In his first hour as president, Donald Trump promised to resurrect middle-class manufacturing jobs in the United States. It will be all but impossible for him to reverse the tides of globalization and automation, but the future may nonetheless be bright for the American worker, thanks to a trend that predates and will outlast the 45th president.
For the last decade, the solar industry has enjoyed exponential job growth. Last year, more than 51,000 people in the United States were hired to design, manufacture, sell and install solar panels, according to a new report from The Solar Foundation. That means the solar industry created jobs 17 times faster than the economy as a whole.
“In 2016, we saw a dramatic increase in the solar workforce across the nation, thanks to a rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels and unprecedented consumer demand for solar installations,” said Andrea Luecke, The Solar Foundation’s president and executive director.
Falling prices for panels are helping drive a nationwide clean-energy boom. Utility-scale solar is now cost-competitive with wind and natural gas—and it’s cheaper than coal, even without subsidies. Last year, solar accounted for more than a third of new U.S. generating capacity.
The solar industry now employs twice as many people in the United States as the coal industry and roughly the same number of people as the natural gas industry. While solar still accounts for a much far smaller share of U.S. power generation than either of those fossil fuel sources, it’s expanding rapidly, putting a growing number of Americans to work. While the official numbers have not been tallied, early estimates have found that more solar was added to the grid in 2016 than natural gas capacity.
Roughly half of the men and women working in the solar industry are installers, who earn a median wage of $26 an hour in a job that can’t be outsourced. In addition, these positions don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
The burgeoning workforce also includes people working in sales and project development, jobs that call for an education in engineering or business.
The report notes that the solar workforce is growing more diverse, employing a larger share of women and people of color, as well as a significant number of military veterans. Last year, solar companies created jobs in nearly every state.
“It’s really a wide range of people that get hired into this industry—everybody from certified and licensed engineers to those who first learned about a solar project when we were building one in their area,” said George Hershman, the general manager of Swinerton Renewable Energy. “A great aspect of this business is that it isn’t an exclusionary trade. It’s a teachable job that can create opportunity for people and give them a skill.”
While jobs are cropping up all across the country, growth is more closely linked to policy support for renewable energy than to the number of sunny days in a given locale. Last year, Massachusetts added more solar jobs than Texas, despite enjoying less sunshine. The Bay State has ambitious plans to build out zero-carbon power sources like wind and solar.
“Solar is an important part of our ever-expanding clean energy economy in Massachusetts, supporting thousands of high-skilled careers across the Commonwealth,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said.
Smart policy is key to the continued growth of the solar industry, which has been bolstered by federal tax credits and state renewable-energy mandates, among other measures. President Trump plans to roll back federal policies that foster the growth of clean energy, potentially scrap the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and eliminate funding for clean-energy research and development.
Without these policies, solar will continue to grow, but at an attenuated pace. Corporations like General Motors, Apple and IKEA will keep buying up solar power to cut costs and guard against volatility in the price of fossil fuels. But electric utilities will be less incentivized to shutter existing coal-fired power plants in favor of new renewable energy installations.
Solar evangelists say that if Donald Trump wants to create well-paid jobs that don’t require a college education, he should foster the growth of solar rather than pursuing deals, one-by-one, to prevent U.S. manufacturers from shipping jobs overseas.
Last year, solar companies created more than 60 jobs for every one job Donald Trump and Mike Pence preserved by giving a tax break to Carrier. Ultimately, the jobs saved at the Carrier plant may be lost to machines. Meanwhile, jobs in solar are destined to keep growing.
This post appeared originally in Think Progress on February 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.
With wage and hour lawsuits becoming increasingly common across the country, there was little reason for the lawyers at Amazon.com’s Seattle headquarters to be surprised when one landed on their doorstep recently. But they may have been concerned to learn that their newest legal adversary is “Sledgehammer Shannon” Liss-Riordan, a Boston attorney who gained legal fame by beating corporate giants like FedEx and Starbucks in just these kinds of contests.
The new lawsuit against Amazon is similar to one of Liss-Riordan’s best known cases—a suit against FedEx that charged the company was misclassifying delivery drivers as independent contractors when the workers were, as a matter of law, regular employees. Liss-Riordan won that fight and, this year, FedEx announced that it would give up on a series of related legal fights and pay $240 million to some 12,000 drivers in 20 states.
Liss-Riordan took the fight to Amazon in a suit filed October 4 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It charges Amazon and Amazon Logistics Inc. with violating the minimum wage law in Seattle, state labor law in Washington and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Liss-Riordan explains that Amazon is experimenting with a delivery system where the company contracts with individuals to use their own cars to pick up parcels at Amazon warehouses and deliver them to local customers. The drivers typically sign up for a specific work shift and are paid an hourly wage. They are not compensated, however, for expenses like gasoline, car maintenance, telephone calls, or other incidentals. When subtracting these expenses, drivers often end up earning less than the minimum wage and are denied overtime pay, she says.
That description of delivery methods was echoed by Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Along with co-author Olivia LaVecchia, Mitchell has just completed a major study of Amazon’s business practices that warns that the giant corporation is killing good jobs in local economies as it seeks to monopolize different sectors of the retail business.
“Amazon has substantially expanded its warehouses in recent years and is experimenting with the so-called ‘last mile’ of the delivery system. They are increasingly using on-demand drivers, and also regional couriers, to move goods,” Mitchell says. “In the past, this sort of ‘last mile’ delivery was typically done by the U.S. Postal Service or United Parcel Service. USPS and UPS jobs are good-paying union jobs, and Amazon is undermining these with its gig economy model.”
In These Times reached out to Amazon to comment on the lawsuit. Spokesman Jim Billimoria provided the following response:
“The small and medium sized businesses that partner with Amazon Logistics have their own employees and are required to abide by applicable laws and Amazon’s Supplier Code of Conduct, which focuses on compensation, benefits, and appropriate working hours. We investigate any claim that a provider isn’t complying with these obligations.”
Liss-Riordan says this sort of a defense is typical of large corporations, many of which have lost wage and hour lawsuits in court.
“It’s not what you say that counts, it’s what you do,” she said. “We’ve been able to demonstrate, time and time again, that a lot of these corporations just don’t live up to their stated policies when it comes to real-life employment practices on the ground. That’s why you see more and more of these suits.”
Indeed, a 2015 report from the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP described an “onslaught” of litigation resulting in a record high number of federally-filed wage and hour cases in 2015. According to the firm, there were 8,781 such cases in 2015, compared to only 1,935 in 2000.
Asked about her nickname “Sledgehammer Shannon,” Liss-Riordan laughed out loud.
“It’s sort of silly. Mother Jones magazine did an article last year about a case I have against Uber, and I get a lot of jokes. I don’t care. The fact is, we will take on cases like this and fight them for 10 years if we have to.”
This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
“I sometimes imagine how my life would be different if my mom had the option of paid family leave,” Travis said. The District of Columbia resident was born prematurely. Because his mother could not get the time off from work to make necessary hospital visits to care for her fragile son, “She had to give me up to be raised in Florida by other family members.”
Travis and his fellow Washington, D.C., residents may no longer face those wrenching choices, thanks to the Universal Paid Leave Act, a proposed paid-leave law introduced this past Tuesday in the D.C. City Council. Among the most progressive of such paid-leave laws in the nation, the employer-paid leave program includes 11 weeks of gender equal parental leave, eight weeks of paid family caregiving leave and up to 90% pay replacement for low-income workers on leave. Family leave includes parental leave for new parents after the birth, adoption or fostering of a child, as well as caregiving leave to care for a sick, injured or dying loved one.
“58% of D.C. families can’t afford to take unpaid leave,” said Jackie Jeter, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, which worked with a coalition of paid-leave advocates to shepherd the bill through the legislative process over the past year. The D.C. Paid Family Leave Coalition, a network of nearly 200 businesses, nonprofits and advocacy organizations, said it was “extremely pleased to see the council affirm the need for paid family leave and move toward creating a program that works for everyone,” but called for strengthening the bill. Initial drafts included medical leave, available for people who suffer serious injuries or illnesses and need time away from work to recover.
