The power of organizing

By Pramila Jayapal
July 17, 2013

Two separate agreements by European and American retailers around fire safety in Bangladesh mark an important step forward in protecting the lives of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. Because they were signed months after the Rana Plaza collapse, in which 1,127 workers died, it’s tempting to link the two events: a horrifying tragedy, followed by policy change.

But that thinking misses a critical fact about garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, where for decades factory workers — often without formalized power — put themselves at great risk by speaking out against abuses, building worker solidarity, and educating the public. It’s this worker-led organizing that has set the stage for real political and legislative change, and made a final massive tragedy impossible to ignore.

The clear — almost eerie — American parallel is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which also generated new labor laws and corporate accountability. In 1911, 146 mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women were asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths to escape a fire at the Triangle factory. They had been locked in the factory so that they wouldn’t steal clothes, working 60-hour weeks in sweatshop conditions.

Other fires before the Triangle disaster generated no such government response. In 1909 Clare Lemlich, a garment worker and leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, called for a mass strike in response to the terrible wages and working conditions of thousands of women garment workers in New York City. The “Uprising of 20,000,” as it was called, resulted in a 14-week work stoppage and an agreement from companies to increase wages and working conditions, though they did not allow workers to unionize. Triangle refused to sign the agreement. When the Triangle fire broke out two years later, it was the final straw that pushed New York State to modernize its labor laws to some of the most progressive in the country. Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, watched and was deeply moved by the Triangle fire; she later used the New York State laws as a model for the New Deal’s labor legislation.

Like the Triangle factory fire, the Rana Plaza building collapse was also preceded by a number of other fires and almost a decade of worker-led organizing for better wages and conditions. In 2006, garment workers filled the streets of Dhaka in the first and largest public protest since the garment market boom in the 1970s. Demanding better wages, workers protested for a month, pushing the government to finally establish a wage commission. Four years later, the minimum wage was raised to $38 a month, an 80 percent increase, but still the lowest wage for garment workers in the world.

Factory fires and worker abuses did not stop. In 2012, in an internationally publicized incident, a vocal organizer named Aminul Islam was tortured and killed, holes drilled into his leg and toenails and teeth extracted. Many believe that the government was involved in killing Aminul because of his organizing efforts.

Six months after Aminul’s death, a fire broke out at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh. 112 young women died in the same way as the workers who perished during the Triangle fire — from asphyxiation or by jumping to their deaths. As the worst fire in Bangladesh’s history, Tazreen helped to build outrage around the lack of accountability by international retailers who used these factories as part of their supply chains. The Rana Plaza collapse, less than six months after Tazreen, was the final injury in a string of tragedies, with so many casualties it could not be ignored.

After over 30 years manufacturing in Bangladesh, European and American retailers finally took action. On May 14, 2013, over 70 European retailers signed on to a plan for building safety and worker protections, backed by the International Labor Rights Forum and the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity. The European agreement is legally binding, includes a plan to inspect all factories used by participating retailers, and obligates them to provide sufficient funds to upgrade subpar factories. On July 10, American retailers unveiled their own agreement, which was immediately criticized for not being legally binding or including a substantive role for worker representatives, and for committing an insufficient amount of money to fix deficient factories.

The fact that these retailers signed or developed agreements — flaws in the American agreement notwithstanding — represents the first step toward long-term change. Another equally significant victory occurred in May, when the Bangladeshi government announced that it would again raise the minimum wage, and no longer require workers to get approval from factory owners to form a union.

Like the changes that occurred after the Triangle fire in the U.S., these steps shift the dynamic of power away from management and toward workers. They establish a new floor for acceptable minimum wages and working conditions, and require corporations to take responsibility for tragedies that occur in manufacturing their products.

However, the battle in Bangladesh — and indeed in whatever country might be the next center of garment production — is far from over. Ultimately, consumers must recognize that $3 T-shirts have a human cost. Retailers who make money on the backs of dead and injured workers must value the rights of their employees and agree to be held accountable for tragedies that occur in their supply chains. Instead of vilifying unions, corporations must recognize them as a legitimate way for employees to protect their rights. Through it all, workers who rise up for a collective vision of dignity and justice are the lynchpin that supports any long-lasting change.

 

PHOTOS: Relatives show pictures of garment workers who are missing, during a protest to demand capital punishment for those responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in Savar, outside Dhaka April 29, 2013;  Garment workers wear headbands and cover their faces as they take part in a protest to demand capital punishment for those responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, in Dhaka May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj 

6 comments

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Ms. Jayapal is an “activist”, and so her words are highly biased. “Instead of vilifying unions, corporations must recognize them as a legitimate way for employees to protect their rights.” Wrong.

If a worker has no job and wants one, a negotiation takes place that must satisfy both worker AND employer (otherwise, NO JOB!). That worker has NO RIGHTS other than have been negotiated at the time of application.

In these United States, any state that allows a union to dictate terms of employment to any employer is to absolutely assure that ALL new companies build new offices and production facilities in “right to work” states where employment is understood to be indefinite in length and “at will”. That’s just common sense.

“…workers who rise up for a collective vision of dignity and justice are the lynchpin that supports any long-lasting change.” No, these workers establish and maintain an adversarial relationship with their employer and unions acting without common sense or restraint have caused going businesses to fail in bankruptcy or otherwise.

