Thursday, February 26, 2009

39 economists OK employee free choice law

Thirty-nine leading American economists, including two Nobel laureates have publicly endorsed a proposed law that will make it easier for workers to unionize. In a full-page ad in the February 25 Washington Post, they call the Employee Free Choice Act. “a critically important step in rebuilding our economy and strengthening our democracy by enhancing the voice of working people in the workplace.”.

After a review of the present cumbersome government procedure for workers to get a union legally recognized, the statement says that the proposed law “would give workers the choice of using sign-up—a simple, established procedure in which workers sign cards to indicate their support for their union—or staging [the existing National Labor Relations Board-style] election.”

The statement concludes:: “In recent decades, most bargaining power has resided with management. The current recession will further weaken the ability of workers to bargain individually. More than ever before, workers will need to act together. The Employee Free Choice Act is not a panacea, but it would restore some balance to our labor markets.”

Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University and Robert M. Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are the two Nobel laureates among the 39 signers. Another prominent signer, surprisingly, is Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, the prolific defender of free trade.

U.S. business people, as organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, are engaged in a vigorous lobbying and PR campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Economic Policy Institute, which coordinated the economists’ public statement, has developed a comprehensive analysis that, in effect, rebuts the arguments used to attack the proposed law. For example, the law is not as radical as its opponents make out.

Since 2003 more than half a million workers have formed unions through the majority sign-up system. Among the employers who have agreed to remain neutral in organizing campaigns and recognize unions through majority sign-up are the leading wireless phone company AT&T Mobility and Kaiser Permanente with its huge chain of hospitals and health plans.

In a brief filed with the NLRB, Kaiser Permanente explained that it did so because it “recognized that the protracted and often adversarial election process frequently undermined the ability of everyone involved to focus on the primary mission of providing quality health care.”

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Extraordinary things possible in no time at all

During the afternoon before President Obama’s address to Congress yesterday, I read a fascinating review of a new John Muir biography in the March 12 New York Review of Books. A particularly fascinating point made by the reviewer was this:

“One of the lessons we all may learn from Muir’s career is that inspiration is a powerful agent of change, and that when the ‘fierce urgency of now’ is upon us, it is essential to make room for, and to ride, the wave of enthusiasm while it lasts. The wave does not last long, but while it does an extraordinary number of good things may be achieved in practically no time at all.”

Is this such a moment in American history? I think so, but only if we make room for it and seize it. But the enthusiasm and hope engendered by the President could well be dissipated by the media’s weird twist on reporting “both sides,” which in today’s crisis they think requires giving equal time to politicians who have a strong partisan interest in having the President fail.

The reviewer of this biography, “A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir” (Oxford University Press) by Donald Worster, is Robert Pogue Harrison, professor of Italian literature at Stanford, whose latest book is “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.”

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Canadians urge NAFTA renegotiation

In an open letter to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, major Canadian organizations urged him to commit to a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The letter was released just prior to U.S. President Barrack Obama’s February 19 visit to Ottawa.

“Canadaian public opinion is solidly behind the need to renegotiate NAFTA,” the letter pointed out, citing a September poll in which 61 percent of respondents favored that position.

The letter was signed by 26 Canadian organizations, including Oxfam Canada, Sierra Club of Canada, the Council of Canadians, Common Frontiers, Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Auto Workers, and a variety of other unions.

In releasing the letter, Rick Arnold of Common Frontiers said: “We were all promised a golden future under NAFTA, but the reality for the three signatory countries is that the gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially, and government’s ability to set public policy has been curtailed in favor of giving carte blanc to foreign investors.”

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Rooting out worker rights abuses abroad

Is there anything that the governments of rich countries can do to integrate human rights into the overseas operations of their multinational corporations? Yes, the government of Norway says, and shows how in a recent statement on corporate social responsibility.

That responsibility does not stop at the Norwegian border, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in releasing the policy statement, or white paper.

A key element of that policy urges all Norwegian multinationals – about 100 in number – to enter into “global framework agreements” with global unions to safeguard the rights of workers in foreign countries in conformance with core conventions of the UN International Labor Organization.

Among the Norwegian companies that have already taken that step are StatoilHydro, with an agreement covering 29,500 workers in 40 countries, and Norske Skog, a newsprint producer with 11,000 workers worldwide, both with Norwegian unions and their global union, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers Unions. (ICEM).

The white paper states that; in countries that do not respect the right to organize and to bargain, multinationals should seek ways to establish some sort of system that permits the voice of workers to be heard in workplaces.

In addition, the white paper provides guidance on corporate responsibility with regard to decent working conditions, the environment, and anti-corruption among other human rights issues.

