Friday, November 29, 2013

Walmart protests, South African pressure on Nissan, child labor in the tobacco fields, and taxpayers subsidizing fast-food profits - the latest Labor South round-up

This latest Labor South round-up finds Arkansas-based Walmart all prepped for its big sales extravaganza but also facing demonstrations across the country protesting its Scrooge-like treatment of its workers, labor leaders in South Africa promising to pressure Nissan there to treat Southern workers better, and new reports on child labor in North Carolina’s tobacco fields and how taxpayers subsidize fast-food industry profits.

Walmart’s Black Friday

Just weeks after the National Labor Relations Board found Walmart in violation of labor laws by punishing workers for striking or trying to join a union, the retail giant faces protests across the country on the biggest shopping day of the year, today, November 29, also known as “Black Friday”.

The Arkansas-based company expects to rake in plenty of profits from hordes of shoppers, but protesters in cities across the country, including the South, will also be reminding those shoppers that more than a million Walmart workers are forced to work on this day, most of them at bottom-level wages and minimal benefits. In the meantime, the Walton family can comfortably watch its $144 billion pile of personal gold grow.

“These big-box stores are killing mom-and-pop shops, profiting off our local dollars, and then they can’t even pay their workers enough to pay the rent and put food on the table?” said Jess Morales of the national AFL-CIO in a press release. “We can’t let them get away with that.”

South African union members plan to put pressure on Nissan

According to a recent United Auto Workers Solidarity report, South African labor leader Cedric Gina, who was also interviewed by Labor South after a recent visit to Mississippi, said he and other union activists in South Africa will “raise the issue of why the company is interfering with its American workers’ right to form a union,” and they “will demand that the next meeting” of Nissan corporate and labor leaders “be held in Mississippi or Tennessee.”

Nissan’s South African plant is unionized, as are other Nissan plants across the world. However, the auto giant has fought organizing efforts at its plants in Smyrna, Tenn., and Canton, Miss.

Nissan workers in South Africa even won a corporate agreement in 2010 to ban the use of brokers or agencies that hire temporary workers, a huge issue at the Nissan plant in Canton.

Meanwhile, an anti-union campaign by major right-wing groups is gearing up and targeting UAW efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Nissan plant in Canton. In These Times magazine recently reported on leaked documents indicating Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has committed huge amounts of cash to fighting unionization in the South. The National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation and Center for Union Facts are also involved in the campaign. In a recent op-ed piece for the Huntsville Times in Alabama, Center for Union Facts Executive Director Richard Berman brought out the same old tired tirade about labor bosses only wanting to organize workers so that they, the bosses, can continue to live in luxury from union dues. You’d think the anti-unionists could come up with something original after all these years!

Child labor in the tobacco fields

As a young boy growing up in central North Carolina, I worked many summers in the tobacco fields owned by my cousins. One year my father and a cousin leased a handful of acres for tobacco, and I was able to witness and partake in the entire process of growing and harvesting tobacco. We planted, topped (removing the flowers and tops that drain the plant’s energy), pulled suckers, primed (harvested), and hung the tobacco in barns. I did this in my teen years.

Federal labor laws have long allowed child labor in family-run farms. However, family-run farms today often are partnered with agribusiness giants, and those children working in the fields are likely to be poverty-stricken migrants from Mexico or further south.

A compelling report by writer Gabriel Thompson in The Nation magazine in November revealed widespread use of children on North Carolina’s tobacco farms. The state’s 90,000 migrant farmworkers do much of the fieldwork today, and they’re exposed to nicotine poisoning that can be potentially debilitating. A worker in a tobacco field in summer is daily exposed to nicotine levels that are the same as smoking a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes, Thompson reported.

Modern-day tobacco workers are exposed to pesticides and other hazards that endanger their health, particularly if they’re children. Monsanto and other companies have fought congressional efforts to provide better protection for these workers, much like Southern legislators in the 1930s worked hard to keep farm workers exempt from labor laws.

Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries have passed laws banning children from working in tobacco fields, Thompson reported. Ironically, the United States government has even given millions of dollars to efforts to ban such child labor in the country of Malawi.

Subsidizing fast-food profits

A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch blasted the fast-food industry for low wages and benefits that have resulted in a $7 billion taxpayer annual subsidy to the industry.

“Seven billion dollars a year is what it costs taxpayers for Medicaid, food stamps and the other public assistance programs for fast-food workers who are paid poverty wages,” the editorial said.

The editorial cited a study by University of Illinois and University of California economists that said taxpayers last year funded $1.2 billion in assistance to workers at McDonald’s, a company that reported $1.5 billion in third-quarter profits.

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