“While council members finalize the details around paid leave legislation, they have a moral obligation to include medical leave coverage for a large portion of our city’s most vulnerable working people and families,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of SEIU 32BJ, a steering committee member of the D.C. Paid Family Leave campaign. “Paid medical leave is especially urgent for our members and others in D.C. who earn low wages, as only 17% of low-wage workers nationally have access to short-term disability plans (aka paid medical leave). At a time when the Affordable Care Act is under threat and when medical expenses are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy, working families are relying on their council members to create a program that helps their families stay financially stable during health crises.”
“I’m currently six months pregnant with my first child and am worried and nervous about the time when I can no longer work,” said Ward 8 resident Nicole earlier this year. “I won’t be able to pay bills or rent. I have never had to be on public assistance and do not want to rely on that. I’m a hard worker and always have been. Even though, I’ve been with my restaurant job for a year and a half, any time I need off of work will be unpaid.”
Under the proposed legislation, about 65% of Washington, D.C., residents who work would be covered—supporting hundreds of thousands of family members. The remaining 35% work for the District or federal government, or commute outside the city. Of those covered, 100% will be able to afford leave, advocates say. Paid family leave is more critical than ever because 59% of mothers with infants are now in the workforce, while just 12% of private-sector workers get paid leave through their employers. Studies show that when a parent can take time away from work to care for a child after birth or adoption, it results in improved health for both.
The law’s cost will be covered by a 0.62% increase in employer-paid payroll taxes, which bill sponsor At-Large Council Member David Grosso called “a pretty good deal,” noting that it will enable District residents “to do what matters most to them in life and that is be close to the people they care about during great moments of transition in their lives.” At the same time, the D.C. Paid Family Leave Coalition is calling for a return to the 1% tax initially proposed, which would enable the city to offer medical as well as family leave.
This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on December 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Chris Garlock is the Union Cities/Street Heat Coordinator for the Metro Washington (DC) Council, AFL-CIO, and the Director of the DC Labor FilmFest. He’s built one of the largest mobilization databases of any Labor Council or State Fed in the country, and more than 10,000 activists and supporters receive daily weekday updates on the metro-area labor movement via the award-winning UNION CITY ezine. He organizes the annual DC Labor FilmFest, one of the only labor-themed film festivals in the world, founded in 2001 to screen films by, for and about work and workers. Garlock has also worked as a radio producer for populist Jim Hightower, Coordinator of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council, and as a reporter, editor, columnist, radio commentator, as well as dishwasher, prep cook and chef (he’s a volunteer cook twice a month at Miriam’s Kitchen). A strong amateur go player, Chris edits the American Go E-Journal, the largest English-language publication about the game of go, with nearly 13,000 readers worldwide.
School schedules aren’t working for parents, and haven’t caught up to the reality of modern families’ lives.
The vast majority of parents 70 percent, work full-time from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the median closing time for a school is 2:30 p.m. On top of that, schools are closed 80 percent longer than the typical worker receives in paid holidays and vacation time, which works out to 13 more days off than parents have, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress.
That presents a problem for parents who work outside the home, especially mothers, single parents, low-income parents, parents of color, and part-time workers. Many of these demographics overlap, of course. Women of color in particular tend to make less money than white men and women and thus are less likely to be able to afford after-school programs and day care. Part-time workers also have far less vacation days and sick days than full-time workers.
This means the most disadvantaged populations in the United States are bearing the brunt of our school schedules-which are filled with extra days off around the holidays, days taken off for teachers’ professional development, snow days not offered by local employers, and policies mandating parents to pick up their sick kids, no matter how minor the illness.
Why a 9-to-5 schedule isn’t working for parents
Right now, schools are designed for families where one parent works outside the home and one parent stays home to care for the children, and is available to be on call to pick up their kids from school whenever necessary.
“Unfortunately the reality of working families has evolved a lot, and we need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives,” said Catherine Brown, the vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress and one of the authors of the new report. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
“We need to invest in the kind of school policies and schedules to catch us up to the way people are actually living their lives.”
The CAP report emphasizes the change in family work weeks. Between 1979 and 2006, the typical middle class family work week increased by 11 hours.
One might suggest after-school programs as the antidote to this problem, but these programs are not universally available, especially to the parents who need them most. Only 45 percent of all public elementary schools offer parents after-school care, according to CAP’s analysis of federal education data and only 31 percent of Title I schools have after-school programs.
Brown said school policies on picking children up from school also make parents’ lives very difficult. The report explains that schools often require parents to pick children up even when their illness is minor or non-contagious. Duval County Public Schools in Florida has a policy where parents are required to pick up an ill child within 60 minutes of being notified.
‘What will typically happen is your kid has a slight fever and they’ll call you and say you need to immediately pick them up and that’s just not viable,” Brown said. “If you’re working at McDonald’s or even if you’re working at CAP, it’s really hard to instantly abandon what you’re doing and go pick up your child, and this is a really clear way that schools disregard the needs of working parents.”
Brown added that these schedules often mean students go to recess or eat lunch very early in the day because they’re sharing a tight schedule with so many kids. Ideally, children’s schedules would be organized according to the natural ebb and flow of their energy levels throughout the day.
The creative solutions that could help fix this issue
There is no reason why this inconvenient school schedule needs to remain in place, the authors of the report explain. The CAP report puts forth several ideas for reforming the way that school schedules work.
States could raise the minimum length of a school day to eight hours, which would push schools toward a typical work schedule.
Districts could use the assistance of AmeriCorps members, college students, and community members to help run programs during school closings and to monitor students when parents are at work.
Schools could limit days off to major holidays, look to major employers when deciding whether to close schools for inclement weather, and create school health policies that better recognize parents’ busy schedules.
Administrators could accommodate parents’ work schedules when deciding when to schedule parent-teacher conferences and consider alternatives to in-person meetings, such as chatting through Skype.
Schools could look at more efficient ways to conduct teacher professional development, such as having teacher development run throughout the school day through teacher collaboration and individualized coaching, so the school wouldn’t have to close for the day.
Schools could identify alternatives to a tiered busing schedule, such as a dual-route system, so that students can get to school at the same time.
How a new school schedule would affect teachers
One of the most challenging questions facing advocates for a 9-to-5 school schedule is how to ensure teachers aren’t shortchanged in the process. After all, teachers come in early to prepare for classes and often stay later to assist students and grade papers?—?they don’t want to make their days even longer.
Staggered schedules could ensure that teachers don’t work longer hours than they already do. But if they do end up adding more hours to their workday, advocates say teachers should be fairly compensated.
“What we want to be clear about is that we’re not advocating for teachers to work longer hours without getting compensated for that time,” Brown said.
She added that kids can also do independent work an work in peer-to-peer groups that allow teachers time to do planning, give kids more time to learn, and reduce parent stress.
Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow for education policy at CAP, said there is also the possibility of teachers working a 9-to-5 schedule but doing so only four days a week. Teachers who work at Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, for example, have a school day that begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 4:35 p.m. but they have Fridays off.
How to pay for a longer school day
Keeping schools open longer will cost more money. But there are federal funds available to help school districts pay for lengthening their days.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance explaining that as long as extended school days are “meeting an identified need to improve student achievement,” a federal source called Title I, Part A fund can be used toward paying for it. Other federal funding sources include Promise Neighborhoods competition, Full-Service Community Schools Program, and Community Learning Centers program.
Congress could also include a competitive grant program in the Higher Education Act to encourage graduate schools in social work to partner with neighboring school districts to develop a 9-to-5 schedule.
This new schedule could also be considered a “school theme” in the way technology or bilingualism is considered a theme for many schools. These schools could be funded through competitive grant programs targeted at low-income schools.
Some of these policy proposals are easier to implement than others, but Brown said innovation is necessary to acknowledge the needs of working parents.
“I think requiring longer school days requires an injection of resources and creative thinking about how you set up your schools,” Brown said.
This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on October 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.
Chicago teachers will likely take to the streets early Tuesday in an escalation of their campaign to defend their jobs and improve the education of the students and the communities they serve. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has said it will strike if no deal is reached by midnight.
