Posts Tagged ‘workers

08
Jan
11

Corporations To Boycott (Part II)

As in my last post, this is by no means a complete list, and any and all suggestions (or criticisms) are welcome.

GAP:

GAP (called “The Gap” by people who just don’t know better) is perhaps one of the most successful clothing stores in the US. GAP is also notorious for its use of sweatshops and child-labor (resulting in a tragic-yet-hilarious video by satirical publication “The Onion”, which I’ve linked for you here). Some of GAP’s more prominent crimes include:

  • Operating sweatshops and abusing workers in Saipan (a pacific island administrated over by the United States).
  • Operating sweatshops and using child labor in Jordan.
  • Operating sweatshops and using child labor in India.

GAP also owns and operates other clothing outlets, including Banana Republic and Old Navy. Despite it’s size, boycotting GAP (and it’s subsidiaries) is fairly easy due to the prevalence of thrift stores.

Nike:

As with GAP, Nike is infamous for it’s use of child labor, sweatshop labor, assorted violations of worker’s rights, and general exploitative practices, such as:

  • Repeated and widespread use of sweatshops across the third-world, including such countries as Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China, Cambodia, and other countries.
  • Exposure of workers in Thai factories to toxic chemicals.
  • Repeated use of various music pieces (such as the Beatle’s “Revolution”) without permission from the artists.
  • Capitalization of Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred”. Perhaps some explanation is needed here. Hughes was a major black writer during the 1930s, and his classic poem “A Dream Deferred” describes Hughes’ frustration and anger at the oppression of African-Americans. Nike used “A Dream Deferred” In a 2008 commercial advertising their shoes, (commercial linked here). The images and message of the advertisement have nothing in common with the meaning of the poem, and yet the poem is used for promotion of Nike’s product. There’s something very, very wrong about usurping a powerful work about racial segregation and degradation and using it to hawk footwear.

As with GAP, while Nike is a large company with a wide variety of brands and products, boycotting is fairly easy with the wide number of alternatives to buying $300 shoes made in sweatshops.

Wal-Mart:

While you’re probably already familiar with the ocean of criticisms of Wal-Mart, it’s still worth listing a few of the more heinous acts and policies for the few who might not be aware:

  • Wal-Mart is known for underpaying and overworking it’s employees. Allegations of sexism and racism have also been made.
  • Wal-Mart is viciously anti-union, attempting to “inform” workers as to the dangers of unionization, firing workers for both joining/starting unions and discussion joining/starting unions. Wal-Mart has (based on the statements of a former executive, Tom Coughlin) even gone so far as to bribe union employees in order to single-out Wal-Mart employees who had signed union cards.
  • Wal-Mart operates a number of sweatshops in China and Bangladesh.
  • Wal-Mart’s use of sweatshop labor allow it to sell products cheaply in the US, undermining small and locally-owned competitors who are forced out of business.
  • Wal-Mart, during the mid 90s, made a practice of taking out life-insurance policies on it’s employees, allowing the corporation to benefit from their deaths. Wal-Mart had named this practice “Dead Peasant” insurance.
  • Wal-Mart sells furniture made from trees grown in protected habitats in Russia (the trees were illegally cut down). The corporation has stated it will not stop selling the furniture until 2013.

Now boycotting Wal-Mart is substantially more difficult than boycotting other corporations because of the relatively low prices of most Wal-Mart products. More often than not, Wal-Mart is the more economic choice, instead of the ethical. Nevertheless, buying from local stores (dollar stores make a decent alternative) is well worth it.

Caterpillar Inc.:

While I’m guessing most of you don’t buy heavy-duty construction and demolition equipment, it’s still worth adding Caterpillar on to the list- if nothing else it might help shake their public image a bit. The primary criticism of Caterpillar is:

  • Caterpillar bulldozers (and other demolition machines) are bought and used by Israeli army to destroy Palestinian buildings.
  • In 2003, activist Rachel Corrie was killed in Palestine when a Caterpillar bulldozer was driven into her.

