Friday, December 28, 2012

Mr. Sam's "chintzy" treatment of workers comes home to roost

(This column further develops a recent Labor South posting on Walmart and the global labor solidarity that the company's treatment of workers is inspiring.)

“Mr. Sam” said it best 20 years ago.

“In the beginning, I was so chintzy. … I really didn’t pay my employees very well,” the founder of Walmart said in his 1992 autobiography, Sam Walton: Made in America. “I was so obsessed with turning in a profit margin of 6 percent or higher that I ignored some of the basic needs of our people, and I feel bad about it.”

Not bad enough, however, to change the course or culture of the world’s largest retailer. Walmart’s “chintzy” attitude toward the wages and benefits of its workers isn’t news. What may be news to many, however, is just how bad it is for workers at Walmart suppliers around the world.

This became tragically clear Nov. 24 when a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers. They burned to death in a building without fire exits. The factory produced apparel for Walmart and Sam’s Club as well as for Sears, Disney, Sean Combs’ Enyce and other Western corporations.

Walmart was quick to distance itself from the tragedy. Spokesmen said the company had ended relations with the factory prior to the fire and even conducted an audit that indicated safety problems there. Investigations by the New York Times, Bloomberg News and others have indicated, however, that a third of the factory’s production lines were committed to Walmart and suppliers still used it this year.

In addition, Walmart apparently took a lead role in opposing an effort in 2011 to have corporations step forward and fund improved safety measures within the South Asian garment industry.  Funding such measures “is not financially feasible” is how one top Walmart official described it in a document revealed by Bloomberg News reporters.

The Tazreen tragedy has sparked an international outcry. Protesters in Charleston, S.C., including members of the International Longshoremen’s Association, last week showed their solidarity by briefly shutting down the Wando Welch Shipping Terminal, where the ship Maersk Carolina and its load of Tazreen-made, Walmart-bound clothing had docked.

The protest may just be a prelude to an East Coast and Gulf Coast-wide longshoremen’s strike on December 30 if contract negotiations between the ILA and ports and shipping companies’ representatives don’t produce acceptable results.

Walmart workers across the country have staged walkouts and strikes for the past month to bring attention to the company’s treatment of its workers. Walmart’s assault weapon business has also come under scrutiny since the recent shooting deaths of young children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The garment and textile industries that once were the cornerstone of the economy of the U.S. South are now spread throughout Asia and are a $20 billion-a-year enterprise in Bangladesh alone. Walmart is a $1 billion customer of Bangladesh’s garment factories.

What is life like in those factories? At the Tazreen factory, 70 percent of the 1,400 workers are women. Women are a dominant part of the industry’s workforce. Wages are minimal, benefits few, hours long, and working conditions poor. An investigation by Dhaka fire officials after the Tazreen tragedy showed that at least 64 of 232 nearby factories have safety problems.

In September, an even worse tragedy took place in Karachi, Pakistan, where 262 workers died in a horrible fire at a textile factory. The factory had actually been given a thumbs-up in a safety inspection three weeks earlier by the industry-backed nonprofit Social Accountability International organization. Survivors of the blaze told of workers trapped by locked exits and windows.

A larger story exists here. It’s a story with a long, sad history.

It goes back as far as 1911, when 146 workers, most of them young women, either burned to death or jumped to their death in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City. The women worked sixty hours a week in a factory where the doors were impossible to open—an anti-theft measure, some believe. When fire broke out, they faced the choice of a fiery death or jumping from as high as the ninth floor to the street below. “Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking—flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward,” wrote United Press reporter William G. Shepherd in his harrowing eyewitness account.

Eighty years later, in September 1991, a fire broke out in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., killing 25 and injuring 40 or more. “Let me out!” passers-by heard the trapped workers scream. A subsequent investigation revealed the doors were locked to prevent employees from stealing chickens.

Last June a 20-year-old worker died in an explosion that also injured two others at the Pascagoula, Miss., plant owned by the Madison, Miss.-based Mississippi Phosphates Corp. He was the second employee to die in an explosion at the plant in two weeks. Mississippi Phosphates has a dozen or more federal safety violations on its record and has faced some $20,000 in resulting fines.

