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When Safety Becomes Voluntary: Workplace Self-Policing Program Under Scrutiny

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Michelle ChenWhat’s the value of a worker’s life? According to the calculus of corporate efficiency, it’s often still cheaper to put workers at risk than to spend money to protect them. And the federal government generously rewards those who have perfected this cost-containment strategy in industries where workplace hazards are just part of business as usual.

For years, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has granted many companies a pass on government oversight with the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). Touting big-name members like Coca Cola and ExxonMobil, the program works like a sort of gold star for employers with good safety records, which OSHA believes are capable of regulating themselves. As In These Times has reported previously, many companies granted this status can basically enjoy years of relief from regular federal evaluation.

To ordinary citizens this may seem like a fox guarding a hen house packed with dynamite, but many employers champion the VPP as a way of “partnering” with government to avoid onerous state oversight. Congress recently reviewed the program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, which examined the VPP in light of recent reports about horrid workplace accidents, along with criticisms that the initiative undermines both labor standards and the government’s role in protecting the public from industrial exploitation.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor with the think tank Center for Progressive Reform, told ITT, “What the voluntary program does, let’s make no mistake about it, is it allows people to self-regulate. Basically, if you have someone who can fill out the paperwork, you’re off the hook.”

Evidently, not even the death of a worker is enough to persuade the government to revoke a company’s privileged status. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News:

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals. Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

The Reagan-Era program has ballooned in recent years, tripling the number of worksites covered between 2000 and 2008. The ideological foundation of the program reflects a general hostility to safety and environmental regulation under the Bush administration.

Although we’re several generations removed from the workplace atrocities of the early industrial age, workers becoming ill or dying from their jobs remains a routine aspect of working life in the U.S. Even outside of special deals with OSHA like the VPP, a lack of resources for inspections and enforcement means that many companies escape oversight by default.

Keith Wrightson, a Worker Safety and Health Advocate with Public Citizen, told ITT, “VPP takes the OSHA inspector out of the picture.” When protection is “voluntary” on the part of bosses, employees have little reason to volunteer to report a workplace violation if it might get them fired. In general, he said, “OSHA inspections are nil. Why do we want to further dissolve what authority it does have over the workplace?”

From the employer’s standpoint, Wrightson noted, “If there’s fewer injuries on the job then the workers’ comp rates don’t rise. Your health insurance costs do not rise and your liability insurance does not rise.” But in the political debate, he said, “we don’t see those facts at the forefront. … The idea of VPP is a free market, where nobody should regulate, nobody should look, it’s laissez faire, and it’s not good.”

But EHS Today reported that the House committee hearing did at least review new research showing that state workplace monitoring can protect workers and save companies money at the same time:

The study found that within high-hazard industries in California, inspected workplaces reduced their injury claims by 9.4 percent and saved 26 percent on workers’ compensation costs in the 4 years following the inspection, compared to a similar set of uninspected workplaces. On average, inspected firms saved an estimated $355,000 in injury claims and compensation for paid lost work over that period. What’s more, there was no discernible impact on the companies’ profits.

So if profits aren’t hurt by inspections, corporations appear to reject government oversight simply on principle.

Steinzor sees a blatant imbalance in the way the government weighs health and safety needs against the profits of its corporate partners. “I think this is a class issue,” she said. “And it’s shameful that the content and implementation of the nation’s laws on occupational safety and the environment show systematic neglect of working-class people’s lives in heavy industrial jobs, and far more concern for the well-being of yuppies in the exurbs.”

In a system that tends to make the law comply with corporations rather than the other way around, “voluntary protection” seems to do exactly what the phrase implies: to make workers’ rights optional.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on July 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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Citing ‘Tradition,’ Big Ag Fights Reforms for Child Farmworkers

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Michelle ChenAdvocates push for stronger protections during National Farmworker Awareness Week

“[When I was 12] they gave me my first knife. Week after week I was cutting myself. Every week I had a new scar. My hands have a lot of stories.”

–17-year-old boy who started working at age 11 in Michigan (Human Rights Watch)

America’s farm workers have always had it tough, toiling for endless hours in the fields under brutal conditions. But those workers do benefit from a unique income subsidy in the country’s industrial farming system: children.

In every region of the country, bountiful harvests are regularly gathered by the tender hands of child poverty: several hundred thousand kids work on farms, typically to help their families survive. Those children who deliver crisp peppers and sweet grapes to the mouths of other kids every day represent the devastating social toll of the dysfunctional food industry.

The Child Labor Coalition, which advocates for the rights of exploited children around the world, documents a cornupcopia of abuses in the backyard of a global superpower:

  • More children die in agriculture than in any other industry.
  • According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), between 1995 and 2002, an estimated 907 youth died on American farms—that’s well over 100 preventable deaths of youth per year.
  • In 2011, 12 of the 16 children under the age of 16 who suffered fatal occupational injuries worked in crop production, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • When you include older children, more than half of all workers under age 18 who died from work-related injuries worked in crop production.

Advocates have for months been pressing the Labor Department to finalize a rule change that would help shield child farm workers from some of the most severe occupational hazards, such as handling pesticides and dangerous farm equipment, and would beef up protections for workers under age 16 (currently, children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, and many younger ones work illegally).

The reforms would largely impact youth in the migrant communities that fuel the agricultural labor force, filled with poor and Latino workers who are extremely vulnerable to abuse.

