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Corporate Rewards: Controlling U.S. Trade Policy

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Leo GerardReal men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.

Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.

The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.

Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.

Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.

Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:

“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”

In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.

Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.

In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.

Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”

They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.

It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:

“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”

The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.

When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.

The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.

Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.

If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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Kiss The Jobs and Wages Goodbye: Hello “Free Trade” Again

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Jonathan TasiniYesterday, I wrote about the disastrous state of labor in the wake of the elections. Suffering from either a lack of sleep or simple brain lock, I neglected to include one of the most dangerous coming debacles: we have lost much of the ground built opposing so-called “free trade” agreements, which have played a central role in undermining jobs and wages here–and have caused the decline in wages across the planet. And it is now about to get worse, thanks to “bi-partisanship”.

I can almost guarantee–if I was a pollster, I’d use a fancy chart and put the certainty of this happening at 99 percent–that, in searching for areas of “bi-partisanship”, to show the voters and the country that the two parties have “heard” the message of the election, that so-called “free trade” will be one of the first things on the cooperation agenda. I would not be surprised to hear that declared within the next few weeks.

Here is my long-held view: our so-called “free trade” agreements are directly connected to the decline in wages–both because they encourage the movement of high-wage jobs to lower-wage countries (though, let’s be clear that such movement can happen without these trade deals–the deals just make it easier) AND because so-called “free trade” is based on the fundamental principle of the race to the bottom on wages.

The world of trade today is not based on the best product. It is based on wage and regulation arbitrage. That is, worldwide corporations are simply looking for the places to do business where they can get the cheapest wages and the lowest level of regulation possible (as in lax environmental standards, no labor standards and no protection for anything–except for capital and corporate intellectual property right). And they are clear: they do not care about creating jobs here.

And, simply on the question of do they work, Public Citizen destroyed the idea that so-called “free trade” agreements live up to their claims of increasing trade.

To outline what we face legislatively: First, the Nancy Pelosi-led House (and I invoke her name positively because she deserves credit for this) was the finger in the dike preventing the passage of the so-called “free trade” agreements with South Korean and Colombia (and Pelosi did that even when there were senior Democrats like Charles Rangel who were trying to do the bidding of corporate lobbyists). You can bet your life that the John Boehner-led Lobbyist Convention (what we once used to call the “House of Representatives”) will now press for the passage of those deals. While a smattering of Republicans in the past did oppose so-called “free trade”, their numbers have never been consequential. These deals will now pass the House. Absolutely guaranteed.

Take no comfort about the Senate. On trade, the Senate Democratic caucus has been, as a whole, much more inclined to support so-called “free trade”. I am not even sure whether Sherrod Brown–the main Senate sponsor of the TRADE Act, which would try to usher in a new sane era on trade–could muster enough votes to filibuster a so-called “free trade” deal. The House has been the bulwark. With the House gone, it’s over in the Senate. There will be no reason for the Senate leadership to hold these deals back.

And the president has not been an ally in this area. He has consistently, going back to the 2008 presidential primaries, referred to himself as a “free trader”. In his last State of the Union address, he said:

And that’s why we’ll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.

As important, this is also terrible politics. I think it is understandable why people are angry. The truth is the people have been robbed by the entirely bankrupt system of the “free market”–and so-called “free trade” has been an important oil in that robbery. Rather than focus on the phony deficit “crisis”, the president and the Democrats should be talking about how to stop the robbery–and approving more so-called “free trade” agreements is, to put it mildly, off message.

If we want to “hear the message”, it is that everyone is sick and tired of being screwed by the big corporations and the top one percent of the wealthy in this country who care only about draining more of our national wealth into their own pockets.

Stan Greenburg and James Carville demonstrated, in an otherwise useless memo, that opposition to so-called “free trade” was an electoral winner:

There is a second message that centers on made in America, creating American jobs and opposing the Republicans who supports trade agreements and tax breaks for companies that ex-port American jobs. The message is strongest with older women and seniors and with inde-pendents. These can be used in a targeted way, while working in our next poll and focus groups to bring these two messages together.

My passion is “made in America,” working to support small businesses, American companies and new American industries. (REPUBLICAN HOUSE CANDI-DATE) has pledged to support the free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and protect the loophole for companies outsourcing American jobs. I have a different approach to give tax breaks for small businesses that hire workers and give tax subsidies for companies that create jobs right here in America.

This message framework for the election is helped by an attack on the Republican candidate for supporting trade agreements and tax breaks that lead to lost American jobs. Those at-tacks are very strong with white older women and seniors.

