UT-Austin sit-in against sweatshops leads to arrests

Members of the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition on April 18 staged a sit-in at the University of Texas at Austin to demand that UT get serious about ending sweatshop abuses in factories that make apparel bearing UT’s logo by joining the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent factory monitoring organization. The sit-in took place in the office of UT President William Powers.

Currently UT is affiliated with the Fair Labor Association, a group dominated and created by the apparel industry after sweatshop scandals in the 1990s forced companies to respond to labor abuses that were damaging their brands.

“In 2010, companies like Nike made more than $100 million selling Longhorn apparel (manufactured) in over 4,400 factories around the world; yet their workers are deprived of wages they can survive on, face sexual harassment, and even risk their lives in the fight for dignity and respect,” said Billy Yates, a member of Students Against Sweatshops at the University of Texas and a sit-in participant. “For years, we’ve asked that the University live up to its core values and join over 180 universities across the country to put an end to this abuse by joining the WRC. President Powers has repeatedly told us that this ‘case is closed,’ but 25 student and community groups in Texas have joined the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition to let him know that students and workers won’t let him close the case on workers’ rights.”

A rally to continue the campaign to make UT get serious about sweatshop abuse is scheduled on campus today, April 19. Coalition members will read support letters they received from garment workers around the world. The rally begins at 12 noon on campus.

The sit-in began in President Powers office about 12:30 yesterday. By late afternoon a large crowd gathered outside the Main Building where Powers’ office is located to demonstrate support for the sit-in. About 5:00 P.M., police muscled their way through supporters on the outside and began arresting sit-in participants. The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, reports that 19 people were arrested, 17 of whom were UT students.

The current campaign to get UT to switch its affiliation from the Fair Labor Association to the Workers’ Rights Consortium has been going on since 2010. The UT Student Government endorsed affiliation with WRC, but UT administrators have refused to take action.

According to the Collegiate Licensing Company, UT makes more money off the sales of university-logo apparel such as sweatshirts and souvenir team jerseys than any other institution in the world. Nike is the top supplier of UT-logo apparel and Nike also provides uniforms and equipment for the school’s athletic teams.

Nike was and remains an important member of the Fair Labor Association, whose stated purpose is “to combine the efforts of business, civil society organizations, and colleges and universities to promote and protect workers’ rights and to improve working conditions globally through adherence to international standards.”

But critics have called FLA’s efforts ineffective and blamed its lack of effectiveness on its close ties to apparel companies. “The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf,” said Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change to the New York Times. “There’s all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going in the other direction–they’re trying to force down prices.”

The Times reported one example of FLA’s ineffectiveness involving a Nike subcontractor, PT Nikomas of Indonesia. The company was recently forced to pay 4,500 of its workers $950,000 in unpaid overtime accumulated over the last two years.

The Nike subcontractor made restitution after some of its workers complained and the Workers’ Rights Consortium got involved. When the Times asked Jorge Perez-Lopez, FLA’s executive director, why FLA didn’t uncover and act on the abuse, he replied that FLA couldn’t inspect every factory and that Nike was responsible for monitoring its own subcontractors.

UT spokesperson Gary Susswein told the Daily Texan that UT would not join the Workers’ Rights Consortium because it would cost too much. The cost, according to Susswein, would be $50,000, about 0.025 percent of UT’s $2 billion operating budget or less that 1 percent of UT football coach Mack Brown’s $5.1 million annual salary.

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New rule may make poultry processing work and food less safe

The US Department of Agriculture is proposing a new poultry inspection rule, which reduces the number of USDA inspectors at poultry processing plants and allows companies to play a bigger role in the inspection process. It also increases the maximum speed of production lines by 21 percent. The USDA says that the proposed rule will streamline poultry processing and maintain high food safety standards.

Union and consumer advocates aren’t so sure. Eco Centric, a food, water, and energy blog, said that  past experience shows that it’s not a good idea to allow food processing companies to police themselves. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents USDA inspectors, said that the new rule “places emphasis on quantity and quickness over quality.”

