After the Fall: An Autopsy of the Midterm Elections

by Michael Hirsch

Surveying the wreckage of his party’s 2014 election campaign, Howard Dean, on the November 9th Meet the Press, was candid, with such sound bytes as, ““Where the hell is the Democratic party …You got to stand for something if you want to win.” The Republicans’ message was, “We’re not Obama.” What was the Democrats’ message? “Oh well, we really aren’t either.”

Translation: “Get my message; we need a message.”

No matter how hard the Democrats tried to demonize their Republican rivals—the data in several states show a far higher rate of negative ads from Democrats —they couldn’t match the Death Star ferocity of the GOP message attack: the failed presidency of Barack Obama. That energized the Republican base. Nothing so potent was tendered to bring out the Democratic base vote, especially among white workers.

In election eve comments, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka placed the blame on the victors’ having “enough big-money backers to drown out the truth.” He did see hope in a number of ballot issues that directly aid working people, especially raises in the minimum wage (Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska) but also including mandating open school board meetings (Colorado), a right to vote amendment that proponents say precludes voter ID requirements (Illinois), guaranteed birth-control prescription coverage (Illinois), a millionaires’ tax (Illinois), and repeal of the automatic gas-sales tax increase (Massachusetts). Many passed in the same states that swung to the Republicans.

“The defining narrative of this election was confirmation, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Americans are desperate for a new economic life,” Trumka said. “In way too many elections, they got a false choice.  In these very difficult times, they did not a get a genuine economic alternative to their unhappiness and very real fear of the future. But when voters did have a chance to choose their future directly—through ballot measures—their decisions are unmistakable.”

One such opportunity happened in Richmond, Cal., where the Richmond Progressive Alliance ran candidates for city office against a slate owned, in effect, by Chevron, the city’s main employer. Chevron red-baited the progressives, spending $3 million on a whispering campaign suggesting one of the insurgents was gender-challenged and another was “a dangerous anarchist” because he took part in nearby Oakland’s Occupy action.

That pricey disinformation gambit didn’t work; the Alliance is a group with a 10-year history of recognized successes, including being instrumental in raising the minimum wage; cleaning the air—largely by wrenching agreements out of Chevron; lowering energy bills; and ending the police practice of driver’s license checkpoints. Among its many campaign issues: saving the local medical center, fighting for teachers’ rights and better schools, and instituting job training for youth and other local residents at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. And what is singularly important: it’s a 24/7 operation; they don’t fold up between elections, but serve as the political base for elected officials committed to social change instead of corporate control. As the Alliance’s basic literature says, “It is between elections that corporations and entrenched interests have the most influence in bending government to their way.”

A giant October rally saw more than 500 attendees pack the Richmond Civic Center—to meet the candidates and hear Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the slate and predicted the Alliance and its grassroots work would prove a model for other cities. The three council members plus the mayor, a well-known area independent running on their slate, are now Richmond’s elected leadership.

Few Working-Class Issues Prominent in Campaigns

It would seem that, in principle,Trumka was right about working people reliably voting their class interests when those interests are starkly drawn. So why weren’t working families’ needs front and center on candidate appeals? Why wasn’t wage stagnation pinned on the GOP? Or Wall Street banking theft? Where were the critical living wage demands? And where was organized labor in making these class issues part of the Democrats’ campaign? Why didn’t it disabuse the Democrats’ notion that keeping their heads down and waiting for the GOP to implode is not a strategy; it’s barely a tactic. Continue reading

Will the ACFTU Organize a Union at Foxconn?

by Paul Garver

apple_cook_china

Apple CEO Tim Cook visits an iPhone production line at a Foxconn facility in China in 2012.  Photo: Bloomberg

Officials of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) are not in the habit of criticizing major employers.

So when at a press conference in Beijing on February 2nd, Guo Jun, director of the ACFTU’s Legal Work Department, included Foxconn Technology in a list of companies who required their employees to work excessive overtime in violation of Chinese labor law, it caused a stir in the Chinese and foreign media.

Foxconn is not a mom-and-pop company.  It is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, the largest private employer in China with 1.3 million workers, and ranks 30th on the Fortune listing of global companies by sales.   It produces over half of the electronic hardware in the world for Apple, HP and all the other major global branded electronics corporations.

Five years ago, as we frequently reported in Talking Union, a dozen young workers at Foxconn’s  giant assembly plant in Shenzhen ended their lives by leaping from the factory complex dormitories, protesting endless hours of mind-numbing repetitive toil.  Pro-worker NGOs in Hong Kong and China leapt into action, documenting widespread abuses at Foxconn, and demanding that Apple, its largest customer, hold its supplier to improving wages and working conditions.  They also pointed out that the chronic abuses at the chief supplier are a product of Apple’s squeezes and unethical buying practices, and the Chinese governments’ support to large investors, at the sacrifice of workers’ rights and even their lives. As protests spread, both in Greater China and elsewhere, Apple agreed to require inspections of three Foxconn factories (out of more than 30) in China by the Fair Labor Association(FLA) in 2012 and 2013.

