Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘manufacturing’

Workers Who Waged the Biggest Trump-Era Manufacturing Strike Just Struck a Deal—Here’s What It Says

Monday, July 1st, 2019

This article first appeared in Labor Notes.

Three months after the largest manufacturing strike of the Trump presidency so far, locomotive plant workers in Erie, Pennsylvania, have a deal. Electrical Workers (UE) Locals 506 and 618ratified a four-year contract on June 12.

In a qualified victory, the 1,700 members conceded a two-tier wage structure with a 10-year progression for new hires to reach parity with current workers, but beat back the company’s demands for a harsher version of two-tier and numerous other concessions.

“We’ve managed to preserve a lot of what we had,” said UE Local 506 President Scott Slawson. He added, however, “There were some gives on the union side for sure—there’s no two ways about it.”

Wabtec, which took over the plant in February following its purchase of GE Transportation, had threatened to move work out of Erie if the union refused a lower wage scale.

Thousands of jobs have been eliminated at the plant since 1955. In 2017, GE vowed to move all locomotive production to Fort Worth, Texas, where it opened a nonunion plant in 2013. But those plans never panned out, as the Fort Worth plant struggled to hire and retain enough skilled workers, with quality suffering as a result. Work has been moving back to the Erie plant over the last year.

The new agreement not only maintains the existing jobs at the plant but also guarantees 100 new positions in the Erie factory by the end of the contract. UE also beat back Wabtec’s demands to institute mandatory overtime and hire up to 20 percent of the plant’s workforce as nonunion temps.

Four hundred sixty previously laid-off workers will be given preferential treatment in hiring as jobs come open—an important gain in the face of Wabtec’s claim that it had no obligation to workers who were laid off by GE, not Wabtec. However, while they will maintain their seniority, they will come back on the new, lower pay scale.

The company and the union compromised on reorganizing to 31 job classifications; previously, workers had 43 classifications, which Wabtec was attempting to reduce to 17. UE argued the reduction would endanger worker safety.

The union maintains the right to strike based on transfer or subcontracting of work that results in permanent layoffs, or on a failure by the company to resolve grievances in a timely manner.

Wabtec—short for Westinghouse Airbrake Technologies—bought the $4 billion-a-year GE Transportation division last year, doubling the size of the company overnight.

The purchase led to the early termination of UE’s national contract with GE. The Erie plant was the last factory covered under the 70-year-old agreement; GE had spun off the other factories’ work in an ongoing series of corporate reconfigurations, or outsourced it, largely to nonunion plants in the U.S. or overseas.

When the sale was finalized in February, the new owner unilaterally stopped offering a pension and retiree health care, and imposed a host of other concessions, including mandatory overtime and two-tier wages starting as low as $16.75 an hour. That prompted a nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618, ending with a 90-day interim agreement which restored the terms of the union’s previous contract with GE while the parties negotiated the new four-year deal.

During those three months, Locals 506 and 618 took a number of actions to pressure the company. Workers decorated their lockers with numbers counting down the days until the end of the interim agreement. They held pickets before work. They joined forces with UE Local 610, which represents workers at other Wabtec facilities, to rally in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, where Wabtec is headquartered. And the union and its allies picketed Wabtec’s shareholder meeting in Pittsburgh.

Wabtec eventually moved off its demand for a permanent second tier. The company’s revised proposal would have started workers off at $17 an hour, with an 18-year progression to reach the top tier. But ultimately, with the threat of another strike looming, the union was able to shrink the progression to 10 years, and boost starting pay to $20.47 for the lowest classification. Existing workers on the lowest job classification currently earn $31.49.

This decade-long grow-in is similar to the Auto Workers’ compromise with the Big 3 automakers, where hires after 2007 take eight years to reach wage parity with pre-2007 hires. A key difference, though, is that these auto workers remain in a permanent Tier 2 when it comes to benefits. Everyone at the Erie plant will get the same benefits, and those in the lower tier will actually pay 20 percent less in premiums.

“The 10-year progression is not something that people wanted to happen, but the company would not let that go,” said UE General President Peter Knowlton. He believes that if the union had held out on the issue, it would have been forced to go on another strike—this one self-defeating. The union would have lost community support, he said, and ultimately would have left 460 already laid-off workers without a job to come back to because Wabtec was claiming it had no responsibility to them.