Under the banner of National Farmworker Awareness Week (March 25-31, consumer and labor groups are working to educate communities about egregious conditions on farms. Now that organizations like the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers have begun to rattle the food industry with colorful worker- and consumer-driven campaigns, Washington should be ripe for long-overdue reforms to curb the worst forms of child labor.

But common decency has again been overshadowed by a well-oiled campaign by the agricultural industry lobby, which has pushed to block the rule changes by claiming that child labor reflects good old American values.

The “Preserving America’s Family Farms Act,” proposed by Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, targets the pending reforms as a threat to a time-honored “tradition” of child farm labor. Evoking an imaginary pastoral ideal of the American homestead, the bill argues that the strengthening child labor protections would “adversely impact the long standing tradition of youth working on farms to gain valuable skills and lessons on hard work, character, and leadership” and would hurt their opportunities to “gain experiential learning and hands-on skills.”

Apparently, a great way to build kids’ character is pushing them into backbreaking, dangerous labor—rather than going to school or otherwise developing themselves in a way that’s less profitable for agribusiness. You might wonder how many of the bill’s sponsors regularly send their children to pick produce all day to cultivate “leadership” skills.

The saddest aspect of this political debate around farm labor is that the most systemic abuses would not be stopped by just tightening child regulations—not even by enacting the stronger restrictions on child labor that lawmakers have previously proposed in the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment. Whatever the law says, the marginalization of the farm workforce makes comprehensive enforcement nearly impossible.

Justin Feldman of Public Citizen told In These Times, “People are afraid because of immigration status, because of limited English ability, because of poverty and all sorts of issues. They’re afraid to come forward to authorities and report.”

In The Atlantic, restaurant industry veteran Helene York cites the underlying the economic dilemma: “Migrant families will lose their children’s wages and would be unable to move with available work. What’s needed is more income paid to laborers for the really hard work.”

Feldman noted, “one of the reasons that we have children and whole families working on farms is to subsidize the underpayment of the workers…. Looking at it holistically, we need to broaden immigrant rights and workers rights, and not much can change until that happens.”

Child labor is a symptom of a monstrous blight across the food system: consumers relish cheap prices and companies reap profits, and workers pay the human cost. Maybe that is an American value, of sorts.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@ inthesetimes.com.

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Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

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Michelle ChenApple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.

Daisey’s personal account is gratuitously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaignMake IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM),have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s “dramatic license” was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentatorshave highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, “Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.”

Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face–not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces.

Li Qiang, head of the New York-based China Labor Watch, told In These Times that in terms of the situations Daisey described, basically, “What he said about working conditions is true.” He added, “Through this kind of media reporting, maybe more artists or journalists, or others will go to China to investigate the real circumstances in Chinese factories….  This way, this issue can generate more public debate.”

While Apple has touted a new partnership with the third-party monitoring organization Fair Labor Association, many critics remain wary that Apple will continue to fail the workers at the dregs of the supply chain. Even worse, Apple might turn the scandal into a marketing opportunity, polishing its reputation with a dab of “corporate social responsibility” measures.

Make IT Fair recently denounced the FLA partnership as “a mere PR stunt,” citing comments by FLA president Auret van Heerden praising Apple facilities as “way, way above the average of the norm.”  Activists call on Apple and other industry leaders to adopt more stringent ethical codes, which protect the environment from damaging extraction of raw materials, honor collective bargaining rights, and protect workers and their communities from discrimination and rights abuses.

Apple’s real attitude toward its workers has been far from charitable. In a statement responding to TAL‘s retraction, SACOM (whose campaigns have informed both Daisey’s and TAL‘s reporting) pointed to the ongoing ramificiations of an incident that inspired Daisey’s narrative—a mass poisoning at a facility where workers were exposed to the chemical n-hexane while polishing gleaming touchscreens:

In contrast to Apple’s statement that they have all been treated successfully, many workers still suffer from weak limbs and other health problems after nine-month hospitalizations. The victims sent three letters to Apple last year, but the company did not answer them at all. Likewise, after the explosion at the iPad case manufacturer Riteng in Shanghai in last December, which injured 59 workers, Apple has not sent anyone to visit the victims. The young workers are in despair because their faces were disfigured due to the fire from the blast. Some of them suffer from bones so severely shattered that they may be permanently disabled. Three months have passed, but the victims have not received any compensation….

While Apple hypocritically expressed that the company was deeply saddened by the tragedy, it has never apologized or offered compensation to the workers for its negligence in complying with work safety rules.

For all his professed empathy for Foxconn workers, Daisey’s exaggerations were stupefyingly self-serving. Even as he awkwardly attempted to express contrition in the follow-up dialogue with Ira Glass, he insisted that within the realm of theater, he had legitimately blended fiction and nonfiction to create a more emotive experience for a Western audience.

The claim reveals that Daisey lied to elevate his role in the story. He basically decided that the ugly truth wasn’t quite dramatic enough for him—a sideways insult to the workers whose cause he claimed to champion.