As before, chances are you won’t be buying Caterpillar equipment in the future, but it’s still worth pointing out.

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19
Oct
10

A More Perfect Union

We have a complicated relationship with labor unions in the West. We have the timeless image of decent, simple, blue-collar men (and women) who work hard to put food on their family’s tables, until the company they work for decides to cut wages, leaving the worker’s no choice other than to form a union, strike, and eventually victor over the soulless corporate fat-cats in a heartwarming, straight-to-television kind of way. Balancing this image is that of the corrupt, surly, indolent teamsters, siphoning off cash from both the company and the workers, and bullying any opposition into submission.

 

Now there’s a bit of truth to both sides. On the one hand, unions were once (and in many parts of the world, still are) violently persecuted and harassed by companies and corporations who had men, women, and children working long hours for low pay in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Unions were, for the working class, their sole means of getting a fair wage or better conditions. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that there is corruption within many unions- just look at the news stories of unions hiring non-union workers to picket for them (linked here).

 

Now as you can probably guess, Communists side unilaterally with unions. Indeed, Communists were among the first to push for worker’s rights and unionization, and continue to do so to this day. However, what is the Marxist response to the problem of unions becoming parasitic organizations that exploit both employees and employers?

 

The problem of union corruption arises from an attempt to fight for worker rights within the Capitalist system, rather than recognizing Capitalism as the source of exploitation. Imagine that you lead a union of textile workers. You’ve just got the company you work for to agree to good wages, safe working conditions, good benefits (healthcare and whatnot)- where do you go from there? If you dissolve the union, there’s the high likelihood that the company will simply begin to exploit the workers again. If you continue to fight for higher wages and more benefits, then you might damage the company by draining it of its profits (demanding $100 hourly-wages in a lemonade stand that has a weekly profit of $5- extreme example, but you get the idea). And since we live in a society based entirely on acquiring the most cash possible, the best option for you is to line your pockets with money from both sides- higher wages from the company and union dues from the workers. This is the problem- if nothing is done about the Capitalist system that caused the exploitation in the first place, unions can be just as bad as the company.

 

So what’s the solution?

A change of priorities.

 

Communists, both in this country and around the world are working both with and in unions to fight for worker’s rights, but in a very different way than their Capitalist counterparts. Instead of working towards the end goal of more money, the Communist solution is for unions to work towards more control. Instead of continuing to work for the corporations, unions are to work for greater control over their places of work, be it a textile factory, a automobile assembly line, or a fast-food chain. Ultimately, all workers would have a fair and equal wage, and an equal share in the company. Essentially, the textile factory would be owned and run by those working there. With an equal share of the company, profit becomes secondary to the well-being of the workers and the quality and quantity of the  product being made. Exploitation would be impossible, and there would be no dichotomy between the will of the workers and the will of the company. This is the kind of union worth fighting for.

07
Jul
10

Norman Rockwell’s America (is Dead)

If you’re familiar at all with contemporary art, then you’ll no doubt have heard of Norman Rockwell. Indeed, chances are if you’ve lived anywhere in the West you’ll have come across one of his iconic paintings (as an original or as a recreation). For the few of you who might not be aware of his work, Norman Rockwell created paintings depicting (most often) bourgeoisie life in idyllic Middle-America*. There’s the family farms and small, private businesses that politicians love to talk about (see Sarah Palin’s “Real America” speech) and Capitalism tries to market to you (see ‘Aunt Jemimah’, ‘Uncle Ben’, ‘Quaker Oats’, ‘State Farm‘, ‘Pepperidge Farm‘ etc.). For many it’s the very face of Capitalism- just look at this 1948 “instructional” video of (exclusively white) high-school teens discussing Capitalism.

