Monday, August 26, 2013

Old-fashioned American hypocrisy: The NAACP partners with Nissan, and Walmart pushes "Made in America"

The central theme of this short Labor South round-up could be hypocrisy.

What would Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers say?

At the recent 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, the NAACP joined hands with the Nissan Corporation in welcoming tens of thousands of participants.

“This event is a celebration of diversity, community and inclusion,” said Rob Wilson, director of diversity and inclusion at Nissan, in a press release about the Nissan-NAACP partnership at the event. “We live by these values every day at Nissan, and our success demonstrates what a talented and diverse workforce can accomplish.”

Of course, what the August 23 press release doesn’t say is this: If civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers were alive today, they’d be fighting Nissan’s strong anti-union stand at its plants in Canton, Miss., and Smyrna, Tenn., tooth and nail. In his last years, King made economic and workers rights the core of his mission for true equality in the United States. He died after standing in solidarity with the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Evers worked closely with Mississippi AFL-CIO leaders Claude Ramsay and Ray Smithhart during the Mississippi movement in the early 1960s, and they all worked hard both for civil and worker rights.

As proof of Nissan's support for the NAACP's mission and King's vision in 1963, the press release said the company “and its generous employees” have contributed more than $8 million to 100 Black Men, Habitat for Humanity, United Way and other organizations since 2003. What it hasn’t done, of course, is raise wages for its Canton workers in years, and what it’s not likely to ever do is willingly accepted a union for its Southern workers.

A $100,000 gift by Nissan to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute earlier this year is believed to have been a factor in the absence of actor-labor activist Danny Glover on the rostrum at the subsequent annual Medgar Evers dinner in Jackson, Miss. Glover was expected to speak.

Walmart once more wants to “buy American”

You got to give it credit. The Arkansas-based retail monster Walmart has audacity. At its two-day “Walmart U.S. Manufacturing Summit” in Orlando, Fla., this month, the company reiterated an earlier promise to buy $50 billion more in U.S.-made products during the next 10 years. Other companies should also increase their purchase of U.S. goods, Walmart officials said as they pushed for a “made-in-America” movement.

On hand to applaud the challenge were U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, eight governors (including Mississippi’s Phil Bryant), hundreds of manufacturers, and many more.

Bear in mind, this $50 billion pledge by Walmart accounts for just 10 percent of its projected retail sales for this year alone. Big whooping deal!

Walmart has done this before. As reported recently in this blog, the company preached “Buy America” 30 years ago then proceeded to turn to foreign countries for 80 percent of its suppliers. More recently, it has found itself in hot water—at least publicity-wise--for the horrible working and safety conditions in the factories of some of those suppliers, conditions believed to have contributed to hundreds of tragic deaths. 

Rising wages in China and Cambodia have made U.S. corporations like Walmart look elsewhere for the cheaply made products they put on their shelves. In the meantime, however, why not sound a patriotic note and talk “Buy America” again? Besides, wages are down in the United States, and this new “Made in America” campaign may make good business sense.

Of course, Walmart has played as large a role as any other corporation in helping keep the wages of blue-collar workers in the United States flat despite their increased productivity. Wages “for the entire bottom 60 percent of the wage distribution” of earners “were flat or declined” between 2000 and 2012, write Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz in their August briefing paper on a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute. This is despite a nearly 25 percent increase in productivity over the same period.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Burmese Days: Corporate bottom-feeders like Walmart licking their chops over Myanmar and all those cheap workers


(Writer George Orwell's passport picture when he was in Burma in the 1920s)

Walmart publicly preached “Buy America” three decades ago, and the Arkansas-based retail giant imported less than 6 percent of the products it sold in the United States. By 2006 four-fifths of its suppliers were based in China.

Then China’s workers began protesting their conditions and eventually got the attention of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, which feared rising worker militancy in the workers’ paradise. Over the past 10 years, blue-collar workers’ wages have risen some 400 percent.