In a correspondence with In These Times, SACOM project officer Chan Sze Wan said, “we worry that the public will misunderstand [and think] Foxconn is innocent after the Mike Daisey’s case.” As a research-based group, she added, SACOM “will continue to provide accurate information to consumers to solicit their supports,” but ultimately, voices of workers themselves will need to be heard:

Nowadays, Foxconn workers do not have real worker representative system in the factory. So, SACOM has to channel their grievances to Apple. However, we always emphasize that workers should be the ones to monitor the working conditions at their workplace and fight for the rights.

Following the string of suicides, a quote from a Chinese blog captured the workers’ story more eloquently than an American performer ever could:

Perhaps for the Foxconn employees and employees like us
– we who are called nongmingong, rural migrant workers, in China –
the use of death is simply to testify that we were ever alive at all,
and that while we lived, we had only despair.

In the context of that hushed plea, the media hooplah over the fudged Foxconn narrative simply distracts us from the real masterwork of fiction that Apple and other tech giants continue to peddle: the imaginary world of our gadgets, a cosmopolitan universe that pretends to connect everyone while in fact sharpening the lines between consumers and the invisible workers that enable that carefree lifestyle. And we’re all buying it.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

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Makers, Takers and $2-A-Dayers

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Michelle ChenOne official measure of poverty around the world is surviving on $2 per day or less. It’s a condition many Americans could barely imagine living in. And yet the official data suggests that while politicians insist the U.S. is insulated from such deprivation, a large share of the country is feeling a cold draft from the “Third World.”

A set of new analyses from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), drawing from a study of income data by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, shows that for well over a million households, many of them with children, are besieged by hardship of an epic magnitude:

The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day — which the study terms “extreme poverty” — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million, the study finds… The number of children in extremely poor households also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The World Bank’s $2-per-day metric derives from widespread cliche in humanitarian circles, generally used to describe poor countries in the Global South. But while some question the usefulness of such simplistic measures, the phrase has a unique application in a country that’s historically represented the top of the human development scale. And one reason why the U.S. has so many people stuck at the bottom is because in many communities, this inequality is practically written into the law, with public assistance programs virtually enforcing the extreme poverty line.

Since bipartisan welfare “reform” under the Clinton administration, which precipitated the gutting of programs and erosion of benefit levels over time, the poorest households have become mired in outmoded welfare systems that don’t correspond to real social needs:

Benefits are below half of the poverty line in every state.  For a family of three, benefits are only about $2 per person per day in Mississippi and Tennessee and only slightly more than $2 per person per day in Alabama and South Carolina, for example.

It’s basic math: Add the recent recession to years of wealth-hoarding by the richest Americans, factor in endemic socioeconomic, racial and gender inequality, and you get polarization that’s global in scale and intensity. This is reflected in each individual whose daily standard of living is worth the cost of a Wall Street financier’s morning coffee.

Although the stimulus package enacted by the Obama administration gave a temporary boost to welfare programs, those dollars have dried up. The safety net is further unraveled, according to the CBPP, by a block-grant funding system in which the benefit “does not increase in response to increased need.” Meanwhile, recently proposed budget cuts to federal housing assistance (from both the White House and Congress) would raise the cost of rent for hundreds of thousands of struggling families. In other words, the “ownership society” is effectively disowning its neediest members.

Extreme poverty is acutely painful for already vulnerable demographics. The largest jump in $2-a-day poverty—a stunning three-fold increase since 1996—hit female-headed households. Children in poverty, who face long-term barriers to education and healthcare, and are disproportionately black and Latino(but including many whites as well), tend to carry these hardships into adulthood.

According to CBPP researcher Arloc Sherman, these trends affirm other research suggesting that “it has become harder to access welfare.” Since the reforms of the 1990s, which instituted onerous work requirements and other restrictions, the percentage of very poor families covered by TANF has tumbled.

On the other hand, what’s left of the safety net continues to play a critical role in preventing total devastation for many.  “I suspect for those who lost jobs in the recession, Unemployment Insurance—thanks in part to [The Recovery Act]—played a big role in keeping people’s cash incomes above $2 per person per day,” Sherman told In These Times.

While the presidential hopefuls race to outdo each other in gratuitously denigrating the poor (along with people of color, single women and other time-honored scapegoats), it’s important to keep in mind that these populations don’t fit the standard caricatures of welfare queens and freeloaders.

The CBPP’s research also reveals that the population that uses public assistance–those conservatives demonizeas the “entitlement society”-primarily consists of old folks, people with disabilities–oh, and people with jobs. In fact, “People who are neither elderly nor disabled — and do not live in a working household — received only 9 percent of the benefits.” So in a labor market offering about one slot for every four job-seekers, a good chunk of those  “entitlements” go to the very same “hardworking Americans” that right-wing rhetoric contrasts with the supposedly undeserving poor.

The right pushes a delusional narrative of country divided between “makers and takers”—the productive go-getters versus the welfare-hungry sloths.  But when you crunch the numbers, it becomes all too clear who the real takers are: the ones who make it harder for everyone else to make a living.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes,com.

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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

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Michelle ChenTo commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision.

Noting that workers are often not politically organized, even if they’re willing to strike, Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and organizer with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, told In These Times:

The general strike was successful in the universities because of the existence of independent student unions and student groups on the ground that could mobilize for this. In the case of the workers, we do not have (yet) either an independent trade union federation or a labor party that could pull this together. General strikes cannot be organized via Facebook calls.