The government also intends:

-- to address by legislation, through Accounting Act amendments, the duties of corporations to provide information on their actions to implement ethical guidelines, and

-- to strengthen the Norwegian government's “national contact point” for dealing with worker rights complaints alleging violations of the multinational guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In short, supplementing its efforts to root out worker rights violations through trade negotiations and ILO programs, the Norwegian government intends to use its own powers to regulate corporate behavior beyond its national boundaries.

So far, that’s only an intention, but it’s an intention that the U.S. government would be wise to adopt as its own.
* * *

The government of Australia is considering a similar initiative. See To Embed Huuman Rights in Multinationals.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Passing the buck to Uncle Sam

It is up President Obama to take the lead in opposing the worldwide spread of “protectionism.” Otherwise, says the Economist in its February 7 issue, “America and the rest of the world are in deep trouble.”

The Economist advises the United States to show “forbearance” when foreigners benefit from the multibillion-dollar U.S. stimulus package. Any “Buy American” requirement “would send a disastrous signal to the rest of the world” that would rekindle economic nationalism.


What’s wrong about giving the troubled American steel industry the first shot at orders for rebuilding American bridges and American school buildings? Why must the U.S. government show “forbearance” if Communist China wins the business with low bids from its government-built, government owned, and government subsidized steel mills?

Oh, but we dassn’t start a trade war. Well, here’s some hot news. Communist China, for one, has long waged a de facto trade war with the United States. And guess who’s won ?

Last year the United States imported $337,789,000,000 worth of goods and services from China -– almost five times more than we exported to China. Year after year, our trade deficit with China balloons further. It quadrupled over the past decade. thanks to our “forbearance.”

The lesson to other countries? Our non-China global trade deficit is astronomical. In 2008, not counting China, the United States imported $411,000,000,000 more in goods and services than we exported despite the global slowdown.

As a nation, we are consuming far more than we produce. Economists have long warned that this disparity could not last, and it can’t. The United States needs to produce more. The shock of the crisis may be the opportune time to begin.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

Crisis reversing fight against world hunger

Food and financial crises have added 115,000,000 men, women, and children to the ranks of the world’s hungry since 2007, according to Josette Sheeran, executive director of the UN’s World Food Program.

But it isn’t a problem of food availability, she emphasized. “It is a problem of distribution -– and of greed, discrimination, wars, and other tragedies. There is enough food on earth for every human to have adequate access to a nutritious diet. This is indeed a challenge of the human heart.”

Calling on national governments to take the lead, Sheeran urged that a very small percentage -– 0.7 percent -- of financial stimulus plans be dedicated to fighting hunger.

She spoke February 3 at a Vatican press conference that presented the Lenten message of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he said that the Lenten fast can nourish a spirit that offers help to our suffering brothers and sisters.

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Toward a new day for trade

In a letter sent to Congress on February 7, more than 350 organizations representing faith, family farm, labor, consumer, and environmental groups said they strongly support Senate and House action to “replace the failed trade policies of the past with those that deliver broadly shared benefits.”

“Hundreds of groups are now organizing, rolling up their sleeves, pushing for reform, including support for Buy American provisions in the stimulus package,” said Andy Gussert of the Citizens Trade Campaign, which organized the petition to Congress.

The four page letter summarizes the key issues facing decision by lawmakers and the Obama administration.; and specifically expresses opposition to harmful features contained in “hangover” Bush administration free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Korea.

Among those objectionable features:

-- Foreign investor are granted rights that promote off-shoring and also subject U.S. domestic environmental, zoning, health, and other public interest polices to challenge by foreign investors in foreign tribunals.
-- Food-safety provisions would require the United States to limit import inspection and accept imported food that does not meet our domestic safety standards.
-- Procurement rules would hamstring many reasonable procurement practices of our federal, state, and local governments.

The worsening recession is distracting policymakers from the need to reform the U.S. foreign trade and investment policies. Forgotten is the role that our outmoded trade policies, and their failure to share their benefits more widely, play in fueling economic decline.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Warning about ‘specter’ of protectionism

Under today’s global financial crisis, developing nations can gain more influence in economic globalization if they handle their present opportunity right. So says Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard, in his lead commentary as moderator of the economic development and the global crisis debate launched last month by

In opening a debate on the interests and priorities of developing nations, Rodrik offers the following advice in the context of the U.S. situation, where trade policy is “under severe pressure to provided some redress” for globalization’s adverse impact on workers.

“It will not do much for good for developing nations to raise the specter of protectionism each time such concerns are voiced. The political and economic reality demands a more nuanced and cooperative approach. They should say no to trade protectionism straight and simple.

“But they should be willing to negotiate with advanced nations on avoiding regulatory races to the bottom in such areas as labor standards or tax competition. This is in their long-term self interest. Without buy-in from the middle classes of advanced nations, it will be very difficult to maintain a global trade regime as open as the one we have had in recent years.”

A sound message, but not only for the developing world. When will pundits in the rich world start getting it?

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