Opinion

The Great Debate

A cry for worker fairness

People rescue a garment worker trapped under rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Bira

The tragedy at the Rana Plaza clothing factory was a sober reminder that Bangladeshi garment workers still lack basic rights and protections. My mother was a seamstress. She worked in the textile factories of northern New Jersey. I saw how hard and tiring her work was. But it was never lethal. And it shouldn’t be.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building on April 24 was the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry, killing at least 1,127 people and injuring many more. It should be a turning point for the international community. Just as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City galvanized action to improve U.S. factory safety standards, the Rana Plaza tragedy is a call to action for consumers here in America and around the world.

That’s why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday is convening a hearing on worker safety and labor issues in Bangladesh.

In many ways, Bangladesh is a success story and an important partner for the United States. It is a moderate, Muslim-majority democracy and a key trade partner, supporting 10,000 American jobs. As the world’s seventh-most-populous country, Bangladesh has made dramatic strides on everything from global food security to gender equality to maternal and child health. It is also at the heart of global efforts to tackle climate change.

Thatcher: Master of the ‘unexpecteds’

The passing of Margaret Thatcher comes at a time when the great theme that shaped her years as Britain’s prime minister – the frontier between government and the private sector – is again the focus of serious public debate. Her historic achievement was to widen the frontiers of the “market” and, as she said, to have “rolled back the frontiers of the state.”

There is, however, a pendulum in this relationship between government and private sector. The role of government in the economy has expanded greatly since the 2008 financial collapse, along with government debt. So we will likely again see a struggle to rebalance the respective realms of state and market. And it will again be a battle.

The former prime minister’s memorial service Wednesday provides timely reason to ask: What was the Thatcher Revolution about? I tackled that question 15 years ago – for my book The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy – and I decided the best way to answer was by asking Thatcher herself. So I turned up at the Thatcher Foundation, a town house in London’s Belgravia, which was the operating base for then-Baroness Thatcher.

‘Inclusive Capitalism’: Bridging business-labor divide

Economic policy debates often focus on areas of division and discord. On the minimum wage, you’ll see some businesses fighting labor. On regulation, you have government versus the free market.

There are plenty of areas where American workers and companies agree, however, such as the need for public investments in infrastructure and education.

There is another worker-business alignment, explored in a new Center for American Progress report, that has us — a corporate chief executive and a labor leader — excited about its potential to boost innovation and workers’ wages when we desperately need both.

Why do unions seek exemption from anti-stalking laws?

Valentine’s Day is a time when couples go out for romantic dinners and exchange gifts, while singles meet up in bars, hoping to make some bad decisions. Valentine’s Day is also a day when people with crazy ex-boyfriends or -girlfriends are reminded of how thankful they are for anti-stalking laws.

Every state has made stalking a crime. These laws help protect people who might otherwise live in fear. Yet labor unions have successfully, and disconcertingly, lobbied to be exempt from anti-stalking laws in at least four states – California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Nevada.

“The most glaring examples of union favoritism under state laws,” notes a 2012 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, “tend to occur in criminal statutes and allow individuals who engage in truly objectionable behavior to avoid prosecution solely because they are participating in some form of labor activity.”

The right-to-work coup in Michigan

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to sign a right-to-work law is just the latest battle in Midwestern Republican legislators’ convulsive campaign to eviscerate union political clout. Lansing, Michigan, now follows Madison, Wisconsin, Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana, as a state capital flooded by union partisans — in a spirited, but vain, effort to forestall these laws.

Unions stand at the core of the Democratic coalition today. They are the last organizations remaining on the liberal side that can effectively appeal to white, working-class men in the Rust Belt swing states. They were crucial to President Barack Obama’s victory there.

So whatever the opposition and the shady legislative tactics, Snyder, his billionaire backers and the rest of the Michigan GOP made the cold political calculation: Break unions’ political power now by stripping them of the ability to raise the funds needed to hire staff, mobilize voters and keep up liberal pressure on state and local officials in the months after the election. Even as Citizens United allows many conservatives to raise unlimited funds, Democratic Party prospects are likely to plummet — turning Michigan as steadily red as Texas.

One big reason for GOP optimism

There are 25 reasons for Republican optimism in the wake of a disappointing November. Twenty-five is the number of states next year where Republicans will have unified control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. Up from the current 24.

The significance of this is already clear in Michigan — where state lawmakers are seeking to make it the nation’s 24th right-to-work state.

Governor Rick Snyder announced Tuesday that right-to-work will be on the docket during the Michigan legislature’s lame duck session this month.

Why Republicans should pressure Wal-Mart

Some Republicans, like Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, are arguing that the GOP needs to move away from big business and become a more populist defender of the middle class. That is good advice, and one dramatic way for Jindal or other party leaders to turn over a new leaf would be to join the pressure campaign on Wal-Mart to raise wages for its 2.2 million workers – a campaign that led to protests at Wal-Mart stores nationwide on Black Friday. The protests were coordinated by a labor-backed group of Wal-Mart Associates that wants the company to pay a minimum of $13 an hour, among other demands.

Republican criticism of Wal-Mart is not as unthinkable as it might seem. While the right heaps praise on Wal-Mart for its cheap consumer goods, the company’s low-wage business model should be problematic for conservatives for several reasons.

First, when Republicans talk about the economic challenges facing ordinary Americans, they invariably argue for private-sector solutions like faster growth and rising wages – facilitated, of course, by lower taxes and less regulation. Yet even if this fantasy of a rising free market tide lifting all boats were ever to come true, it would bypass Wal-Mart workers. Thanks to a permanently weak labor market for non-college workers, Wal-Mart can get away with paying low wages even when the economy is booming. The same goes for the rest of the retail industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of a full-time retail sales worker is $21,000, with cashiers making a good deal less. Those numbers haven’t fluctuated much over the past decade, through good times and bad.

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