts, rekindled uncomfortable memories of South Africa’s racist past.

Police chief Riah Phiyega confirmed 34 dead and 78 injured after officers moved in against 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks and massed on a rocky outcrop at the mine, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg.

Phiyega, a former banking executive who was only appointed to lead the police force in June, said officers had acted in self-defence against charging, armed assailants at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum plant.

“The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group,” she told a news conference, noting that two policemen had been hacked to death by a mob at the mine on Tuesday.

However, the South African Institute of Race relations likened the incident to the 1960 Sharpeville township massacre near Johannesburg, when apartheid police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters, killing more than 50.

“Obviously the issues that have led to this are not the same as the past, but the response and the outcome is very similar,” research manager Lucy Holborn said.

In a front-page editorial, the Sowetan newspaper questioned what had changed since 1994, when Nelson Mandela overturned three centuries of white domination to become South Africa’s first black president.

“It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects,” said the paper, named after South Africa’s biggest black township. “It is continuing in a different guise now.”

South African President Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit in neighbouring Mozambique to head to the mine. Zuma, who faces an internal leadership election in his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December, said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the violence, but made no comment on the police behaviour.

“We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence,” he said in a statement.

Despite promises of a better life for all South Africa’s 50 million people, the ANC has struggled to provide basic services to millions in poor black townships.

Efforts to redress the economic inequalities of apartheid have had mixed results, and the mining sector comes in for particular criticism from radical ANC factions as a bastion of “white monopoly capital.”

As dawn broke, hundreds of police patrolled the dusty plains around the Marikana mine, which was forced to shut down this week because of a rumbling union turf war that has hit the platinum sector this year.

“There were no problems overnight. The problem is the hill over there where the shooting took place. I am not sure what will happen today,” said Patience, a woman who lives in a nearby shanty town. She declined to give her full name.

Crime scene investigators combed the site of the shooting, which was cordoned off with yellow tape, collecting spent cartridges and the slain miners’ bloodstained traditional weapons — machetes and spears.

Six firearms were recovered, including a service revolver from one of the police officers killed earlier in the week.

Prior to Thursday, 10 people had died in nearly a week of conflict between rival unions at what is Lonmin’s flagship plant. The London-headquartered company has been forced to shut down all its South African platinum operations, which account for 12 per cent of global output.

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of the world’s known reserves of platinum, a precious metal used in vehicle catalytic converters. Rising power and labour costs and a steep decline this year in the price have left many mines struggling to stay afloat.

Although the striking Marikana miners were demanding huge pay hikes, the roots of the trouble lie in a challenge by the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) to the 25-year dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a close ANC ally.

“There is clearly an element in this that a key supporter of the ANC — the NUM — has come under threat from these protesting workers,” said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst.

AMCU leaders have been criticized for telling the striking miners — many of whom are barely literate — that they were “prepared to die” rather than move from their protest hill.

Pre-crackdown footage of dancing miners waving machetes and licking the blades of homemade spears raised questions about the habitual use of violence in industrial action 18 years after the end of apartheid.

“This culture of violence and protest, it must somehow be changed,” said John Robbie, a prominent Johannesburg radio host. “You can’t act like a Zulu impi in an industrial dispute in this day and age,” he said, using the Zulu word for armed units.

World platinum prices spiked nearly 3 per cent on Thursday as the full extent of the violence became clear, and rose again on Friday to a five-week high above $1,450 an ounce.

Lonmin shares in London and Johannesburg fell more than 5 per cent to four-year lows at Friday’s market open, although later trimmed their losses. Overall, they have shed nearly 15 per cent since the violence began a week ago.

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

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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.

Cesar Chavez: A True American Hero March 31, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, California, Labor.
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Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Saturday, 31 March 2012 09:22

Dick Meister, Dick Meister’s Blog | Op-Ed

I hope we can all pause and reflect on the extraordinary life of a true American hero today (March 31). It’s Cesar Chavez Day, proclaimed by President Obama and observed throughout the country on the 85th birth date of the late founder of the United Farm Workers union. It’s an official state holiday in California, Texas and Colorado.

As President Obama noted, Chavez was a leader in launching “one of our nation’s most inspiring movements.” He taught us, Obama added, “that social justice takes action, selflessness and commitment. As we face the challenges of the day, let us do so with the hope and determination of Cesar Chavez.”