I am not for a message that opposes trade by targeting workers abroad i.e., “[Fill in the blank] is taking our jobs and we have to build everything here because we’re better” or words to that effect. In my humble opinion, that leads us down the same track that fosters anti-immigrant feelings and a moral superiority that does not do our country well.

I am for–and I believe many Americans will respond to–a message that says, “No more greed in American–whether it’s on Wall Street or in corporate trade. Vote against any candidate who will vote to let corporations attack our wages and pensions and the American Dream by forcing workers everywhere to work for slave wages.”

Over the past few election cycles, opposition to so-called “free trade” was an electoral winner. Public Citizen showed how in 2006 and 2008 Democratic gains came partly because of a rejection of the so-called “free trade” model.

In a new analysis by Public Citizen released today, the organization says:

House Democrats that ran on fair trade platforms in competitive and open-seat races were three times as likely to survive the GOP tidal wave than Democrats who ran against fair trade, according to a comprehensive 182-race, 70-page report released today by Public Citizen. The GOP tsunami obliterated many candidate-specific features of the midterm contests, but trade, job offshoring and/or government purchases of foreign-made goods were a stunningly persistent national focus of midterm election campaigns, with 205 candidates campaigning on these issues. A record number of 75 Republicans adopted some fair trade messaging as well, 43 of whom won their races. More than sixty races became “fair trade offs,” where both the Democrat and Republican ran on fair trade themes. Only 37 candidates campaigned in favor of more North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)-style trade agreements – about half of these candidates lost.

I have no reason to doubt the analysis–Public Citizen is quite on top of the issue and has done incredible work. BUT–

I think we are whistling in the dark here. We should be afraid–very afraid: The votes are not there to stop these deals from going through.

UNLESS:

We can make the real argument that the American Dream–and a decent livelihood for workers all across the planet is at stake. And that unless the Democratic Party understands this, it will not win elections in the future–and will not deserve to.

This article was originally posted on Working Life.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.


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China’s Currency Manipulation: Flipping Off America

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Leo GerardChina is disrespecting America.

The Asian giant is an international trade outlaw, and U.S. manufacturers and workers are its crime victims.

China illegally subsidizes its export industries and unlawfully manipulates its currency. That kills U.S. industry and destroys U.S. jobs. Earlier this year, the Obama administration asked China nicely to allow its currency value to float up naturally on international markets. On June 19, China said it would.

And then it didn’t.

That’s flipping the bird at America.

Before China’s June 19 promise, bipartisan groups of lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate proposed legislation that would force the U.S. Treasury Department to even the score and to call China out for what it is: a currency manipulator. Hearings on the bills are being conducted this week.

Pass the legislation. It’s time for America to flip the bird back.

Negotiation and threats have failed to produce a sustained, substantial currency float by China. Now, the Chinese currency, the renminbi, is undervalued by as much as 40 percent, a figure accepted by conservatives like C. Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Even the International Monetary Fund managing director said the currency is undervalued.

China simply denied it. In March, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, said he did not believe the renminbi was undervalued. That’s flipping off the world.

It works like this: China prints renminbi to buy billions of U.S. dollars, which makes them appear more desired and valuable, and the renminbi, by contrast, less valuable. That undervaluation of the renminbi acts as a subsidy for Chinese exports, artificially making them as much as 40 percent cheaper when sold in the U.S. Conversely, it acts as a tax of as much as 40 percent on American-made goods sold in China.

This dynamic contributed significantly to the rise of manufacturing in China. Earlier this year, China surged past Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. And it contributes significantly to America’s massive trade deficit. The gap in July was $42.8 billion, more than half of which — $25.9 billion — was a result of trade with one country – China.

China’s rapid economic growth has ended poverty for millions of its workers.  Here in the United States, however, China’s flouting of international trade law is destroying the lives of millions of workers. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 2.4 million American jobs have been lost or displaced since 2001 as a result of the trade deficit with China. American workers celebrate their Chinese counterparts’ improved quality of life, but they condemn the government of China for accomplishing that with beggar-thy-neighbor trade practices.

Earlier this year, it briefly looked like threats would prompt China to act. In March, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators introduced legislation specifying the factors necessary to label a country as a currency manipulator and detailing American reprisals. And in April, the Treasury Department delayed its report identifying countries that manipulate currency rates, suggesting that it was ready to take on China.

China appeared to respond to that pressure in June. It announced it would allow the renminbi to float toward its real value on the open market. The Treasury Department backed off, omitting China from its list of currency manipulators in July.

China then permitted the value of the renminbi to rise less than one percent. One percent. When it’s as much as 40 percent undervalued. That’s flipping the bird at America. Big time.

Still, America didn’t react.