But labor was a vibrant force of dissent in Egypt long before the Arab Spring. Worker-activists were involved both in the nationalist movements of the early-twentieth century and later on, in struggles under the authoritarian rule that was enforced by the state union apparatus. When neoliberal policies took hold of the economy during the 1970s, workers confronted a convergence of capitalist exploitation and state repression, fraught with low wages, gender discrimination and crackdowns on labor organizing.

The upheaval that began last January was in some ways an extension of this tradition. In his research on Egypt’s labor movement (published in an AFL-CIO Solidarity Center report), historian Joel Beinin has documented hundreds upon hundreds of strikes and protests over the past several years. Uprisings often responded directly to workplace conflicts, with particularly strong mobilization in the textile industry and public sector. The pattern of wildcat strikes continued in 2011.

Still, more radical opposition movements haven’t deeply engaged the working class. Though groups like the Revolutionary Socialists push class-struggle rhetoric and pro-worker economic and labor policies, their image is still affiliated with the intelligensia.

Beinin told ITT that, since civil society was so suppressed under authoritarian rule, many workers today–

aren’t used to sitting down and talking about politics and the country in a reasoned, logical kind of way… What they do is they [say], “Our management is corrupt, it was a crime to sell this public sector enterprise to these private investors who then reneged on their contractual obligations anyway–things like that. They don’t usually say, “The problem is, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to shape the Egyptian economy along vicious, vulture, private-sector capitalist lines.”

In the process of building a grassroots political movement, he noted, “There’s been this problem of trying to get workers in general to believe that there is a broader problem than whatever the issues are at their workplace.”

While workers are consumed with immediate problems of economic instability and unemployment, labor activists struggle to find unity as organizations jostle for representation in the fractious post-Mubarak political landscape. Meanwhile, reactionary political forces and state violence have narrowed the public sphere for dissent.

Yet new pro-labor coalitions are emerging–across sectors, political communities, and even national boundaries (though collaboration with international civic groups remains intensely controversial). In areport on a recent Egyptian trade union conference, Ben Moxham of the UK-based Trades Union Congress observed promising diversity among the participants, including women and rural workers:

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

Kamal Abbas, leader of the advocacy group Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, reflected with cautious optimism on the prospects for strengthening independent unions and worker-led movements in June 2011 interview with Toward Freedom: “The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”

Months later, that vision is shadowed by a creeping sense of frustration and futility, especially among struggling communities that, for now, are more focused on survival than on political ideals. Egyptians haven’t given up on their revolution, but to bring people back to Tahrir Square, labor and activist groups need to rekindle faded solidarity on the ground level, before the counter-revolution stamps out its last embers.

This blog post originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

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While Washington Dithers, Labor Brings Jobs and Equity Home

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Michelle ChenThe 2012 campaign trail is already littered with silver bullets and peppy slogans about boosting America out of its unemployment slump. But for the most part, the plans that politicians have trotted out–from Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 mantra to the GOP’s latest corporate welfare formulas, to Obama’s limp blend of free-trade policies and woefully inadequate stimulus–stick faithfully to the path of neoliberalism, paving the way for more outsized corporate profits.

So does anyone have a plan to steer industry toward the needs of communities? Researchers at Cornell University have located a few novel ideas, well outside the Beltway, that are blazing small trails in economic disaster zones. Their study focuses on project labor agreements that are designed to meet workers’ needs for decent wages and working conditions, while upholding principles of equity in local hiring practices.

Community workforce provisions in labor agreements have been used in various cities to help low-income and working-class people land solid jobs with opportunities for advancement, while building in corporate accountability, to prevent employers from exploiting local workers or undermining labor rights.

The Cornell report points to key policies established by pro-worker labor agreements:

  • Requirements or goals for hiring of local residents
  • Hiring and workforce development of economically disadvantaged and so called at-risk individuals, who are local residents
  • Hiring and workforce development of women and members of minority groups, including African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and others
  • Hiring of veterans or Helmets-to-Hardhats Programs
  • Apprentice Utilization requirements, and requirements or goals for percent of employed apprentices that should be local residents
  • Utilization of women/minority-owned and local small businesses
  • Utilization of union-supported Pre-Apprenticeship Programs, as well as of community-based pre-apprenticeship programs
    Involvement of community-based Organizations in the recruitment and monitoring efforts
  • Development of an implementation and monitoring process or plan

To be sure, many project labor agreements fail to include all or even most of these principles. But the report’s basic thrust is that such elements can be successfully incorporated into broader jobs programs that leverage public resources for local development.

Take a look at a labor accord between the Cleveland University Hospital and the local construction trades union. The plan outlined goals for hiring graduates of a local vocational school’s pre-apprenticeship program, and emphasized creating ‘contracting opportunities for minority, female, and local-small business enterprises in Northeast Ohio.” The plan ran into various obstacles, including a trend of workers and small business fleeing the devastated area altogether. But in the end, according to the report, “The projects created more than 5,200 construction jobs and generated more than $500 million in wages and benefits,” while meeting guidelines for diversity and local hiring. Not bad for a city where economic decline over the past few years has driven people from their homes and deepened vast income inequalities.

