Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tooting my own horn: 14 years of Human Rights for Workers

I have no idea how many people read this Weblog, Human Rights for Workers, but I get enough positive reactions to energize me to go on. In the past few weeks, I received heartening emails from three people:

“Thank you for your tireless crusade to promote human rights for workers.” – G. Rajasekaran, secretary general, Malaysian Trades Union Congress, Subang Jaya, Malaysia, January 31.

“Always a pleasure to read you.” -- Marie-Claude Hessler, human rights activist, retired lawyer, Paris, February 11.

“Happy New Year and thanks for your admirable persistence in reminding us of some inconvenient truths.” – John Langan, S.J., professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, January 2.
Each letter commented on a specific article. Father Langan, for example, had this to say about my posting titled ‘Economic suicide is not an option’: “This one-pager is, I think, exceptionally clear and helpful.”

Why am I basking in such shameless self-promotion today?

Blame it on my mood, which became exuberant when the sun broke through after days of blizzards. Or maybe I just couldn’t think of another way to introduce some news: Human Rights for Workers is now 14 years old, 14 years under the same one-person staff.

I launched HRFW on February 14, 1996, a cyberspace pioneer devoted to the question: “What’s happening to working men and women in this era of globalization?” After mutating into a Weblog with the same name two years ago, it still focuses on that basic question. So do many other sites and blogs now, each in its own way. There’s so much company that it’s impossible to keep up with it all.

Why don’t I, at long last, go into full retirement, and leave the field to all those newer and better staffed endeavors? There's one problem, if I did that. What on earth would I do for enjoyment?

We’ll have a party when HRFW turns l5. I’ll send you plenty advance notice.

Print Page Read more!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

“Race-neutral” policies are not necessarily neutral

For the first time since he took office, President Obama met at the White House with a group of black civil rights leaders February 10. The meeting followed by a day a New York Times story headlined “Frustration at Obama’s Nuancd Style on Race.”

After the hour-long meeting, one participant, Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, told New York Times reporter Helene Cooper: “In these times, it didn’t make sense to talk about race-based initiatives.”

Ms. Cooper reported that “as he did today, Mr. Obama has said that broader efforts to help the disadvantaged will also benefit blacks.” (She did not quote the President directly.)

In other words, the administration’s policy is “race neutral.” It’s a policy with some appeal. For the first black U.S. president, it deflects the charge that his very origins will cause him to favor persons of his own race.

But how neutral is neutrality on race?

Mr. Obama would be wise to read a book, “More Than Just Race,” by William Julius Wilson, a professor at the University of Chicago. Mr. Wilson, who is black, used to believe that public policy should always be color blind. His book explains why he no longer thinks so.

Take the implact of globalization, or “complex global economic transformation,” as Mr. Wilson calls it. Economic and political leaders did not make a decision to shape globalization so that, by the massive shift of manufacturing jobs abroad and other means, it would discriminate against many black Americans. But that indeed was and is one of its effects. Mr. Wilson documents the unintended racial consequences in detail. My summary does not do justice to the reality.

At the bottom end of the pay and skill scales, globalization’s increased demand for workers should have been a boon for inner-city blacks, who generally rank low in job skills. However, the urban manufacturing industries that once provided equal job opportunities by the millions have largely moved abroad, thanks to the combination of U.S. free trade and investment policies and the foreign attractions of low wages and weak labor protection laws weakly enforced.

Meanwhile, at the top end of the last century’s expanded U.S. labor market, many better-educated blacks landed good paying suburban jobs, as managers and professionals, for example, thanks to a decline in employment discrimination, They and their kin joined the general exodus of American urbanites into the suburbs.

The blacks who were left behind thereby became more concentrated than ever before in poor communities, more isolated from the rest of America, more embittered by their plight. Black women, who have traditionally held jobs in service industries, were more fortunate. Most service industries can’t escape to other countries.

“The economic predicament of low-skilled black men in the inner city has reached catastrophic proportions,” Mr. Wilson wrote a year ago. Their plight has not diminished since then. It needs to become a priority in the Obama administration.

