(Some Thoughts for a Labor Day Weekend)
In his poem about the prophet, Isaiah, Leonard Cohen underscores a reality that I think is important for us to bear in mind as we celebrate this Labor Day weekend. The illusion of prosperity is just that—an imagined, but false, sense of security that exists only to comfort the privileged, to help them feel safe, even as they ignore the forces of time and culture that will destroy the very foundations of their well-being.
The real wealth—the real chance for us to fulfill our social and individual potentials—can come only when we have learned to look into the faces of one another and see our common humanity.
As happens in any privileged society, we find ourselves both blessed and cursed. Blessed with the gifts of our privilege; cursed with the one aspect of that privilege that can undo us—our ability to ignore the plight of those who do not share the advantages we enjoy. It’s not that we feel right about forgetting them. It’s just that our culture is structured to make them invisible. We must work to see them.
But the evidence of their existence is there, and if we try to keep our senses open to it, we can find these people whose labor continues to provide us comfort.
Here’s one case in point:
I saw an umbrella in a dollar store a couple of months ago, so I bought a half dozen, knowing I’d eventually lose or misplace them—something that happens usually long before they break. I’m going to set this aside for the moment, because before I can talk to you today about inexpensive rain-gear, I need to discuss a couple of seemly unrelated topics beforehand.
The first is an aluminum can. Well, not exactly any particular can, but aluminum cans in general, especially those once held in the hands of a friend of a friend named Emmitt. It seems that whenever Emmitt drove and indulged himself in one form of liquid refreshment or another, he’d simply toss the empty can out of the window. Once, when my friend witnessed this and criticized Emmitt for it, Emmitt replied that there was no harm done because there were people in this world who made money by collecting cans and turning them in for the bounty on scrap aluminum. He apparently said it with a straight face, sincerely believing in his rationalization. Philanthropy a` la Emmitt. Instant, self-indulgent gratification, even as economic opportunities for others were being created at the same time. American ingenuity at work.
Late on Saturday afternoon on March 25th, 1911, another form of American ingenuity was manifesting itself at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, operating at full capacity even as the closing hours approached. Hundreds of young women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, labored over their sewing machines in cavernous, dimly lit rooms crowded with thousands of pounds of fabric piled dangerously close to unprotected wiring. Lint dust filled the air. Only one set of doors remained unlocked—ostensibly to discourage theft. But the workers understood implicitly that the real reason was to ensure the women would stay glued to their machines until dismissed from their shifts. There would be no chance for fraternization with co-workers nor would there ever be an opportunity for them to gather to voice their mutual complaints or to allow union organizers to talk to them.
Shortly after 4:30, someone noticed smoke coming from a pile of scrap material, but the women were ordered to continue working. Within minutes the fire had spread with a rapidity that surprised even the supervisors. Workers attempted to flee but the only accessible stairwell had already been engulfed in flames.
A reporter named Bill Shepherd witnessed the blaze. This is what he wrote:
“I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound –a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.
“Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Sixty-two! The sound and the thought of death came to me, each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down; the height was 80 feet.
"As I reached the scene of the fire a mushroom of smoke hung over the 10-story building.
“I looked up to the seventh floor. There was a living picture in each window—four screaming girls, waving their arms. One girl climbed onto a window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn't notice whether those above watched her drop. I turned away. Then came that first thud-dead impression.
“I looked up. Another girl was climbing onto the window sill. Others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall and heard the sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill. They were fighting and crowding each other for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell, almost together. But I heard two distinct thuds.
“Suddenly the flames broke out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces. The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out life nets. While they were rushing to the sidewalk with them two more girls shot down. The firemen held the net under the bodies. The two bodies broke it...Before they could move the net another girl's body flashed into it.
“The thuds were just as loud, it seemed, as if there had been no net there. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city, like dull explosion roars.
“The firemen raised their ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the windows.
By now the crowd was large, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes-the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths. I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what followed.
“Girls were burning to death before our eyes. There were jams in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came bodies in a shower, burning, smoking, lighted bodies, with the disheveled hair of the girls trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.
“There were 33 in that shower…On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. I saw a policeman later going about with tags, which he fastened with a wire to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each of them with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag No. 54 onto the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring.
“A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me there were at least 50 bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls.
“And there I saw the first fire escape I had seen. It was narrow. The fireman told me that many girls had gone down it and that others had fallen from it in the rush. But on the two fronts of the building there were no fire escapes.
“These girls were all shirtwaist makers…I remembered their great strike of last year, in which these girls demanded more sanitary workrooms, and MORE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS in the shops. These dead bodies told the result.”