Joe Hansen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers, said that the worst thing about the new rule is that it is being considered without any study or concern about its impact on worker safety.

And make no mistake about it, poultry processing plants are dangerous places to work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poultry processing industry has the eighth highest rate of on-the-job non-fatal injuries among all industries in the US.

The poultry processing injury rate is three times higher than the national rate and higher than such industries as iron foundries, light truck manufacturing, and aluminum die-casting foundries.

The speed of the production line and the precise, rapid, and repetitive cuts that workers make as chicken carcasses and parts race past them at a rate of one to 2.3 per second are major factors making the work so unsafe.

The Charlotte Observer in 2008 ran a six-part series on the dangers of working in a poultry plant entitled, The Cruelest Cuts. The pictures of mangled hands and fingers of poultry processing workers is the series’ most compelling evidence of the damage done by the speeding production lines.

One of the most common injuries incurred on a poultry processing line is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. A recent study conducted by Wake Forest University health professionals in North Carolina compared 287 poultry workers with a similar number of non-poultry workers in western North Carolina. The poultry workers, mostly Latino immigrants, had higher rates of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome than non-poultry workers. Furthermore, 59 percent showed definite or likely signs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

The current rule sets the maximum speed at which a line can run at 140 young chickens per minute. The proposed new rule raises the maximum to 175 per minute. Alfred Almanza of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service says that based on a 13-year pilot study, the higher production line speed won’t affect product safety. (He doesn’t say anything about its impact on worker safety.)

But inspectors who are stationed at poultry processing plants are less sanguine. They are also concerned because the new rule eliminates over the course of time about 1,000 inspector positions. What that means is that fewer independent inspectors will be inspecting poultry moving past them at higher rates of speed.

As one inspector who posted an online petition urging the USDA to reconsider the rule said, inspectors are currently only required to inspect 35 birds a minute. If the line speed increases to 175 birds per minute that’s going to mean many more birds going uninspected.

Another problem is that the new rule allows company inspectors to conduct the initial examination of the fowl, which, currently, is done by USDA inspectors. These company employees will lack  independence making them far less likely to shut down production if they spot an unsafe bird.

“Inspectors need to be impartial – and not be concerned about company profits,” said Stan Painter, chairman of the AFGE National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals. “They need to be independent – and not be employed by the company, and they need to be looking out for the consumer – and not be looking out for the company.”

Painter also noted that proper inspection takes a lot of training and experience, but turnover at poultry processing plants is notoriously high. The new proposed rule does not include language requiring experienced workers, Painter said. “People will walk in off the streets, and they will put them in this position with no training.”

USDA is still considering comments on the proposed rule, but the deadline is April 26. You can comment online at  http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FSIS-2011-0012-0001.

Locked out Quebec workers urge Olympics to say no to Rio Tinto’s tarnished gold

Locked out workers at the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in Alma, Quebec traveled to London on April 16 to urge organizers of this summer’s Olympic games to sever their relationship with Rio Tinto, a multinational, multi-billion dollar mining company. The company is supposed to provide 99 percent of the metal used in the 4,700 gold, silver, and bronze medals that will be presented to winners of this summer’s Olympic games.

“Locking out its workers in Quebec is a violation of Rio Tinto’s obligation to play fair under the Olympic Charter,” said Daniel Roy, director of District 5 of the United Steelworkers (USW), which represents the Alcan workers. Roy called the company’s attempt to drive down wages even though it made $14 billion in profits last year “a dangerous precedent for industrial workers and local families everywhere.”

Rio Tinto on December 31, 2001 locked out 780 members of USW after 88 percent of them rejected the company’s’ new contract proposal, which called for replacing good paying-union jobs with low-paying temporary and precarious jobs.

In London USW, Unite, the largest union in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and Workers Uniting, a global union,  announced a global corporate campaign to convince the International Olympic Committee to drop Rio Tinto as its supplier of metal for its medals.