The fire that killed three and injured three more workers on an oil platform in the Gulf Coast in November is a bigger story in the Philippines than here. The reason? The workers were all Filipino, and a class action lawsuit claims such workers in Louisiana live in slave-like conditions, working as many as 100 hours a week and sleeping under lock and key in a crowded bunkhouse.

In today’s neo-liberal, global economy--and Walmart is a key player in that economy--workers are the cheapest commodity. Corporations spend millions on sophisticated public relations to create their own “Mr. Sam”-like image while overseeing a world of sweatshop labor that Charles Dickens would recognize. Meanwhile, we shoppers continue our merry search for sales, rarely, if ever, giving a thought to the hands that make the products we buy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Return of the Labor Priest - a Christmas gift for Msgr. Rice

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, the legendary labor priest from Pittsburgh, once wrote that as a young man he “held labor to be not just a worthy cause, but virtually a holy one. Unions were not merely something that would make life better for working people but they could lead to the reform of society.”

Father Rice fought a long lifetime—he died seven years ago last month at the ripe old age of 96—for working people. He fought with his pen in the pages of the Pittsburgh Catholic and on the streets protesting steel magnates and the other forces arrayed against workers.

Yet in his last decades, he watched his fellow Catholics grow increasingly conservative and removed from their immigrant roots. It was “another cross in my old age,” and he didn’t take it lying down. “What we really need in this country is a healthy and vigorous conviction in the bosoms of the lower class that the upper class is their enemy and is out to fleece and suppress them. We need working class solidarity and a sturdy recognition that the poor and almost poor have to stick together.”

He was 80 when he wrote those words.

The ghost of the old Irishman may be smiling from heaven, however. After a steady decline to what fellow warrior Msgr. George Higgins once lamented as a “vanishing point” in the number of labor priests in the country, a resurgence is taking shape.

In April of 2013, dozens of labor priests of a new era will converge in Reno, Nev., to share ideas and work out strategies to help the working stiff in a nation where 46 million live in poverty, including 16 million children.

This new generation of labor priesthood, which has received backing from the National Federation of Priests’ Councils and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, continues to carry the banner of Catholic social justice teaching that goes back to the words of Jesus, to the Biblical exhortation to “be doers of the word and not hearers only,” and even to the Old Testament, too. That teaching was upheld in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 with its inspired defense of workers, their rights, and their unions.

As described in an August-September cover story in the National Catholic Reporter,  Father Clete Kiley of Washington, Father Ty Hullinger of Baltimore, Father Patrick Besel of Baltimore, and others stood side-by-side with workers in July in a global boycott of the Hyatt Hotels chain to force the company to recognize the need for fair wages and safe working conditions.

Father Les Schmidt, a still-active labor priest from the earlier Rice-Higgins era, took part in the cross-country bus trip that brought undocumented workers to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September to highlight their own human rights issues.

(Father Jeremy Tobin at the Norbertine Priory of St. Moses the Black near Jackson, Miss.)

Immigration and immigrant workers are very important issues in the social ministry of this newer generation of labor priests, and they have also been a major focus of the energies of Mississippi’s own leading labor priest, Father Jeremy Tobin of Raymond, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants and the subject of an earlier column by this writer.

Tobin, who grew up in Chicago, lights up the pages of the Mississippi Catholic with his columns just as Rice did at the Pittsburgh Catholic years ago. Here’s a taste from Tobin’s December column: “Labor laws exempt agricultural workers from minimum wage. Compound this with current visa policies for immigrant workers sets up a system of cheap labor and high profits. This accounts for the longstanding exploitation of immigrant farm labor. … We have the opportunity and the will to correct these imbalances.”

Like Rice before him, Tobin can breathe fire from his newsprint pulpit.  Here’s his take on references to undocumented workers as “illegal”: “The very symbols and hallowed buildings of America were built by slave labor. … What is legal? Slavery was legal, but it was an abomination that split this country, and we still live with its curse. … People are not illegal. Things are illegal.”

As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, let’s remember his message and his messengers, including priests like Rice, Higgins, Tobin and the others who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with working people and remind us of the words from Isaiah in the Old Testament: “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Out of the Bangladesh tragedy may come global worker solidarity

(A photograph of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. From the New York World)

The horrible tragedy at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, may become a milestone in the development of true global solidarity among workers.