The owners of the company were tried and acquitted of manslaughter charges for the 146 people that perished in that tragedy, but three years later, when the families of 23 of the victims sued, they settled out of court for the sum of $75 each. At the time of the fire, the public expressed anger over the working conditions that led to the tragedy, but, in spite of the outcry, a popular argument persisted that the shop owners had a right to resist government safety regulations as an unreasonable intrusion on the company’s ability to be competitive. All the same, this event crystallized support for efforts to organize workers in New York’s garment district, and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was born.
I apologize for sharing such graphic details about a horrific incident on this otherwise fine Labor Day morning. But I think that it is important for all of us to remember that if labor is deserving of a day of celebration, then we owe it to ourselves, as working people, to learn about and honor the struggle of those who made our prosperity possible. After all, sweatshops in the United States are a thing of the past—a peculiar, if horrifying moment in our history—akin to slavery, and just as dead. Oh, sure, small pockets of exploitation are occasionally uncovered from time to time. Asian and Latino workers in the garment and agricultural industries are, from time to time, taken advantage of. But this is rare, and whenever abuses come to light, they are quickly eliminated. America has developed a zero tolerance policy in matters involving labor exploitation.
Oh, I’m sorry. Wrong holiday. I forgot that this isn’t April 1st, and maybe the picture isn’t as rosy as we all wish it was. Unfortunately, sweatshop conditions in this country are still pervasive. But they are also relatively invisible—perhaps because the people who labor to produce cheap goods and services for us are, themselves, largely invisible.
For example—the story of the Triangle Factory Fire is fairly well known to a lot of people these days. After all, there was a TV movie made about it several few years ago—but I wonder how many Americans have ever heard of the Kader Industrial Company?
In his book, One World, Ready or Not, the Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, William Greider describes the worst industrial fire in the history of capitalism It occurred only ten years ago on May 10th, 1993 in a toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand.
In Greider’s words: “The fire started late on a Monday afternoon on the ground floor…and spread rapidly upward, jumping to two adjoining buildings, all three of which rapidly collapsed. Investigators noted afterwards that the structures had been cheaply built…so steel girders and stairways crumpled easily in the heat…Main doors were locked, and many windows barred to prevent pilfering by the employees. Flammable raw materials—fabric, stuffing, animal fibers—were stacked everywhere, on walkways next to electrical boxes. Neither safety drills nor fire alarms and sprinkler systems had been provided.”
Greider’s description of the fire is an eerie echo of Bill Shepherd’s eye-witness account of the Triangle Factory blaze. Survivors of the Kader Company incident gave descriptions that were even more evocative. Let me share the words of just two of them with you. A young woman named Lampan Taptim said, “There was the sound of yelling about a fire. I tried to leave the section but my supervisor told me to get back to work. My sister who worked on the fourth floor with me pulled me away and insisted we try to get out. We tried to go down the stairs and got to the second floor; we found that the stairs had already caved in. There was a lot of yelling and confusion…In desperation, I went back up to the windows and went back and forth, looking down below. The smoke was thick, and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped, too. She died.”
Another woman, Cheng, described her experience: “There is no way out, the security guard has locked the main door out! It was horrifying. I thought I would die. I took off my gold ring and kept it in my pocket and put on my name tag so that my body could be identifiable. I had to decide to die in the fire or from jumping down from three stories’ height.”
As the walls collapsed around her, Cheng clung to a pipe and fell downward with it, landing on a pile of dead bodies, injured but alive.
The official count in the Kader fire was 188 dead, 469 injured, but the actual toll was undoubtedly higher as many bodies were incinerated so that some of the missing were never found. This tragedy far surpassed the Triangle Factory fire but was barely mentioned in the world press and was practically non-existent in US papers or broadcast news reports. Somehow, nobody deemed it important enough to call it to the attention of the American public.
But, as Greider notes, “The Kader fire might have been more meaningful to Americans if they could have seen the thousands of soot-stained dolls that spilled from the wreckage, macabre litter scattered among the dead. Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson and the Muppets, Big Bird and other Sesame Street dolls. Playskool Water Pets and Santa Claus. What the initial news accounts did not mention was that Kader’s Thai factory produced most of its toys for American companies—Toys R Us, Fischer-Price, Hasbro, Tyco, Arco, Kenner, Gund, and J.C. Penny.