Among other things the campaign features a website, Off the Podium, where supporters can send a letter urging the International Olympics Committee to reject Rio Tinto as the Olympic’s metal supplier.

USW will also work with its international partners including the International Metalworkers Federation and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers’ Unions to hold solidarity actions around the world. Alcan workers have already begun a tour of the US to build solidarity among unions here.

The third leg of the campaign will be a public information effort to highlight some of Rio Tinto’s other abuses. For example, in 2010, the company locked out 500 workers at its Boron, California borax mine in an attempt to impose union-busting concessions.  The company wanted to eliminate seniority, assume the prerogative to cut pay at any time, and convert many full-time, good-paying union jobs into part-time, low paying temporary work.

The lockout lasted 107 days. The company was finally forced to retreat from its original demands by a national solidarity action organized by the workers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

In addition, the company has faced legal action for environmental, human rights abuses, and criminal wrongdoing in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and China.

“Our campaign will detail just how badly Rio Tinto is in violation of its obligations under the Olympic Charter,” Roy said. “It’s time to get Rio Tinto off the Olympic podium.”

In Quebec, Rio Tinto wants the workers to accept a new contract that will allow the company to convert full-time jobs to part-time temporary jobs as union workers retire or as their jobs are vacated. The temporary jobs would be provided through subcontractors and would pay about half of what union workers make with no benefits.

“Our union opposes the practice of hiring subcontracted workers to replace unionized workers, and paying them at half the wage rate,” Roy said. “There must be equal pay for equal work. We need to make sure that our future generations will have access to quality jobs.”

Roy said that Rio Tinto has received government subsidies that allow it to prosper but still wants to eliminate union jobs and reduce payroll, which will affect not just its workers but the larger community. According to Roy, every Alcan union job indirectly creates 3.5 jobs in the surrounding community.

Furthermore, the company is using the subsidies to help it ride out the lockout. Le Devoir, a French language newspaper, recently revealed that as a result of a secret deal, the provincial government of Quebec in January bought $10 million worth of surplus electricity generated at the Alcan plant even though the provincial electrical system didn’t need it.

“The government should negotiate with companies as equals and protect workers and the local economy,” said Roy. “This secret agreement is being used right now to starve a region and keep 780 workers, who have families to feed, on the street.”

LA Toll drivers win historic union election

Toll Group short-haul truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday celebrated their union victory during the 4 P.M. shift change. On Wednesday, the drivers voted 46 to 15 to join the Teamsters. The Journal of Commerce described Wednesday’s pro-union vote as “historic.”

“These first-rate truck drivers decided to form their union after being treated as second-class citizens under third-world working conditions,” said Teamsters Vice President Fred Potter. “Now these courageous employees have inspired other port drivers to fight for good, middle-class jobs at America’s port’s nationwide, and the Teamsters and our coalition are going to be here to help them do it.”

Since the 1980s when the US government deregulated the trucking industry, pay and working conditions among port short-haul drivers have declined. Average pay for Toll’s Los Angeles area drivers is only $12.72 per hour.

Deregulation also made it harder for drivers to improve their conditions by organizing unions because it allowed trucking companies to classify drivers as independent contractors, who have no protection under federal or state labor laws.

Toll workers, however, are an exception. Several years ago when the Port of Los Angeles required short-haul trucking companies to buy new rigs in order to reduce pollution and reclassify drivers as employees, Toll did so. Other companies resisted and won a court ruling that overturned the port’s requirement.

Toll workers began their campaign for union representation last year because of mistreatment by the company, an $8 billion multinational company based in Melbourne, Australia. Things came to a head after the company told drivers that they couldn’t use restrooms in the company’s port headquarters; instead, they were required to use portable facilities in the parking lot.

Drivers complained that these facilities were unsanitary and in October petitioned the company to change its mind. The company refused, and fired some of the workers who had been active in the petition campaign. After these firings, the union campaign picked up momentum.

