Thursday, June 30, 2011

China’s Labor Organization is ‘evolving,’ says Han Dongfang

Han Dongfang, director of the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong, used to think that the official labor organization in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), was so much a part of the Communist Party apparatus that it could never become a union. Now he’s changed his mind.

He expressed his new view publicly in a June 26 commentary published in a leading UK newspaper, The Guardian, and in his own Bulletin.

“Workers are angry,” Han writes, pointing to the wave of strikes last year and a recent riot in Guangdong province. Such activism has forced the ACFTU to review its own role and begin to “look for ways to become an organization that really does represent worker interests.”

Han cites some signs that the ACFTU is already moving in that direction. In March, for example, the union at an auto plant in southern China negotiated a 30%-plus pay increase; a year earlier workers striking for higher pay were beaten up.

But the same old ACFTU lives on, subject as always to the Communist Party, Han acknowledges. But “in today’s market economy [the Party] has to be flexible….If the ACFTU can show it can better serve the Party’s interests (ensuring economic growth and social stability) by standing up for the rights and interests of workers, the Party will certainly take note.”

Han’s commentary is, to a large extent, devoted to arguing that Western trade unions take note. He urges them to intensify contacts with the ACFTU. “Their wealth of experience in genuine collective bargaining can help the ACFTU better serve its members and eventually become a real trade union.”

Although he is exiled in Hong Kong, Han’s phone access to people throughout China keeps him well informed on the political mood in various circles there. Still, his changed perspective on the ACFTU and its evolution may be more a reflection of his hopes than of the grim political realities in China. Read more!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Add ‘land grabbing’ to global human rights issues

Land grabbing, a hectic part of U.S. westward movement in the 19th century, is now playing a destructive role in globalization.

On June 7, the Oakland Institute, a think tank based in the California city of that name, released a report concentrating on land grabbing in Africa. In at least six African countries, hedge funds and other foreign speculators have, in 2009 alone, acquired land equal to the size of France.

Besides displacing millions of small farmers and often devastating the environment, “these land grant agreements lead only to dollars in the pockets of corrupt leaders and foreign investors,” the institute report said. But the repercussions are not just local, the institute emphasized:

“The same financial firms that drove us into a global recession by inflating the real estate bubble through risky financial maneuvers are now doing the same with the world’s food supply.”

Later in June, Grassroots International, a Boston-based human rights advocacy group, and nearly 500 other organizations around the world jointly circulated an appeal calling upon governments “to immediately cease all massive land grabs and return the plundered land to communities.” The document, called the “Dakar Appeal Against Land Grabbing,” was originally drafted at the World Social Forum held in Dakar in February 2011.

“The massive acquisition of agricultural land by transnational companies…,” the Appeal states, “has multiplied farmer evictions and reduced the capacity of many African, Asian, and Latin American countries and communities to feed themselves.”

‘Reversing land reform’

In a paper prepared for the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation conference in Rome this April, Father François Houtart, a noted Belgian sociologist, outlined various crises afflicting the globe. Here is an excerpt from his analysis of the crisis in agriculture.

Over the last few years there has been an expansion of monoculture, resulting in the concentration of land-holdings – in other words, a veritable reversal of land reform. Peasant and family agriculture is being destroyed all over the world on the pretext of its low productivity. It is true that monoculture can produce from 500 and even 1,000 times more than peasant agriculture in its present state. Nevertheless, two factors should be taken into account.

-- First, this kind of production is leading to ecological destruction. It eliminates forests, and contaminates the soil and the waters of oceans and rivers through the massive use of chemical products. Over the next 50 to 75 years we shall be creating the deserts of tomorrow.

-- Second, peasants are being thrown off their lands, and millions of them have to migrate to the cities, to live in shanty towns, causing urban crises and increasing internal migratory pressure, as in Brazil; or they are going abroad, as in many other countries in the world.

Together with public services, agriculture is now one of the new frontiers for capital, especially in times when the profitability of productive industrial capital is relatively reduced and there is a considerable expansion of financial capital seeking sources of profit.