The irony was not lost on Greider. As he stated after interviewing witnesses to the blaze: “Globalized civilization seems to have uncovered an odd parochialism in the American character: Americans worry obsessively over the everyday safety of their children, and the US government’s regulators diligently police the design of toys to avoid injury to young innocents. Yet neither citizens or government seem to take any interest in the brutal and dangerous conditions imposed on the people who manufacture these same toys, many of whom are adolescent children themselves.
Nor is the Kader fire an isolated incident. It is simply, to date, the biggest. But hundreds of other workers all over Asia have also died in factory fires—in fact, continue to perish in them regularly. Countless others develop permanent debilitating illnesses and suffer premature deaths because of the unhealthy work environments they’re forced to endure in order to eke out a meager subsistence living.
The problem is global. In Saipan, an island captured from the Japanese during WWII and now an American protectorate, thousands of workers imported from the mainland labor for slave wages in factories that would be shut down in an instant in this country. The workers, whose passports are confiscated so they cannot easily leave—even if they had someplace else to go after finding the promises that were made to lure them there have turned out to be deceptions—are housed in cramped barracks reminiscent of inner-city tenements. Overworked and underpaid, they are summarily dismissed when their health fails. In the meantime, they produce clothing and other products for US companies like Levi Strauss, Calvin Klein, Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Nordstrom. The made in the USA label on much of this clothing reflects only the technical reality of Saipan’s territorial status.
In Central and South American “Free-Trade Zones’, known as maquiladoras or maquis, workers, usually young women, routinely work sixteen to twenty-hour shifts for wages that can’t begin to support them or their families. An add that
appeared a garment industry trade magazine promised that you could hire a pictured woman for 58 cents an hour. The following year the same ad appeared with only one change. You could now hire the same employee for only 33 cents an hour. A twenty-five cent per hour savings over the previous year, excellent road and sea transportation available, and no pesky labor unions to file complaints when the workers were forced into double-shifts with no overtime pay. Nor would there be any official interference with the practice of making these women take mass-prescribed birth-control pills or with the forced inducement of drugs to make them abort when they become pregnant.
It’s not as if Gitano’s, the Gap, Guess Jeans, or dozens of other American corporations approve of these practices—at least not officially. They simply contract with management companies from other countries to ensure that production quotas are met. This allows them to claim they are blameless for mistreatment of workers. Spokespeople for these industries are quick to point out how difficult it is to monitor abuses, and they insist that wages simply reflect the reality of the marketplace. And yet, for women like Rosa Martinez, the aforementioned woman, a four-fold increase in pay would not raise the price of a $20 shirt sold in the US by even half a dollar.
But why should we care, you and I? I mean, apart from that whole Jiminy Cricket, nagging conscience thing that makes most of us squirm in discomfort during those rare moments when we even bother to think about the problem.
Well, I think the reason we should be concerned is bound up with this umbrella I spoke about earlier. To explain what I mean, I need to remind you about the basic premise of capitalism which is the law of supply and demand. When a commodity is scarce, and demand is high, so is the price. But when supply increases to meet demand, especially as competitors enter the market, prices go down. They will continue to drop as businesses apply more and more cost-cutting methods to the production process in order to attract a bigger share of the market before it becomes saturated. When it does, the companies stuck with large inventories are forced to sell it off at below-cost prices and either go out of business or find a new product line to develop. Obviously, some workers are going to be winners, others will lose their jobs. It’s unfortunate, but at least there’s good news for us consumers, right? I mean, we get to buy this umbrella for a dollar, and when it’s raining, that’s all we need to know. After all, it wasn’t our jobs making five-dollar umbrellas that got lost when we choose to buy the cheaper ones. We’re just as dry as we’d be if we spent more money.
And for a dollar, it doesn’t even matter whether or not it actually rains. I was told by the clerk when I bought it that a lot of people take these to King’s Island or Cedar Point and that they throw them away at the end of the day, whether they are used.
This may seem a wasteful practice—one that fails even to provide a secondary employment opportunity for recyclers—the way Emmitt’s casually-tossed beer cans do—but it does have the advantage of insuring that somebody, somewhere, has job security making more of them.
Of course, such a cavalier philosophy presupposes a lot of things, not the least of which is that we can afford to indulge ourselves in pointless waste with no regard to the eco damage we inflict during the process of garnering raw materials, turning them into finished products, and dumping them into ever-growing mountains of non-recyclable trash.