Coronet Instructional Films “What Is Capitalism?”, 1948

This is a prime example of the twisted understanding of Capitalism many have, but even in this video we can see the roots of the disparity between the Rockwellian portrayal of Capitalism and the harsh reality. Throughout the film, one word stands out: Competition. The young woman to Jimmy’s right describes how the shop-owner, Mr. Brown, agrees to lend out his truck to ensure she and Jimmy buy from him, rather than the competition. She asserts that Mr. Brown’s interests aren’t in providing service but in making a profit, and it is here we have the crux of the matter. Mr. Brown wants to make profit- the sole existence of his business is to make profit, and so Mr. Brown does whatever he can to ensure his merchandise is sold, rather than the merchandise of his competitors. In short, Mr. Brown is trying to run the other shops in the community out of business to maximize his profits. I’m not arguing that Mr. Brown is morally corrupt (though let’s not rule out of the possibility), we have to understand that in a Capitalist system, the rules of competition apply to everyone. Mr. Brown has to run his competition out or his competition will run him out. Eat or be eaten. At the same time, if Mr. Brown is indeed concerned not with his own livelihood but with his profits, if he does succeed in running his competition out of business he will have a monopoly and Jimmy and his friends will be forced to buy “weenies” at whatever price Mr. Brown sets.

Melodramatic? Consider this:

Starbucks was a small, privately owned coffee shop that has burst into a world-wide empire that has obliterated competition. Walmart also started as a small shopping center before expanding to the point where it has replaced nearly all beloved mom-and-pop stores you see in Rockwell’s art. McDonalds didn’t start out was a global food-chain but just as a privately owned restaurant. Coca-Cola started out as a tonic.

Now of course, there’s the temptation to side with corporations on this issue. One might argue ‘Hey, the fact is that Starbucks, Walmart, and other stores became economic empires by being better than the competition- they deserve the power they have!’. This argument forgets, however, that most corporations don’t get to where they are by simply having better products. The Mr. Brown of the video might run his competition out of business by offering lower prices by (1) temporarily lowering his prices so that his competition will be destroyed and he will make more money in the long run, (2) lowering the quality of his goods, (3) smearing competitors (and if you don’t think this happens, look up a Mac vs PC commercial), (4) lowering the wages of his workers, (5) sabotaging his competitors (corporate espionage), (6) convincing the public that his products are better (actually making them better would decrease profit), or even (7) collaborating with other businesses to harm competition (just look up the tactics of J.D. Rockefeller). Now out of these seven options, do you think that Mr. Brown is going to go with the one that lowers his immediate income? And what happens when Mr. Brown gets a monopoly? Is he going to lose his customers to cheaper options in other towns? Of course not- the astute Mr. Brown is going to open a shop there, and use his profits to undersell his competitors into working for him.

It’s a sad but simple fact. No matter how much we swear by the good, ol’ family farm or shop, small businesses inevitably become big businesses, which become global corporations with a reputation for low prices and even lower wages, product safety standards, and environmental consciousness. To answer the question of the video, what is Capitalism? This is Capitalism: pointless competition, exploitation, monopolization, and the general degradation of all the values we see in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

*Admittedly, he did do a few pictures of working class Americans and even school children in Soviet Russia- but overwhelmingly his paintings were of the bourgeoisie.

02
May
10

Maoists Strike in Nepal

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8656894.stm

03
Apr
10

Live Long and Prosper?

If you were to look up “Communism” in a philosophy book, you’d probably find it under a section dealing with “Materialism”. The problem with this is that the popular meaning of the word “Materialism” has changed radically over the years. In terms of philosophy, the original meaning of “Materialism” was a category of philosophies primarily concerned with the concepts of property and their effects on human society/history. If I were, however, to use the term “Materialist” today, it would commonly be assumed that I was referring to the idea that the end goal of life is to accumulate wealth (radical hedonism, essentially). This is a recurring problem with many terms connected to Communism- in Marx’s day, “Socialism” meant a society embracing shared property and rejecting the class system, today we use it to refer to a politico-economic system where the majority of property is owned and managed by a massive government- but perhaps that’s off topic.