Recently we have witnessed an unprecedented phenomenon: the land grabbing by private and State capital, particularly in Africa, for the production of food and agrofuels. The South Korean corporation Daewoo obtained a concession of 1,200,000 hectares in Madagascar for a period of 99 years, which provoked a serious political crisis in that country. Countries like Libya and the Gulf Emirates are doing likewise in Mali and various other African countries. European and North American mining and agro-energy multinationals are securing the opportunity to exploit tens of millions of hectares for long periods, as Chinese State and private enterprises are also doing.

There is very little concern for the ecological and social implications, which are considered as ‘externalities’, i.e. external to market calculations. And this is the second aspect of capitalist logic, after the rate of profitability. It is not capital that is having to deal with the negative effects, but local societies and individuals. This has always been the strategy of capital, even in the countries of the center, with no concern for the fate of the working classes, or for the peoples in the peripheries under colonialism. There is no concern, either, for nature and the way of life of local populations. Read more!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Staggering decline in workers’ share of U.S. national income in 20 years

Under the title of Human Rights for Workers, my blog lists its major theme: “How our global economy undervalues work and working people.” Now I have firm statistical proof how scandalously the United States, the major force in the global economy, has been undervaluing its own working men and women over the past 20 years.

An AFL-CIO blog headline June 14 on how the workers’ share “nosedives into the lower depths” caught my eye. So did an accompanying chart illustrating the trend in a striking way. I was particularly anxious to get a clearer chart.

By searching three or four hours, I finally found the original chart on the Website of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Here it is:

The AFL-CIO blog discovered the chart at another blog, Talking Point Memo, and commented that TPM’s analysis “pretty much says it all.” For example:

Workers tend to bear the brunt of the American economy's boom and bust cycles. When recessions hit and unemployment rises, workers' share of the national income -- the money people earn through wages and salaries, as opposed to corporate profits and capital gains -- tends to decline. And when the economy recovers, workers' portion of the country's income rebounds to somewhere around its level prior to the recession.

At least that's how it went in the 20th century. But since the recession of the early 2000s, we've seen the decline without the recovery -- even after the recession ended, workers' portion of national income continued to drop consistently, declining up to and through the recession of the late Bush and early Obama years. Which raises the question: Has the economy changed in a fundamental way that will prevent workers from enjoying the benefits of the current incipient recovery?
Missing from that analysis, in the AFL-CIO view, was “that CEO pay has skyrocketed --with CEO’s of the largest companies receiving, on average, $11.4 million in total compensation in 2010.”

The St. Louis FRB article where I found the original chart had no direct analysis on it. None that I can remember. I couldn’t find the article again. I gave up quickly, after only two or three minutes.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Children's rights on global agenda

Children form about one-third of the world’s population, so it’s about time that their rights get the concerted attention of global agencies, public and private. A significant sign of the new focus is the on-line portal on “Business and Children” launched on June 14 by the non-profit Business & Human Rights Resource Center.

Broad in its perspective, the new portal covers issues such as child labor, parental leave, education, and sexual exploitation; its publisher, the Center, is an active participant in human rights initiatives of other global institutions.

Currently, the Center participates in an important UN Human Rights Council initiative: developing a set of principles to guide companies on the full range of actions they may take in the workplace, marketplace, and community to respect and support children’s rights. A few weeks ago, UNICEF and two other agencies invited businesses and civil societies to join on-line consultations to shape those principles, with the goal of promulgating them in November.

Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization (ILO), a pioneer in the struggle against child labor, was agitating for activities across the globe to mark the World Day against Child Labor Day, June 12. Also, in a new report, it warned that “a staggeringly high number of children” – estimated at 115,000,000 – are involved in hazardous work, with adolescents suffering injury rates akin to those of adults.

That information added to the reasons for the June session of the International Labor Conference to adopt a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, the first to set global standards for domestic workers, about a third of whom are children. The proposed convention is scheduled for discussion and (probable) adoption on June 16.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bush era tax cuts costing trillions

Wall Street had reason to set off fireworks on Monday, June 6, but didn’t. Celebrations might have called unwanted attention to that day as the 10th anniversary of the massive Bush era tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the wealthy.

To mark the occasion, the Economic Policy Institute issued an anti-celebratory memo on the 10 ways that the Bush tax cuts were – and still are – “expensive, ineffective, and unfair.” Some of the telling points that the memo documents about the Bush tax cuts:

--They were much more expensive than avertised.
--They were so expensive that they added trillions to the national debt.
--They continue to be expensive (financing the national debt will cost nearly $50 billion alone).
--They will be more so unless allowed to expire.