Red banner-waving garment workers protested in the streets of Dhaka after the Nov. 24 fire that killed 112 of their colleagues. The factory, which serves major Western corporations like Walmart, Sears, Disney and Sean Combs’ Enyce, had no fire exits for the trapped workers in the fire.

Some political leaders in Bangladesh—where organized labor is weak and labor organizer Aminul Islam was murdered earlier this year—have tried to blame the fire on arson and sabotage, but workers and their defenders know better.

Groups like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Workers Rights Consortium have called for a full-scale investigation.

The role of Walmart and other major corporations is also under scrutiny. Although the giant retailer has tried to distance itself from the factory and the incident, Bloomberg News and other news organizations have already turned up reports and documents indicating a third of the production lines at the Tazreen factory were committed to Walmart and that suppliers did business there this year.

Furthermore, reports show Walmart led other corporations in opposing a 2011 measure that would have made corporations responsible for funding better safety measures in the sprawling South Asian garment industry, a $20 billion industry in Bangladesh alone.

The tragedy evoked memories of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York, which took the lives of 146 workers. Most of them were young women. They were trapped inside a building where the doors were impossible to open, and thus they were forced either to die a fiery death or jump from as high as the ninth floor to the street below. Eighty years later, a similar fire broke out in the Imperial Foods Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., killing 25 and injuring 40 or more.

The Tazreen factory fire and subsequent protests come on the heels of nationwide protests against Walmart here in the United States. Hundreds of Walmart workers went on an unprecedented strike against the virulently anti-union, Arkansas-based company on “Black Friday”, the busiest day of the year for many retailers.

An earlier strike by warehouse workers at a Walmart-affiliated firm, Inland Empire, in California won a rare concession from the company to improve job safety. That strike was supported by warehouse workers from as far away as Korea and Chile. A similar strike took place in Illinois.

Corporate Action Network and OUR Walmart, groups that aided workers in the “Black Friday” protests, have expressed solidarity with Bangladesh workers.

Global solidarity among workers is the only way to meet the challenge of today’s global economy and the neo-liberal principles that govern it, a philosophy that promotes transnational business deals at the cost of a relentess search for cheaper labor and fewer governmental restrictions.

The U.S. South knows all about that race. The garment and textile industries now spread across South Asia used to call places like North and South Carolina home.

However, workers around the world are waking up and seeing beyond their cultural and language differences to what they have in common.

The landmark protests by members of the International Longshoremen’s Association against a union-busting Danish firm in Charleston, S.C., in January 2000—termed the “first major labor battle of the Twenty-first century” by Clamor magazine--was ultimately successful in part because of the refusal by dockworkers in Spain and elsewhere in Europe to load the firm’s ships until a contract was negotiated with the ILA.

More recently, the United Auto Workers has been working closely with union leaders in Brazil and other countries, sponsoring student and activist meetings, exchanges and other programs that help instill a sense of the workers rights’ cause as a true and just civil rights movement for today.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A changing Southern electorate: Finding that populist core that money can't buy

I’ll never forget the moment I was most proud of Mississippians. It was election day 1983, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain defeated his Republican opponent, Leon Bramlett, by a 10-point margin.

Just weeks before election day, Allain, a crusading populist who as attorney general had battled successfully against the state’s big utility companies and the conservative Delta demigods who held executive as well as legislative power, was publicly accused by powerful Republican financiers of being a homosexual who trafficked with black male transvestites and collected pornography in his apartment.

Although Allain’s previous wide margin among voters slipped as a result of the allegations, he made good his claim that Mississippians would provide the ultimate “lie detector’s test” on election day. It was the dirtiest race that this veteran reporter has ever covered, and the dirt throwers were rebuked.

I felt the same way this past election day when President Obama won re-election despite an avalanche of money spent against him by wealthy corporate donors who remain anonymous thanks to the U.S. “Corporate” Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” ruling.

By mid-October, the so-called “Super PACs” created after Citizens United had raised an estimated $660 million. Such groups spent $65 million-plus on television ads in the presidential race, much of it negative and most of it against Obama, before October.