The workers gathered signatures on a union representation petition and on February 1 filed for a union representation election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Meanwhile, the company was conducting an aggressive anti-union campaign.

The Teamsters filed unfair labor practices against Toll with the NLRB, which issued a formal complaint against the company citing 21 specific instances of alleged illegal activity.

According to the NLRB complaint, Toll management spied on union supporters, promised workers extra benefits and other consideration for opposing the union, prohibited workers from talking about the union, threatened workers with dismissal for supporting the union, and interrogated workers about their union support.

The complaint also said that the company prohibited drivers from talking among themselves at a yard where drivers waited to take on new loads.

One of the victims of the anti-union campaign was Xiomara Perez, a union activist who was fired after she took short a rest break while transporting cargo from the port to a nearby warehouse. Perez still has not been rehired, and the union has initiated a petition campaign to get her job back.

The petition asks Under Armour, a company that contracts with Toll to haul its merchandise and that has a strong ethics and business conduct policy that supports a worker’s right to join a union, to demand that Toll reinstate Perez immediately.

The Toll drivers received support from the union that represents Toll drivers in Australia, the Transport Workers Union. “This is an issue that has strongly motivated our members across Australia, several of whom travelled to LA to witness the substandard conditions which drivers toil under,” said Tony Sheldon TWU’s national secretary. “We welcome this historic vote to organize at Toll.”

The Teamsters and the Toll drivers hope that this victory will be the first of many that can make port short-haul driving a decent job again. “Our victory means we are finally getting closer to the American Dream,” said Orlando Ayala, a new Teamster member at Toll. “If we can win, I know other port truck drivers across the U.S. can unite just like we did. A voice on the job means management can no longer humiliate us or force us to suffer in poverty while they profit.”

Austin Workers Defense Project wins council vote on new Apple project

The Austin City Council two weeks ago took a small step toward improving workplace justice when it amended an $8 million incentive deal with Apple requiring the company to negotiate with the Workers Defense Project an agreement that ensures safety, fair wages, and training opportunities for workers who build Apple’s new facility in North Austin.

The council’s decision was the result of a grassroots lobbying effort on the part of low-paid construction workers organized by the Workers Defense Project (WDP). Most of WDP’s members are immigrant workers, whose first language is Spanish.

“Prior to the City Council meeting, workers met with council members to make sure they were aware of and understood the research that shows how dangerous construction work in Austin is,” said Greg Casar, business liaison with WDP. “They also told their own stories about low wages, dangerous work, and wage theft on construction jobs in the city.”

Casar said that the Apple vote was actually two years in the making. In 2010, WDP members convinced City Council to pass an ordinance requiring contractors to give workers paid water breaks (Unlike some states, Texas has no laws requiring employers to give rest breaks to workers). Prior to the vote, WDP members conducted a “thirst strike” in front of City Hall to dramatize the unsafe conditions that many construction workers endure in a city where summer temperatures can rise well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

WDP members backed up their claims about the lack of safety on the jobs with the results of a study completed in 2009 entitled Building Austin, Building Injustice authored by WDP and University of Texas at Austin researchers.

The study finds that Texas is a dangerous place for construction workers. In the two years prior to the study, 142 construction workers died on the job–that’s one death every 2.5 days.

Austin construction work is no exception. The report includes the results of a survey of more than 300 Austin workers. It finds that 21 percent reported serious on-the-job injuries; 45 percent said that they weren’t covered by workers’ compensation; 27 percent said that their bosses provided no water or rest breaks; and 29 percent said that they provided their own safety equipment. Workers also reported that there was little if any safety training.

Casar said that in addition to safety concerns WDP receives daily calls from construction workers and other low-paid workers about wage theft, low pay, and other job issues. Another problem with local construction jobs is that they are precarious, temporary, and provide few opportunities for training that can lead to learning new skills and more permanent employment.