In New York City, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which represents about 100,000 local union workers, has entered into project labor agreements that promote hiring of veterans, women, public high school graduates and public housing residents, along with other “adults in need of economic opportunity.” The agreements studied, applied to public construction projects estimated to generate tens of thousands of jobs, have exceeded targets for inclusion of women, public high school graduates and new local apprentices (with most of them coming from communities of color). In one of the country’s most segregated urban landscapes (and ground zero of a new anti-corporate grassroots movement), any jobs program premised on social equity marks a modest step toward constructing a fairer economy.

A separate report by the National Employment Law Project outlines various state and local job-boosting initiatives that show how public funds can be leveraged to help raise labor standards, generate sustainable employment, and even streamline the state budget:

  • In Portland, an initiative to upgrade home energy efficiency using a federal grant is paying median wages of $18.00 per hour, drawing on firms that are 100 percent Oregon-based and nearly 30 percent minority- or women-owned. A similar statewide initiative is now underway to upgrade 6,000 homes over the next three years and create or retain 1,300 jobs….
  • More than 140 cities and one state—Maryland—have adopted living wage standards for businesses performing government contracts. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have set minimum wage rates above the federal level of $7.25 per hour, and 10 states increase their rates annually to keep pace with inflation.
  • Currently, 23 states have work-sharing programs, which, according to the Department of Labor, saved 265,000 jobs between 2009 and 2010.

These initiatives don’t offer the structural reforms that would be necessary to truly rebalance the country’s corrosive wealth imbalance. Nonetheless they demonstrate a more innovative approach to the jobs crisis than the low-hanging fruit of tax cuts and fiscal austerity that Washington bandies about every election cycle. If state and local policies that can create good jobs aren’t percolating up to the national debate, it’s not because results don’t speak for themselves, but because Washington just doesn’t want to listen.

This blog post originally appeared in In These Times on October 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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In the Wake of Oslo Attacks, a Path Forward for Labor?

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Michelle Chen“For all dead comrades, not a minute’s silence, but a life of struggle.”

—Olav Magnus Linge, Norway’s Socialist Youth

The labor movement has always derived its power from its ability to mobilize people as a collective whole. But that potential to catalyze social action, and to resonate across lines of color and nationality, is precisely what makes the movement a political target around the world. And that’s why the attack on young progressive activists in Norway was both shocking and yet not unpredictable.

When taking aim at the Utøya summer camp of the Labour Party Youth Movement (AUF), the killer knew exactly what he was destroying: the next generation of young people who would challenge right-wing ideologies. Though it was a relatively mainstream political gathering, the camp symbolized the kind of inclusive society that extremists like Anders Behring Breivik view as a key obstacle to their agenda of engulfing Europe in racist barbarism.

The attack could have been directed at a cultural symbol of “foreignness” in Norway—an immigrant neighborhood or a religious institution, perhaps. But what made the camp a more ideal target was that it encouraged transcendence of cultural allegiances and envisioned a society that could move past ethnic and sectarian conflict. That is, labor was attacked because its strength stems from solidarity rather than divisiveness and exclusion–the political currency the far-right trades on.

The bloodshed in Oslo appears to have injected fresh urgency into campaigns for workers’ rights and social equity. The Norwegian trade union coalition, LO, has posted statements of support from other unions around the globe, including some in places where assaults on economic and human rights are more routine, like Palestine, Syria and Colombia.

In a collection of solidarity messages on the International Transport Workers’ Federation website, Victor Moore of Australia’s Rail Tram and Bus Union said the victims “shared a dream of hope for the future and support for the cause of labour.” Reflecting on labor’s history of youth organizing, he added:

we remember also the many sacrifices and acts of courage by youth across the globe in support of democracy and trade union rights. Trade union solidarity knows no borders and is a powerful force for hope and change.

M. Raghavaiah, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen, said the “barbarian acts” resonated with past attacks in Mumbai, which spurred citizens and workers’ organizations “to come together and put up an act of substance” by aiding in the post-crisis recovery.

Although Breivik, who had been linked to the right-wing Progress Party, saw Labour as a whole as too tolerant of immigrants and Muslims, the AUF was known for more radical leanings than the mainstream Labour Party. According to Britain’s Socialist Worker Party paper, the AUF often publicly criticized the government’s policies on issues like Norway’s refugee community and involvement in the Afghanistan war under NATO.

Representatives of the International Socialists are reportedly planning a mass mobilization in the wake of the attacks that will include Oslo’s LO, with hopes that AUF members will also “continue their political activities in honour of the victims. … We want a demonstration in solidarity with the AUF, but also for a multicultural society, tolerance and unity against racism.”

In the wake of such unimaginable horror, a path forward through direct action is difficult to contemplate, particularly when many unions in highly industrialized countries tend to focus on bread-and-butter workplace issues. Yet some hope the Oslo attacks could reinvigorate militant labor activism.

To socialist commentator Dave Stockton, it isn’t the state of Norway per se that needs protection from the right, but rather, “the values of international solidarity,” which encompass Norwegian Muslim communities as well as peoples struggling against oppression in Palestine and across the Middle East. In the labor movement at home, Stockton pointed to “the need to organise our own stewards, our own security, our own defence against the far right who will aim to use the crisis to rally ever more enraged people to their ranks.”

So far it’s not clear what shape this united front would take, but the discussion does give new valence to strategic mass mobilization. And it sheds light on ongoing threats that fueled the political climate from which Breivik emerged.