Like another American hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez inspired and energized millions of people worldwide to seek and win basic human rights that had long been denied them, and inspired millions of others to join the struggle.

Certainly there are few people in any field more deserving of special attention, certainly no one I’ve met in more than a half-century of labor reporting.

I first met Cesar Chavez when I was covering labor for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was on a hot summer night in 1965 in the little San Joaquin Valley town of Delano, California. Chavez, shining black hair trailing across his forehead, wearing a green plaid shirt that had become almost a uniform, sat behind a makeshift desk topped with bright red Formica.

“Si se puede,” he said repeatedly to me, a highly skeptical reporter, as we talked deep into the early morning hours there in the cluttered shack that served as headquarters for him and the others who were trying to create an effective farm workers union.

“Si se puede! – it can be done!”

But I would not be swayed. Too many others, over too many years, had tried and failed to win for farm workers the union rights they absolutely had to have if they were to escape the severe economic and social deprivation inflicted on them by their grower employers.

The Industrial Workers of the World who stormed across western fields early in the 20th century, the Communists who followed, the socialists, the AFL and CIO organizers – all their efforts had collapsed under the relentless pressure of growers and their powerful political allies.

I was certain this effort would be no different. I was wrong. I had not accounted for the tactical brilliance, creativity, courage and just plain stubbornness of Cesar Chavez, a sad-eyed, disarmingly soft-spoken man who talked of militancy in calm, measured tones, a gentle and incredibly patient man who hid great strategic talent behind shy smiles and an attitude of utter candor.

Chavez grasped the essential fact that farm workers had to organize themselves. Outside organizers, however well intentioned, could not do it. Chavez, a farm worker himself, carefully put together a grass-roots organization that enabled the workers to form their own union, which then sought out – and won – widespread support from influential outsiders.

The key weapon of the organization, newly proclaimed the United Farm Workers, or UFW, was the boycott. It was so effective between 1968 and 1975 that 12 percent of the country’s adult population – that’s 17 million people – quit buying table grapes.

The UFW’s grape boycott and others against wineries and lettuce growers won the first farm union contracts in history in 1970. That led to enactment five years later of the California law – also a first – that requires growers to bargain collectively with workers who vote for unionization. And that led to substantial improvements in the pay, benefits, working conditions and general status of the state’s farm workers. Similar laws, with similar results, have now been enacted elsewhere.

The struggle that finally led to victory was extremely difficult for the impoverished workers, and Chavez risked his health – if not his life – to provide them extreme examples of the sacrifices necessary for victory. Most notably, he engaged in lengthy, highly publicized fasts that helped rally the public to the farm workers’ cause and that may very well have contributed to his untimely death in 1993 at age 66.

Fasts, boycotts. It’s no coincidence that those were the principal tools of Mohandas Gandhi, for Chavez drew much of his inspiration from the Hindu leader. Like Gandhi and another of his models, Martin Luther King Jr., Chavez fervently believed in the tactics of non-violence. Like them, he showed the world how profoundly effective they can be in seeking justice from even the most powerful opponents.

“We have our bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons,” Chavez explained.

His iconic position has been questioned recently by outsiders claiming Chavez acted as a dictator in his last years as head of the UFW. But what the UFW accomplished under his leadership, and how the union accomplished it, will never be forgotten – not by the millions of social activists who have been inspired and energized by the farm workers’ struggle, nor by the workers themselves.

Chavez deservedly remains, and undoubtedly will always remain, an American icon who led the way to winning important legal rights for farm workers. But more than union contracts, and more than laws, farm workers now have what Cesar Chavez insisted was needed above all else. That, as he told me so many years ago, “is to have the workers truly believe and understand and know that they are free, that they are free men and women, that they are free to stand up and fight for their rights.”

Freedom. No leader has ever left a greater legacy. But the struggle continues. Despite the UFW victories, farm workers are in great need of fully exercising the rights won under Chavez’ leadership. They need to reverse what has been a decline in the UFW’s fortunes in recent years, caused in part by lax enforcement of the laws that granted farm workers union rights.

Many farm workers are still mired in poverty, their pay and working and living conditions a national disgrace. They average less than $10,000 a year and have few – if any – fringe benefits. They suffer seasonal unemployment.

