Latest Developments in Labor Relations

So, have we seen any recent developments in the news about labor relations? Yes, in fact.
Perhaps the year’s biggest news on this topic came April 9, when the University of Wisconsin-Madison (usually referred to as Wisconsin) decided to end its licensing agreement with Nike over worker rights concerns.
The university wanted an explanation from Nike of why it closed two factories in Honduras without paying severance to workers. When Nike refused to address the issue, it violated Wisconsin’s code of conduct for companies making products with the university brand.
This is a very big development because of how Nike dominates the college sports world. Athletic departments earn lots of money for big schools like Wisconsin as long as the teams are successful. To have good teams, you must recruit good athletes. The sad but true fact is that a surprising number of athletes choose a college based on its uniform contract; in most cases, they want to wear Nike products. Actually, Kent State recently signed a football uniform contract with Nike because they were losing recruits solely due to having uniforms made by New Balance.
For Wisconsin to but worker rights over athletic success is very impressive and shows the strength of organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops.
One other piece of good news came in April from Wham-O, which is known for making popular toys like the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, Slip ‘N Slide and Super Ball. Wham-O had moved its manufacturing to five Chinese factories in January 2006, but has decided to move much of it back to the United States specifically because of labor relations.
Also, during a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I learned about the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project, which works to improve workers’ rights in the Northwest United States. NWJP formed in 2004 and currently prioritizes a campaign against wage theft. An example of wage theft is a contractor hiring a day laborer, sending him or her miles away to work for a day and abandoning him or her there to find his or her own way home. More common forms of wage theft include not paying a worker for overtime or not giving a worker his or her final paycheck after he or she leaves the job.
While the NWJP focuses mainly on the state of Oregon, wage theft is an issue across the United States and results in workers having billions of dollars stolen from them every year. The most reported cases of wage theft come from industries like agriculture, poultry processing, janitorial services, restaurant work, garment manufacturing, long term care, home health care and retail.
Interfaith Worker Justice runs a website that posts a few new wage theft news articles every day at wagetheft.org, and its main website, iwj.org, has a Workers Center Directory where workers can get help for unfair workplace treatment. Organizations are trying to collaborate nationally more than ever so that they can easier educate the nation on campaigns to improve conditions for workers. I invite you to look at IWJ’s various campaigns, which also include affirming the right to join unions and urging Wal-Mart to provide more benefits to its employers.

By: Jody Michael

What Constitutes as an Unethical Company?

Ethics has often been a touchy subject, as it is almost completely based upon one’s opinions. This blog does not necessarily deal with all questions of ethics. For our purposes, we will simply be talking about moral and immoral decisions on the part of corporations and, to a lesser extent, those of the consumer.

A company, in the context of this blog, is categorised as ethical or unethical based upon their treatment of their employees those who are paid to make parts of whatever product they might sell and of the environment.

Many companies will attempt to portray an environmentally sound and economically prudent façade, as well as that of a friendly working situation. They may do this through the use of commercials, being locally and globally “active” to help the environment or those in need, or any other number of devious means of advertisement. However, that is not always the case, and this sort of propaganda is usually spread to make the companies look good, endorse the product, or generally encourage people to buy the product.. The majority of these companies pay their workers minimum wage, and pay the people who provide them with the means to make their products even less. The company will hire someone to find the cheapest way to make a certain portion of their product, and often that means paying someone in a foreign country less than a dollar a day to make hundreds or thousands of the same things for nine or more hours a day. These people, along with the continental employees, are often subjected to poor and unsanitary working environments, and are provided few (if any) benefits to help them keep up with bills and the general costs of daily life on these low salaries. The toll that these companies are taking on the environment is not much better. Rainforests are destroyed, factories spew out massive amounts of smog and other pollutants into our air, and small homes, local businesses, natural reservoirs, etc. are taken over, just so that the corporations may have a little more room to expand business and make more products, so that they may continue to make a huge profit by spending as little as they can on labour and the people whom they employ.