But even without environmental considerations, the impact on global labor economics suggested by the very existence of these umbrellas should give us, as American workers, much more reason for concern than we’ve been hitherto exhibiting. The cold, hard fact of the matter is this: World-wide production of everything is at an all-time high and surpluses are growing faster than ever. Cars, pharmaceuticals, apparel—umberellas—are all being over-produced while the scramble for markets is rapidly reaching a crisis point. It is a house of cards—a humongous Ponzi scheme—that has, for the past several decades, been propped up by the United States through its absorption of staggering trade deficits. Year after year, we import far more than we export. We have become the market of last resort for the rest of the world, a vortex of consumption that allows the economies of other nations—and therefore our own—to survive. Optimistic economists think we may be able to continue in this role for another fifteen to twenty years. Maybe even thirty. Maybe. Then the walls come ‘a tumblin’ down, so to speak, if the world hasn’t figured out a better way to do business. So far it hasn’t shown the inclination to do so.
So, as we wait for the hammer to fall, multi-nationals corporations continue to compete with each other by continuously lowering their break-even points in order to make their products more and more inexpensive. Innovations in technology allow a certain amount of price reduction to be obtained through new manufacturing processes, but ultimately, the really big savings has come—and will continue to come—through reductions in labor costs. And the probable impact of robotization on the work force will only exacerbate the likelihood that meaningful employment opportunities will remain available for a major portion of our national workforce.
With the advent of massive international trade partnerships—something absolutely necessary to keep America on the winning economic side of prosperity—manufacturing jobs have left this country in record numbers. The sad fact of the matter is that they will never return. Not when you can hire Rosa Martinez for 33 cents an hour or her counterpart in Vietnam for 11 cents. And history has shown us that imposing tariffs is ultimately an invitation to greater economic hardships for the average consumer. Remember when Ross Perot predicted the giant sucking sound of American jobs rushing into Mexico? Well, it happened, and now Mexico is hearing that same sound as the jobs pour steadily into Asia.
It was obvious to anyone who was watching the process as it occurred that this was the inevitable outcome, but the Reagan-Bush administrations were determined to make it happen, and Clinton finished the job for them. A truly bi-partisan effort at kissing the rings of the multi-national powerbrokers.
Not that the ideal behind globalization isn’t valid. The plan to raise the wages and living conditions of other nations and make it possible for them to enjoy some of the economic prosperity that Americans have been indulging in for over a century would cost our citizens very little—maybe some wage flattening, but with no real harm to lifestyle—and in exchange, we live in a more productive, safer, and healthier world as standards of living rose everywhere.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. Yes, the United States gained some trade-offs under NAFTA and other agreements, but according to a UN report issued just a short time ago, half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. The globalization of trade has proven to be a disaster for labor, but how could it have been otherwise when no environmental or worker-safety regulations were ever mandated by these treaties? And thanks to the establishment of the World Trade Organization—replete with its secret tribunals for determining whether a nation is accountable for interfering with the profit-potential of a multi-national—local control over worker safety and environmental conditions is rapidly becoming non-existent.
The simple fact is this: The people who were pushing then and who are pushing now for fast-track powers and expanded free-trade zones have little or no concern for anything that might curtail the growing power of multi-national corporations. Inexorably, governments are devolving into tools used primarily for the enforcement of board-room policies, and the roll-back of environmental standards and the granting of huge corporate tax-cuts with no expectation of a responsible quid pro quo for labor, only serve to steadily shrink the middle classes.
The explanation given to the American worker as to why they should be happy that this is happening is two-fold. First, though it’s true that a certain number of production jobs are being lost, rapid advancements in technology are going to create ever-increasing opportunities for trained employees. Education is the key to a financially-rewarding future. And second, by opening markets in places like China—with over a billion potential customers, there will be enough work to go around for decades to come.
The flaw in the first premise is quite evident, though a lot of people still haven’t begun to grasp its full meaning yet. The whole point of applying advanced technologies to the manufacturing process is to reduce the number of labor-hours needed to make a finished product. Thus, more jobs will be eliminated. In addition, the more people who train to become proficient in these technological fields, the more suppressed wages will become as the supply of workers exceeds the demand for them. This is a problem world-wide, by the way. India is just loaded with competent engineers who are willing to work for a fraction of what American engineers can afford to. The only thing that has so far protected out internal economy from being flooded with this cheaper labor has been the quotas set by our State Department.
The idea of selling some of the things we do still manufacture (like airplanes) to other countries (like China) likewise comes with serious strings attached as more and more nations begin to put conditions on their imports: “We’ll buy your aircraft,” they tell us, “but only if you let us manufacture some of the parts over here.”