What would-be employer would consciously invest their time and money in a business where those who have risked NOTHING have equal voice? Not one with the qualities necessary to succeed!

Through it all, workers who rise up for a collective vision of dignity and justice are the lynchpin that supports any long-lasting change.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Seriously, oneofthesheep? Those garment workers not only risked, but LOST. their lives. You call that NOTHING, vs. the time and money of their rapacious employers? You need to learn the Golden Rule.

Posted by yogahelps2 | Report as abusive

You misunderstand. I speak of a normal employer-worker relationship which presumes a workplace safe from unreasonable hazard.

Laws and regulations necessary to assure such a workplace do not come from the employer-worker relationship. These define appropriate standards, such as building and safety codes, that assure a safe workplace independent of whether or not there is a union.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep,
Those labour laws that protect workers, who do you think forced the government to write those? Benevolent CEOs? Labour Unions are the only reason we have reasonably safe workplaces, along with the eight hour day, and something I particularly enjoy called “weekends”

get real bud. also, do you think the wealth of America has Nothing to do with unions forcing companies to share the wealth with the workers? Remember the fifties? Most of those middle class folks made their money in manufacturing. These families make up almost all of what we have left of an internal consumer market.

To say a union worker – or any worker – has “risked nothing” is willfully obtuse. They risk their working lives, their futures, their time. That is not nothing.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Also, in fact unions ARE the legitimate way for workers to protect their rights. And the letter of the law is still in effect in the USA, despite every attempt to repeal it for a hundred years. It is deplorable that in the country most known for rule of law, the corporate-controlled government will not even enforce it’s own rules.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

@Benny27,

Unions have always been a minority of citizens, a minority that benefits at the expense of the majority. “We, the people” rising up in outrage towards obvious wrongdoing is what originally brought government involvement in workplace safety. Today OSHA and the EPA are used as tools by unions to threaten the very economic viability of some previously profitable endeavors. Such is an obvious perversion of the original governmental intent and purpose. The very idea that unions can “…force companies to share…wealth with the workers…” is ludicrous.

You and most unionists believe that “wealth”, as used above, is money. That is simply not true. “Wealth”, as used above, is GROSS INCOME. Workers have NO CLAIM WHATSOEVER to any part of GROSS INCOME. GROSS INCOME merely indicates the economic size of a business.

Even the IRS does not tax GROSS INCOME. You cannot tell whether a business is growing or dying from GROSS INCOME. You cannot tell whether a business has an efficient work force or a bloated and inefficient one from GROSS INCOME. GROSS INCOME is meaningless until and unless it ceases to exceed the expenses of doing business, at which time such business ceases to exist with ALL JOBS LOST.

Out of gross income must come “Return on investment”, i.e. the money or credit put “at risk” to build or rent the administrative offices, the production facilities. The “use of money” is NOT free. Let’s oversimplify by lumping together as a consideration the “startup/expansion” funding of the entrepreneur and the sale of stock to stockholders because each will expect some income to be generated by their “investment”.

There is also the ongoing “overhead”, i.e. costs of management, administration, research and/or patent payments, advertising, inventory, and transportation. To this I tend to keep the categories of raw materials and labor separate. So the business pays the ongoing costs of “overhead”, raw materials and labor after which there is PROFIT to be equitably distributed between (1) Investor/stockholders and (2) any “bonuses” properly due (a) “management/administration” and “labor” in proportion to their contribution toward increased efficiency.

You have to remember that giving one person a computer, iPad and iPhone suc h that they now can do the work of three IN NO WAY entitles that one person to three times their previous pay. They did not buy the computer, the iPad or the iPhone, associated applications, software or programming, keep these running, insure them, or budget for eventual replacement. It’s rather rare that labor can contribute to increases in company efficiency.

In the “real world” unions are as those back in the days if the industrial revolution who advocated “smash the machines” to preserve jobs. They were incapable of envisioning that a more efficient process, while displacing some in the short term, would result in a better standard of living for most. They are inherently “anti-progress”.

As workers are paid more and more, the economics of replacing some with computer-directed process and/or robots become more and more favorable. Computers and machines don’t get sick, get overtime, get vacations, or get pensions. They don’t have to take children to the doctor or stay home with newborn or sick ones. They can be insured for replacement cost including inflation, and they never go on strike.

So, while automation is today hideously expensive, the “payback” is regular and steady. The “money stream” will continue long after it has paid for itself and engendered more and simpler automated production. In fact, the “part” labor deserves here is the increased rate an educated programmer/machine operator earns. There are also associated maintenance jobs to keep everything running smoothly and continuously.

Meanwhile, unions may try to strike as each person is replaced. They may claim that they somehow deserve a “part” of the increased production efficiency. If they keep this up long enough they will see their company cease to do business, or go bankrupt with investors and management then moving to a “right to work” state where making a fair profit is again possible.

The union worker is PAID for their time. They CHOOSE to work so long as they are happy with their “future”. They RISK nothing outside of the customary “risks” that life requires. They are as the light bulb that only gets attention when it needs to be replaced. Which is precisely why unions have become redundant in a time there are more “good” people than “good” jobs.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive