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Two Wins for Bangladesh Garment Workers, But The Fight Isn’t Over

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David MobergWith a death toll of 1,127, the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh has earned the shameful distinction of being the sixth-worst worst industrial disaster in history.

There’s plenty of shame to go around—and not just for the building owner and factory operators who ignored clear warnings of danger. High on the dishonor roll are the multinational apparel companies who subcontract work to thousands of local Bangladeshi factories crammed into similar deathtraps. The government of Bangladesh, dominated by representatives of the nation’s largest industry, textiles, shares blame for its fecklessness and corruption.

U.S. government officials and members of Congress are also at fault. They have failed to insist on safe standards for production of goods in Bangladesh (four-fifths of whose garment output goes to the U.S. and the European Union) and continued to grant it trade preferences.

But in a glimmer of hope, the outcry over the scale of the carnage in Rana Plaza has begun to spur some long-overdue reforms.

After relentless international media coverage and protests and strikes in and around Dhaka, the Bangladeshi government announced yesterday that it was convening a panel to raise the minimum wage in the garment industry, currently the lowest in the world (around $38 a month).

And today, the government said it would make unionization less difficult in the garment sector. Currently, for a union to be certified, it must win support from 30 percent of workers, and the government gives the list of workers who sign up to the employer for verification. At that point, employers often intimidate or fire supporters to reduce union support. Bangladesh’s minister of textiles says that in the future, bosses will not see the list of signatories.

But the truth is that even government action and unionization are likely to be inadequate on their own. Pressure for cheaper production from the multinational corporations can overwhelm or corrupt governments and unions. That’s why another development spurred by the factory collapse is perhaps the most promising. Seven companies have acceded to calls by Bangladeshi garment-worker associations for a binding and enforceable fire and safety agreement.

Two initial signatories to the safety plan, PVH—parent of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands—and the German clothing company Tchibo, were joined today by five more big-brand companies: H&M, the Swedish firm that is the largest buyer of Bangladesh apparel; Inditex, parent of the Spain-based international retailer Zara; Primark, a UK firm that sourced products from one of the five Rana Plaza factories; the big British super-store chain Tesco; and the Dutch clothing company C&A. Now that it has passed the required four-signature threshold, the plan will likely go into effect.

The global union federations UNI and IndustriALL played a major role in bringing the primarily European companies on board. Workers at most of these companies in their home countries are unionized, and by taking advantage of relationships with such employees’ unions, the global federations have more clout than they do with typically non-union U.S. companies. GAP, Wal-Mart, Sears and JC Penney, for instance, have resisted signing the fire safety agreement, claiming it would be too expensive and would expose them to lawsuits.

This means that pressure on U.S. corporations from both citizens and consumers remains critical.

And for those who doubt that such pressure can be effective, a recent victory in Indonesia shows that U.S. crusades for worker justice in poor countries do work.

Just a day before the Rana Plaza collapse, United Students Against Sweatshops announced victory in a two-year campaign to force sportswear giant Adidas to pay legally mandated severance compensation to 2,700 Indonesian workers. The workers lost their jobs in 2010 when the Korean owner of PT Kizone, a contractor in Indonesia manufacturing shoes for Adidas, fled the country and abandoned his employees.

Labeling the brand “Badidas” for its refusal to pay the severance owed, USAS built the largest collegiate boycott of a major sportswear company in the organization’s 15-year history. By the time negotiators reached a settlement of the dispute that satisfied the workers, 17 colleges and universities had ended their contracts for producing college logo products with Adidas, and the University of Wisconsin was pursuing legal action against Adidas for allegedly breaking its anti-sweatshop contract with the university.

The victory was not only important as one of the largest global “wage theft” restorations, presumably—since the exact terms remain secret—providing close to the $3.4 million owed to 2,700 workers from all the major contracting firms (Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys).

More important, this campaign took a giant step towards establishing that multinationals must pay the price when their contractors evade legal obligations.

That precedent was first set in 2010, when USAS pressured Nike to assume responsibility for severance pay owed to 1,400 Honduran workers at a contractor that closed shop and abandoned them. Nike eventually paid a share of the severance obligations to the Indonesian workers, even as the number two company in sportswear, Adidas, fought on against USAS.

Now that Adidas, too, has taken responsibility, “we see this victory as building on the Nike precedent in the industry and setting a new norm in student apparel,” says Garrett Strain, USAS campaign coordinator.

If that norm—of deep-pocketed major corporations accepting responsibility for the rights and well-being of workers at their overseas contractors—wins out, the anti-sweatshop campaign will have established a moral principle internationally that is rarely followed or enforced in the United States.

There are sound reasons why companies like Adidas and Nike should pay up in a case like this. Although no one knows for sure why the Korean owner fled, he may have been pressured by the big brands to produce at such a low price that he would lose money, so he decided to take what he could and get out, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. WRC is an independent investigative operation set up by universities who signed on to the USAS-backed code against sweatshop production of collegiate gear.

The big brands “are directly responsible,” Nova said. “A responsible company would set aside a fund for severance pay, but not doing so takes something out of labor costs. The brands and retailers know the cost of making a garment, but they’re happy to accept the lowest price. They know what they’re paying.”

Nova sees the big Indonesian victory as part of a “strategic moment that creates openings for much broader change, but at the same time we know this is an enormously powerful and ruthless industry. No one should have any illusions that the work is getting easier.”

Thousands of Bangladeshi workers—the injured, families of the dead, workers in their own dangerous sweatshops—have no such illusions. While it will not console them in their grief, the victory wrought by U.S. students in pinning responsibility on America’s big-brand companies could help pave the way to better protections for them as well.

This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on May 13, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.


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What Workers Apparently Don’t Have a Right to Know

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seiu-org-logoIn most workplaces, it’s common to see a poster somewhere public – like a shared lunchroom – notifying employees of their workplace rights on issues such as equal opportunity and health and safety. Most workplaces don’t, however, have posters notifying employees of their rights (e.g. to form a union) under the National Labor Relations Act. And after a D.C. Circuit Court ruling this week, this seems depressingly unlikely to change anytime soon.

The NLRB tried to fix this in 2011 with a rule requiring employers to post an informational notice in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of other corporate-backed groups challenged the rule and delayed its implementation.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit Court (known for its pro-business bias) put the final nail in the coffin and struck down the rule.

This decision is undoubtedly bad for workers.

For a sliver of optimism about the future of the labor movement, check out Harold Myerson’s May 8th op-ed in the Washington Post.

This article was originally posted on SEIU on May 10, 2013.  Reprinted with Permission.

Author: SEIU Communications


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Strong Grassroots Actions Block Mass. Pension Scheme

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Image: Mike HallUnion members in Swampscott, Mass., this week showed just how grassroots democracy works when a coalition of unions from the North Shore Labor Council mobilized to turn back an attack on public employees’ health care and retirement security.

First a little background. In the Bay State, municipal employees’ health and retirement benefits, while negotiated on a local level, are part of a state-administered system. However, a Massachusetts “Home Rule Petition” law allows cities and towns to seek exemption from certain state laws and regulations.

In February, Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to seek a Home Rule Petition to cut town workers’ pensions by moving from the state system’s defined-benefit plan to a self-administered defined-contribution plan, and to change health care benefits. But a Home Rule Petition must be approved at a Town Meeting. In Swampscott, a town of about 14,000, that meant approximately 250 voter-elected Town Meeting members had to give the OK.

That’s when union members went to work to convince Town Meeting members that not only would the changes proposed for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public employees hurt the workers, it would save no money and be a major financial risk for Swampscott.

With a few months before the May 6 Town Meeting, unions and the labor council mapped out a mobilization strategy that included leafleting and neighborhood door knocking by union members, spotlighting the danger of the Home Rule Petition scheme. Postcards to each union member in town urged them to get in touch with their Town Meeting member—more than likely a neighbor or friend—to vote against the cuts to health care and retirement.