More significantly Foxconn decided to locate its major new factories deeper in the interior of China where wages were lower and the supply of laborers closer to hand.  Another huge factory complex was constructed in less than a year in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province), informally called iPad City for its major product.  When several workers were killed by an explosion of aluminum dust caused by management negligence on 20 May 2011, security officers rushed to the hospitals to prevent any protests or media coverage.  But vigilant networks of Chinese and Hong Kong students and workers publicized the event and a similar explosion at another Shanghai-based Apple supplier seven months later.

The Fair Labor Association (FLA), no doubt in good faith (though well compensated for their efforts by Apple) has reported that Foxconn and Apple are in the process of drawing up an action plan to correct the most flagrant abuses at three major Foxconn factories, including ones in Shenzhen and Chengdu.  The final FLA report was completed and published online in December 2013 – it did not end serious violations such as illegal overtime; in other words, it does not go beyond good public relations for Apple. As of this writing on 10 February 2015, we were still waiting for Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.

Unfortunately for Apple, Foxconn and the FLA a growing network of worker and student activists within China has been investigating in depth a much wider range of Foxconn facilities throughout China, and finding that excessive overtime and serious health and safety violations remain endemic.  One item completely overlooked by FLA investigators was the wholesale exploitation of some 7000 “student interns” for repetitive assembly work at Chengdu, when a major order from Apple had to be quickly filled in late 2011 to early 2012 [ Aditya Charabotty, 14 October 2013, “Forced student labor is central to the Chinese economic miracle,” The Guardian]. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/14/forced-student-labour-china-apple

Beginning in the fall of 2014, Apple sales of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone6Plus surged, to reach some 74.5 million in the last quarter of 2014.  Even though Foxconn is itself a highly integrated and diversified electronics manufacturer, it remains heavily dependent on Apple (for 40% of its total sales).  When Apple demanded maximum production of the new iPhones at maximum speed, Foxconn responded. According to extensive reports by Shenzhen worker and student activists (on a site called in English iLabour) mandatory overtime was imposed on Foxconn assembly workers during the peak Apple season (September to December 2014) to the extent of 152 hours overtime a month on top of the standard 40 hour work week (plus 9 hours of overtime whenever appropriate).    This meant on average one rest day a month (whereas at last one day of rest per week is required by law), with every other day of the month dedicated to 10 hour shifts of the most routine and monotonous assembly tasks.  This far exceeds the statutory limit in Chinese law of 36 hours overtime per month.

Hence the comment by the ACFTU’s  Guo Jun, who reminded Foxconn that employees forced to work excessive overtime were susceptible to psychological problems including suicide, a deliberate echo of the 2010 suicide wave.

Foxconn responded angrily on February 3rd that the workers wanted the overtime to increase their income, and that the company provided professional counseling and support services 24/7 to help workers cope with these challenges.  The company claimed that these support services “are saving lives each and every day” (!).  It also taunted Guo Jun for never visiting the Foxconn factories criticized by the ACFTU.

A number of activists commented that it would not be a bad idea for the ACFTU official to actually visit factories and talk to workers.   What Guo Jun would find is that there is already a “union” at Foxconn, though no workers know that they are members of it.  The chair of the Foxconn union, since 2007 to the present, is Ms Chen Peng, a special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou.  She was appointed as Union Chair by Foxconn managerial appointment, with no election then or since.

Quoted in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Chang Kai, a highly respected professor at Renmin University’s labor and human resources school in Beijing, remarked:

“It’s a good thing that the ACFTU showed their attitude, but it’s just the first step.  Next, the union should suggest solutions. Foxconn doesn’t have a union chosen by workers at all.”

Five years on, will the ACFTU take the next step, and try to organize a real union at Foxconn?

I have made use over the last five years of extensive research conducted by SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), a Hong Kong based NGO, in reporting on Foxconn workers in Talking Union.   As background for this article, I was graciously granted access to research by Jenny Chan, Pun Ngai and Mark Selden to be published in  2015 as “Apple’s iPad City: Subcontracting the Exploitation of Labour to China.” Ch. 5 in Handbook on the International Political Economy of Global Production, edited by Kees Van Der Pijl. [Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing].

Illinois Governor Acts to Curb Public Sector Unions

CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner, the newly elected Republican who has often criticized public sector unions, took his first step toward curbing their power on Monday by announcing an executive order that would bar unions from requiring all state workers to pay the equivalent of dues.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/10/us/illinois-governor-bruce-rauner-acts-to-curb-power-of-public-sector-unions.html?_r=0