The council’s most recent decision to require Apple to negotiate an agreement with WDP was directly related to the work that WDP members have done over the last two years to expose poor working conditions at some Austin construction sites.

The agreement, known as a Premier Community Builder Agreement, will address these problems by establishing standards for a fair wage, safety, and skill training to which all contractors on the Apple project must adhere.

The agreement will also establish a mechanism for monitoring implementation of the agreement by allowing a workers’ advocate to visit the construction site and speak directly with workers about how well the agreement is being implemented.

WDP already has two Premier Community Builder Agreements in force. One is with Foundation Communities, which is building an affordable South Austin apartment building for low-income workers. The other is with Maxum Development of Dallas. Maxum signed its agreement two years after three workers died due to contractor negligence on one of the developer’s Austin projects. A Maxum spokesperson said that the agreement was designed to make the projects “flow better” and improve worker safety.

WDP members also asked City Council to amend a proposed incentive package with Trammell Crow, a national developer planning a 10-year construction project in downtown Austin to convert an old water treatment plant to a multi-use retail and living center. The proposed amendment would require the developer to negotiate a Premier Community Builder Agreement with WDP. A vote on the amendment was postponed on April 5 for three weeks.

“The standards for construction work have become so low in Austin,” Casar said. “These agreements are a way of putting a floor on wages and conditions that stops this race to the bottom. Over time, we want to raise the floor and make Austin construction work good work again.”

Bangladeshi union leader murdered

The family and colleagues of a Bangladeshi union leader and organizer whose body was found last week along a roadside not far from the country’s capital Dhaka, are saying that he was murdered because of his labor rights work.  Aminul Islam, whose body showed signs of torture, was working on a campaign to organize workers of a company that manufactures ready-to-wear apparel for US clothing companies.  He also had been active in a campaign to raise workers’ minimum wage.

Islam was president of the Savar and Ashulu units of he Bangladeshi Garment and Industrial Federation and a leader of Bangladeshi Center for Workers’ Solidarity. He disappeared on Wednesday, April 4 after leaving home to meet a worker who had called earlier asking for his help.

Islam’s family has accused the police of torturing and killing him. “We found several injury marks from waist to his foot,” said Rafiqul Islam, Aminul’s brother to the Daily Star. “His toes and his ankles were smashed. It’s quite clear that he died of severe torture. Ordinary people cannot beat a man this way; it must be law enforcers.”

Kalpona Akter, founder of the Center for Workers’ Solidarity (CWS), accused national intelligence agencies and the garment factory owners trade association of conspiring to kill Islam.

Islam and the Workers’ Solidarity Center have had previous run-ins with the police. In March, Islam was arrested a few days before a big anti-government demonstration that was planned for March 12 by opposition political parties.

Islam was also arrested in June 2010 by members of the National Intelligence Services during a campaign to raise the Bangladeshi minimum wage. Islam said that after the arrest he was tortured and that his torturers demanded that he sign a letter accusing Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter, CWS’s director, of instigating worker unrest.

He escaped and went into hiding, but in August 2010 he was arrested again along with the Akters. The arrests came several weeks after garment workers went on strike to protest a new government minimum wage law that the workers said set the minimum wage too low. Protests against the law turned violent after police tried to break up worker demonstrations.

According to Sweatfree Communities, an international labor organization fighting sweatshop conditions, “The arrest(s )(were) the culmination of a several month-long government campaign to shut down the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and part of a larger effort to quell worker resistance to abysmal working conditions and abominably low wages.”

International pressure resulted in the release of the Akters and Islam.

Despite the repression CWS continued to help garment workers organize for better pay and working conditions. Most recently CWS helped ABC News find and interview garment workers for a news segment that appeared on ABC’s Nightline about a garment factory fire that killed 29 workers in December 2010.

After the segment was broadcast, PVH, an American company that owns clothing brands such as Van Huesen, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and others, announced that it was committing $1 million to help improve safety at garment factories like the one where the fire broke out.