Four years ago, the CTU won a new contract with a dramatic 7-day strike that captured national attention. Although the CTU was unable in the following years to stop Mayor Rahm Emanuel from closing more than 50 schools, last April the union continued its contract fight with a mayoral-appointed Board of Education by calling for a 1-day strike over the failure of talks to renew their contract.
With the CTU and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) still at loggerheads over a new agreement, the teachers are preparing to establish picket lines once again at schools throughout the nation’s third-largest school system, taking on the Board of Education, Emanuel, the obsessively anti-union Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the local business class.
The fight is, in various ways, about money. The Board of Education, under Emanuel’s control, says it must cut costs since it is running a deficit. One of its proposed solutions would eliminate a longstanding agreement to pay for part of the cost of teachers’ pensions, effectively cutting teachers’ pay.
Rauner advocates a harsh and ideological strategy designed to humiliate the teachers and break their union. He has said bankruptcy might be the best option for CPS—a move that would allow a court to void union contracts.
But the strike is about more than money, too. The CTU sees negotiations as a chance to focus on the quality of education for Chicago students. The union wants to reduce class sizes, guarantee that all schools have libraries and librarians, give teachers professional support and training to teach more creatively, and provide social services and counselors who can help students resolve problems that may be interfering with their learning or leading them to drop out.
“In my 13 years of teaching, schools and students have never faced this type of assault,” said Lillian Kass, a special education teacher in CPS and a CTU delegate.
“We are going on strike to protect our students from further cuts. We need enforceable class sizes and adequate services so all students can succeed. Teachers and students have already suffered too many cuts. More cuts are not acceptable and not sustainable,” she said.
The contract dispute is linked to profound and pernicious questions regarding class and racial divisions in the city and state. The backdrop to the current conflict is the decades-long failure of the state government to follow the state’s constitutional mandate to carry the primary responsibility for financing public education.
As a result, schools are very unevenly and inequitably funded by local property taxes. The tax burden is greatest on working-class households, while businesses successfully resist paying their fair share. Chicago taxpayers suffer an additional burden: While state taxes—including taxes paid by Chicago residents—help fund teacher pensions for the rest of the state, Chicago residents alone pay for all pension-related costs for their schools.
Low-income communities, especially those that are predominately black, have suffered most from shortcomings in funding, school closings and many other CPS policies. Reinforcing the results of other investigations, a recent report by WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station, revealed that new school construction in areas of the city where the population is growing is carefully planned to maintain high levels of racial segregation, even though it would be easy to use the construction to create a more integrated school enrollment.
Union leaders see community groups as crucial allies in the fight now unfolding. Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC), with a dozen or more members, played an important role in the 2012 strike, says Steven Ashby, a labor educator at the University of Illinois. Ashby, who is the leader of a renewed CTSC, says the new coalition already includes more than 50 groups.
The CTU, CTSC and many other progressive groups are pushing for the city to redirect to the schools as much as possible from Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a funding tool. The money is largely a “slush fund” spent at the mayor’s discretion for business-related projects, and reformers argue that it could provide significant funding for schools.
The issues posed by the teachers’ strike involve a tangle of inherited pathologies of racism, business dominance, and corrupt local politics—together forming a Gordian knot that blocks progressive reform. The strike may not cut the knot, but it could help direct the next blows for reformers tackling the many challenges beyond the current, critically important task of educating the city’s children.
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been hounded for months by a company attempting to collect money for a gym membership that I canceled more than 15 years ago.
I was paying $150 a year for the membership before I correctly canceled the membership in writing. That “fitness center” was bought by a national chain that is known for hounding people for unpaid memberships, even if the membership has been canceled and nothing is actually owed.
In my case, they say I owe $2,500, but they will “settle” for less. And I can’t stop the calls.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is now proposing new rules that would put a stop to this kind of behavior and give consumers who have been victimized options for relief.
The CFPB is a new agency of the government that protects regular people from scams, frauds and abuses by the financial industry. The bureau came about as part of the minimal Dodd-Frank re-regulation of Wall Street and the rest of the financial industry following the 2008 crash.
One such often-abused financial scheme is debt collection. It’s an entire industry. Many people don’t know that there is a market where “debt buying” companies can actually buy “bundles of debt.” A company can actually purchase a “portfolio” of old debts like loans, installment car or store loans, even gym membership contracts that have been written off because a company has decided it is just too much trouble and expense to try to collect.
Instead of just giving up, though, the original lender “sells” the debt for pennies on the dollar to companies that specialize in doing nothing but collections. The collection company is all set up with “boiler rooms” full of people and phones, where they have refined techniques to hound the debtor, trying to collect what they can.
Often the collection companies don’t even verify that the debt is even legitimate.
Another scam is “fraudulent service” where the debt company falsely claims they served papers on a debtor, and when the debtor doesn’t show up in court they get a judgment allowing them to garnish paychecks and extend the legal period for collecting debt.
The U.S. watchdog for consumer finances unveiled on Thursday a major proposal to toughen regulation of the multibillion-dollar debt collection industry, with a focus on keeping agencies from pushing people to pay debts they do not owe, informing borrowers of their rights and cutting down on calls to debtors.
“Today we are considering proposals that would drastically overhaul the debt collection market,” said Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray in a statement. “This is about bringing better accuracy and accountability to a market that desperately needs it.”
… Roughly 13 percent of consumers have a debt currently in third-party collection, with an average amount of $1,300, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows.
Some 77 million people — roughly one in three adults with a credit report — have a delinquent debt in collections, according to an estimate by the Urban Institute.
… Susan Macharia, 39, an administrative worker who lives in Buena Park, Calif., said she was blindsided in January when she got a call from a collector saying that her wages would be garnished unless she paid off a $10,000 credit card debt that she allegedly ran up in 2003.
A debt so old would normally be beyond the statute of limitations, and legally uncollectable, but the company had a copy of a 2006 default judgment that was entered against her when she failed to respond to a collection lawsuit.
But Ms. Macharia, who opened her first credit card account just three years ago, had no recollection of being notified of a lawsuit, and she was living in Atlanta when the papers were said to have been served on her in California. …
While Ms. Macharia tried to figure out how to contest the debt, the collector began garnishing nearly $800 a month from her paychecks.
It’s about time the government starting acting like a government again. Meanwhile Republicans in Congress are trying to gut the CFPB’s effectivenessbecause the bureau cracks down on scams like these.
This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on July 28, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.
Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.
On Tuesday, workers at the Philadelphia airport rallied ahead of a possible strike next week. The workers are trying to draw attention to their low wages—last year, they won $12 an hour and are now fighting to get to $15. And next week is a good time to get attention for their struggle, with the Democratic National Convention being held in Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, workers and supporters reiterated their intention to strike next week, promising to cause “as much disruption as possible.” The union has authorized – by an overwhelming vote of 95 percent – a strike during the convention in Philadelphia.
As much as it’s a chance for workers to shine a light on their struggle, it’s a chance for DNC delegates and speakers to show their support for these workers. It’s a moment to say that the workers’ fight is part of the Democratic Party’s fight to improve wage and working conditions.
In this environment, anything that unions can do alone, with dwindling power, will be insufficient. The challenge for labor, at a moment of historic weakness, is to figure out how unions can support and be involved in movements and campaigns that expand, rather than narrow, the scope and scale of what we are organizing and bargaining for. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is thinking bigger and broadening our vision, goals, and demands—even at a moment of weakness—that offers a path to resurgent unions and a more equal and just country and world.
Stories about historic efforts to address racial segregation in American public education often start with Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. But the story of Little Rock and segregation badly needs updating.
Central High became one of the first practical tests of principles established in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned racially separate public schools. When nine black students showed up for opening day of the historically all-white school, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent them from entering. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by calling in federal troops to escort the students into the school, and Faubus eventually backed down.
But the story of racial integration in Little Rock shouldn’t be confined to Central High. The same year Central was integrated, another school, Hall High, opened in the all-white part of town with an all white student body. Hall would not integrate until 1959 (Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools in school year 1958-59 to protest federal intervention), when three black girls were allowed to attend.
By the late 1970s and early 80s, through busing and other efforts, Hall had become a more racially diverse school, according to Kathy Webb, who graduated from Hall in 1967.* Webb, who is white, currently represents Ward 3 on the Little Rock City Board and has served in the Arkansas state legislature.