Job security is rare, as many of the workers are desperately poor immigrants from Mexico or Central America who must take whatever is offered or be replaced by other desperately poor workers from the endless stream of immigrants. Child labor is rampant.

Most hiring and firing is done at the whim of employers, many of them wealthy corporate growers or labor contractors who unilaterally set pay and working conditions and otherwise act arbitrarily.

Workers are often exposed to dangerous pesticides and other serious health and safety hazards that make farm work one of the country’s most dangerous occupations. They often even lack such on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and field toilets, and almost invariably are forced to live in overcrowded, seriously substandard housing.

Cesar Chavez Day should remind us of the continuing need to take forceful legal steps and other action in behalf of farm workers – to help them overcome their wretched conditions and finally provide a decent life for all those who do the hard, dirty and dangerous work that puts fruit and vegetables on our tables.

We need, in short, to carry on what Cesar Chavez began. We could pay no greater homage to his memory.

Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

Banana Republic Legacy Thrives in Today’s Latin America February 18, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Guatemala, Labor, Latin America.
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Published on Saturday, February 18, 2012 by In These Times

The term “banana republic” has become a cliche to describe economic imperialism throughout history, but the legacy of colonialism persists in Latin America today. The tradition of predatory capitalism echoed in the recent death of Miguel Angel González Ramírez, a member of the Izabal banana workers’ union SITRABI in Guatemala.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the unionist was “shot several times whilst carrying his young child in his arms.” This seems to be another casualty in a labor battle between labor and corporateers who would rather see workers shed blood than be paid fair wages.

The ITUC has demanded an official investigation, noting that in the past year several unionists have been killed or targeted with threats. Last October, SITRABI member Pablino Yaque Cervantes was shot by an unidentified attacker, according to U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP).

Manuela Chávez of the ITUC’s Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told In these Times, “Freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively have been endangered by a very high anti-union repression for years,” adding that the threats to unionists are aggravated by government inaction.

But it’s not just the cruelty of the killing–nor the connection to the infamous banana crop–that evokes a history of enslavement and dehumanization of indigenous, African and migrant peoples. The company in question, BANDEGUA, is a Del Monte subsidiary that has come under fire for refusing to comply with the Guatemalan government’s minimum wage standards.

The incident reflects business as usual in the banana industry, well known for oppressive working conditions. Labor advocates have long protested unfair wages and other violations in Latin American agriculture, especially under international giants like Dole.

The crisis has reached a boiling point under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a NAFTA-style trade regime that expanded multinationals’ power over the region’s industrial and agricultural sectors. Evidence of systemic abuses prompted SITRABI and other Guatemalan unions, along with the AFL-CIO, to initiate a worker rights complaint in 2008. As documented by US LEAP, the campaign cites violations of union rights as well as outright brutality, “including the 2007 murder of the brother of the General Secretary of the union.”

It remains to be seen whether there will be any consequences for the latest killing, but if past is prologue, Del Monte will likely remain comfortably insulated from labor troubles in the recesses of its global empire. After all, that’s what trade systems like CAFTA have been designed to do, with their notoriously flimsy labor provisions. SITRABI’s activists are veterans of this war of attrition, having led global efforts to raise awareness of the rampant human rights abuses in the industry, from terrorizing violence to illegal firings to lack of collective bargaining protections.

Noting that the CAFTA complaint still drags on as the body count ticks up, Lupita Aguila Arteaga, executive director of the advocacy group STITCH, told In These Times:

This prolonged process shows how ineffective CAFTA is at protecting the rights of workers. The U.S. needs to continue to pressure the Guatemalan government to obey its own labor laws and uphold its labor rights obligations as mandated in the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

STITCH points out that labor violations in the banana industry are deeply entwined in global trade networks that send cheap fruit to hungry U.S. consumer markets. Since even so-called “fair trade certified” bananas may come from nonunion plantations, Arteaga says, American appetites are driving a hemispheric race to the bottom:

The banana industry in Latin America is facing a decline in unionization rates and wages. Companies like Wal-Mart are now buying directly from Latin American producers where unions do not exist and therefore labor and prices are cheaper. Banana companies are trying to stay afloat of this game by moving their production to other areas that can allow them to make a bigger profit by paying workers less and not providing any benefits.