So like other U.S.-based corporate bottom-feeders, Walmart looked beyond China for suppliers that could meet Walmart’s stringent cost demands through low wages and poor working conditions. They found their new partners in Bangladesh, home of the world’s lowest wages. The cost of those minimal conditions became clear last November with the Tazreen garment factory fire near Dhaka that killed 112 workers and again, even more so, in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April that killed 1,129 workers.

A result of those tragedies has been a global spotlight on the U.S. companies fed low-priced products by suppliers in Bangladesh that could care less about safety conditions or workers’ livelihood. Even as major European companies responded by agreeing to a new, legally binding accord requiring independent inspections of supplier factories, Walmart, J.C. Penney, Sear’s, Macy’s, Target, Gap, and other U.S. firms resisted. American greed countenances little or nothing that stands in the way of its insatiable appetite. And neither do its defenders in Washington.

Expect Walmart and Co. to be looking even farther beyond China and beyond Bangladesh now in the “race to the bottom.” Cambodia has already been a beneficiary, but now workers are protesting there, too, and wages are rising. The New York Times recently reported that industrial wages in Cambodia have grown 65 percent in the last five years.

“The race to the bottom has hurt workers all over the world,” Hong Kong’s top independent labor leader and Labour Party chair Lee Cheuk-yan told me during an interview in Hong Kong in June. “The ability of capital of moving to the cheapest labor is very efficient from their point of view, but from our point of view it is a race to the bottom. Even Chinese labor now is seen as too expensive, and they are moving to Bangladesh, Cambodia. Myanmar will be next. When will it end? The ability of capital to move around so easily is hurting workers everywhere.”

Myanmar, also known as Burma, indeed will be next. With military rule in that long-tortured country now allowing greater democracy and outside investment to aide its disastrous economy, the corporate bottom-feeders are licking their chops. "Foreign governments and multinationals have converged on a country that occupies a unique geostrategic position between the new Asian superpowers of India to the west and China to the east," said The Economist in a special report in May. "Private companies are jostling to capture a share of an almost virginal consumer market of some 60 (million) people" - and, let us not forget, cheap, really cheap, workers.

Workers at the Japanese-owned Famoso garment factory in Yangon earn the equivalent of $100 a month, "a quarter of the going rate in China," The Economist reports. "The mix of low wages, a plentiful supply of labour and access to American and European markets should mean that many more Famosos will be set up in Myanmar."

Walmart probably doesn’t yet have an image problem in Yangon (Myanmar’s capital, once known as Rangoon). Not like it does here in the United States.

Back in May the retailer agreed to pay $82 million in fines after admitting guilt in the improper dumping of hazardous wastes in Missouri and California.  Walmart workers and warehouse workers for Walmart suppliers have staged walkouts and strikes in recent months to protest the litany of worker abuses that have made Sam Walton’s corporate creation infamous.

Adding insult to injury, the District of Columbia Council in Washington passed a “living wage” bill that would require Walmart to pay its employees a minimum of $12.50 an hour if the retailer opens the six stores it has planned there. Walmart was aghast, of course.

Can you blame the city’s leaders? Remember this multi-billion-dollar company has been so chintzy with its workers that 46 percent of their children had no health insurance or were dependent on Medicaid in 2006. A congressional report at the time showed that each Walmart store generated an average $420,750 in Medicaid, Food Stamps, and public housing costs to taxpayers.

Don’t know whether members of the Walton family--or other corporate leaders--are reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days (a book about Britain's colonial rule of that country) to prepare for their next adventure,  but folks in Yangon better get ready. The corporate colonialists and imperialists are planning a major comeback.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Students find their cause in the UAW for Nissan's Mississippi workers

(Hayat Mohamed)

CANTON, Miss. – Hayat Mohamed has a cause.