In a phone conversation, Webb tells me that she remembers Hall High as a racially diverse school with an academically solid reputation and a relatively high graduation rate. But then, she notes, something happened: Hall High underwent a profound change.
By 2002, when Webb returned to live in Little Rock after decades away, Hall looked more like a school from the segregationist past than the model of progressive integration it had once been. Today, the student population of Hall is just 5 percent white, with 70 percent of students having incomes low enough to receive free or reduced price lunch. Hall has also become a school with a reputation for low academic achievement, and in 2014, the state placed Hall on a list of six Little Rock schools in “academic distress.”
And while Central High continues to be more racially balanced—54 percent black, 34 percent white—Little Rock School District as a whole is racially imbalanced, as CNN recently reported, with a school population that is 70 percent black in a city that is 55 percent white.
“People have been oblivious to this,” Webb says about the re-segregation of the community and Hall High in particular.
What happened to Hall High is an example of what has been happening nationwide, according to a flurry of high-profile media stories. Progress on racial integration in schools achieved during the Civil Rights period has gradually eroded, and in many cities, schools are now nearly as racially divided as they were 40 years ago.
“Integration as a constitutional mandate, as justice for black and Latino children, as a moral righting of past wrongs, is no longer our country’s stated goal,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones for the New York Times Magazine.
Hannah-Jones explains how, despite research studies showing the negative effects of racially segregated schools on children’s education and long-term success, Republican presidents since Eisenhower have appointed conservative Supreme Court judges who have whittled away at court-ordered integration plans until “legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again.”
But lengthy presentations of statistical data and litanies of high court decisions tend to overlook places where the fight to uphold the vision of a pluralistic school system is still very much alive—places like Little Rock, where the fight is still going on. The fight is inflamed with the same themes from when Ike invaded the district; the belief that “separate would never be equal” and that deep divisions in society have to be overcome by intentional policy decisions.
But now, the actors have changed. This time, those being accused of segregating students aren’t local bigots. Instead, Little Rock citizens see segregation as being imposed upon them by outsiders, operating under the guise of a reform agenda.
In this conflict, the issue of local control—the cause Faubus and white Little Rock citizens held high in their fight against federal intervention—has been completely turned on its head, with the state government teaming up with wealthy allies to remove decision-making power from the community. And new entities, such as charter schools (publicly funded schools that are privately operated) and private foundations controlled by a small number of rich people, sow divisions in the community.
Once again, the fate of Little Rock’s schools is a test of principles that may be adopted nationwide; only this time, in an effort to divide communities rather than unite them.
‘We Are Retreating to 1957’
“Most people [here] have been escaping rather than preparing for how to confront a world that is becoming more diverse,” Arkansas State Senator Joyce Elliott tells me in a phone conversation. Elliott, who is black, is a Democratic member of the Arkansas Senate, representing the 31st District, which includes part of Little Rock.
The means of escape in Little Rock has changed over time, according to Elliott. Private schools enabling white flight from LRSD proliferated in the 1970s and ’80s. In addition, district leaders, pressured by wealthy white citizens, redrew attendance zones to separate neighborhoods and avoid busing, a practice still in use today.
As John Kirk and Jess Porter explain in an overview of Little Rock’s struggle with segregation appearing in the Arkansas Times, the city has been racially divided for decades by interstate highways, housing policies, and urban planning. Kirk and Porter, both history professors at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, note that segregation has been “consciously created by public policy, with private sector collusion.”
“We are retreating to 1957,” Elliott believes. Only now, instead of using Jim Crow and white flight, or housing and highways, the new segregationists have other tools at their disposal. First, education funding cuts have made competition for resources more intense, with wider disparities along racial lines. Second, recent state takeover of the district has spread a sense throughout the community of having lost control of its education destiny. Parents, local officials, and community activists continuously describe change as something being done to them rather than with them. And third, an aggressive charter school sector that competes with local public schools for resources and students further divides the community.
And lurking in the background of anything having to do with Little Rock school politics is the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic organization connected to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, whose headquarters is in Bentonville, Arkansas.
A Struggle Over Resources
Arkansas is one of the many states that funds schools less than it did before the Great Recession. According to data compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 2008 and 2014, school funding in Arkansas declined by more than 9 percent, while during those same years, student enrollment grew by 1.5 percent, according to the most recent measures and projections by the federal government.
Although the state’s economy has recovered somewhat from the downturn, the state’s politically conservative leadership continues to make cuts to public schools. The budget austerity is particularly harmful to schools that serve higher percentages of low-income children, as Little Rock’s does.
According to a district-by-district map of poverty rates created by EdBuild, an education finance reform consultancy, the Little Rock School District, and its adjacent North Little Rock neighbor, are tasked with educating some of the poorest students in the state, with poverty rates of 26.9 percent and 33 percent, respectively, compared to school districts surrounding them, where poverty rates are much lower, around 17 percent.
State budget cuts prompted a $40 million decrease in school spending in Little Rock in early 2015. Then, later that year, a federal judge overturned the state’s long-standing obligation to help fund Little Rock’s expenses for desegregation. The payments had amounted to more than $1 billion in 60 years. That additional cut helped prompt another round of spending decreases in 2016.
“We are constantly having our resources taken away,” Toney Orr tells me in a phone interview. “Families with means are moving on” to higher wealth schools that surround the district. “But if you’re a family without means, you can’t move on,” he says.
Orr, an African American father of twin sons in the Little Rock schools, tells me the general lack of resources in the district is leading to a more segregated system as “power struggles between the haves and the have-nots” have intensified.
An article in The Atlantic cites from a lawsuit brought by Little Rock parents that found huge differences between resources in schools with very high percentages of black students versus schools that enroll mostly white students. School conditions and access to computers vary considerably, with schools that are mostly white students having newer, cleaner buildings and plentiful computers while schools with almost all-black and brown students are more apt to be in decaying and decrepit buildings with few computers.
“We have created the conditions for undermining the schools,” state senator Elliott says in describing the lack of resources in Little Rock schools, especially those serving low-income, non-white children.
Not only does Little Rock have fewer resources for schools, local citizens now have less say in determining how those resources are managed.
In January 2015, the state board of education, an appointed board whose members are selected by the governor, voted to take over the district, dissolve the locally elected school board, and hand authority over to a governor-appointed Education Commissioner.
The takeover, according to an Arkansas independent news outlet, was justified largely on the basis of a previous decision to designate six schools, including Hall High School, as academically distressed. The same news article quotes a Little Rock minister calling the state takeover, “a very racist decision.”
Why racist? State takeovers have been occurring for years, for many reasons, but “racial issues” have long cast a “cloud” over these actions, according to a report by Education Weekin 1998. That article quotes numerous sources who argue takeover efforts frequently have “singled out predominantly minority districts and violated the rights of voters to choose their local education policymakers.”
The reporter cites survey results showing “out of 21 districts that have ceded power to mayors or state agencies in recent years … all but three have predominantly minority enrollments, and most are at least 80 percent nonwhite. Of eight districts that have been threatened with takeovers, all but two have populations that are predominantly minority, and three are at least 93 percent nonwhite.”
More recently, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), a national alliance of 10 community organizations and rights groups, published a report titled, ”Out of Control: The Systemic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers.” The report examined state takeovers of local schools in New Jersey, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania and found takeovers consistently produce increased racial segregation and loss of public institutions in communities of color.
Earlier this year, AROS director Keron Blair, in an article in Think Progress, compared takeovers “in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods to the voter ID laws that prevent many people of color from casting a ballot, saying they are both examples of distrusting people of color to govern themselves.”
Proponents of the takeover of LRSD deny race has anything to do with their actions, and claim that state takeover is simply about improving academics. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt this claim.
‘No Clear Evidence’: What Takeovers Don’t Do
“The rationale for the state takeover was never about academic distress,” says Arkansas State Senator Linda Chesterfield, who represents District 30 that includes part of Little Rock. In a phone conversation, she tells me that the Little Rock district—Arkansas’ largest—consists of 48 schools in all, some of which had been awarded for being the “most improved” schools in the state, including one of the schools deemed academically distressed.