The good-paying jobs at Wabtec’s Erie plant are crucial not only to union members and their families, but also to the community.

Located between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie falls squarely in the Rust Belt, and its fortunes mirror those of similar cities. It was once a proud manufacturing hub, but factory relocations and closures have sapped jobs and people. The population is 96,000, down from a peak of 131,000 in 1950. And the city is poor, with a median household income of just $35,800.

“Wabtec is one of the area’s largest manufacturers and it still pays a family-sustaining wage,” said Slawson. “I think there’s a relief in the community—we found a way, we found a path, hopefully for the future of Erie and Erie County.”

He is careful to note that this is the union’s first contract with a new employer, and the union will have to stay on its toes with Wabtec.

“We had 82 years of interpretation with GE,” he said. “I think both sides are going to go through some growing pains over the next four years.”

Still, he’s optimistic about the plant’s future, citing the highly skilled workforce and the possibility that Wabtec could shift additional work to the 4.5 million-acre complex.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 27, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes. Twitter Username: @labornotes

Union membership rose in 2017

Friday, January 26th, 2018

This is somewhat unexpected: overall union membership rose by 262,000 workers in 2017, while union density stayed at 10.7 percent. The Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel warns against reading too much into the numbers, but pulls out the following interesting data points:

  • Union membership became more common among men: some 32 percent of the net increase in male employment in 2017 went to men who were union members, leading union membership to rise from 11.2 to 11.4 percent of all male employment. Growth of union membership for men was strong in both the public and private sectors and for Hispanic and for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Correspondingly, union membership dipped slightly among women because women’s union membership did not rise in the private sector although employment overall did rise—private sector employment growth for women was concentrated in nonunion sectors. Union membership growth, however, was strong among Hispanic women.
  • Union membership grew in manufacturing despite an overall decline in manufacturing employment. Union membership was also strong in the wholesale and retail sectors, in the public sector and in information sector (where union membership density rose 1.9 percentage points).
  • Union membership density was stable or grew in a number of Southern states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia with especially strong growth in Texas.

That last point is particularly interesting, since the South has long been such a challenge to union organizing, and since Republicans are bent on making the union organizing environment in the rest of the nation much more like the South has historically been.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on January 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at DailyKos.

Workforce Intermediaries Advance Equity and Diversity Through Apprenticeship

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

As we kick off National Apprenticeship Week, it is more important than ever to shine a light on the ways government agencies, employers and joint labor-management programs can focus their resources on fostering greater equity, diversity and inclusion in the American workforce. Registered apprenticeship programs are a big part of the answer. Workforce intermediary partnerships that promote and operate apprenticeship programs are powerful vehicles for delivering career opportunities.

A new report by the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute and the Jobs with Justice Education Fund profiles a number of workforce intermediaries that reach into disadvantaged communities and mobilize joint funds and industry expertise to help women and people of color advance in their careers and improve diversity in aerospace, health care, hotel and hospitality, steel, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

Workforce intermediary partnerships bring together the needs and resources of multiple employers in a region or industry, and provide essential input from workers and unions to customize the skills training, apprenticeship and educational services required for employers to meet their workforce needs and workers to access career ladders. The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, for example, works with hundreds of employers in Washington State to develop curriculum and customize apprenticeship programs. This year, AJAC helped place formerly incarcerated individuals in good-paying aerospace jobs. An AJAC pre-apprenticeship program for high school students has graduated more than 300 young people over five years. Some 20% of the graduates were women and 53% were people of color.

The story of Grace Rutha highlights the power of apprenticeship implemented by intermediaries. A former reporter in Kenya, forced out of her country by an oppressive regime, she came to Philadelphia to seek a better life, but became unemployed and ended up living in a homeless shelter. While volunteering for a community organization, she discovered a community health worker apprenticeship program co-sponsored by a university and the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. After a few months on the job, with the help and guidance of a mentor, she gained the experience to intercede with HIV patients and protect their health without continually going to the emergency room. Now Rutha earns enough to have her own apartment and she serves as a co-instructor in an educational program of Philadelphia FIGHT. She and others are profiled in the Advancing Equity report.

The report lists 18 best practices in workforce diversity as identified by the JWJ Education Fund in its work with North America’s Building Trades Unions. “Hire watchdogs and grant them authority,” the organizations advise, for example, while keeping up the “push for consistent public pressure from community groups.”