“We are different from other generations,” says the 19-year-old English major at nearby Tougaloo College. “We have such an individualistic ideal, how we see things. We have to get away from that and see other people’s problems.  … If we took our eyes off that narrow path and look at the person next to us, we could unify.”

Her cause? Doing everything she can to get the 5,000-plus workers at the Nissan plant in Canton membership cards with the United Auto Workers. “To be able to voice their opinions and their needs without being worried they are going to get fired. … (to) have the grounds to talk to someone about safety issues, health care benefits, temp workers, what happens to them if they get injured.”

I’m sitting across the table from Mohamed and fellow Tougaloo student Kimar Cain at the UAW office on Nissan Parkway, and I’m remembering my student days back in the ‘60s, protesting for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Young people need a cause. They’ve got the energy, the courage, the idealism that tells them they can make a difference.

(To the right is Kimar Cain)

And they can.

Young people are a key reason things are happening on the UAW-Nissan front. The call from workers and community supporters for a fair union election at the Canton plant is getting louder.

The 150-plus members of the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance from Tougaloo and Jackson State University in Jackson, joined by supporters from other colleges in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, are taking the issue into neighborhoods, car dealerships, auto shows, on-campus rallies, the Internet and YouTube.

They are part of a larger campaign that has seen Nissan-Canton workers speak to audiences in Brazil, Japan and South Africa as well as in U.S. cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Detroit. Brazilian labor leaders and students have come to Canton to show their support and study what veteran observers see as potentially the most important labor campaign in decades.

“We have a lot of talent on this team,” says Cain, a 23-year-old senior at Tougaloo majoring in history and African-American Studies. “From writers to videographers to photographers. Everything visual and that can be heard, we have those things, and we have the ability to get it out, and get it out quickly and let it be seen so people can really dig into what we are saying, and they’re like … `How can I get involved?’ ”

I can’t help but reminisce. What was missing back in my day was a real alliance with working-class people. Students were out there protesting in the 1960s, but few blue-collar workers joined them. Most were even hostile.

(Jeffrey Moore)

This cause is dramatically different. Students are on the frontlines side-by-side with workers, and the workers appreciate it. “I am very proud” of the students, says Jeffrey Moore, 35, an 11-year veteran Nissan employee. “They are doing something out of their time. You’ll never get a lot of play on that out of the media. They are doing a lot of hard work for us, trying to make this thing go down.”

They’re getting Nissan’s attention, too.

After a history of mixed relations with local political leaders who’ve been prohibited from annexing the plant and who’ve had little input into its expansion plans, Nissan’s bosses “all of a sudden are pillars of the community,” Moore says.

In recent months, Nissan announced a $500,000 education grant to Canton schools and a $100,000 gift to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, hosted a 10-year anniversary free festival featuring the R&B group Kool & the Gang, promised a pay raise to workers (after a seven-year hiatus since the last pay raise), and a new program to help temporary workers transition into fulltime workers.

Nissan’s $100,000 gift to the Evers Institute is a key reason, sources believe, why Hollywood celebrity Danny Glover, a vocal and active supporter of unionization at the Canton plant, did not speak at the annual Medgar Evers dinner last month even though he had been a speaker in the past and was expected to speak again this year.

(To the right is Anthony Wayne Walker)

“The barbarians are at the gates,” says Anthony Wayne Walker, 39, a metal finisher at Nissan’s Canton plant and union supporter. “You got to give them something to eat. It is one thing the corporation doesn’t like. It is bad publicity. That equates to sales, to dollar signs, so you counteract everything the union is doing. Throw ‘em a bone, and it looks good on TV. All of a sudden you come out with a checkbook.”

Of course, leading the applause for Nissan are Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the state’s other top pols, despite a recent report showing the state’s record $1.3 billion investment in Nissan has failed to reap the promised rewards and resulted in a $290,000 subsidy for each Nissan-Canton job.

Nissan worker Walker says he knows why, and a question to Gov. Bryant would explain it to the rest of us: “Who are you playing golf with?”