It would be hard to consider anyone who engaged in such activities to be “ethical.” And that is why, for the sake of this blog, that is the standard definition of an unethical company.
By: Jennifer Reese

Unions and Globalization

The relationship between businesses and unions has been tedious at best, both in the United States and on an international scale. Despite the creation of labour laws as well as the formation of national and international labour organizations, employees still find themselves at the leniency of their employers. And, in an increasingly globalized world where companies are investing more and more in foreign markets, it becomes a substantial challenge to monitor labour rights and treatment, let alone human rights violations. This growing interconnectedness between business industries finds itself at the fore-front of international labour disputes.

Nationally within the US, there has been a constant struggle by unions for greater pro-union legislation as well as more stringent monitoring and prosecution of companies who try to prevent workers’ rights to freedom of association. Under the National Labor Relations Act (otherwise known as the Wagner Act) passed in 1935, “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing…”(http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/29/usc_sup_01_29_10_7_20_II.html). This part, referred to as an employee’s Section 7 rights, allows those who wish to form a union to do so but also for those who are part of a non-union company the right to “…engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…”  (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/29/usc_sup_01_29_10_7_20_II.html ). Meaning, they have the ability to discuss and protest issues that deal with their hours, wages and working conditions. Working for American unions are the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (A.F.L.-C.I.O.), which has about 11 million members and the Change to Win federation, representing more than 5 million workers, among others. Roughly 16 million American workers are in labor unions, though the percentage of unionized workers has declined.

Recently stated in a New York Times article… “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.4 percent of the American work force belonged to a union in 2008, down from 35 percent in the 1950s.” (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). The author also notes the large disparity between the private and public sector as it relates to unionization rates (7.6% vs 36.8% in ‘08) which is not a particularly new trend but still markedly different. Reasons given for the lessening percentages have been that “…companies have closed many unionized operations and moved them overseas and [that] many employers have grown more sophisticated in beating back unionization efforts” (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). There is also the contention that, since conditions for the growing work force have improved since WWII, there is not such a strong need for union representation.

The author further comments on this affect of globalization by providing the example of the 1980’s growth within the Japanese economy and auto industry and how it placed pressure on US auto manufacturers. He also points out how the low cost of labour in China as well as the booming information technology industry in India has encouraged many companies to outsource jobs. “The movement of so many jobs to the developing world has lifted living standards in many once-impoverished countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but has raised concerns that workers in some of those countries toil in sweatshop conditions”. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/labor/index.html?scp=1&sq=national%20labor%20relations%20act&st=cse). Such labour problems as outsourcing have also been proven an issue in Europe.

Internationally, there has been a similar push for unions. Not only in developed countries but in those considered as having an emerging market economy, there are organizations working, globally, on behalf of workers, employers and governments. One such organization, that has this tripartism approach, is the International Labour Organization (ILO). Within this is the International Trade Union Confederation which, itself, is comprised of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) and eight other national trade union organizations. Organizers wanted “…to give workers a stronger voice in meeting the challenges of globalization and allow the union movement to remain…” an essential contributor within the “economic climate” (http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/ampro/cinterfor/news/press49.htm). Its efforts’ focus on improving productivity as well as working conditions, outcomes which will ultimately provide better quality products without sacrificing employees well being. “The ITUC’s primary mission is the promotion and defence of workers’ rights and interests, through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions” (http://www.global-unions.org/spip.php?rubrique12). The most encompassing though, is that of Global Unions which is, basically, the collection of all international trade union organizations. All such organizations under this group “…share a common determination to organize, to defend human rights and labour standards everywhere, and to promote the growth of trade unions for the benefit of all working men and women and their families” (http://www.global-unions.org/spip.php?rubrique25).

A problem arises with union intervention on a national and international stage in combating globalization. Because the issue or more so, the effects of globalization are so hotly contested, the idea of a nation industrializing under (for lack of a better word) the constraints of union laws and practices does not provide foreseeable outcomes. So, if one is to argue that developing nations today that are industrializing are in a way “catching up,” then the presence of unions will hamper that process. The US, Russia, parts of Europe, etc. did not formerly industrialize with unions present, let alone stringent labour laws. But, as mentioned before, not only is the argument that globalization will allow for countries’ development purported but it is also disputed. So, in that situation, labour unions would serve well at protecting employees, if not from the workers’ own countries, then from international interests.