On May 6, the hard work paid off when the Home Rule Petition was defeated by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

The unions that carried the campaign to victory included AFSCME, Fire Fighters (IAFF), MassCOPS (an IUPA affiliate) and NEA.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Detroit Fast Food Workers’ Strike Shuts Down Locations

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Fast food workers at more than 60 restaurants in Detroit walked off the job Friday. This may be the largest fast food strike in American history, involving more than 400 workers from McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, Burger King, Popeyes and KFC. Some locations were forced to shut down. At issue is workers’ right to form a union and an increase in base pay to a minimum of $15 per hour.
Pastor W.J. Rideout III, a leader in Detroit’s Good Jobs Now coalition, said the organic action was a result of a long history of mistreatment of fast food workers:

“They’ve been wronged in so many ways, it really doesn’t take much coaching to say, hey, we’re going to organize together, we’re going to stand up together,” he said.

“There are 50,000-plus fast food employees in the Detroit metro area…and they’re not even giving them the proper amount of hours,” Rideout said. “At 40 hours a week, they’re making about $15,000 a year, and they’re not even getting 40 hours a week.” Instead, managers hire many employees on an exclusively part-time basis. “Some of them are getting between 15 and 20 hours a week, and that’s barely enough to pay a cellphone bill.”

Reports are coming in that one McDonald’s called in replacement workers, some of whom then joined the strike.

The strike in Detroit follows on the heels of similar actions in New YorkPennsylvaniaChicago and St. Louis.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

 


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Report: 73.4 Million Young Workers Jobless in 2013

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A stunning 73.4 million young workers are estimated to be jobless in 2013, an increase of 3.5 million between 2007 and 2013, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released Wednesday. Even worse, the number of unemployed young workers is likely to increase through 2018, with the long-term impact felt for decades, the report forecasts.

According to “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013: A Generation at Risk.”

The youth employment crisis will not be overcome without stronger employment growth. But job growth will not happen on its own. The report urges nations to adopt aggressive policies for improving job growth, including strategies targeting employment of disadvantaged youth. Further, nations must invest in education and training and ensure labor rights are based on international labor standards “to ensure that young people receive equal treatment and are afforded rights at work.

The report also finds:

Increasing the participation of young people in employers’ and workers’ organizations and in social dialogue and improving their awareness about young workers’ rights—including through modules in school curricula—are key instruments for enabling young people to voice their concerns and for improving the quality of jobs available to them.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Young workers are increasingly employed in non-standard jobs, including temporary employment and part-time work. Informal employment accounts for half of young workers in the Russian Federation.
  • In 2012, youth unemployment was highest in the Middle East (28.3%) and North Africa (23.7%) and lowest in East Asia (9.5%) and South Asia (9.3%).
  • Gender gaps in youth unemployment rates are exceptionally large in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • In all developing countries surveyed, more young people receive below-average wages than average or above-average wages. This trend is strongest in Cambodia, Liberia, Malawi and Peru, where two-thirds of working young are classified as poorly paid.
  • Young people continue to suffer disproportionately from decent work deficits and low-quality jobs, measured in terms of working poverty, low pay and/or employment status and exposure to occupational hazards and injury.

Underlying the inability of young workers to find jobs, the report finds, is the persistent unavailability of quality, full-time jobs; the proliferation of temporary jobs; a skills mismatch; and the growth of informal, subsistence jobs in developing countries.

Packed with charts and graphs, the 150-page report also includes case studies highlighting best practices for addressing youth unemployment, including Peru’s job action plan and the dual apprenticeship program offered in some European countries.

Report: 73.4 Million Young Workers Jobless in 2013 originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center’s website.

This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on May 9, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell has a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—She started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), She now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.


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McConnell blasts labor nominee Perez as a ‘crusading ideologue’

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Laura ClawsonBased on what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was saying on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, it sounds like he’s a no on President Obama’s nomination of Thomas Perez for labor secretary, and like we’re going to see yet another filibuster:

“He is a committed ideologue who appears willing, quite frankly, to say or do anything to achieve his ideological ends,” McConnell said on the floor. “His willingness, time and again, to bend or ignore the law and to misstate the facts in order to advance his far-left ideology lead me and others to conclude that he’d continue to do so if he were confirmed to another, and much more consequential, position of public trust.”Foreshadowing a filibuster of Perez, the minority leader, who is up for reelection next year, pounded earlier remarks by the nominee saying it’s sometimes necessary to “push the envolope” when federal law is “muddled.”