The Socialist Worker pointed out that among the many groups and outlets that inspired Breivik’s rhetoric (on both sides of the Atlantic), the ultra-right wing English Defence League had a special place. Weyman Bennett of London-based Unite Against Fascism told the paper, “There’s a network of Nazis across Europe who support and sustain racists like Breivik. What happened in Norway shows we have to redouble our efforts against the racist ideology of Islamophobia.”

Writing from London, author and activist Alan Woods said labor’s most effective tactic against the extreme right would be organizing on the street, rather than alignment with the official law enforcement response. Norway’s government, he argues, has pivoted to the right along with other European leaders, and an act of terror should not drive people to duck obediently behind the state.

The Labour leader, having correctly emphasized that this was an attack against the Labour Movement, then went on to say that the matter should be left in the hands of the police. This is a mistake. The state cannot be relied upon to provide effective defence against the fascists. The state intelligence services have ignored the activities of fascist groups, and a section of the state always has fascist sympathies. …

The Labour Youth, the Youth Wing of the trade unions, and the Youth of the Socialist Left party should immediately link up to form self-defence committees, linked to the trade unions and the shop stewards committees….

The organised working class must learn to depend only on itself. Only the Labour Movement can combat the menace of fascist and right wing groups. But to do so effectively, it must respond to every fascist provocation by mobilizing the full might of the organised working class. The Norwegian Labour Movement is very powerful. It must use its power to teach the fascists a lesson. The Norwegian trade unions should call a 24-hour general strike to protest this attack.

We’re used to seeing strikes and demonstrations in the day-to-day business politics of unions, while grassroots organizing is increasingly distanced from bureaucratic leadership structures. Can labor effectively  militate toward ideals of justice, democracy and equality in the face of terror? Now that so many youth have perished in the name of those principles, labor can turn a time of mourning into a moment for reaffirming its purpose.

This blog originally appeared in These Working Times on July 27, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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Too Big to Sue? High Court Thwarts Wal-Mart Gender Discrimination Case

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Michelle ChenAs legions of Walmart workers shuffled into work on Monday, the Supreme Court smacked down a major class-action lawsuit that might potentially have shifted the legal landscape on women’s rights in the workplace.

The gender-discrimination lawsuit against the world’s most notorious retail giant had been pending for years. Now the Court’s majority opinion has declared that, in light of “Walmart’s size and geographical scope,” the plaintiffs could not provide “significant proof that Wal-Mart operated under a general policy of discrimination. That is entirely absent here.”

And with that, Justice Antonin Scalia rendered perhaps hundreds of thousands of working women absent from the discussion on gender discrimination in today’s sink-or-swim economy. The split in the most significant part of the judgment, the class-action aspect, was five to four, putting all the female justices in the minority. The division ironically suggested a lack of self-reflection on how structural gender discrimination works in powerful institutions.

The core of the decision is not about whether Walmart did indeed discriminate. There’s ample evidence of that, though, including records of pay scales skewed against women, unequal hiring patterns in managerial positions, and expert testimony on the social implications of these trends. The Court’s opinion doesn’t examine that, but rather whether America’s discount paradise can be held legally accountable for systematic mistreatment of female workers.

The ruling was a high-five moment for the right, as it allows Wal-Mart executives to skirt a gargantuan liability. Going forward, the decision will in many circumstances leave the women on their own in seeking legal redress, since their claims can’t be in a mega-suit. Although Wal-Mart’s main defense is that it’s not responsible for lower managers who violate non-discrimination rules, the plaintiffs alleged a crime of omission: that the corporation failed in its responsibility to prevent bias against women as a matter of policy. A statment from the case sums up their position:

The discrimination to which they have been subjected is common to all Walmart’s female employees. The basic theory of their case is that a strong and uniform “corporate culture” permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decision-making of each one of Walmart’s thousands of managers—thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.

By enabling discrimination, the suit contended, Walmart should be held liable all the way through the command chain, from the exec in the boardroom down to the greeter at the store entryway. That’s where lead plaintiff Betty Dukes got stuck. She was demoted to greeter after working higher positions at a Pittsburgh, California store, she alleged, primarily because management retaliated against her for formally complaining about her treatment. Male colleagues who behaved similarly, Dukes says, never faced the same discipline.

There’s also Edith Arana. The former employee, who like Dukes is a black woman, claimed that after five years of working at Walmart in Duarte, California, she sought management training and was told, “there’s no place in management for people like you.”

After leaving the job, Arana told PBS NewsHour in 2004:

I have never seen a man that has, like, struggled, done everything he was supposed to do, worked overtime, sacrificed his family time, come in on days that he wasn’t supposed to—I’ve never seen a man that would go through that and not get what he was promised. But the women, they do it over and over and over again.

The setback in this suit doesn’t mean women can’t go after Walmart for discriminatory practices. We may in the near future see more targeted, smaller-scale litigation (including suits related to racial discrimination)—or perhaps even more grassroots political pressure campaigns on this issue.

But the decision will no doubt discourage legal action by giving many women no choice but to go through the arduous process of filing suit on an individual, not group basis. Meanwhile, Walmart will continue to expand its influence on the workforce gender divide by employing more female employees, and subjecting more women to the indignities of discrimination, gradually eclipsing workers’ civil rights in the shadow of the Big Box industry.