Increasingly, our electronics, automobile, aircraft, and other industries are outsourcing their work in this manner. The result of this splintering of production capabilities works directly against labor. If a group of people in America wants better wages or working conditions, the company can threaten to shut down their plant and outsource the work out to Korea. When Korean workers demand living wages, the jobs go to Indonesia, and so forth, ’round and ’round the world.
The question naturally occurs: Won’t there come a point when labor demands will have to be met—if for no other reason than sooner or later companies are going to run out of places to run to? This, of course, supposes the possibility of organizing labor in some kind of international grass-roots effort on an impossibly huge and complex scale—something extremely unlikely to ever happen.
A more realistic scenario is likely to unfold over the next twenty to thirty years: China may very well successfully complete its industrial-technological transformation. This would create for them an upper-middle class of consumers of about two hundred million people. The numbers are staggering, and they could easily do it—if they manage to compete with the US for control of the consumption of most the earth’s resources without both nations making the planet unfit for human habitation in the process. The work force needed to sustain this monstrously large upper-class could easily come from 1.2 billion person labor force they would still have on hand.
The possibility of this scenario becoming reality should give us all a more realistic picture of why our leaders in Washington have been so desperate to gain control of Middle Eastern oil—and (alas for Iran) natural gas. Even if we don’t consume it ourselves (due to our use of fracking), we very much need to control which of our allies will have access to it. It is estimated that twenty years from now 2/3 of the world’s crude will be coming from the Persian Gulf. Whatever nation controls it, will, to a large extent, limits the economic growth of competitor countries.
So, its Labor Day weekend, and the prospects for America’s workers are not looking good. Yet, the situation is far from hopeless. The optimist part of my brain still reminds me that there are ways we can deal with this situation while we still have the power to do so. The power to extend privilege to those who are denied it rests with those who possess the privilege in the first place. We must act while the power of privilege is ours to use.
That said, I cannot stress strongly enough the need for our nation to implement federal laws to mandate that all business and industries pay a living wage based on formulas applicable to the specific regions from which their labor is drawn. To that end, health care must become universal and defined by a core single-payer structure with the right of individuals to seek independent care in private systems if they so desire. Regulation of vital services such as water, electricity, and the production and distribution of fossil fuels must be tightened, and profit margins of companies chartered to operate them should be much more stringently defined. Environmental safeguards, especially in the work place and in all regions affected by industrial production must be brought up to standards adequate to maintain a reasonable quality of human and other life, and all new industry must show the ability to meet those standards before commencing operation.
All of these principles must be made a part of any international trading agreements. It is not beyond us, nor is it economically unreasonable. The American labor economist, Richard Robinson, has proposed implement an international wage floor—a living wage that would not interrupt either early or advanced stages of industrialization, but would compel nations to raise the bottom levels of their work forces consistent with growth. Robinson argues that an international wage floor would restrain the relocation of capital and would reward nations that put a premium on education and technological improvement. It seems like a good place to start.
Of course, we really don’t have to do anything. We can go on just the way we are now, accepting the inevitable, because, for most of us, this problem will come to full fruition sometime after we’ve departed this world. Of course, our children and grandchildren will have to live with the consequences of our inaction, but that is a matter for each of our individual consciences.
Greider presents the problem this way: “The gut question for any new citizen of the world is: Do you believe that every human being has a potential thirst for self-realization and is entitled, in his or her own terms, to the opportunity? Or are those others really lesser beings, incapable of an expanding self-awareness and larger idea of themselves?”
I believe that our individual and collective answers to these questions will define the world’s future. For if we choose to indulge in the privilege of ignoring the plight of the subsistence worker—if we insist that classical laisse faire capitalism with its systems of unchecked competition and profit-driven calculation of human worth is really a superior form of government to representative democracy—then we might as well recognize and admit that we are the true spiritual heirs of Emmitt and his philosophy of philanthropic littering.
The message is sent and received: ou masses of the un- and under employed: We demand that you work cheaply for our comfort; to give us unlimited supplies of dollar umbrellas. We’ll be throwing them away soon enough, and your job making more for wages that fail to support you will be secured.”
Like Emmitt, we are privileged enough to allow ourselves to be generous with what we don’t value. But let’s be honest about something here: At least Emmitt was sufficiently embarrassed by his own bad behavior to invent a rationalization for his actions.
What will be our excuse for not standing up to the politicians who promote further globalization without insisting on corporate responsibility? Are we going to tell our kids that we were just making sure there would be some poverty-level jobs available for them when they started looking for work? Or will we insist that they, along with the rest of our fellow citizens, can afford to live in dignity on what they earn, regardless of the labor they eventually find themselves engaged in?