Islam was also helping 8,000 workers for the Shanta Group, a Dhaka-based company that makes ready-to-wear garments for such US companies as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Ralph Lauren, organize a union to improve wages and working conditions.

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, on the day of Islam’s disappearance, he had left the CWS office in Savar about 13 miles northwest of Dhaka to attend evening prayers. While there he noticed a police van nearby. Thinking that he and other CWS staffers might be arrested, we called the CWS office and told staff to close the office early and go home.

After the call, he went home. That evening, he received a call from someone seeking his help. The caller said that the matter was urgent and that he needed to see Islam right away. Islam left home, and his wife and children never saw him again.

The next day, Thursday, police found a body that had been dumped alongside a road near the police station in Ghatail about 60 miles north of Dhaka. They quickly buried it.

On Saturday, Islam’s family saw a newspater picture of the body and went to reclaim it. On Monday, April 9, police exhumed the body, and the family identified it as Islam’s.

“All indications are that Aminul Islam was murdered because of his labor rights work,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “This depraved act signals the deterioration of an already grim labor rights situation in Bangladesh, which is now the fourth largest exporter of apparel to the U.S.”

War on women shifts to Wisconsin

Just hours before the Easter Holiday was to begin last Thursday evening, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law legislation that makes it more difficult for women and other victims of wage discrimination to seek justice.  SB 202, the bill signed by Gov. Walker, overturns the state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act, which allowed wage discrimination victims to seek punitive and compensatory damages through the state’s courts, which are more accessible and less expensive than federal courts.

“Gov. Walker wants to turn back the clock on women’s rights and deny them their day in court,” read a statement by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO posted on its website.  “Equal pay is an economic security issue for millions of Wisconsin women and this act threatens the livelihood of many workers.”

When Gov. Walker signed SB 202, he also signed two other bills that affect women’s health and their right to privacy. One of the bill bans abortion coverage from state health insurance plans that may be obtained through health insurance exchanges that are to be established through the federal Affordable Healthcare Act. The ban will make it more difficult for low-income women to obtain abortion services.

Gov. Walker also signed a bill that requires women seeking abortions to meet with a doctor one-on-one for the purpose of assuring the doctor that no one is pressuring her to have the abortion. The Wisconsin Medical Society opposed this bill because it infringes on doctor-patient confidentiality.

Wisconsin Planned Parenthood Advocates condemned Gov. Walker for signing all three bills. “Governor Walker and the Republican majority have used the last 18 months to pursue the most extreme political agenda against women that Wisconsin has ever seen,” said Tanya Atkinson, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin. “We will not stand by and allow this Governor to politicize women’s health. We will not stand by as Governor Walker continues to curtail women’s access to healthcare, health information, and the ability to fight gender discrimination in the work place.”

The state’s Equal Pay Enforcement Act was passed in 2009 to help women close their pay gap with men. At the time of the passage, Wisconsin women’s wages were 75 percent of men’s. This pay gap according to the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health cost the state’s families $4,000 a year in lost pay.

At the time of the passage of the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, the Wisconsin women’s pay gap was below the national pay gap average of 77 percent. Wisconsin ranked 36th among all states in pay equality. After passage of the act, Wisconsin rose to 24th among states in pay equality, and the pay gap closed significantly to 82.8 percent.

Despite its success, many businesses opposed the act and lobbied for its repeal. Organizations supporting repeal include the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Wisconsin Automobile & Truck Dealers Association, the Wisconsin Builders Association, the Wisconsin Car Rental Alliance, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

The state AFL-CIO called Gov. Walker’s decision to repeal the Equal Pay Enforcement Act shameful. “Gov. Walker is shamefully signing legislation into law that threatens the economic security of Wisconsin women,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.  “Repealing the Equal Pay Enforcement Act is not the Wisconsin way and shows just how disconnected Gov. Walker is with the issues facing working women in today’s economy.”