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The Price of Cheap: Slave Labor, No Jobs

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Cheap. Low prices. Bargains. It’s the American way of recent decades–a promise we’ve been given by everyone from politicians to corporate marketing campaigns. And most people find it hard to see the devastating cost to us as a society. But, sometimes things happen at once that can give a very clear picture, if you look. For your consideration.

First, a now well-known episode:

While Twinkies have a reputation for an unlimited shelf life, the company that makes the junk food may not.Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of cream-filled pastries like Twinkies and Ho Hos, said on Friday that it planned to wind down its operations. The decision comes a week after one of the company’s biggest unions went on strike to protest a labor contract.

Richard Trumka has it exactly right:

“What’s happening with Hostess Brands is a microcosm of what’s wrong with America, as Bain-style Wall Street vultures make themselves rich by making America poor,” Trumka said in a public statement. “Crony capitalism and consistently poor management drove Hostess into the ground, but its workers are paying the price.”…“These workers, who consistently make great products Americans love and have offered multiple concessions, want their company to succeed,” Trumka said in the statement. “They have bravely taken a stand against the corporate race-to-the-bottom. And now they and their communities are suffering the tragedy of a needless layoff. This is wrong. It has to stop. It’s wrecking America.”

Second, some of those cheap goods people snap up at Ikea were made by slave labor:

Ikea has long been famous for its inexpensive, some-assembly-required furniture. On Friday the company admitted that political prisoners in the former East Germany provided some of the labor that helped it keep its prices so low.A report by auditors at Ernst & Young concluded that Ikea, a Swedish company, knowingly benefited from forced labor in the former East Germany to manufacture some of its products in the 1980s. Ikea had commissioned the report in May as a result of accusations that both political and criminal prisoners were involved in making components of Ikea furniture and that some Ikea employees knew about it.

And, lastly, Black Friday is approaching–and Wal-Mart workers are asking for people to assist in their fight back against the Beast of Bentonville, the paragon of low-cost.

So, the lesson:

If we pull all those strands together–the destruction of the lives of thousands of workers who made Twinkies; the sweat that brought people the couch or bed they picked up in their car at Ikea; and the hard times hundreds of thousands of people have to endure to eke out a tiny paycheck from Wal-Mart–it tells the tale of America.

Cheap means the end of the middle-class, not to mention the mythical American Dream because cheap means minimum wage jobs, no health care, no pensions.

Low-cost means paychecks that don’t make it possible for a worker to get through the end of the month without seeing her or his financial debt grow larger.

Bargains are only beneficial to the fat-cat CEOs who pocket obscene paychecks because hidden behind that “bargain” price is an endless cycle of poverty and despair: to give millions of people “bargains”, CEOs manufacture products in low-wage countries or low-wage factories, and, the, they pay–or fire, in the case of Twinkies–workers every declining wages…and, then, those same workers don’t have enough money to buy much–so they are forced to, then, shop at the very low-wage stores–Wal-Mart being the prime example–that are the engine for the destructive cycle.

Just something to think about everytime we are assaulted by a TV ad, or coupon or billboard promising a bargain.

It isn’t more than a bargain with the devil of the bankrupt so-called free market.

This article was originally posted on Working Life on November 16, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is is a strategist, organizer, activist, commentator and writer, primarily focusing his energies on the topics of work, labor, and economy. In 2006, he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary.

A Bizarre Labor Arrangement

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, the “Us vs. Them” dynamic that defines labor-management relations has remained remarkably intact. And that’s a good thing. Yes, the relationship is tense and adversarial, and, yes, it hasn’t always been productive, and, yes, there have been occasions where debilitating strikes and even violence have resulted, but because each side has its own agenda, conflict should be expected.

Lined up on one side are the men and women who do the actual work, who toil long, tedious hours for a defined wage, and lined up on the other are employers who, while grudgingly recognizing the necessity of workers, are committed to not paying them one nickel more than is absolutely necessary. It’s an economic law. You charge for your product all that the market will bear, and you pay your employees as little as you can get away with.

By and large, this primitive relationship has resulted in an equilibrium. Adhering to the principle that there is “strength in numbers,” workers have joined together to form labor unions, and embracing the time-honored belief that “money talks,” business groups have bribed Congress to pass legislation that crippled the labor movement. By “equilibrium” we’re not suggesting there is anything remotely resembling “fairness,” only that there is a stasis of sorts.

Which brings us to the film industry. To be a movie actor, you must belong to SAG (Screen Actors Guild), the actors’ union. Similarly, Hollywood’s bosses are represented by the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). In many ways, contract negotiations between the Guild and the Alliance are not unlike negotiations between any other parties; it could be the UAW going up against Chrysler, the IAM taking on Boeing, or the Teamsters bargaining with UPS.

[It should be noted that SAG is now known as SAG-AFTRA, having recently voted to merge with AFTRA—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists—but that’s a whole other messy issue, which we won’t get into here.]

But there is one very disturbing way in which SAG’s negotiations with the producers doesn’t resemble those of other unions, and that difference involves a profound conflict of interest. Incredibly, some of the most prominent and influential members of SAG are also producers. It’s true. While these “movie stars” are dues-paying union members who, nominally, do battle with the producers, they themselves are also big-time producers.

You can imagine where their interests lie when it comes to mundane (but critically important) rank-and-file issues such as residuals, new technology, and health insurance premiums. As important as these issues are to 95-percent of working actors, they mean next to nothing to these moguls. Indeed, as producers with an eye on the bottom-line, they’re interested in keeping their costs down, and if this results in their fellow actors receiving a smaller slice of the pie, so be it.

During SAG’s 2009 contract negotiations, some of these actor-producers actually took out advertisements in trade papers urging the membership not to do anything so dumb or reckless as to vote to authorize a strike, presumably because they didn’t want to see actors (whom they themselves employ) rock the boat by interfering with future profits. Of course, a public display of union dissension like this is going to badly undercut any talk of solidarity, which it did.

An accomplished actor friend of mine (he’s brave, so he probably wouldn’t mind me mentioning his name, but I shall preserve his anonymity) has recently (in late September) filed charges with the NLRB against these actor-producers. I read his affidavit. It was well-written and compelling. The extent of the alleged “collusion” was mind-boggling.

The four movie and TV production companies (and the executives associated with them) named in the complaint are:

Jersey Films and Jersey Television (Danny DeVito)
The Playtone Company (Tom Hanks)
Smokehouse Productions (George Clooney)
Tribeca Film (Robert DeNiro)

Anyone who believes in the value and nobility of the labor movement is going to root for this NLRB complaint to succeed. Of course, taking on famous movie stars like these guys will be an uphill climb, but it’s certainly worth the effort. And who knows? Maybe the NLRB will provide us with one of Hollywood’s patented “surprise endings.”

This article was originally published on October 31, 2012 on Dissident Voice. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Macaray is a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  His political and entertainment articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Common Dreams,  New York Press, Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Beckett Monthly, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and various anthologies.

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