But if the matter is international solidarity for the cause of social justice, then the efforts of labour union organizations may effectively be no different than the proponents of globalization who contend that it is an increasing international solidarity for the means of economic equaling.

For more information on globalization and/or unions, visit www.wto.org, www.global-unions.org, www.ilo.org

By: Monique Brunatti

What is an ethical consumer?

Some of you may have wandered onto this page, wondering what exactly is an ethical footprint, or what it means to be an ethical consumer. You have come to the right place. As all of the members of this blog, we have been studying about postcolonialism this year, and have learned a great amount of knowledge about colonialism, globalization, and ethical consumerism. Through this class we have become more conscious of the world around us, as consumers, but mainly as human beings.

During this class we have discussed what it means to be an ethical consumer. we have learned many different things from our professor, Dr. Massod Raja, who happens to be a very ethical consumer. Many of his clothes were either purchased from second hand stores, or directly from his native country, Pakistan. We have learned that it is possible to buy food that is also grown ethically. Our professor has told us that shopping at farmer’s markets is one way of finding food that was ethically grown. After learning about his ethical ways, we decided that our class project should be a blog informing people of ways they can help the environment and the people who produce every little product we use.

An ethical footprint is a way of measuring how much of an ethical consumer you are. In this blog, we will be trying to inform the people that happen to stop by here about ways that will help reduce their ethical footprint. While looking for definitions of what an ethical consumer is, I found very few good definitions, but one stood out above all:

“An ‘ethical consumer’ looks for products which, above all, are both friendly to the environment and also the people who produce them. An ethical consumer is therefore aware of the consequences of production, consumption and disposal. They have clear expectations of how they expect a company to behave and expect ethical companies to conform to ethical standards” (Marketing Profs).

With this definition in mind, your idea of what is ethical and non-ethical can be completely different from someone else’s idea. Your idea of what is ethical will most likely be affected by your own ethics, customs and values. In our opinion, ethical consumerism involves the public having the knowledge of how the products they consume on a daily basis are made and sold. Many of the other students in my class have given good examples of stores and companies that are ethical and non-ethical.

We believe that there are many people that would try to be more ethical consumers, once they were informed of the things that go on in this world. There are links on this page that will help you gain the knowledge about products. As I was looking for definitions of what an ethical consumer is, I came upon a website that rates different companies based on how ethical they are. There are about 170 buyer’s guide comparisons that you can subscribe to with a subscriber’s fee (www.ethiscore.org). On this same website, there are a few reports that are actually free to the public. There is actually a magazine from the UK, that also gives good ideas on how to be a more ethical and green consumer (www.ethicalconsumer.org). The only downside to these websites, as is true with many others, is that you have to pay for this knowledge.

By: Agata Jagusztyn

Labor Union Keeps Cleveland Plant Open

As of December 2009, German suit manufacturer Hugo Boss announced its intention to close its Cleveland-based plant. While the company is famous for high-fashion men’s garments, the Brooklyn factory in particular only produces two lines of suits. This was one of the reasons cited by Hugo Boss for publicizing the plant’s imminent closure, set to take place in late April 2010. According to the company’s official statement, the Ohio location “is not globally competitive” enough (abc NEWS). Shutting down the factory would cost upwards of 300 jobs.

Following the statement by Hugo Boss, the company entered into negotiations with Workers United, a labor union representing the 300 plus employees of the Cleveland location. But what exactly are labor unions, and what do they do for the workers they represent?

Labor unions began making themselves known during the time of the American Industrial Revolution and are divided into two different types. Those classified as trade unions appropriately represent employees in a certain trade, while industrial unions support groups in certain industries. In either case, labor unions offer mediation between the large corporations and the little guys – the workers (UnionSmart.org).