Print Page Read more!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In fashion or not, students still campaign against sweatshops

The signs are everywhere, says Newsweek, that “the age of global human-rights advocacy” is over. Everywhere? Certainly not in the ranks of the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and its chapters in some 250 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

USAS, whose worker-rights advocacy reaches all across the world, is bringing together hundreds of student activists at a national conference at the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville over the February 19-21 weekend. Among other things, they will celebrate a major victory for garment workers in Honduras.

“We are impressed by the social consciences of students in the United States,” a Honduran union president said after a 10-month nation-wide campaign in the United States ended in victory last month. Workers from Honduras will be at the University of Knoxville campus to describe how, against overwhelming odds, the student campaign caused Russell Athletic, a leading sportswear company, to reverse its anti-union position.

The final key to victory was the action of nearly 100 colleges and universities canceling or suspending licensing deals under which Russell Athletic makes clothing and sports equipment with colleges’ names and logos. The company’s decision came after a wide-ranging of USAS campaign that included picketing NBA finals at Orlando and Los Angeles, distributing flyers in retail outlets, and sending Twitter messages urging customers to boycott Russell products.

In the settlement, Russell agreed not only to reinstate 1,200 discharged workers but also to work with unions at its Honduran factories, eight in all. Russell’s reversal is a “giant breakthrough for labor rights in the region,” says Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, USAS partner, which monitors compliance with standards adopted by dozens of colleges and universities.

As a writer and supporter of USAS since its very beginning, I am especially impressed by two things about this movement:

1. Despite the built-in annual turnover of members and leaders, USAS is pursuing the cause of worker rights with unremitting dedication.
2. It is struggling for the rights not of its own student members but of others -- workers, mostly women, whom they do not know personally and will never get to know. With a few exceptions.

Among the foreign guests at Knoxville, weather permitting, will be a delegation of unionists from Honduras. They will report on the succces of a coordinated effort and the work of repeating it throughout Central America.

(For an article of mine,"Freshmen Are Teaching Elders Lessons in Global Ethics," click on

Print Page Read more!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

AFL-CIO offers a “just” trade policy for the 21st century

“We cannot afford another trade agreement that privileges substandard new opportunity for investors over good jobs for workers,” the AFL-CIO says in testimony for the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).

In the 34-page document the AFL-CIO presents its views on crucial elements of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement (TPPTA), and says it is looking forward “to working with the Obama Administration to create a just trade policy for the 21st century.”

U.S. negotiations are set to begin in mid-March with TPPTA, involving at least seven Asia-Pacific governments. The United States already has bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with four of them: Australia, Chile, Peru, and Singapore.

A remarkable feature of the AFL-CIO position is that it deals with far more than strictly trade union issues, narrowly defined. For example, among “new issues for consideration,” it lists “valuation of currency” as an important trade union issue now ignored by existing agreements. “The U.S. cannot effectively export to countries that intervene systematically to keep their currency artificially low in relation to the dollar, as China, in particular, is doing.”

Only seven pages of the submission to USTR are devoted to improving the labor chapters of existing agreements. By contrast, the paper has 17 pages of non-labor chapters on issues that need to be improved. Among the most important are those that would fall in chapters on:

This seven-page section emphasizes that foreign investors in the U.S. can now “claim rights above and beyond those that our domestic investors enjoy,” and that this broad definition of investment should be narrowed to cover “only the kinds of property now protected by the U.S. constitution,” thereby excluding claims for losses from expected profits not met, for example.

Another examples of a recommended change in the investment template: a hostgovernment will be permitted to ensure that investment activity is conducted in a way sensitive to environmental and labor rights.

A government will have the right “to require a supplier to comply with generally applicable laws regarding fundamental principles and rights at work.”

Intellectual property.
“Our FTAs have provided excessive protection for the producers of brand-name pharmaceuticals,” thereby jeopardizing access to affordable medicines, particularly to developing countries.

Consumer protection.
Both our domestic and trade policies must be crafted to prevent dangerous consumer and industrial goods from reaching our shores. Safety inspectors should get enhanced rights to inspect the facilities of a country exporting toxic products.

(The full text of the AFL-CIO submission is available at
Scroll down to USTR2009-0041-0100.)

Print Page Read more!