Following the ruling, Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families warned in a statement that the case would open the door to more discrimination with impunity in the corporate world:

Today’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent that will make it easier for employers – especially large ones – to discriminate against their employees while, at the same time, making it harder for workers to come together to challenge it. This creation of a potential ‘large company’ exception to our civil rights laws is a perversion of justice.

In other words, the bigger the company, the larger the workforce, the greater the potential for discrimination, the deeper the economic injustice throughout our communities… and the smaller a worker’s chances of getting her day in court.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on June 21, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen ’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

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How the Koch Brothers Celebrate Earth Day

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Michelle ChenBefore the words “Koch Brothers” became an epithet among labor activists everywhere, the oil industry barons were already persona non grata to Mother Earth. This Earth Day, let us celebrate the myriad ways Koch has touched the lives of flora and fauna alike.

The Brothers Koch are primarily known as chief financiers of the anti-union showdown in Wisconsin. Koch-addicted Gov. Scott Walker and other Wisconsin conservatives pushed anti-union legislation that faithfully reflected Koch’s neo-libertarian, anti-government agenda. The grassroots backlash drew a diverse coalition of public and private sector workers, civil rights groups, and other advocacy organizations from many demographics–so broadly offensive was the bill’s attack on collective bargaining rights and critical social programs.

Wisconsin environmentalists, too, have fought on common ground with labor. As an oil mogul, Koch obviously has an interest in environmental deregulation (as seen in its battle against various anti-pollution policies, according to Think Progress). Walker’s budget plan actually serves Koch’s twin agendas of assaulting unions and the environment simultaneously. Nick Milroy at the Superior Telegram says the Governor wants to pull the plug on the budding green economy:

One of the governor’s first acts after being elected was to give federal train money to other states. He gave away $810 million in train money and 5,500 jobs to Illinois and other states. This action appears to be pay back to the oil, coal and gas industries that contributed $127,693 to Walker, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, www.wisdc.org.

Walker then proposed the most restrictive rules in the nation for wind energy. Wisconsin should be open to clean energy businesses like wind energy. The governor has already killed two projects and threatened 1,000 jobs.

In his budget repair bill, the governor attempted to sell state power plants with no bid contracts and canceled a biomass power plant that would have created jobs and helped wean us off fossil fuels. It makes no sense to sell these power plants and stop biomass when Wisconsin imports $16 billion a year in oil, gas, and coal each year, costing us over 300,000 jobs.

Forward-thinking labor groups (including some in Wisconsin) have often been at the forefront of pushing for green jobs, both as a movement toward long-term sustainability, as well as toward a more balanced and equitable framework for economic development.

The New York Times reported in February that Koch Industries had relatively few workers in the state and thus “no direct stake in the union debate… The pending legislation would not directly affect its bottom line.” This gave the impression that Koch’s attack on Wisconsin’s labor movement was largely ideological—hence its connections to Americans for Prosperity, the faux-populist astroturf group behind the Tea Party.

However, by steamrolling labor, Koch—which has also poured millions into anti-science climate “skepticism” campaign groups—undermine the public’s ability to resist ruthless profiteering. For big oil, any policy that disempowers public institutions—whether it’s the regulatory system, public  unions, or the social programs and schools that nurture civil society—expands the corporate grip on our workplaces, neighborhoods, and governments.

The Koch team is quietly changing the political climate up north as well. Geoff Dembicki at the Tyee describes an intricate feedback loop in which Koch’s profits from the horribly polluting Canadian tar sands indirectly feed into the anti-science, pro-corporate and anti-labor agenda on the other side of the border.

Together, America’s fifth-richest citizens — each worth $21.5 billion — own Koch Industries, a refining, pipeline, chemical and paper conglomerate that manufactures common household products such as Brawny paper towels and Stainmaster carpets. They’re also one of the biggest refiners of Alberta oil sands crude, handling an estimated 25 percent of all imports entering the U.S.

Anytime a clean energy law threatens to impact those operations, the Kochs fight back hard. Not content anymore to wage war from the sidelines, the brothers and their allies have now installed themselves at the heart of Republican power in Washington, D.C.

Earlier investigations by Dembicki have exposed other links between Koch and Canadian oil:

  • Minnesota-based Koch subsidiary Flint Hills Resources boasts of being “among the top processors of Canadian crude in the United States,” according to its website.
  • Incidentally, a pipeline that carries this oil runs straight into Wisconsin. So it’s hardly surprising that Wisconsin lawmakers obediently scrubbed a low-carbon fuel standard from an energy bill in the face of heavy pressure from the Koch lobby last April.
  • Flint Hills was one of the biggest donors in the corporate opposition to the Proposition 23 ballot measure in California, which threatened to suspend the state’s landmark climate change law. (The referendum, which was ultimately defeated, would have not only rolled back the state’s emissions-reduction plan, but threatened major green job investments).

So lest you think that the Koch brothers are union-haters pure and simple, remember that stifling democracy, starving the government and smothering the ecosystem, are all bricks upholding Koch’s oil empire.

This week, The Nation published an article co-written by In These Times Contributing Editor Mike Elk that revealed an audacious Koch-sponsored propaganda campaign last November in Washington State. 2012 will likely see the corporate-political nexus explode with even more Koch PR blitzes, now that the Citizens United ruling has unraveled political spending limits.

So get ready for more Wisconsin-like showdowns as the Koch Empire gears up to mow down any worker, community or habitat standing in its way.