For details see the EPI paper by Andrew Fieldhouse and Ethan Pollack: Read more!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Silencing VOA: why should U.S. aid China's censors?

Ann Noonan, president of the Visual Artists Guild’s New York chapter, gave a speech at the New York City June 4th Tiananmen Square Commemoration held at the UN's Dag Hammarskjold Park. Here is an edited version of her remarks.

Young people throughout the world, like the young people who risked their lives 22 years ago in Tiananmen Square, are risking their lives today for basic human rights, freedom, and the right to participate in governing themselves. They look to the United States for inspiration. Their stories deserved to be shared.

Voice of America (VOA) operates under a Congressional mandate to provide news broadcasts that promote freedom and democracy from the United States to the world. Yet in its budget request for the next fiscal year, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA, proposes to end its radio and television broadcasts to China. This is not part of a budget cut, but rather a reallocation away from Cantonese and Mandarin language services in a budget that is actually higher than last year’s.

Today as we commemorate the 22nd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, a day in history when the world watched students in China who sought freedom be cut down, killed, jailed and exiled, I’d like to ask each of you to contact Members of Congress about plans that will censor Voice of America’s Chinese services as of October 1st.

This campaign against VOA is insidious. It comes during China’s suppression of stories on dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. It comes during a media crackdown in China against any stories about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and other prisoners of conscience. It comes during a time when China’s media has blocked news about uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

Why should a nation as large and vast as China, which already has to endure an oppressive Internet censorship, be made to suffer from U.S. bureaucratic changes that will hide the struggles of the young people in China who seek religious freedom and democracy?

Our Members of Congress need to reject the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ proposal to eliminate VOA’s Chinese language services. We must maintain Voice of America’s broadcasts and continue to transmit our ideals of freedom.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

Does a union make a mine safer? You bet your life it does

Miners in unionized coal mines are far less likely to be killed or injured on the job than miners in nonunion operations. That’s the conclusion of a new study conducted by Stanford University law professor Alison D. Morantz and funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Unionization predicts an 18 to 44 percent drop in traumatic injuries and a 27 to 68 percent drop in fatalities,” Professor Morantz writes in his May 19 paper titled “Coal Mine Safety: Do Unions Make a Difference?”

The study used a comprehensive database and updated methodology to examine the relationship between unionization and underground, bituminous coal mine safety from 1993 to 2008.

“Miners have long known there is a union ‘safety effect,’ as the study calls it,” Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, said. “Working in a union-represented mine, with the backing of our Local Union safety committees and our International Union safety experts, makes a huge difference.”

Tragedies have happened at UMWA represented mines, most recently nearly ten years ago, in Brookland, Ala., Roberts pointed out. “We in the UMWA learned hard lessons, in that tragedy and others that preceded it. We took steps to provide better protection for our members, and this study shows that those steps are working.”

Morantz’ 35-page paper is available from the Social Science Research Network at

Full disclosure: In solidarity with the world’s miners, I’ve joined the United Mineworkers of America as an associate member.

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Business, labor embrace UN human rights program

In time for the UN Human Rights Council meeting in June, the world’s leaving union and business organizations have given their endorsements to UN guiding principles for universalizing human rights in the global marketplace.

The guiding principles are the fruition of six years of work by Professor John Ruggie as Special Representative to the UN Secretary General on business and human rights. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) praised the result in a letter May 27 from Sharon Burrow, general secretary. Three business groups – the International Organization of Employers, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the OECD Business and Industry Advisory Committee – expressed their approval in a joint statement on May 30.

All the organizations renewed praise for the Ruggie-devised Framework that the Council adopted two years ago. Ms. Burrow wrote: “An early effect of the powerful set of ideas in the Framework is the recently adopted revision Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.”

“The powerful set of ideas” didn’t look so powerful a few years ago. In their original, mandatory form, they were almost buried in 2004. Its supporters, including me, assumed that countries would, on the international level, adopt measures they wouldn’t consider on the national level.

Ruggie went to work discovering – and shaping – what those countries were ready for. He did so by consulting not just governments but a wide range of stakeholders, including business. For one example of a recent meeting with business, see the issue of this blog dated March 4, 2010, at
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