Adding to Chesterfield’s suspicion is the fact that just 15 percent of the schools in Little Rock were judged to be in academic distress, while other districts have higher percentages of struggling schools. In Forest City, for example, three of the district’s seven schools have been labeled academically distressed. In Blytheville, the district’s only middle school and only high school are labeled academically distressed. And in Pine Bluff, the district’s only high school and one of the two middle schools are labeled academically distressed. Proportionally, Little Rock doesn’t even come close.
Whatever intentions drove the decision, an additional problem is this: state takeovers of local schools have rarely produced academic improvements.
A recent report, “State Takeovers Of Low-Performing Schools,” examines the track record of district and school takeovers in states that have employed this governance method the longest: Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. The report concludes, “There is no clear evidence that takeover districts actually achieve their stated goals of radically improving performance at failing schools.”
The report, by the Center for Popular Democracy, finds that wherever the state takeovers occur, “Children have seen negligible improvement—or even dramatic setbacks—in their educational performance.”
A ‘Sharecropper’ School District
What state school district takeovers can do very well, though, is disenfranchise local voters.
As Senator Chesterfield, who was a school board member before running for statewide office, explains, “With [elected] school boards, you have a person you can go to if you have a complaint.” But in a state takeover situation, “You can’t go to the state commissioner.”
“We’ve been turned into a sharecropper school district,” says Orr.
Orr’s reference is to the agricultural system that emerged in America’s post-Civil War Reconstruction period where white landowners, instead of giving up property to freed blacks, allowed former slaves to stay on the white man’s land as long as the black farmers—and some poor white farmers—turned over a portion of their crops each year to the owner.
In Orr’s sharecropper analogy, he likens state education commissioner Johnny Key to the landowner and the appointed superintendents that have churned through the system as the field bosses. In a sharecropper arrangement, “The landowner gave you what he thought you deserved,” Orr explains. And in the case of Little Rock, what the district seems to “deserve” is less voice in how the district is run.
The disenfranchisement of Little Rock citizens became especially apparent recently, when Commissioner Key suddenly, and without explanation, terminated the contract of Baker Kurrus, until then the superintendent of the Little Rock School District. (Key had originally appointed Kurrus himself.)
As veteran local journalist for the Arkansas Times Max Brantley explains, Kurrus was initially regarded with suspicion due to the takeover and the fact he was given the helm despite his lack of education background. But Kurrus had gradually earned the respect of locals due to his tireless outreach to the community and evenhanded treatment of oppositional points of view.
But many observers of school politics in Little Rock speculate Kurrus was terminated because he warned that charter school expansions would further strain resources in the district. Inadvising against expansions of these schools, Kurrus shared data showing charter school tend to under-enroll students with disabilities and low-income kids.
He came to view charter schools as a “parallel school system” that would add to the district’s outlays for administration and facilities instead of putting more money directly into classroom instruction.
“It makes no sense” to expand charter schools, he is quoted as telling the local NPR outlet. “You’d never build two water systems and then see which one worked … That’s essentially what we’re doing” by expanding charters.
Kurrus also came to believe that increasing charter school enrollments would increase segregation in the city.
“Kurrus amassed significant data illustrating that charter schools have tended to take higher income and white students from the LRSD … further segregating education,” Brantley reports. “Compared to the LRSD,” Brantley adds, “eStem and LISA [the predominant charter networks in the city] contain lower percentages of children who live in poverty, African-American and Hispanic students, English-language learners and special education students – all of which give the charters a strong demographic edge.
Because of the state takeover and subsequent firing of Kurrus, the citizens of Arkansas are “basically powerless,” says Kathy Webb, when it comes to governing their own schools.
“I don’t see a master plan for fixing the district,” says Antwan Phillips. Phillips is a Little Rock attorney and currently serves on an advisory board for the schools. (He was appointed by Kurrus.)
In a phone conversation, he tells me that if the district were a sick patient visiting a doctor, there would be some kind of diagnosis and prescription, yet none of that has been put forward by the state. And although there may not be a declared plan for Little Rock schools, the undeclared plan seems to call for rapid expansion of charter schools.
‘A Parallel School System’
Charter schools existed in Little Rock before the state took over the district. But many people in the city believe the purpose of the takeover is to expand these charters further and add new ones.
The two most influential charter networks in the city, eStem and LISA, both started before the state takeover but were recently expanded by the state oversight board, despite an outpouring of opposition from the community. The expansions will double student enrollment in both charter networks. A third charter school has been given a three-year extension despite “struggling academically,” according to a local reporter.
The takeover “is about money,” Chesterfield claims. She points to the district’s annual budgetof $319 million – the largest in the state – and asks, “Why else would LRSD become the focal point of charters” when there are other districts with higher percentages of struggling schools and other districts with significant achievement gaps?
There’s certainly not a lot of evidence that expanding charter schools will improve the overall academic performance of the district.
A report on the academic performance of charters throughout the state of Arkansas in 2008-2009 found, “Arkansas’ charter schools do not outperform their traditional school peers,” when student demographics are taken into account. (As the report explains, “several demographic factors” – such as race, poverty, and ethnicity, – strongly correlate with lower scores on standardized tests and other measures of achievement.)
Specifically in Little Rock, the most recent comparison of charter school performance to public schools shows that a number of LRSD public schools, despite having similar or more challenging student demographics, out-perform LISA and eStem charters.
There’s also evidence charter schools add to the segregation of Little Rock. Soon after the decision to expand these schools, the LISA network blanketed the district with a direct mail marketing campaign that blatantly omitted the poor, heavily black and Latino parts of the city, according to an investigation by the Arkansas Times.
The charter network’s executives eventually apologized for the selective mailing. In their apology, they admitted working with state education officials—the very people who are tasked with overseeing charter operations—on a marketing plan that relegated low-income households to digital-only advertising, which makes no sense because these homes are the least apt to have computers and Internet connections.
With so much evidence that charter schools are both underperforming academically and increasing segregation in Little Rock, it’s worth asking: why is this expansion happening?
What Walton Wants
What’s happening to Little Rock is “happening everywhere,” according to Julie Johnson Holt, a Little Rock resident with children who went through the public schools in the district.
Holt, who is white, now runs a public relations consultancy but is the former communications director for the Arkansas Attorney General and the Department of Education.
More specifically, what’s happening in Little Rock, according to Holt, is the outcome of a well-financed and strategically operated effort to target the community for large charter school expansions. “The charter movement has gotten very organized and very determined,” she observes.
Holt attributes much of the strategy and wealth behind the effort to expand charter schools in Little Rock to the Walton Family Foundation, whose influence “is much bigger than I realized” she says, recalling her days working inside state government.
Indeed, the Waltons’ influence features prominently in virtually every major decision concerning state governance of LRSD.
In the state board’s vote to take over the district, as Brantley reports for the Times, members who voted yes had family ties to and business relationships with organizations either financed by the Walton Foundation or working in league with the Waltons to advocate for charter schools.
In another recent analysis in the Times, reporter Benjamin Hardy traces recent events back to a bill in the state legislature in 2015, HB 1733, that “originated with a Walton-affiliated education lobbyist.” That bill would have allowed an outside non-profit to operate any school district taken over by the state. The bill died in committee when unified opposition from the Little Rock delegation combined with public outcry to cause legislators to waver in their support.
So what the Waltons couldn’t accomplish with legislation like HB 1733 they are currently accomplishing by influencing official administration actions, including taking out Kurrus and expanding charters across the city.
In one case, as Brantley reports again, a Little Rock charter is being expanded via the waiving of certain state requirements – thereby allowing the expansion to be “fast-tracked.”
Brantley notes the expansion is being enabled through relocation to a new, larger site in close proximity to an existing public school that is considered “struggling” but is actually higher-rated than the charter school by the state’s school evaluation system. The new site is owned by a leasing agent with an address “that happens to be the mailing address for Walton Enterprises, the holding company for the vast wealth of Walton heirs.”
Most recently, WFF announced it would commit $250 million to help charter schools in 17 urban district finance access to facilities. One of the urban districts Walton intends to target is Little Rock.