On Aug. 25, the Commerce Department announced 14 new measures to crack down on trade violations, such as ending certain exemptions from duties.

It did not, however, mention currency manipulation.

Dan DiMicco, CEO at Nucor Corp., the largest U.S. steelmaker, said the 14 measures are important, but the problem with China won’t be resolved until the United States takes on currency undervaluation. Here’s what he said:

“As long as we continue to let them get away with it, they’ll keep doing it.”

Six days later, in a trade case filed by the U.S. Aluminum Extrusions Fair Trade Committee, a coalition of domestic manufacturers of aluminum extrusions and the USW, the Commerce Department again squirmed out of dealing with currency manipulation.

Commerce imposed import duties on Chinese aluminum companies because China unfairly subsidized $514 million in aluminum exports to the U.S. in 2009. But Commerce refused to investigate the Fair Trade Committee’s evidence that China’s currency manipulation functions as an additional illegal export subsidy.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a sponsor of currency manipulation legislation, said afterward:

“The Commerce Department made its finding while still managing to ignore the elephant in the room, which is China’s currency manipulation.”

Commerce and Treasury have decided the proper response to China flipping off America is averting their eyes.  See no evil.

Yesterday Japan followed China’s lead. It bought dollars and sold yen, decreasing the value of yen and increasing the value of dollars. This, the New York Times explained, was “a bid to protect its export-led economy.” That’s exactly what China is doing.

It’s a very public show of contempt for international regulations and for American citizens.

Normally, Americans don’t respond passively to contempt. Be normal, America.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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Assert Yourself, America; Don’t be an Illegal Trade Victim

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Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.


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Free Trade Gets Some Fresh Thinking

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The Obama administration has taken some nice first steps toward a more worker-friendly vision of global trade. New free trade agreements pushed by the Bush Administration, such as those with Colombia and South Korea, are apparently getting some deep re-thinking – or at least, being put on the back burner while the new Administration sorts out climate change, health care and domestic trade union rights. And refreshingly, on July 16, the new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a more proactive strategy to enforce labor provisions in existing free trade agreements. Here’s what’s new under the sun.

First, a bit of explanation about what he’s talking about. Existing free trade agreements from NAFTA on through the most recent deals require our trade partners- at least on paper- to enforce their labor laws and to try to live up to international labor standards.  So what’s so striking about USTR Kirk saying that the Administration wants to make sure existing language in our trade deals is enforced?

In truth, no prior administration has ever sought to actually take the initiative when it comes to these provisions. Instead, we have assumed that of course all our trade partners are enforcing labor rights protections- except when someone points out they aren’t. In other words, enforcement of these provisions has been carried out largely on a complaint-driven basis. This model can’t really work, as the people who are most affected- the most exploited workers in the countries with which we trade- just don’t have practical means to access the mechanisms that have been set up for filing complaints. Thus, not surprisingly, very few complaints get filed, no matter how many abuses actually occur. Even when complaints do get filed- for instance, my organization, ILRF, filed about a dozen cases on behalf of Mexican workers in the early years of NAFTA- those cases take years to resolve, and workers see little return for the effort of engaging in the process.

But there is no downside to the US Trade Representative taking a new look at how we enforce these deals- and, we hope, finding a better way to do it. Real enforcement of the labor provisions in trade deals would be a win-win for both US workers and workers overseas.  Promoting policies that protect workers in other countries makes good sense for the US, economically.  Creating decent and sustainable jobs that raise developing country workers into the middle class is a win-win for workers and businesses, as it expands markets for US and global products. That has long been the main moral argument for more global trade- although few have cared to deal with the ugly reality that many workers in export industries in these countries have been getting sweatshop jobs, not decent jobs, and have not been able, in their lifetimes, to afford the goods they are producing.

Poor working conditions in developing nations not only strip laborers in those countries of their rights, but also create unfair competition in the global labor market. This global “race to the bottom” leads to degradation of conditions, to the increase in ‘sweatshop jobs,’ here at home. We need to bring up the bottom for everyone.

It’s great that USTR Kirk wants to hold trading partners accountable for labor rights, and would be even better if the new Administration sought ways to hold investors- the multinational companies that chase cheap labor around the globe- accountable as well. This would get us past the current ‘free trade’ model to one of what we might call fair trade. For example, we should be supporting terms of trade requiring that investors who benefit from trade deals agree to a floor of decent wages and working conditions that ultimately enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty, and should reward governments that institute laws and policies to regulate ‘footloose’ investors and require companies to make long-term commitments to investments- and their workforce- in developing countries. This is in all of our long term interests.

About the Author: Bama Athreya
is the Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

This article originally appeared on Union Review on August 4, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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