Perhaps the best hope challenging Latin America’s labor injustices won’t come from government or consumer campaigns, but from within–a surge in progressive unionism led by women. In a report on women banana workers (informed by a documentary project on feminist labor struggles), Arteaga describes how the fight for gender equity has become a wellspring of self-empowerment:

Bananeras, as they are dearly called, have achieved victories we can only dream of in the U.S., including clauses in their union contract that allows them to take a paid day off for a mammogram and/or a pap smear, union-wide campaigns with workshops against domestic violence, as well as union-led campaigns against HIV/AIDS with a focus on reproductive justice and accessibility to healthcare for all women in their communities. Not to mention the fact that ALL local banana unions have a women’s committee.

Today’s banana republic is still rife with neocolonial horrors, but if you unpeel the layers of bitter struggle surrounding these communities, you might find some surprisingly sweet triumphs.

© 2012 In These Times

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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.

A Super Bowl of Struggle? The NFLPA’s Demaurice Smith on Opposing Indiana’s ‘Right to Work’ Agenda January 30, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Indiana, Labor, Sports.
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Roger’s note: given the outrageous and obscene salaries that some elite athletes make, it might be tempting to dismiss the concerns of sports professional from a labor point of view.  This would be an error.  The vast majority do not make those multi million dollar salaries, and even if the average player is well paid in comparison with other classes of workers, the same issues are involved with respect to working conditions, benefits, etc.  And one should not forget the physical beating that professional athletes take and pay for the rest of their lives.  In other words, the principle of worker rights is most definitely in play with respect to professional sports.  The NFLPA executive director put it most succinctly: “First and foremost, it’s important that our young men understand that they are just like every man and woman in America who works for a living. The minute that any sports player believes for whatever reason that they are outside the management-labor paradigm, I guarantee you that the minute you start thinking that way is the day you will start to lose ground.”

Dave Zirinon January 18, 2012 – 11:43am ET, www.thenation.com
The Super Bowl is supposed to bring attention and even glory to its host city. But thanks to an anti-worker, anti-union assault by Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels and the Republican-controlled legislature, the big game, to be held this year in Indianapolis, is bringing a different kind of attention altogether. The NFL Players Association joined the ranks of unions across the state last week in opposing efforts to make Indiana join the ranks of so-called “Right to Work” states. “Right to Work” laws have also been called “Right to Beg” or “Right to Starve” since they undercut wages, benefits and the most basic workplace protections. Coming off their own labor battle, the NFLPA released a statement where they promised that they would not be silent on these laws during the buildup to the Super Bowl. I interviewed NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith about why they felt it was important to take a stand against this legislation.
Dave Zirin: Why did the NFLPA feel compelled to release that statement against Indiana’s proposed Right to Work laws?

DeMaurice Smith: First and foremost, it’s important that our young men understand that they are just like every man and woman in America who works for a living. The minute that any sports player believes for whatever reason that they are outside the management-labor paradigm, I guarantee you that the minute you start thinking that way is the day you will start to lose ground. Our guys get their fingers broken, their backs broken, their heads concussed and their knees torn up because they actually put their hands into the ground and work for a living, and I would much rather have them understand and appreciate and frankly embrace the beauty of what it is to work and provide for their family.

[On this issue] we are in lock-step with organized labor. I’m proud to sit on the executive council of the AFL-CIO. Why? Because we share all the same issues that the American people share. We want decent wages. We want a fair pension. We want to be taken care of when we get hurt. We want a decent and safe working environment. So when you look at proposed legislation in a place like Indiana that wants to call it something like “Right to Work,” I mean, let’s just put the hammer on the nail. It’s untrue. This bill has nothing to do with a “right to work.” If folks in Indiana and that great legislature want to pass a bill that really is something called “Right to Work,” have a constitutional amendment that guarantees every citizen a job, that’s a “right to work.” What this is instead is a right to ensure that ordinary working citizens can’t get together as a team, can’t organize, can’t stand together and can’t fight management on an even playing field. From a sports union, our union, our men and their families understand the power of management and understand how much power management can wield over an individual person. So don’t call it a “right to work.” If you want to have an intelligent discussion about what the bill is, call it what it is. Call it an anti-organizing bill. Fine. If that’s what the people want to do in order to put a bill out there, let’s cast a vote on whether or not ordinary workers can get together and represent themselves, and let’s have a real referendum.