About the Author: Michelle Chen ‘s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

This blog originally appeared in These Times on April 22. 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Revisted: Labor’s Revolution Betrayed?

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Michelle ChenIt’s time to return to Downtown Cairo. There are signs that the romance of the Arab Spring is already cooling off. Many activists who braved beatings and arrests to oust a dictator fear their civil society’s rebirth may be smothered before taking its first breath.  A proposed ban on strikes appears to expand the rollback on civil and labor rights that has steadily undermined this winter’s victory at Tahrir Square.

Activists fear that the pending draft decree, which would sharply restrict and penalize strike actions, would destroy workers’ leverage in pressuring employers and the government on wages and working conditions. Labor demonstrations were a critical weapon in the recent uprising as well as under previous authoritarian regimes.

Egypt’s leading independent labor organization, Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, declared on March 23 that the draft decree, though the exact wording had not been made public, echoed a sordid history of labor oppression, particularly a similar law that criminalized industrial actions which Mubarak invoked to suppress protests

The Egyptian workers have struggled for decades to maintain the right to strike. They paid the price when they were imprisoned, transferred or killed….

Article 124 of the Egyptian Penal Law which criminalizes the right to strike is a witness that the regime was reactionary and had the fingerprints of the 19th century….

Article 124 of the Egyptian Penal Law which is not different from the suggested draft law was a curse in the history of the regime in Egypt. …

The Egyptian workers did not start to move after 25th January 2011. On the contrary, they were on the vanguard of the revolution until it reached its summit and would not stop until the realization of the workers demands or at least the workers are assured that their demands are on the way for achievement.

Egyptian military police close in around remaining protesters in Tahrir Square on February 14, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.   (John Moore/Getty Images)
Egyptian military police close in around remaining protesters in Tahrir Square on February 14, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The draft law is one of many troubling developments driving a renewal of grassroots activism, now that the revolution’s first wave is ebbing. Organizers launched the “Save the Revolution Friday” rally today, according to Ahram Online, to counter the governing elite’s plans to resurrect the old order under a renovated facade:

The purpose of the event, [activists] say, is to press on with the rest of the revolution’s demands, rid Egypt of the “institution of corruption” with all its figures and symbols and to challenge the counter-revolution initiated by the old regime which, they say, is playing behind the scenes to end the Egyptian revolution.

“The Egyptian people will not accept the laundering of the old regime and presenting it back to them in a new form,” wrote the group in the invitation, explaining that they insist on the complete removal of the remnants of Mubarak’s regime from every institution in the country.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called on the current prime minister, Dr. Essam Sharaf, to reject the anti-labor decree:

This will lead to a legal disaster by all international labour standards and it will disgrace Egypt in the view of the international community.

We urge the Egyptian government to withdraw the said draft decree, and we appeal to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces not to issue it. Instead we would like to see a development of appropriate mechanisms for  negotiations between the social partners.

This proposed decree is a serious infringement of fundamental trade union rights and as a member of the ILO, Egypt is bound by international treaties, and we remind you that your government must fulfil its obligations and respect trade union rights.

But an appeal to international law is easily silenced under the imposition of “emergency” authority. With the entire political system in flux, the military has begun to mobilize against activists under the pretext of maintaining order, putting the revolution itself at risk of being co-opted or  dismantled in the “reform” process.

Now is the time to rethink civil society’s hierarchy of needs. Will embattled Egyptians slip back into conservative “stability” at the price of autocracy? Or will people’s movements plow forward by establishing human rights, building workplace democracy, and breaking the corrupt ties between capital and the state?

Modern Egypt has undergone many uprisings, spurred by anti-colonialism, pan-Arab nationalism, populism, and now, nonviolent democratic ideals. Still, past upheavals failed to yield true economic equity. That kind of revolution requires a political consciousness that directly challenges conventional premises of economic growth and “development.”

Yet in neighboring Tunisia, an awakening in the labor movement may be underway. As Seth Sandronsky reported recently, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) has taken a leading role in both the overthrow of the old regime and the formation of a democratic government, and recently have begun networking with U.S. unions. Last month Tunisia also hosted the launch of the Arab Women’s Trade Union Network. The coalition focuses on the nexus of gender inequality and labor rights in Arab societies, where women’s oppression is compounded by economic exploitation.

So there’s a lot of work left to do for the global labor movement in the emerging political structures of Egypt and Tunisia—and all the other countries in the throes of political upheaval. And activists can’t do it without securing the power of independent collective action.

Egypt’s is not the only government that has sought to preempt the power to strike and protest through legislation. According to the ITUC’s 2010 Survey of Trade Union Rights:

Severe restrictions or outright prohibition of strikes also exists in a large number of countries. Furthermore, complex procedural requirements, imposition of compulsory arbitration and the use of excessively broad definitions of “essential services” provisions often make the exercise of trade union rights impossible in practice, depriving workers of their legitimate rights to union representation and participation in industrial action.

Egypt’s democratic vision turns on the struggles for both social and economic justice, and the power to strike is the focal point where labor and civil rights converge. The country’s workers face a process of social democratization that even “developed” democracies haven’t realized (see Wisconsin). The world is dotted with Liberation Squares, where the arc of revolution, or counterrevolution, is measured in the strength of labor.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on April 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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