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China’s Militant Workers Embrace Collective Action

8:31 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

China is the big business story of the 21st century, but is it also the big labor story?

A new report on China’s labor movement, covering about 1,170 strikes and other labor actions from mid-2011 through 2013, illuminates how what is arguably the world’s biggest proletariat is growing more agitated and polarized.

Despite China’s seemingly miraculous economic boom, in many ways, its emergent labor struggles are strikingly similar to those experienced by workers in more developed economies: weak-to-zero collective bargaining rights, a lack of social and health protections, the poverty and instability facing interregional migrant labor, global economic volatility and consequent job insecurity. And of course, that’s all in a fractious atmosphere of breakneck national growth rates, greater economic ambitions among the working class and soaring inequality.

Manufacturing workers are feeling the tension between middle-class aspirations and working-class problems, and many are growing increasingly militant in asserting their labor rights. The report’s author, China Labour Bulletin (CLB) observes that the shift is driven by a deepening sense of social rights on the political and economic fronts, including “earning a living wage, creating a safe work environment and being treated with dignity and respect by the employer.”

The rising militancy (and even class consciousness) across the industrial workforce is being facilitated by the expansion of digital communications networks—as more workers begin to enjoy the tech gadgets they’ve been producing for rich countries all these years—as well as the destabilization of workers under volatile global trade flows. CLB reports: “Many worker protests were ignited by the closure, merger or relocation of factories in Guangdong as the global economic slowdown adversely affected China’s manufacturing industries. Some 40 percent of the strikes recorded by China Labour Bulletin from mid-2011 to the end of 2013 were in the manufacturing sector.”

Without a free media or independent unions, it’s hard to tell how unified China’s workers are or can be, but CLB describes bread-and-butter struggles at various multinational factories, as well as public sector workforces such as teachers battling wage arrears and sanitation workers denied social insurance. Read the rest of this entry →

Guitar Center Workers Rock the Shop Floor

3:08 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Guitar Center employees struggle to continue their work. Employees say they are passionate about the work but simply can’t afford the job because of its minimum-wage, commission-based pay. (Wikipedia Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

If your 9-to-5 job revolves around your life’s passion, the satisfaction of being surrounded by what you love can offset the daily grind. But such passion is often in short supply in retail work, which is generally defined by the quintessential boring sales job. At Guitar Center, however, one of the country’s largest instrument chains, workers’ love for music, combined with their disdain for The Man, is driving a valiant campaign for a union.

In several cities, Guitar Center employees have been organizing since late 2012 with the support of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In May, they scored their first victory at the flagship store in the West Village, with 57 employees voting to unionize. Then another Guitar Center, in Chicago, unionized in August. As labor organizers reach out to other cities, though, the management, controlled by private equity giant Bain Capital, is reportedly hoping to undercut the union before it recruits more workers at the other more than 200 stores nationwide.

Since Bain took over in 2007, workers say, labor conditions on the sales floor have eroded under a pay structure based on commissions. According to employees, because base pay has started as low as $7.25 an hour, often without paid vacation or sick days, these commissions constitute a major portion of workers’ income. But this commission on sales kicks in only after reaching a certain minimum threshold—a system known as “fading.” Another major frustration for workers has been a lack of autonomy; they say non-sales duties that the Bain management has heaped on them detract from cultivating sales clients. Moreover, a relatively flat wage structure means workers who work their way up the management chain do not receive comparable pay increases.

The workplace atmosphere has allegedly grown more tense since workers started organizing. In May, Manhattan Guitar Center employee Anim Arnold told Labor Press that management was targeting individual workers as they were gearing up for the groundbreaking union vote.

“They’ve definitely pulled people aside and said they don’t think unions are a good idea,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh, unions don’t have anything to offer. It’s not the 1920s. We’re not children in coal mines. We’re fine.’” Read the rest of this entry →

Bangladeshi Activists Bring Fight to Wal-Mart’s Doorstep

4:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The day after the enormous fire in Bangladesh in November, Kalpona Akter holds up a garment bearing Wal-Mart's brand, "Faded Glory," which she found in the ashes inside the Tazreen factory (Photo by Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity)

Originally posted at In These Times

Wal-Mart’s business model runs on the art of delusion. Clean aisles and bright decor insulate customers from the unseemly factories that produce the brand’s sought-after bargains. But when Wal-Mart’s label was found plastered all over the charred remains of a massive factory fire in Bangladesh last fall, the ugliness at the root of the retail giant’s supply chain was exposed.

The company, however, continues to ignore victims’ demands for compensation, so Bangladeshi activists and their allies have brought their grievances to Wal-Mart’s doorstep in a 10-city U.S. tour.