Trade and industrial unions often use collective bargaining, in which workers will group together in order to negotiate with their employer for higher wages, better working conditions, or other benefits in the work environment. The union’s role is to better the work experience for the employees, yet keep the corporation in business. Oftentimes if the workers’ demands are not met, the union will organize a labor strike in the hopes that it will drive the company to concede, although the threat of a strike can be just as beneficial (UnionSmart.org).

In the case of Hugo Boss, a strike would not have been favorable, seeing as the manufacturer intended to close the Cleveland plant anyway. However, Workers United and Hugo Boss were able to come to an agreement in the days immediately preceding the scheduled closing of the factory to keep it up and running, saving the hundreds of jobs that would have been lost. Additionally, wages will not be cut, and the Ohio-based Hugo Boss will be able to become more globally competitive by reducing other costs and increasing flexibility of manufacturing. The deal was also driven by actor Danny Glover, who urged others in Hollywood not to wear the company’s suits to this year’s Oscars. His support of the workers helped to draw attention to the situation taking place (Manufacturing.net).

While labor unions help to obtain better working conditions and higher wages for the workers they represent, they may also be viewed in a negative light. Some corporations like Wal-Mart have been known to actively oppose unionized labor, and it has become harder for them to operate since the time of the Industrial Revolution.

By Alyssa Parnaby

Child Labor

When you buy something, do you stop and take the time to think of the hands that made what you are purchasing? Every day, children all over the world work to barely earn a living. It is estimated, according to UNICEF, that one in 6 of the world’s children experience child labor. These children have to work to survive, and they may often be the main source of income for their families. One very important thing to do is define child labor. A child age 5 to 11 who works at least one hour of economic work (hired and paid) or 28 hours of domestic work (i.e. family business) in a week, and children ages 12 to 14 who work at least 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work are child laborers. Finally any children ages 15 to 17 who work over 43 hours of domestic or economic work are considered child laborers. These standards determine the safe amounts of work children can do; any more work, and it is considered harmful for the child.

Child labor is in some developed countries, but it is nothing like the child labor that exists in the third world. There are rigid regulations and laws that help to prevent child labor in the United States and in other parts of the world. Work regulation is almost nonexistent in some countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Children here often work hard days and nights barely being able to sustain their families. In Africa, child labor makes up for 32% of the works force; 22% of the workforce in Asia is made up of children; and in Latin America, 17% of the workforce consists of child labor. These are huge numbers compared to just 1% in the U. S., Canada, and Europe.

Child labor is not invisible, either.  Their labor is used in factories, mines, agriculture and in many other areas. Many large, popular companies have been found using child labor. Nike and Coca Cola, two big name companies that you have probably seen in other posts on Ethical Footprint, have both been accused of using child labor on different occasions. Apple Computers has also come under fire when it was discovered that there were children working in some of its factories in China. These three names are only companies that have been discovered to be using child labor. Who knows how many companies are sneaking by with unethically produced clothing, toys, furniture, etc.

Although many of these these kids are far away from the United States that does not mean there is nothing you can do. A little research can make a big difference, and it can open your eyes to how many big companies use children to get cheaper cost of production. A good place to start is UNICEF. This organization has been working for the rights and well being of children for years. Another way to help is to just talk about child labor. Some people just do not think about it, so start a discussion. Education is a very powerful thing, and it can be a great tool in helping to stop child labor.

By: Joe Cancelliere

Fair Trade

While there are many products you may have to think twice about purchasing, or should avoid if possible, there is one type of product you can always count on.

Those products are fair trade certified products, and they can help in the mission to become an ethical consumer. “Fair trade standards are established by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and address social and economic development, environmental management, and labor conditions of Fair Trade farms” (TransFair USA). The strength of fair trade is that it helps the producer and the consumer. “You’d be forgiven for thinking Fair Trade was about the price, but it isn’t. 100% Fair Trade is about relationships. Relationships between people both locally and globally, relationships between organisations up and down the supply chain, and the relationships between the consumer and producer” (World Fair Trade Day).  When you purchase fair trade products you are supporting their 10 standards, many of which address basic human rights and match up with many modern desires.