So what are Waltons’ intentions for Little Rock? Do they really want to re-segregate schools and take the community back to 1957?
In a recent investigative article I wrote on the influence of the Walton Foundation on education policy, I asked Jeffrey R. Henig what motivates the Waltons’ efforts. Henig is a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and a co-editor of the book The New Education Philanthropy.
Henig believes the goal the Waltons have in mind is for school districts across the country to be more decentralized and for the expansion of charters to allow for “more variety” of schools, especially for schools that reflect “differing value systems or ideas of what is a good school.”
One of the “value systems” Henig believes the Waltons would like to see more accommodated in public education is more schools that are “rooted in conservative tradition.”
It’s not hard to believe that an accommodation of more conservative tradition in public education, especially in the South, is the same thing as what Senator Elliott calls “the Old Southern economic structure.”
She adds, “We know how that movie ends.”
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
Of course, the movie doesn’t have to end that way.
Arkansas state lawmakers can choose to bring education funding back to levels at least as generous as what was spent in 2008. The funding can be made more equitable by having in place distribution formulas that ensure money goes to schools that need it most.
Also, state leadership can choose to return control of LRSD to a locally elected school board and give people in Little Rock the power to determine the role of charter schools in the district.
And the citizens of Little Rock will need to choose whether to be further divided or unify in support of their historic public schools.
“I’d like to see people in Little Rock deliberately want to have children go to school together,” says Elliott.
There are signs Little Rock may be doing that. As Times reporter Hardy notes in his analysis cited above, there is a unified energy throughout all racial populations in the community to take back control of their schools.
“There’s been an awakening,” city director Kath Webb agrees, noting the number of Hall High School alums who now volunteer in the school to mentor and tutor students and support school events.
When people living around Hall High, where Webb lives, considered renaming the Hall High Neighborhood Association to something that didn’t include the school name, homeowners decided otherwise and retained Hall High.
And the school itself, despite being stigmatized with the label of “failure” and being redesigned around racial imbalance, has chosen to keep in its mission statement a commitment to being a place for “positive learning” and “diverse cultures.”
Political leaders in Arkansas should support that mission too.
This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on July 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.
UNDER CAMBODIAN LAW, THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE IS SUPPOSED TO BE IRONCLAD. No employer, government agent or citizen may impede union activity. Inside the walls of Cambodia’s largest special economic zones (SEZs), however, In These Times’ reporters saw a system designed to tightly control the workforce by keeping workers fenced in and unions out. More than a dozen workers and labor activists confirmed that, while it’s not easy to independently organize anywhere in Cambodia, the law is flagrantly violated in SEZs. The result is seething discontent.
Over the past 50 years, more than half of the world’s countries have carved out pieces of their territories to hand over to foreign investors as SEZs. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 66 million people—most of them young migrant women—work in the world’s more than 3,000 SEZs.
After World War II, countries from Ireland to South Korea set up these zones in bids to attract foreign capital and create jobs. In the 1980s and 1990s, states in every region of the world followed suit. Today this model is experiencing a fresh surge in popularity, with countries from Burma to Cuba racing to open new zones.
“Any country that didn’t have [an SEZ] 10 years ago either does now or seems to be planning one,” the World Bank’s Thomas Farole told The Economist in 2015. But while the success of such zones is often gauged by how much foreign money they attract, or how much economic growth they generate, the voices of the millions of workers that power these spaces are seldom heard. This is the story of SEZs from workers’ perspectives.
Typically, the carrots offered investors are special tax and tariff breaks, as well as cheap land, water and electricity. In some countries, such as Pakistan and Namibia, these enclaves also confer exemptions to national labor laws. But even when this is not the case, these zones have become hotspots for workers’ rights violations.
In Shenzhen, China, one of the world’s oldest and largest SEZs, In These Times witnessed the second chapter of the SEZ story. SEZs offer the tacit—if not explicit—promise of a steady supply of cheap, biddable labor. Once an SEZ’s workforce mobilizes and begins to make demands, companies can simply move on to a new frontier. The ILO calls SEZs “a symptom of the race to the bottom in the global economy.” In Shenzhen, factory closures and redevelopment are leaving migrant workers jobless, homeless and desperate.
THE NO-STRIKE ZONE
Early SEZs, such as those established in the Philippines in the 1960s and 1970s, were “almost like labor camps,” says Jonathan Bach, associate professor and chair of the global studies program at the New School in New York. “They were separate from the cities: You would bring in the workers, you’d house them in dormitories, you’d sort of use them up and get rid of them and then get new ones. And then if the cost of doing business got too expensive, or too problematic—if there were protests or something—then you would just pack up and move somewhere else.”
This is still the model in many SEZs today. In some countries, governments have sweetened the pot by giving investors in these zones formal exemptions from national labor laws. In Pakistan, workers are forbidden to strike or take other industrial action in these enclaves. In Togo, government labor inspectors struggle to enter the zones because of laws restricting their access. The website of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority declares: “There shall be no strikes or lock-outs for a period of 10 years following the commencement of operations in the zone … and any trade dispute arising within a zone shall be resolved by the Authority.”
But even where there aren’t these formal exemptions, local authorities in SEZs are regularly accused of turning a blind eye to labor rights violations.
HARDER IN SEZS
On the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, lies the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (PPSEZ). In a nation whose main development model is to sell itself as a reserve of cheap labor and low taxation, the PPSEZ exemplifies the new economy the government is trying to build.
The nine-mile drive from the capital is a crawl along chaotic roads that stand still for 20 minutes at a time. When you turn off the dusty street and head through the zone’s imposing front gate, you enter another world: 1.4 square miles of paved roads with factories fanning out on either side.
In These Times is the guest of the public relations firm Brains Communication, which represents PPSEZ to international investors and journalists. Brains Communication chauffeurs us in an air-conditioned Mercedes with leather seats, well-insulated from the 104-degree heat.
Hiroshi Uematsu, CEO of Phnom Pen SEZ, stands outside his offices on April 4.
In keeping with the ethos of corporate control, the zone is not administered by the government but incorporated as a private company. We are going to meet Hiroshi Uematsu, the zone’s Japanese CEO.
PPSEZ’s founding mission was to attract Japanese investors to Cambodia, Uematsu says. Almost a decade later, it has succeeded in drawing 44 Japanese firms, as well as 32 companies from 13 other countries. Yamaha operates a factory there, and Coca-Cola is currently building one. Other factory names—garment manufacturer Kingmaker Footwear, diamond polisher Laurelton Diamonds—are obscure, but they are listed as suppliers or subsidiaries of some of the most famous brands in the world: Timberland, Puma, Apple, Old Navy.
Uematsu is happy in Cambodia. “I feel safe in this country,” he says. “I sometimes face [sic] directly with labor union activities … in the Philippines I have to be very careful, with smoked glass and security.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a boss feeling unsafe in the pristine zone, where the chaos of the surrounding city gives way to an incongruous calm. Elsewhere in Cambodia, the landscape is very different. While we were talking to Uematsu, police clashed with about 100 protesters across town and left two activists with bad head wounds. The crowd amassed outside Cambodia’s National Assembly as it passed a new trade union law restricting independent labor organizing. The government of Hun Sen—the prime minister of Cambodia for the last 31 years, who runs a de facto one-party state under the Cambodian People’s Party—was spooked by a national strike in 2013 and moved to restrict this pole of political opposition.
Most of Cambodia’s labor force is represented by “yellow unions,” which are linked politically to the ruling party and effectively represent the government and employers, rather than workers. Cambodia’s bloc of independent unions is relatively small, but it scares Cambodia’s powerbrokers. Union leaders have been beaten, imprisoned on trumped-up charges and murdered. On January 22, 2004, Chea Vichea, the founder and leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia and a supporter of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, was shot in the head and chest while reading a newspaper in the street.
Garment workers gather just outside PPSEZ’s gates (L to R): Pich Sophal, 29; Sophen Leng, 29; Seng Sovirak, 26; Pheakdey Phom, 36; Sem Visal, 26.
When we return to the zone two days after our visit with its CEO, we’re traveling in a tuk-tuk with a translator from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union—an independent union group.