In New York on Thursday, activists from the U.S. and Bangladesh rallied to demand compensation from Wal-Mart, Sears and other multinational companies that contracted with the Tazreen factory that burned down in November, killing some 112 people. The stop was part of the multi-city tour coordinated by anti-sweatshop and labor groups to call on corporations to “End Death Traps.”

The actions reflect a broader movement for accountability in a multinational manufacturing supply chain that stretches from Latin America to the U.S. to South Asia. As Josh Eidelson reported in the Nation this week, activists are also targeting Wal-Mart over its links to systematic attacks on union activists in Nicaragua, led by one of its multinational contractors, SAE-A. In this case, as in the Bangladesh fire, Wal-Mart has distanced itself from the scandal with the same meticulous image management that it applies to its product line. In both scandals, the corporation places the blame on contractors at the bottom of the supply chain. But advocacy groups point to the direct and indirect ties from big brands like Wal-Mart and Sears to small suppliers and underregulated factories in the Global South. Multinationals use this cheap subcontracted labor to squeeze down prices while preserving a clean, consumer-friendly image. Read the rest of this entry →

Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the International Domestic Workers' Network show support for the groundbreaking International Labor Organization's Convention 189, signed in 2011. (Courtesy of WIEGO)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

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Can We Trust Foxconn’s New ‘Democratic’ Chinese Factories?

10:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Carol Simpson Cartoon Work (

Originally posted at In These Times

A few years ago, the multinational tech manufacturer Foxconn, a brand previously vaunted as a symbol of China’s 21st century industrial ascent, was marred by the image of miserable young factory workers flinging themselves off of buildings. So the company rolled into damage control mode with typical efficiency: Along with emergency suicide nets installed outside dormitories came a flurry of plans for morale-boosting, like deploying therapists, monks and “2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers” to lift spirits. At a management-sponsored pep rally, some workers were spotted in “I Love Foxconn” shirts—positive thinking through casualwear.

And now, Foxconn is rewarding that love by introducing its young, sometimes rambunctious,occasionally suicidal workforce to the virtues of workplace democracy.

The company has announced that workers will be able to vote for union representatives at their factories. The plan, according to news reports, is to allow workers to elect “junior workers” to represent them in a union leadership structure historically dominated by management and officials. In a union system closely linked to the political establishment and employers, the goal, it seems, is to keep labor relations smooth as factories churn out their signature Apple product lines.

The scene of the cheery workers wearing their love for their company on their chests is a good backdrop for evaluating the voting reforms and other efforts to improve conditions at Foxconn. What’s really helping workers? And what’s simply polishing the Foxconn’s image? Following widespread media coverage of the cluster of suicides, Foxconn and Apple have engaged in a well-publicized auditing process and vowed to raise labor standards. But despite reports showing incremental improvements in the notoriously hyper-stressful factory conditions (as well as some persistent labor violationsmany questions remain on whether these changes are really changing workers’ day-to-day lives or influencing global manufacturing standards as a whole.

Though the promise of a more direct election system at Foxconn (paralleling similar initiatives at other workplaces) suggests Foxconn is yielding to public and worker-driven pressure for a more responsive management structure, elections will not ensure equitable collective bargaining rights, and they are definitely no guarantee of genuine respect for workers’ fundamental freedom of association. Contrary to popular perceptions, many Chinese workplaces are nominally unionized, with millions of union members nationwide. The massive state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions is tasked with keeping labor roughly in line with neoliberal economic policies, though growing social unrest in recent years has heightened attention to workers’ issues in official political circles.

Historically, these official unions have acted as tools for management rather than channels for advocacy. According to a 2010 report by Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, economic liberalization and whirlwind of privatization led to a transfer of union leadership from the official state to a state-friendly managerial classand workers’ hardships and disenfranchisement persisted:

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Despite Exemptions, Police and Firefighters Show Labor Solidarity in Michigan Right-to-Work Battle

10:47 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Jamee Urrea via Twitter:

Originally posted from In These Times

Michigan’s new right-to-work law has has struck a savage blow to America’s labor movement in its heartland. Unions across the state have thronged to Lansing to oppose the attack, which makes union membership optional and thus reduces labor’s bargaining clout. But tucked into the legislation are subtle exemptions for particular workers—police and firefighters, who have historically played by a different set of rules, creating political divides in the labor movement.

But in this case, it seems that many members of Michigan’s police and firefighters unions—about 1,700 bargaining units altogether—are standing in solidarity with other public-sector unions to oppose the law.

Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin, in an email to In These Times, points out the hypocrisy of lawmakers in exempting these honored civil servants from a supposedly “pro-worker” new law:

If these initiatives were pro-worker [as Governor Rick Snyder has claimed], why wouldn’t they also be good for public safety workers?… The exemption makes the intentions of the laws framers’ crystal clear: they intend to undermine organizations that ally with their political opponents.