“Organizations who buy Fair Trade products from producer groups either directly or through intermediaries ensure that no forced labor is used in production and the producer complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and national / local law on the employment of children” (World Fair Trade Organization). People and their rights are the main focus of these standards. “100% Fair Trade is a total commitment between people to deliver a prosperous and sustainable future for the good of the planet and for the good of mankind” (World Fair Trade Day). It’s also about helping impoverished people. “The organization supports marginalized small producers, whether these are independent family businesses, or grouped in associations or co-operatives. It seeks to enable them to move from income insecurity and poverty to economic self-sufficiency and ownership. The trade supports community development” (World Fair Trade Organization). The organizations which are approved by the World Fair Trade organization are held to many standards which are intended to better the lives of employees. “The organization respects the right of all employees to form and join trade unions of their choice and to bargain collectively. Where the right to join trade unions and bargain collectively is restricted by law and/or political environment, the organization will enable means of independent and free association and bargaining for employees” (World Fair Trade Organization). The companies are monitored to ensure that these conditions, among many others, are met.

In America, the Fair Trade Federation was established in 1994 as the North American Alternative Trade Organization, or NAATO. The name was switched to the Fair Trade Federation in 1995. “Fair trade seeks to change the lives of the poorest of the poor who frequently lack alternative sources of income. As North American fair trade organizations grow, they employ more and more individuals in their communities” (Fair Trade Federation).  Rather than taking American jobs to other countries, as you may suspect, the products represented by these organizations aren’t necessarily in production in North America. You also don’t have to worry about the prices of these goods being too much more than normal prices. “Most fair trade products are competitively priced in relation to their conventional counterparts. Fair trade organizations work directly with producers, cutting out exploitative middlemen, so they can keep products affordable for consumers…” (Fair Trade Federation). This form of trade is about making life better for all people, and for fostering balance and self-sustainability. “The Federation envisions a just and sustainable global economic system in which purchasing and production choices are made with the concern for the well-being of people and the environment, creating a world where all people have viable economic options to meet their own needs”(Fair Trade Federation).

In the UK the FairTrade Foundation was established in 1992. “Our vision is a world in which justice and sustainable development are at the heart of trade structures and practices so that everyone, through their work, can maintain a decent and dignified livelihood and develop their full potential” (Fair Trade Foundation). Since 1998 the sales of Fairtrade certified products in the United Kingdom have increased from 16.7 million to 799 million, in 2009. In 2008, FairTrade’s organization found that 70% of people recognize the FairTrade symbol (see below). They also found that 1 in 4 shoppers are consistently buying products with the FairTrade Label (Fair Trade Foundation). These trends are continually expanding. On May 11th, 2010, Fair Trade Foundation published a press release saying that a recent “survey showed that Fairtrade clearly adds value to products and strongly impacts on people’s intention to buy. An overwhelming 90% of active ethical consumers say the FAIRTRADE Mark on pack helps the product create a positive impression and many say it makes them more likely to buy specific brand. What’s more, over 60% of existing purchasers are likely to recommend Fairtrade to friends and colleagues” (Fair Trade Foundation). These increasing numbers can say only good things for Fair Trade’s progress.

As a consumer you can become more ethical by looking for these labels on products you regularly shop for. Some popular fair trade items are coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice, vanilla, flowers and honey (TransFair USA).  The Fairtrade Labelling Organization says there are “…thousands of products that carry the FairTrade mark. Fairtrade standards exist for food products ranging from tea and coffee to fresh fruits and nuts. There are also standards for non-food products such as flowers and plants, sports balls and seed cotton.” (Fairtrade Labelling Organization) While you may not be able to find all the products  you’re looking for in Fair Trade form, you have to start somewhere. Ethical consumerism is about taking the small steps necessary to make a big difference, in your life and in lives all over the world.

By: Hailee Monk