This time, we’ve come to meet five workers who were dismissed from the Evergreen garment factory inside the zone two years ago. The workers maintain the layoffs were retaliation. “They dismissed all the two unions’ members,” says one worker, Pich Sophal, 29, a former button-hole puncher at Evergreen.
While it is hard to organize anywhere in Cambodia, every independent union member who spoke with In These Times said it is even harder inside an SEZ.
“If the employer knows that I work for or am affiliated with the union, it means they will find any means to dismiss me,” says Sophen Leng, 29, who worked in Evergreen’s packaging department.
“After I was dismissed from Evergreen, I applied to work in another factory. The first contract is usually a short-term contract. They realized that I had union ties and dismissed me when the contract expired.”
Ou Tepphallin, deputy head of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, told us that SEZs also pose a challenge to independent unions simply by walling off workers.
“It’s not easy for a union leader or activist to go inside,” she says. “To coordinate [with workers], we need to make an appointment.” Even intercepting them after work is difficult, she says, because special buses wait outside the SEZ to take them to their homes.
Firing workers for organizing is illegal in Cambodia. So is hindering organizing efforts. In These Times identified eight multinationals whose products are reportedly made in Cambodian SEZs, including PPSEZ and Manhattan SEZ. Six, including Apple and Puma, have corporate codes of conduct supporting union rights.
Asked if they were aware of these apparent legal violations—and, now that they had been made aware, what they would do—only two responded by deadline. Skechers wrote that it complies with the factory operation guidelines of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, which affirm the right to unionize. But it did not address any specific labor violations, and would neither confirm nor deny whether it manufactured goods in the Manhattan SEZ, as its profile on the GMAC website indicates. Levi Strauss denied that it sources products from SEZs, although a PPSEZ jeans factory lists Dockers, a Levi Strauss subsidiary, as a buyer.
UNION-FREE BY DESIGN
According to a source in civil society consulted by lawmakers in the planning stages of the 2005 SEZ Act, the Cambodian government was initially trying to carve out exemptions from labor law. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells In These Times that lawyers “were approached by the Ministry of Commerce for technical advice and one of the things was, well, how can we make the zones union-free?”
Tola Moeun, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, also in Phnom Penh, confirms the government was planning to exempt the zones from labor law: “No freedom of association, no freedom for collective bargaining and so on. No right to strike. But after the reaction from the unions, from the development partners, from the import countries—like Europe and the U.S. and so on—then the government stepped back their plan.”
Instead, with strict control of who can enter an SEZ and impunity for organizer layoffs, it seems Cambodia simply made them de facto union-free.
81 CENTS AN HOUR
The obstacles to organizing have not stopped the rise of worker militancy in Cambodia. The main complaint is not working conditions—though some unions have demanded things like fans and clean water—but rather, low wages.
At the end of 2013, thousands of workers joined a national strike to demand a minimum wage increase from $85 to $160 a month. The government eventually increased the wage to $140 to staunch the uprising.
Sin Rlot, 39, a packaging worker, meets with organizers at a cafe just outside the walls of Manhattan SEZ on April 9.
One of the main foes of a higher minimum wage is the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC). In GMAC’s Phnom Penh offices, In These Times met with its famously irascible Secretary General Ken Loo, who believes the new minimum wage of $140 a month (which, for a 40-hour work week, works out to about 81 cents an hour) has already blunted foreign investment. The numbers indicate otherwise: According to World Bank data, foreign direct investment in Cambodia dipped slightly in 2013, then rose back to previous levels. The figures are not yet out for 2016, the year the wage hike went into effect.
“I don’t believe in a minimum wage; I believe in market forces,” says Loo. “Hardworking workers … could be earning a lot more, but … they have to subsidize the lazy bums.” He declined to say how much he is paid.
The so-called lazy bums tell a different story. “$140 a month is not enough for us, but we still do [it],” says Sokha Khan, a 36-year-old garment worker who supports her husband and children. Other workers tell In These Times that $140 a month is enough to cover one person’s living expenses, but not a family’s.
“If there was a union inside the factory, it would be good because we could demand something,” Sokha says.
It’s no accident that women are 95 percent of Cambodia’s SEZ workers. The Asian Development Bank, which promotes SEZs in the region, made explicit the logic of hiring women in a 2015 report: “It is said that females possess the nimble fingers and patience with routine tasks required by the labor-intensive processes generally occurring in the zones and that they are also less likely than males to strike or disrupt production in other ways.”
That logic does not always hold.
UNORGANIZED LABOR, WILDCAT STRIKES
A four-hour drive east from Phnom Penh and across the Mekong River, on Cambodia’s eastern border with Vietnam, sits the region of Bavet. This area was the among the most bombarded in Operation Menu, the secret 1969-1970 campaign in which the United States dropped a greater tonnage of bombs than it had on Japan during the whole of World War II.
Now Bavet’s lush fields and wide roads are home to three huge SEZs. The Manhattan SEZ opened in 2006 and has been at the epicenter of worker actions—violent and nonviolent—ever since. There are no independent unions inside its gates, and without any organized channel for worker unrest, the place is a powder keg. We get through the gates by mentioning the name of the managing director of the SEZ whom we had emailed. He’s not there, but it’s enough.
Inside, workers walk down a long thoroughfare that cuts through the SEZ, some to take their lunch break outside, others on their way home. Everyone we stop is reluctant to speak—about their work, unions or the recent militant actions.
This conversation with Daly Cayva, a 34-year-old garment worker, was a typical one:
“Where do you work?”
“A garment factory.”
“How much do you get paid a month?”
“Between $140 and $150, based on the section I work in.”
“Is that enough to live on?”
“We can say it is affordable.”
“Are you a member of a union?”
“I don’t know about the union.”
“Wouldn’t a union make it better for you—you could get more money?”
“I don’t know about the union here.”
“Is it dangerous to join a union here?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Is it dangerous for you to talk?”
“It is hot and I have to go home.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, is not surprised that no one wants to talk about unions. In February 2012, three women were shot at a protest for higher wages in the Manhattan SEZ. The incident happened in front of the Taiwanese-owned Kaoway Sports factory, whose clients include Puma. Since then, Thorn says, “They are really strict. Now they do not allow our union to organize over there.”
But making independent organizing impossible has had unintended results. “From time to time, this zone is very interesting,” says Thorn. “If they want to increase their salary, they mobilize without a leader and join together. If they want to do something now, they will strike in the whole zone. But when we are not allowed easy access inside, it’s not managed there, so violence happens during every protest.”
As worker grievances have fewer avenues of expression, and government crackdowns get harsher, many predict more explosions of frustration. Warehousing workers within walls only works for so long.
THE POSTER CHILD FOR SEZS
Although China didn’t open its first SEZ until 1980, its zones are among the most famous. Today, China contains as many as 40 million—almost two-thirds—of the world’s SEZ workers.
The Shenzhen SEZ, in southern China along the border with Hong Kong, was the country’s first. It was opened in 1980 by the leader of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, as the leading edge of his sweeping economic reforms. Jonathan Bach notes that Shenzhen always had different ambitions than most SEZs: It was “more about importing particular ideas about the market and labor and capital, and using those ideas to influence the rest of the country.”
At the time, Shenzhen was a relatively small tract of land carved out of an otherwise rural area devoted to farming and fishing. Shenzhen has since expanded to cover almost 800 square miles. The megacity’s total economic output is equivalent to or greater than that of Ireland or Vietnam. Its tens of thousands of factories have produced millions of iPhones, handbags, jeans and more for export around the world.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, at the offices of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union on April 5.
In 2010, Shenzhen celebrated its 30th birthday with fanfare and fireworks. China’s President Hu Jintao traveled to the city and hailed it as “a miracle.” Many of the policies pioneered there, like short-term labor contracts and performance-based wages, have since been rolled out nationwide. The SEZ model has been credited with driving China’s industrialization and explosive, manufacturing-based economic growth.
To entice foreign investors into Shenzhen, the central government gave the zone the power to set its own tax and other business incentives. But Shenzhen had something else to offer foreign firms looking for cheap places to make their products: a labor force of millions of migrants from rural China.
