There’s One Big Worm In Checker Finn’s Apple

On the Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper blog and in the electronic pages of the Hoover Foundation’s Education Next, Checker Finn is bemoaning the state of the American work ethic, and blaming American education for this sorry state of affairs.

This narrative of American cultural decline, with the public school teacher playing a starring role as villain, is a trope that appears frequently in conservative circles dedicated to waging ‘culture war’ on issues of race, gender and sexuality.  In his piece, Finn cites a forthcoming book by paleo-conservative Charles Murray on the decline of ‘industriousness’ in the America’s white working class. (Murray is best known as the author of The Bell Curve, with its theory of a genetically based African-American intellectual inferiority; apparently, the industriousness of American workers of color is not worth discussing.) Finn links to a chapter from Murray’s book, just published in the Wall Street Journal,  in which he characterizes the declining rate of full-time employment among male white workers as a cultural failing of the workers. Amazingly, Murray has no discussion of the impact of the current economic downturn, the deepest and longest since the Great Depression, on working class employment, and no mention of the effects of four decades of globalization, during which corporations exported decent paying industrial jobs abroad to countries with very low labor costs enforced by authoritarian regimes. No, in Murray’s hands, the decline of full-time working class employment is entirely a cultural flaw, a loss of the Puritan ethic of hard work, to be found in the workers themselves.

Finn does not simply endorse Murray’s narrative of working class cultural decline; he provides his own supporting argument, centered on Apple Inc.’s outsourcing of its production work to China.He offers as evidence a New York Times article which recounts a dinner conversation between Barack Obama and the late Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, Inc.  Obama reportedly asked Jobs what it would take to bring Apple’s manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., and Jobs tells the President in so many words that it just wasn’t happening. According to the Times, the reasoning of Jobs and other Apple executives is along these lines: “the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.” Finn swallows the Apple, Inc. justification for exporting manufacturing jobs abroad, hook, line and sinker. He objects to Obama’s Osawatomie, Kansas speech in which the President notes that the broken social contract and the long economic downturn in the U.S. has meant that “(h)ard work stopped paying off for too many people.” No, the real problem, Checker tells us, is that Apple, Inc. finds in China “the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills” that American workers lack.

If Finn had given a careful reading to the entire Times article, he would have found a revealing description of the Chinese manufacturing enterprise to which Apple, Inc. outsources most of its production, Foxconn Technology. The workers in Foxconn’s China plant that manufactures Apple’s iPhones work under 19th century sweatshop conditions — they work 12 hour days and 6 day weeks, sometimes doing ‘double shifts’ of 24 hours, live in company barracks and earn less than $17 a day. In echoes of the Cultural Revolution, workers who arrived late for work were sometimes required to write confession letters and copy quotations. The Times article describes how, when Apple, Inc. redesigned its iPhone, the glass for the new product arrived in at the Foxconn factory in the middle of the night and all the workers were dragged out of bed to begin production immediately. Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, told that the Times that Foxconn “could hire 3,000 people overnight. What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?

Foxconn protestSACOM (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) staged a protest in front of a Foxconn shareholder meeting in Hong Kong in 2010. (www.sacom.hk)

A subsequent New York Times article documents just how unhealthy and unsafe the conditions in the Chinese factories producing Apple, Inc. products are. Chinese workers report being forced to stand so long in production that their legs swelled and they could hardly walk. Child labor is commonly used in the factories. The Chinese manufacturers have falsified records and improperly disposed of hazardous waste. Two years ago, 137 Chinese workers were injured after being forced to use a poisonous chemical to clean the glass of iPhones. Last year, explosions at factories producing iPads killed four Chinese workers and injured 77 others. A Hong Kong based advocacy organization reported that it had told Apple of the hazardous conditions that led to explosions, and Apple did nothing. “If Apple was warned, and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advises the United States Labor Department, told the Times. “But what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.”

What’s undeniable is the desperation of the Chinese Foxconn workers. In recent years, there has been an epidemic of worker suicides at Foxconn — 19 in all according to the Times. Just this month, 300 Foxconn workers producing Sony’s Xbox threatened mass suicide in a dispute over pay and working conditions.

In a written statement to the Times, Foxconn said that “(a)ny worker recruited by our firm is covered by a clear contract outlining terms and conditions and by Chinese government law that protects their rights.” But the truth is that Chinese law only allows for one “union,” the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which is directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese state. The CCP appoints all ACFTU officials, and they come almost exclusively from outside of the ranks of that organization. The ACFTU’s own documents pledge fealty to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, and Chinese law mandates that when workers engage in strikes and other work-related protests, the role of the ACFTU is that of strike-breaker. Far from protecting Chinese workers, the Chinese state and Chinese law establishes and enforces the conditions necessary for their brutal exploitation.

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” one former Apple executive told the Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Academics and manufacturing analysts consulted by the Times estimated that the shifting of the manufacture of iPhones to the U.S. would add approximately $65 to the cost of the product, which would still leave Apple with a substantial profit, given its margin of hundreds of dollars of profit on the phone. But the lower price of labor is only part of the equation for Apple: the sweatshop conditions in the factories and the near absolute rule exercised over the workplace are just as important for Apple’s ‘in time’ production.

“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” Li Mingqi, who until April worked in Foxconn management, told the Times. Mr. Li, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal, helped manage the Chengdu factory where one of the explosions occurred. “Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests,” he said.

That’s one helluva of a system of “flexibility, diligence and industrial skills,” Checker.

Leo Casey is vice president of academic high schools for the United Federation of Teachers. He is a New York City native and the son of two New York City public school teachers. He continues to teach a class in global studies every day at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan. He is a regular contributor to Dissent’s Arguing the World blog. This post originally appeared on Edwize, the UFT’s blog.

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One Response

  1. Well said. Leo.
    Duane Campbell

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