Celina Su’s anecdote in n+1 about visiting an aid worker in Cambodia, Holiday in Cambodia, includes this observation:
These women [in Phnom Penh] sewed clothes and reported to Chinese factory contractors, who reported to American managers, who reported to shareholders. Every once in a while, an exposé about the sweatshops reached American televised news. To Z, shareholders had an astoundingly predictable, biannual ritual of expressing shock about the sweatshop conditions in which these women earned less than $2 a day.
This is followed by an encounter with backpackers who disappointingly make excuses for the conditions, which allow workers to live at one-third the poverty level according to the United Nations. It’s only an aside, but it’s a misleading one. The rest of the piece describes a visit from a set of resolutely point-missing U.S. Congressional aides to the author’s friend Z’s aid projects. But the sweatshop aside shows a similar lack of attention.
I worked with anti-sweatshop advocates for two years putting together an anti-sweatshop purchasing policy, and they routinely held up Cambodia as an example of third world manufacturing done right. Garment export factories must submit to inspection by the International Labor Organization, described here at length. Violations still exist, but Cambodia’s monitoring regime is among the developing world’s most robust. Su’s observation isn’t wrong, but it feels much more like a pro-forma gesture at “conditions in the third world” than an informed account, even at the level of an aside.
For someone who usually gets more excited to go door-knocking on Election Day than on Halloween, I’ve had a fairly detached view of the national political scene in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.
It’s clear that the Democrats will lose the House and keep the Senate, and that the President will spend the next two years doing small-bore politics frustrated by Congressional investigation a la the last six Clinton years. His re-election will depend on the state of the economy (political constraints suggest to me that it will not turn around very fast, which will cost Obama the 2012 election).
The last two years suggest to me that the next two will not cost progressives huge opportunities that were ever real. The utter failure of two years of a Democratic Presidency and a Congress under lopsided Democratic control to get anything done on climate change suggests that prospects for the future of the earth haven’t been very high and though they’re now dimmer, it’s not by much. The structural reform that could make the biggest difference would be the elimination of the filibuster, but too many Democratic Senators are too fond of their privileges to make that a reality, and even in a majority-rule Senate, I think that regional concerns would defeat effective climate change intervention.
It’s tempting to ask what if? I’m inspired by the round of What if Al Gore had taken power in 2000 over at Unfogged to ask this question: what if, for the past two years, the labor movement had been united?
For a while there, Mother Yale had one of the worst labor-management track records among United States corporations, with strikes every four years like clockwork as the university saw with the expiration of a labor contract another opportunity to extract concessions from its unionized workforce, and then acted surprised when the unions resisted their evil plan to fire everybody with a decent job and replace them with minimum-wage subcontracts to Betty Crocker International or some such.
When I went there, the two head honchos were University President Richard Levin and Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead. There persisted a stubborn belief among the students that Levin was the Bad Dick and Brodhead the Good Dick, mostly because Levin, an economist, is a geek and is less fun to be around than Brodhead, a literary humanist, who can deliver a fine and funny lecture on American literature. As far as I could tell there was no other basis for thinking Brodhead had better politics, and I’m not surprised to see the prejudice definitively refuted in Brodhead’s practices as University President at Duke:
The cushy administrative salaries and bonuses add up to an indictment of the Brodhead administration for allowing the burden of the fiscal crisis to fall unevenly: bonuses for the brass, a direct hit for cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, housekeepers, clerks and underpaid adjunct faculty who lost their jobs.
The Los Angeles Times features waiters who work at Los Angeles’s two notable south-of-Mulholland delis: Langer’s and Canter’s. Canter’s is the Hollywood deli, set in a neighborhood full of young writers and actors, up all night, and host to The Kibitz Room (where Boots recently brought Edmund Welles). Langer’s, The Restaurant Saved By The Red Line, sits in “transitional” MacArthur Park, an easy lunch destination for downtown office workers who can ride the subway or get curbside to-go using their cell phones.
And Langer’s — as the Times notes 20 grafs in — is union.
Eva Francois began serving at Canter’s 17 years ago. The nighttime shift allowed her to spend days with her young son, but once he grew older, she was able to work days. A co-worker who served at both delis suggested lunch shifts at Langer’s, an extra job she has been working the last eight years. Like many dual-deli waiters, Francois takes the health benefits at Langer’s — a union shop.
Good on them for spelling out the difference. What the article neglects to mention–though the story’s in the archives–is that a little less than twenty years ago, Canter’s was union too. As I understand it, the original owners passed management to their children, who overturned a longtime arrangement with labor. A decertification campaign bitterly divided the staff. The former bass player in my band was a union organizer who worked closely with one of the shop stewards who manned that picket line (at a different job, years later). So we were not about to play The Kibitz Room.