DZ: What would you say to someone who says, ‘Well, people who support this type of right to work legislation, they are just doing it to protect unions. They don’t care about the majority of workers who aren’t in unions”?

DS: Well take a look over the last 100 years. I used to say that we have forgotten a lot of the lessons from organized labor over the last 100 years, but I’m now convinced that we never learned them. Whether your talking about fire escapes outside of buildings or sprinkler systems inside of buildings, fair wages for a days work, laws that prevent child labor, things that led to the abolishing of sweatshops in America, let alone management contributing to healthcare plans or a decent pension… all those things over the last 100 years were not gifts from management. Someone in a corporate suite didn’t decide one day that they would bestow that wonderful right upon a working person. The way those rights were achieved was through the collective will of a group of workers who stood together and said, ‘This is what we believe is fair, and we are all going to stand together and demand that those things be provided to us. We’ll do it as a collective group. You may be able to pick off one of us or two of us or five of us, but you will not be able to pick off all of us.’ When you look at legislation that is designed to tear apart that ability to work as a team… that is not just anti-union. That is anti–working man and woman, and that’s why we weighed in on this one.

DZ: When you put out a statement like this, does it also goes out to every player so they’re aware of this campaign?

DS: It goes out to the players, the board, and the executive committee, and here in this case, we actually reached out to former Indianapolis Colts, former players who went to college in Indiana, and those players who live in Indiana, and asked them if they’d want to sign on. So we have a very impressive list of players. Rex Grossman is a local player who signed on. Jeff George, former quarterback for [among other teams] the Indianapolis Colts, also signed on. I’m proud of our guys who signed off on this because I do think that they appreciate and understand that in the same way that those things that we were talking about things that have been changes for good for ordinary workers in America, there isn’t a player in the National Football League who shouldn’t understand that every benefit that we have in the collective bargaining agreement is one that was negotiated by a collective of players standing together. Coming out of this lockout, perhaps it was the first time some of our young men understood what the collective bargaining agreement is all about. [Author’s note: De Smith said after the interview that Tim Tebow was behind the NFLPA 100 percent during the lockout. Given some of my own critiques of Tebow’s politics, I felt obliged to include that nugget.]

DZ: The news this week was that this bill was rammed through committee, so it is advancing through the Indiana State House. Has there been any talk about what else the NFLPA might do? Any follow up to the statement that you put out?

DS: I wrote an op-ed that has been placed in the main Indianapolis newspaper. If the issue is still percolating by the time of Super Bowl, I can promise you that the players of the National Football League and their union will be up front about what we think about this and why. Look, we have players who played in Indianapolis obviously, but I made no secret coming into this fight that the lockout, organized and implemented by a group of owners, was not only designed to hurt players but all of the people who work in and around our stadium: the hospitality network, the network of restaurants, bars, all of those things that are connected and touch our business were affected by the lockout that we frankly did not want to happen. So there is never going to be a day where players are going to divorce themselves from the ordinary people who work around their sports, and we’re sure as heck not going to divorce ourselves from the fans who dig our game.

DZ: If the legislation is still percolating, there will be people who will be doing legal, nonviolent protests around the Super Bowl game to try to leverage the spotlight of the Super Bowl to raise the issue for a national audience, and I know that they’re getting various union endorsements to do so. Is that something the NFLPA would support, the idea of a demonstration, a legal, nonviolent demonstration outside the Super Bowl?

DS: Yeah, possibly. We’ve been on picket lines in Indianapolis already with hotel workers who were basically pushed to the point of breaking on the hotel rooms that they had to clean because they were not union workers. We’ve been on picket lines in Boston and San Antonio. So, the idea of participating in a legal protest is something that we’ve done before.

We’ll have to see what is going to go on when we’re there, but issues like this are incredibly important to us. If we can be in a position just to make sure that we raise the level of the debate to the point where it is a fair and balanced discussion about the issues, I think that is something that our players can help do. Obviously, players have a very high profile, and I think its important for them to take on issues which are important to them and be in a position to talk about them, raise the level of consciousness about them.

If we do one thing by making this statement, and it is raising the level of the debate, and to have real people ask real questions about it, we’ve served our purpose.

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