“Taken together,” McConnell said, “all of this paints the picture, for me at least, not of a passionate liberal who sees himself as patiently operating within the system and through the democratic process to advance a particular set of strongly held beliefs, but a crusading ideologue whose conviction about his own rightness on the issues leads him to believe the law does not apply to him. Unbound by the rules that apply to everyone else, Mr. Perez seems to view himself as free to employ whatever means at his disposal, legal or otherwise, to achieve his ideological goals.”

Previously, Republican senators have said they object to Perez because he testified after the fact about a decision he wasn’t involved in and which two investigations have said was appropriate, but which allows Republicans to link Perez’s name with the New Black Panther Party so they’re going to keep talking about it despite it being a non-story with which he was not involved anyway. Also, Sen. Tom Coburn is upset about a requirement that some doctors provide translators for patients who don’t speak English, and Republicans claim that Perez misled senior officials and covered up his motivation in a housing discrimination case in which he in fact consulted with a series of senior officials before taking action.

Basically, Perez is an Obama nominee who’s tough and effective in service of vulnerable people, not those in power. Being an Obama nominee is reason enough for many Republican senators to oppose him. But being tough and effective for people who aren’t rich or powerful? That’s really not to be tolerated.

This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on May 8, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is an editor at the Daily Kos.


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Michigan Moms and Workers vs. Restaurant Industry and ALEC

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dougfooteLawmakers in Michigan are still pushing a bill that would keep cities and towns from making their own decisions about paid sick days laws. We call them “preemption bills”— restaurant lobbyists and their allies call it the “kill shot” to paid sick days.

The bills in the House and Senate are ALEC model bills, inspired by none other than Wisconsin union-buster Gov. Scott Walker. Quick story: In early 2011, Walker pushed and passed a preemption law in Wisconsin, completely invalidating the will of Milwaukee voters who had just passed a sick days ordinance.

The restaurant lobby was so excited that they handed out copies of the bill to attendees of ALEC’s August 2011 meeting.

And, as if by magic, preemption bills have been introduced in Michigan, Mississippi, Washington, Arizona, Indiana and Oklahoma. Such laws are already on the books in Wisconsin and Louisiana. Just this week, a preemption bill passed both houses of the Florida legislature. Textbook ALEC.

In Michigan, along with statewide mothers’ organization Mothering Justice, Working America delivered petitions signed by more than 2,500 Michiganders to the Michigan Restaurant Association and the state legislature.

All workers deserve the opportunity to earn paid sick days, so that not another person has to make their choice between going to work sick and not making rent, or not being able to eat, or not being able to care for their child.

But even the threat of workers in a few cities and towns having this basic right has the restaurant lobby and ALEC running scared, using their politician pawns to introduce ridiculously undemocratic preemption bills that won’t create a single job. Since when did these “small-government” obsessives get into the business of telling cities and towns how to conduct their business?

Join us. Tell the Michigan legislature to stand with workers, mothers and democracy—not ALEC and the restaurant lobby.

This article was posted on the AFL-CIO on May 7, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the AuthorDoug Foote is the Social Media and Campaign Specialist at Working America. He joined Working America in 2011 after serving as New Media Director for the successful 2010 reelection campaign of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

 


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USW Paper Workers, Private Equity Firm Work to Keep Mills Open

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Image: Mike HallBucking a trend that has seen private equity firms buy business to bleed then shut down, United Steelworkers (USW) members at three Wisconsin paper mills and KPS Capital Partners have reached a new four-year collective bargaining agreement that workers ratified today.