Right-to-work proponents argue variously that the nature of police and firefighter work requires an exception and that Michigan’s special set of collective-bargaining rules for public-safety unions places them on a separate tier. But union workers offer a more straightforward explanation: Divide and conquer. Read the rest of this entry →

$950,000 Win for NYC Workers Invigorates Supply-Chain-Justice Movement

9:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tom Cat Bakery drivers address supporters during a march to protest threats against healthcare benefits. (

Originally posted at In These Times

A lot of the heavy lifting in today’s labor movement is coming from an unexpected place: the warehouses and processing facilities that bridge the retail and wholesale markets. Alienated from traditional labor union structures, these more obscure links in the supply chain offer a new breeding ground for innovative rank-and-file mobilizing. The recent Wal-Mart warehouse strikesin California and Illinois showed how precarious low-wage workers organize on their own in defiance of temp bosses, the police, and the nation’s retail giant.

Meanwhile, in Queens, New York, landmark legal victory for warehouse workers and truck drivers at a local food distributor reveals the value of a more nimble-footed approach to empowering non-unionized workers.

Late last month, a federal judge ruled that distribution company Beverage Plus must pay a group of Latino workers about $950,000 in damages. The decision cited repeated and willful labor violations by the company, including denying overtime to employees who worked up to 12-hour days. Read the rest of this entry →

On Both Sides of the Border, Teachers Fight Corporatization

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación has been fighting for greater respect for Mexican teachers, often against the country's teachers union itself. (Saúl Arroyo Morales / CNTE)

Originally posted at In These Times

Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.

Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radioUSA TodayMcClatchythe Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.

A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.

The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.

Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.

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South Korea’s Boom Leaves Workers in the Dust

10:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Hyundai worker rally (via

Originally posted at In These Times

South Korea is sometimes touted as an exemplar of capitalist progress in Asia–a sophisticated economy with global brands and an educated populace (not to mention a stunning contrast to its miserable Communist analog to the north). But the lives of South Korean workers tell a different story. In recent months, they’ve been slammed by a much-maligned free trade deal, tussled with Hyundai in a bitter strike, and, according to an international assessment, become examples of how an economic boom can be a bust for labor.

According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), published as part of the World Trade Organization’s periodic Trade Policy Review, Korean workers have faced major challenges in organizing independent unions, and women, migrants, and other marginal workers face widespread discrimination and exploitation.

Though unionization is generally legal, in practice, labor activities are regularly suppressed by employers, and independent organizing may be preempted by “management-controlled” or “paper” unions. Restrictions on public-sector union activities–in the name of protecting the public–parallel the limits on labor activism imposed on U.S. civil servants, according to the report:

[T]here are numerous categories of public officials who are still denied their trade union rights, including managers, human resources personnel, personnel dealing with trade unions or industrial relations, and special public servants such as military, police, fire-fighters, politically-appointed officials, and high level public officials. … The law also prohibits public sector unionists from engaging in “acts in contravention of their duties prescribed in other laws and regulations when doing union activities”. This very broadly worded provision leaves the door open for abuses. Read the rest of this entry →

Pakistan Fires Echo 1911 Triangle Factory Fire—But Will They Spur Similar Change?

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

“Won’t it ever be safe for us to earn our bread?” That was the anguished question of the mother of one of the victims of Manhattan’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, quoted in Miriam Finn Scott’s famous narrative “The Factory Girl’s Danger.”

The family had hoped for a better life for their daughter, but poverty pushed her to follow her mother onto the factory floor. Then, one spring day in 1911, the girl went to work and did not return. The garment factory went up in flames while horrified crowds watched bodies fly from the upper floors, hitting the pavement as nameless masses of charred flesh and fabric; more than 140 dead altogether, mostly women, many of them teenagers and immigrants.

The question the mother asked, which became the resounding theme of Scott’s story, will be asked again today by other mothers, in a different language. About a century after the shock of the Triangle fire spurred major safety reforms in New York and helped catalyze the U.S. labor movement, two catastrophes in Pakistan on Tuesday revealed that similarly dangerous factories still flourish outside of the United States, in the Global South. A massive fire at a textile factory in Karachi (reportedly with ties to the European market) killed more than 250 workers, and a shoe factory in Lahore was also engulfed in flames, killing 25.

In Karachi, workers reportedly also lept from windows; onlookers below could only watch as rescue workers extracted bodies from the concrete inferno. In both incidents, workers were trapped amid the flames, with escape routes blockedJust as the Triangle workers were sealed inside, VOA reported, authorities admitted the factory “was illegally constructed and there was only one exit, with no safety measures or equipment in place to extinguish the fire before it engulfed the entire facility.”  Read the rest of this entry →