The issue with trying to categorize Communism in philosophy is that Marx was rather critical of philosophy as a whole. He asserted that analyzing the world should not be an end but merely a means to bring about change and advancement (“Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it!” -Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”). While Communism definitely does offer a socio-politico-economic perspective, to claim that Communism is an all-out philosophy wouldn’t be quite correct. While most philosophies make some basic assumptions about the purpose of life (hedonism, as much pleasure as possible; Socratic philosophy, preparing for death;  aesthetic realism, finding harmony in life; the list goes on and on), Communism on the other hand functions more like a scientific theory than a code of ethics or an understanding of existence (indeed, one of the reason people find Marx so hard to read is the fact that he treats economics almost like a branch of physics). Don’t misunderstand me- Marx did have convictions. He saw the exploitation of the proletariat as the principal factor in the toppling of Capitalism and the class system and believed that the toppling of the Capitalism and the class system would propagate justice and equality. It’s like a scientist discovering that running electricity through a gas filled bulb not only creates light but it is his moral imperative to run electricity through a gas filled bulb and create light. As a result of all this, you’ll find no single, coherent Communist philosophy but rather a number of philosophies espousing Communist political theory. On one side you have philanthropic, altruistic humanist communists who have become Communist out of love for their fellow man. On the other side you have cynical and bitter antisocial communists who have become Communist out of a belief in morality rather than man (the author falls into this category). And between these two extremes you’ll find any number of other philosophies- religious Communism, green Communism, Anarcho-Communism, etc. If there’s a mainstream philosophy out there, you’d be safe to bet that there’s a Communist version of it (baring, perhaps, Ayn Rand-style Objectivism).

Now one might argue that the exact same rules apply to Capitalism. “Capitalism is a socio-economic theory too. You can hold any philosophy or worldview and still be a Capitalist!”.

Now this is partly true. You can indeed be a Capitalist and hold the purpose in life to protect and preserve the earth and all its natural wonders. The problem is that if you also accept Capitalism, you have to maintain that it is perfectly legal (and indeed, a basic human right) to purchase a mountain, to prevent anyone else from walking on it, and if the owner so chooses, to blow it to pieces.

“Alright, so Environmentalism and Capitalism don’t mesh so well- but there’s still a ton of other philosophies out there.”

Absolutely, and they too don’t seem to mesh well with Capitalism. If you hold the purpose of life is to live honestly and decently, then you’re presented with a number of challenges (the primary of which is that in Capitalism, the highest profits come from underpaying and overworking your employees and overpricing your products- not exactly honest or decent, is it?). If you declare that the end goal in life is to live long and prosper and see your family happy and secure then you have to deal with the fact that this is the wish of not only you but a large percent of humanity and since in Capitalism there’s only so much room at the top you’ll have to viciously compete with your neighbors for this lifestyle (unless you’re born into it, in which case you just have to worry about the huddled masses eying your house and pool. Even if you believe that the sole purpose of live is to live in decadence and luxury, you have to contend with the very definitions of the words. Do two houses in Monaco count as decadence and luxury, or should you get a yacht as well (or more importantly, will you be any more happy and fulfilled with the yacht than you are now?).

So essentially, no matter what your philosophy is, it has to be accepted that in all likelihood, you’d be able to pursue it better in a society free from Capitalism. You want peace and happiness for your family? Maybe you should opt for a system where a starving homeless man is going to gun down your wife/husband for her/his necklace/wallet. You want to be able to do whatever you love doing? Maybe you should opt for a system where you aren’t forced to take whatever job pays the bills, no matter how painful or bland. You want to be able learn everything there is to know about a subject? Maybe you should opt for a system where education is a high-priced commodity available only to some.

Maybe you should opt for Communism.