The poison spread about Obama by that campaign money and the Republican Party’s media arm, Fox News, for months—no, let’s say years—came from the same bilious cesspool as the one those Mississippi Republican financiers bathed in back in 1983. It was that poison—Obama the “socialist”, Obama the Kenyan foreigner--that contributed to the incident on the University of Mississippi campus the night of the election, when students protesting Obama’s victory filled the air with the noxious “N” word.

On paper, the president and Republican opponent Mitt Romney had comparable campaign chests, each nearly $1 billion. Some 56 percent of Obama’s individual donors contributed $200 or less. Only 23 percent of Romney’s donors did. Romney billionaire supporters Sheldon and Miriam Adelson together gave $20 million to their candidate, nearly six times the size of Obama’s largest individual contribution.

In the world of post-Citizens United politics, however, the cash story isn’t on paper or in the files of the Federal Election Commission. It’s back in the smoke-filled rooms where Antonin Scalia and his black-robed brethren believe it ought to be.

Big Money did get results this past election day even though it failed to buy the White House or U.S. Senate seats sought by the likes of Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or held by Jon Tester of Montana. Aided by gerrymandering, Republicans kept a majority in the House although that majority shrank and House Republicans together actually received less total votes than Democratic candidates. Here in Mississippi, outside cash played a significant role in Josiah Coleman’s victory over “Flip” Phillips in the state Supreme Court race in northern Mississippi. Only money and the negative ads it buys could explain why a political and judicial unknown like Coleman could beat a seasoned veteran and well-known attorney like Phillips.

What trumped money among the voters nationwide who cast their ballot for Obama was a sense that the president’s mission indeed was unfinished and he deserved another four years to complete it, that he inherited a mountainous mess from his Republican predecessor in 2008, and over the next four years faced a solid block of Republican obstructionists in Congress who believed his defeat was more important than the welfare of the nation.

People across America got it that the chameleon-like Romney was the embodiment of what writer Gertrude Stein meant when she said, “There is no there there.” They got it that Obamacare is not the evil embodiment of Soviet-style health care that Republicans and their media water boys at Fox News and SuperTalk Mississippi Radio want us to believe.

They believed the little guy will get a fairer deal from Obama than Romney would’ve ever given him. Let’s hope that the president delivers.

As noted before in this blog, most of the states in the nation’s poorest region—a region with a sordid history of voter suppression, racism, and oligarchical rule--went solidly for Romney. It’s one thing for bankers, oilmen, and corporate magnates to vote for one of their ilk, but quite another to see the (overwhelmingly white) small business people and blue-collar workers who did the same.

Beyond questions of race, did so-called “values” play a role? Southerners are religious, and I suppose many bought what they heard from the pulpits and right-wing radio.

They needed to remember what writer Thomas Frank once said: “Values may `matter most’ to voters, but they always take a back seat to the needs of money once the elections are won.”

Take Romney. He loved to talk jobs and his business acumen during the campaign. However, the company he once led, Bain Capital, made a mint by buying and forcing other companies into bankruptcy in part so it could break prior promises of pension and benefits for workers. That’s a fact, and that’s why he preferred to allow General Motors to go into bankruptcy rather than endorse Obama’s “bailout” of the auto industry.

The good news, however, is that the fine details of the 2012 election show that the South is changing. North Carolina-based Facing South reports that Obama’s decline in Southern votes between 2008 and 2012 roughly paralleled the national vote. Nonwhite voters are indeed becoming a larger share of the electorate, in the South as well as the nation, and this portends well for progressive politics.

Mississippi, once tagged the nation’s most conservative state, went for Romney, of course, but by the seventh smallest margin of the “red” states, according to the Jackson Free Press. Obama actually got a higher percentage of Mississippi votes in 2012 than he got in 2008. A close analysis of election results shows Mississippi voters trending left rather than right even though the state today remains very conservative. Factors in that trend include a 37 percent black population and a growing number of Latino and other minority voters in the state.

In that trend are also white voters. Obama actually carried the day among young Mississippi voters. That’s got to be scary to Republicans.

Maybe even some older white voters in Mississippi will rethink their views about Obama and Democrats over the next four years. After all, a long time ago—before Fox News and Citizens United—a lot of them voted for a grassroots populist Democrat named Bill Allain.