China’s hukou system of household registration, introduced in the late 1950s to curb urbanization, severely curtails these migrants’ rights. Hukou ties access to services, such as subsidized healthcare and education, to place of permanent residency. Migrant workers can rarely get that place altered.
To supply factories with a constant stream of labor, migrant workers were issued temporary resident permits—but only if they had a job. With their legal residency tied to their employer, losing their job meant exile—or a risky, undocumented existence. Anita Chan, a researcher at Australian National University, likens Shenzhen under the hukou system of the 1990s to apartheid in South Africa under the pass system.
Some factory bosses devised strategies to tighten the screws, requiring workers to pay “security deposits,” or seizing their identity documents. Many workers lived in housing tied directly to employment, in what Pun Ngai, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, has called a “dormitory labor regime.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Shenzhen became almost synonymous with sweatshop globalization, with reports of workers toiling incredibly long hours in unsafe factories to make things like Mickey Mouse books, Teletubbies and Reeboks. Wages were not necessarily lower inside the SEZ, but conditions were often dire. Mandatory and unpaid overtime were commonplace.
Workplace injuries have also scarred many of the migrants who powered Shenzhen’s boom. Huang Ming (a pseudonym), a 60-year-old migrant worker from western Guangzhou who came to Shenzhen in 1997, says that two years after his arrival, he was injured at work. “I was soldering tables and chairs and a spark went into my eye,” he says. “I have an official certificate, but … the company said, ‘If you want compensation, you have to resign.’”
Shenzhen is in a construction boom as factories close and financial towers rise.
The hukou system made it hard for workers in Shenzhen’s factories to fight back and secure better conditions, Chan says. But she doubts this was ever explicitly advertised to investors as a bonus for setting up shop. “They knew, they didn’t have to advertise. It doesn’t sound good. They were supposed to be socialists, you know.”
Since the 1990s, working conditions have improved across China, albeit slowly and unevenly. Hukou was “relaxed” in 2004 after the death in custody of a university graduate in the northern Chinese city of Handan who had been arrested for not having the proper papers. But the reforms only went so far, notes Chan. The arrests stopped, but “it doesn’t mean [migrants] can enjoy the same rights as the local residents.”
Wages increased, however, in part because the “one child” policy slowed population growth and reduced the surplus labor that powered the country’s manufacturing boom. Workers also became better organized and better educated about their rights, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of independent labor activists.
But migrant workers in Shenzhen face new challenges as the city pursues an aggressive agenda of “upgrading” into tech and finance. As wages increase, so does the cost of living in this increasingly flashy metropolis. Industrial areas are being transformed into office blocks. Whole neighborhoods where migrant workers have lived for decades are being demolished.
Clothing, toy and shoe factories, in particular, are moving from China to countries with lower wages, such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. Others are simply moving to provinces in inland China with lower minimum wages. In Shenzhen, reports of factories closing and bosses defaulting on paychecks have become commonplace.
The problem for Shenzhen now, says Bach, is no longer, “How do you get as many workers into Shenzhen as you can?” but rather, “How do you get the low-skilled workers demanding higher wages out?”
“Instead of the workers who used to do that lower-level work simply being retrained, you have companies just moving to wherever they can find that low-level work,” he says. “That’s the whole name of the game in the global economy: to play countries off one another. And the idea of the special economic zone was sort of to allow countries to have different jurisdictions, even within their own national jurisdictions.”
Chan gives the example of the iPhone manufacturer Foxconn—whose mercilous assembly lines infamously drove 14 workers to suicide—as a company “moving all over China, trying to get a better deal.” The practice is parallel to the way U.S. states have enticed factories with development deals and anti-union laws.
But wherever manufacturers move, they cannot expect workers to stay cheap and compliant forever.
In the 2000s, Shenzhen became a testing ground once more—this time, for surveillance technologies. The city installed 200,000 closed-circuit TV cameras in public spaces as a practice run for China’s Golden Shield program, a vast database that correlates video feeds with biometric data from cell phones and mandatory national ID cards.
Along the streets of Shenzhen today are too many surveillance cameras to count, rotating like roving eyes. Overhead, the skyscrapers shine at night in flashing, neon colors, bedecked with logos such as KFC, McDonald’s and 7-11. The effect is that of an eerie corporate utopia in which capital is wild and free, but people are heavily controlled.
Officially, the cameras are aimed at fighting crime. But Naomi Klein reported in Rolling Stone in 2008 that a Shenzhen-based company had already developed software to let “cameras alert police when an unusual number of people begin to gather at any given location.” Clearly, these measures could also be used to tighten control at a time of growing unrest.
In 2014, the China Labour Bulletin, an NGO based in Hong Kong, recorded more than 1,300 labor disputes across China. In 2015, that number rose to over 2,700—including more than one a day in Shenzhen and neighboring areas in Guangdong province. Many were prompted by factory closures, with workers accusing bosses of cheating them of full severance and social insurance payments.
In July 2015, more than 100 workers at a Shenzhen factory supplying the giant fast-fashion brand Uniqlo traveled to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, to petition Communist Party authorities. They said the factory had suddenly announced its closure and was leaving without paying its debts to workers. Shenzhen police were sent to retrieve the petitioning workers and bring them back to the SEZ, violently dragging them onto buses and detaining them for hours.
On May Day, In These Times met with workers who make eyeglasses for export to Europe and the U.S. at an enormous factory in Shenzhen’s Longgang district. First opened in the late 1980s, it is now closing as the area is “redeveloped” into offices and upscale apartments.
Huang Ming, the 60-year-old migrant worker from western Guangzhou, spoke with In These Times in the small one-room apartment he shares with his son, who also works at the factory. “Everybody in this building works there,” Huang says, sitting barefoot on the edge of the bed that takes up most of the space. Now that the factory is closing, Huang says he and many of his coworkers are forced into retirement.
If Shenzhen 1.0 was large-scale sweatshop industrialization, this is Shenzhen 2.0: a finance center where capital is king and migrant workers, having outlived their utility, are pushed out.
Later, we walk with Huang’s son Zai through the streets of Longgang. “It’s hard to get another job,” he says. “In this area they are not opening new manufacturing plants. Factories are being replaced by offices.”
Like everywhere else in the city, surveillance cameras are prominently in view in every direction—on the street, outside the factory, at the intersection, by the bus stop. We’re quite sure we’ve been on camera every step of the way.
“I’m not afraid of the government. I’m fighting for my rights,” Zai says firmly. But he adds that he’s still planning to leave Shenzhen and return to his home in western Guangzhou, because life as a migrant worker in the city, without a job, is impossible. “Many people are leaving.”
People who want multi;national corporations to be held accountable for their tax-dodging tactics only have a few more hours Thursday to tell the Security and Exchange Commission to support a tough rule that would go a long way toward making that happen.
This rule would affect the estimated $2.4 trillion in profits that corporations ranging from Apple to Walmart have shunted offshore in order to avoid paying U.S. corporate taxes. Right now, the rules for disclosing corporate use of offshore tax havens is, as the tax code itself, riddled with loopholes.
For one thing, companies are not required to report their tax liabilities on a country-by-country basis, so the public – including investors in these companies – have no way to accurately judge how a company is lowering its tax liabilities or what would happen if a country decides to radically change its tax policies. Nor do companies routinely report the names and locations of their subsidiaries; no one knew, for example, that Walmart had 78 subsidiaries in overseas tax havens, with $76 billion in assets, before researchers for Americans for Tax Fairness ferreted out the information.
Another Americans for Tax Fairness report found that the pharmaceutical company Pfizer was holding twice as much of its offshore profits in overseas subsidiaries as it was reporting to the public.
This lack of transparency does harm to investors – who should know details of how the companies they invest in are funneling their profits and the risks associated with their tax-avoidance strategies – and harms the public as a whole, which is shortchanged every time corporations game the system to avoid paying the taxes they owe.
That is why it’s important for people to take a few minutes now to tell the SEC to require corporations to tell the truth about their overseas subsidiaries. After all, expecting a corporation to be honest about how and where it earns its profits should not be too much to ask.
This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on July 21, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Isaiah J. Poole worked at Campaign for America’s Future. He attended Pennsylvania State University and lives in Washington, DC.