Aliens and Humans

by Gene Grabiner

genegrabiner

Capitalism grows and sows alienation as it accumulates and expands accumulation. The capitalists, of course, accumulate and accumulate, (not only for personal gain—they are not hoarders or misers, but to expansively accumulate capital, itself). This is what economists term, ‘growth.’ But it is growth with a vengeance, growth like a cancer; and it has metastasized, globally. Capital reproduces itself through expanded reproduction on an ever-grander, ever-extended scale until it is the global occupant instead of humanity.
Yes, of course people are all over the globe, but they have not yet emerged into the true measure of their own humanity. And that cannot happen unless and until they win themselves back from capital and, in so doing, save the world. As accumulation grows, so grows alienation. Workers are alienated or separated from their product, from each other, and from themselves. So, the capitalists then come to embody the tumor of alienation, which on its other pole is the daily life experience of wage-labor.
While wage-labor may be alienated, the capitalists are aliens. It is true as science fiction has so long warned us: “they are here,” “they walk among us.” They are the well-documented aliens. As the privacy, the true insularity, the gated and garrisoned world of the capitalists grows, the privacy of the rest of the ever-more-alienated people diminishes. Likewise, the immiseration of the people grows—a psychic immiseration if not a material one.
Among other struggles over contested ground, the struggle to preserve, protect and expand privacy for all is also a struggle against, e.g., the NSA and corporate spying on us all. Still, this is only a sort of holding action, given how ruling social forces use, are using, and will use communication and expression/repression. But the true reclamation of privacy is also actually the true and fullest expansion of publicity.
To fully win back the sphere of the private, we must fully inhabit or occupy the sphere of the public through mass restoration of the Commons at a higher level. As the Commons is restored both off and on-line, the private more and more will be reclaimed by those to whom it is denied. The restoration of Fourth Amendment privacy is at the same time the achievement of total public existence—what has been called the Public Opinion State that is enshrined in the First Amendment.
The Occupy Movement contained this insight, whether explicitly or implicitly. The Occupy Movement asked the proper questions and, in many respects, provided among its demands, the appropriate answers. The issue is this: how, effectively, to move from posing those questions to the full attainment of those answers? How to build the bridge to the future; and in so doing, how to build the future itself? For Occupy, the difficulty lay in the very anarchic character of that movement which, on the one hand was its romantic beauty and attractiveness but, on the other, its lack of a program, a way to move forward.
For this substantive forward motion to occur, the centrality of labor is key. When a mass global popular front/united front movement is crystallized, and all begin to understand and act on the fact that “Workers Create the Wealth,” we humans will no longer be kidnapped by those aliens. In fact, this is the only salvation for the aliens themselves. It is the only way to set them on the path toward becoming human.

Gene Grabiner, PhD, is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, has been Vice-President, Grievance Chairperson, and a Contract Negotiator for the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College, (FFECC/NYSUT), AFL-CIO.

Tony Mazzocchi’s Spirit Lives on in Oil Refinery Strike

by Steve Early

Mazzochu

Twelve years ago, America’s leading advocate of occupational health and environmental safety succumbed to pancreatic cancer. In the U.S., where the influence of organized labor has long been contracting, the death of a former trade union official is often little noted. Yet Tony Mazzocchi was no ordinary labor leader. His passing from the scene, at age 76, was widely recognized and correctly mourned as a great loss for the entire union movement.

As a top strategist for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), Mazzocchi pioneered alliances between workers concerned about job safety and health hazards and communities exposed to industrial pollution generated by companies like Shell, Chevron, and Mobil.

In 1973, members of the OCAW (who are now part of the United Steel Workers) conducted a national contract campaign and four-month strike at Shell Oil over workplace safety rights and protections. As Mazzocchi’s biographer, Les Leopold notes, “the strike helped build a stronger anti-corporate movement” because OCAW members learned “that you can’t win these fights alone.” To win—or even just battle Big Oil to a draw—workers had to join forces with the very same environmental organizations long demonized by the industry as the enemy of labor and management alike.

Striking Big Oil Again

Four decades later, echoes of that struggle could be heard on the refinery town picket-lines that went up in northern California, Texas, Kentucky, and Washington state this week. Thousands of oil workers walked out, for the first time in 35 years, over issues and demands that Tony Mazzocchi helped publicize and build coalitions around for much of his career.

About 30,000 refinery employees are still covered by the USW agreement that expired last weekend. Nearly 4,000 of them are on strike at nine plants already, including Tesoro refineries in Martinez and Carson, CA. Other USW members, including those employed at Chevron in Richmond, may join the walkout if industry negotiators fail to address non-wage issues summarized by USWA vice-president Gary Beevers as follows:
Onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it and the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job.” Continue reading

Stop Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership!

by Paul Garver

Video produced by MoveOn and posted here at the request of the Communication Workers of America (CWA)
A good short primer from Robert Reich on the need to stop Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a project of the Obama administration fervently desired by big business, supported by Republicans, and would lock in corporate control over the global economy against the interests of workers and consumers.  It has been negotiated behind doors closed to all citizens except 500 corporate lobbyists.  “Fast-Track” Trade Promotion Authority would permit the agreement to be speedily voted up or down by Congress without adequate debate or the possibility of amendment.
CWA and MoveOn have partnered in a petition against Fast Track and the TPP, which you can read and sign at  http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/tell-congress-we-cant?source=c.em&r_by=4842589

A Bigger Tent | Boston Review

A Bigger Tent | Boston Review. by Amy Dean.

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