In 2005, Safeway was forking over $1 billion a year to provide health insurance for its workers, and the cost was rising 10 percent a year. It was Mr. Burd’s moment of truth: he realized he could no longer stand by as health care costs ballooned.“We were saying ‘Wow, we’re paying almost twice in health care costs as what we’re making in earnings, and in five years it’s going to be another half a billion dollars,’ ” he recalls.
Health Care Savings Could Start in the Cafeteria, New York Times, 11/28/2009
Was that Steve Burd’s moment of truth? Or did the Safeway CEO’s moment of truth come in 2004, when after a 141-day strike he bludgeoned his workers into accepting a two-tiered contract that would revoke most health benefits for new employees (not to mention leave them with much lower pay)?
Or did the moment of truth come later on, in 2007, when the union representing Safeway workers won back what they’d given up in the previous contract?
The Los Angeles Times suggested back then that the UFCW may have whispered the truth in Burd’s ear:
The new agreement, approved by 87% of workers over the weekend, looks like an unqualified victory for the UFCW, which has reorganized to better negotiate with the large supermarket companies. The UFCW sought wage increases, a single pay scale for all employees and shorter waits for health insurance for new employees and their families — and got practically all of it. Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons rolled back the two-tier wage system. They also acknowledged their crucial role as providers of healthcare for their workers.
For its part, the union agreed that workers also bear some burden for their healthcare expenses. The grocery chains’ new plan will emphasize preventive care, establish healthcare savings accounts for employees and require workers to pay premiums for coverage. The goal is to make employees more sensitive to how they spend their healthcare dollars, in theory leading to less waste.
It’s not entirely surprising to see this industry display a bit of forward thinking. Safeway chief executive Steve Burd has been pondering healthcare since the lockouts of 2004, and has joined forces with Big Labor to call for universal coverage.
Burd would have been happy to save on health care by no longer paying for it. It’s a testament to the resilience of the UFCW that Safeway is pushing towards innovation.
There. I said it. So, apparently, does Michael Moore, who featured her in Capitalism: A Love Story and now has her on the front page of his website, urging action on everything from health care…
you have to call, write and email your Senators over the health care bill. This week the fight is in the Senate, as they work to merge two bills — the Baucus finance committee bill and the HELP committee bill. The Baucus bill benefits the health insurance companies and is worse than no reform at all, whereas the HELP committee bill includes a public option. Of course I prefer a single-payer health care plan (Medicare for All) and I will definitely tell my senators that a national health plan would be the best solution, but also that I strongly prefer the HELP bill over the disaster that is the Baucus bill. To find your senator’s contact information visit: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.
…to, well, capitalism.
Leah organizes workers in the scrappy, independent United Electrical union. She helped run the heroic Republic Windows and Doors factory takeover last winter. (I spent a good hour on the phone with my friend at Bank of America encouraging them to resolve the dispute in time for Leah to come to my wedding, which I’m sure made the difference.) She was one of my first welcomes to the labor movement at Union Summer in Chicago in 1996, she is a superhero, and you should do what she says.
John Sweeney retires. Two and a half cheers for the last fourteen years! Sweeney’s rise to the top of the AFL-CIO was an unambiguous victory for the labor movement against its worst self. It was a successful trickle-up of the renewed organizing energy that took over service worker unions in the late 1980s. The New Voices coalition, Sweeney’s governing troika, comprised fire-breathing orator (and now successor) Rich Trumka from the United Mine Workers and AFSCME’s Linda Chavez-Thompson, who came out of open-shop organizing in Texas’s public sector. Their election in 1995 struck the first real blow from the left to Clintonism that came from north of Chiapas’s Zapatistas.
Harold Meyerson gets it right in the article linked above: “Sweeney repositioned labor as best he could, and with considerable success, at the center of American liberalism.” Its fortunes have not been so far off those of liberalism, either, with occasional displays of strength marred by fecklessness and disunity. His AFL-CIO was riven by internal stress over the appropriate resources and perceptible rewards of electioneering and organizing. The Change to Win split of 2005 might have presaged a renewal comparable to John Lewis’s extraction of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from the original American Federation of Labor. Instead, labor is mired in turf battles, leaving legislative opportunities around health care and labor law reform twisting in the wind.
But this can all be found, in greater detail and more perceptive analysis, on the public record. By way of fond farewell, I want to retell my memory of Sweeney speaking at the giant civil disobedience arrests during the Yale contract fight in the winter of 1996. Several thousand people stood at the corner of College and Grove streets, more than three hundred of us prepared to be arrested in protest of Yale’s plan to replace its unionized blue-collar workforce with subcontracted minimum-wagers. The unions’ logos were projected–a new tactic, then–onto Woolsey Hall, the massive rotunda that defines Fortress Yale against the surrounding city. Sweeney, not known as a firebrand, took the podium and declaimed, in a kind of Long Island honk, words that had been written all too particularly for this occasion:
“In the words of seventeenth-century poet John Donne, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, Yale… It tolls for thee!‘”
The crowd went wild, though a kind of bemused, did-that-just-happen wild. And then I got arrested for the second time.