The agreement comes in anticipation of the private equity firm successfully creating the largest specialty paper company in North America with its pending purchase of Wausau Paper mills in Rhinelander and Mosinee and a Thilmany mill in Kaukauna. There are some 1,400 workers at those mills. Says USW President Leo W. Gerard:

We are proud of the leadership that our local unions have shown in bringing their respective memberships together to ratify this important deal in the specialty paper sector. This particular piece of the industry still has enormous growth potential and has long been in need of a new strategic vision to capitalize on that opportunity.

USW District 2 (Wisconsin and Michigan) Director Michael Bolton says, the approach KPS took in working through these negotiations to create a world-class paper company:

Should serve as a reminder to hostile short-sighted venture capitalists—and even our own state government—that a big part of value creation is people sitting down together to solve difficult problems.

 

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 3, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

 

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

 


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New Twinkies Will Have a Missing Ingredient: Union Labor

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Bruce VailThe new owners of Twinkies snack cakes announced last week they will re-open four shuttered production plants in the coming months, but have no intention of doing business with the labor unions that have represented the workers at those bakeries for generations.

When Hostess went bankrupt in November, prompting headlines like “Who Killed the Twinkie?”,management blamed labor for the snack cake’s demise, while unions predicted that the company would be chopped up and sold at a profit to speculators who would speedily put the lucrative Twinkie brand back on the shelves. That’s just what has happened.

An executive of the new ownership group—private equity firms Metropolous & Co. and Apollo Global Management—announced that production will resume at four, or possibly five, plants  purchased from Hostess Brands as part of a $410 million bankruptcy sale earlier this year.

The new company intends to hire about 1,500 workers at sites in Indianapolis, Emporia, Kan., Schiller Park, Ill., and Columbus, Ga., and may reopen a fifth bakery in Los Angeles, according to executive C. Dean Metropolous. Former unionized workers at the bakeries may apply for their old jobs, but no union contracts are in place, nor are any expected to be signed in the foreseeable future, he indicated.

Michael Cramer, executive vice president of Hostess Brands LLC, was more blunt. “We’re sure not going to invite the unions in. We don’t have to do it,” he told NBC News.

Some 18,000 employees at Hostess were thrown out of work in November 2012 when the former owners closed 33 bakeries and related facilities. Most workers were members of theTeamsters, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union, or several other unions representing small, widely-dispersed bargaining units. At the time, Hostess managers blamed the closures on a strike by BCTGM members protesting cuts in pay and benefits being imposed by the company. BCTGM, in turn, blamed “nearly a decade of financial and operational mismanagement.”

In response to the reopening announcement, BCTGM President David Durkee issued the following statement:

We are extremely disappointed to see negative statements from company executives about the union status of its future employees. Ideally, we would like to see as many of our members hired as possible. We believe their combination of experience, dedication and know-how will give the new owners the chance to get high quality snack cakes back in the marketplace.

The BCTGM remains focused on ensuring that the new Hostess Brands ownership understands that the snack cakes at the center of this new company are inextricably linked to the hands that make them—and have made them for generations. We know that our workers have a critical role to play in protecting and enhancing some of America’s most valuable consumer brands.

We all want the same outcome: that the brands should prosper and endure. This is what the next stage of this saga is all about—implementing a new ownership and manufacturing structure worthy of the brands themselves and America’s manufacturing prowess.

Durkee’s statement appears to reflect disappointment that the new owners of Twinkies, as well as the buyers of other Hostess properties such as Wonder Bread, have turned a deaf ear to hisrepeated public statements that BCTGM would work with new owners to reestablish the bakeries and re-employ thousands of BCTGM members.

The Metropolous/Apollo combination bought only that part of Hostess directly related to the production of Twinkies and sweet snacks such as Ding Dongs, Ho Hos, Donettes, Zingers and Hostess Cup Cakes. Other parts of the company were split off and sold to other bakery operators. Flowers Foods, for example, bought 20 Hostess bakeries configured for the production of breads and rolls, and Grupo Bimbo bought other plants similarly designed for bread production.

Both Flowers and Grupo Bimbo operate a mixed set of production facilities, some of which are unionized and some of which are non-union. BCTGM spokesperson Corrina Christensen said the union had no comment at this time on the prospects of reaching new union agreements with those other two companies.

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on April 29, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

 


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