Expanding apprenticeship in manufacturing and the hotel and hospitality industries is a prime activity of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute, which has a five-year contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to operate the Multiple Industry Intermediary (MII) Project.

For us, every week is National Apprenticeship Week. We will continue to use our education and training programs to create opportunity and upward mobility for workers of all backgrounds. Please join us in supporting this important work.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Daniel Marschall became executive director of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute WAI) in 2016. From 2008-2015, he served as the legislative and policy specialist for workforce issues for the Federation. He has been involved in the nation’s employment and training system since the 1980s, when he was coordinator of the Dislocated Worker Program for the State of Ohio and executive director of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Training Foundation. He served as a legislative director for a Member of Congress. He has a Master’s degree in communication studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in Sociology. He is the author of a 2012 Temple University Press book – The Company We Keep: Occupational Community in the High-Tech Network Society – based on his research in the occupational community of software developers. He is a Professorial Lecturer in Sociology at The George Washington University and a member of the Executive Board of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). He also represents the AFL-CIO at the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) Working Group on Education, Training and Employment Policy.

Elon Musk May Be a “Visionary,” But His Vision Doesn’t Seem To Include Unions

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus—an extra 150 Euros a month—and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

The Economy: The New Normal Isn’t

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Robert-Borosage_The November jobs report – 211,000 jobs with the headline unemployment rate staying at 5 percent – met “expectations.” It is now virtually inevitable that the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates at its December 15-16 meetings, as Fed Chair Janet Yellen indicated in her congressional testimony yesterday.

The Federal Reserve action essentially declares this economy the new normal. The unemployment rate has dropped from its 10 percent depths in the Great Recession to 5 percent. The economy has enjoyed a record 69 months of private sector jobs growth. Fed Chair Janet Yellen suggests the U.S. economy has sufficient momentum to continue to grow.

While inflation remains far below the Fed “target” of 2 percent, Yellen anticipates that the dollar won’t continue to rise in value and oil won’t continue to fall, suggesting that inflation might pick up in future months. So, she argues, it is time for the Fed to begin – in baby steps and very cautiously – to raise interest rates.

But the new normal is neither normal nor acceptable. Nearly 16 million people are still in need of full-time work. The percentage of the civilian population working or actively looking for work remained virtually unchanged at 62.5 percent, near a 40-year low (back to when women began entering the workforce in large numbers).

African-Americans suffer unemployment rates at 9.4 percent, almost twice the national average. Only one in five of young African-Americans – ages 16 to 19 – are employed.

We still haven’t returned to the same levels of employment, counting new entrants, that we enjoyed before the recession in 2007. Wages are still stagnant, up barely over 2 percent for the year for non-supervisory workers, not close to keeping up with the cost of health care or college or child care.

Worse, the Fed is tightening against the threat of future inflation that exists only in its imagination. And it does so in a world dangerously close to global downturn. Europe verges on deflation, with the European bank extending extraordinary measures to fend off decline. China is slowing faster than expected or admitted. Japan is back in recession. Brazil is suffering the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, with other emerging market countries in decline.

The U.S. economy is not strong enough to be the buyer of last resort for a world desperate to export its way to recovery. The U.S. dollar has already dramatically increased in value, with the Euro and other currencies weakening. This makes imports cheaper and exports more expensive. Already U.S. manufacturing is getting hit.

The Fed is understandably eager to begin raising rates after keeping them near zero for seven years. Free money feeds the bankers’ casino, inflates bubbles, and makes it easier for corporations to doctor their balance sheets. What is missing is any sensible policy from the Congress to get this economy going. Corporations are parking over two trillion abroad to avoid paying taxes. If Congress weren’t ruled by ideologues and bounders, it would force them to pay their fair share of taxes and use that money to rebuild the country, putting people to work in work that needs to be done.

Both the Fed Chair Yellen and the IMF have been calling for action from the Congress without success. Instead, Congress turns itself inside out to pass a modest highway bill that won’t come close to addressing the continued decline in our infrastructure.

This world is closer to a global recession than to healthy normal economic growth. The Fed’s likely action will be modest. But at a time when we need far bolder action across the globe, the Fed is signaling success when it ought to be raising warning flags.

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on December 4, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Robert Borosage is the Co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future.

 

President Obama’s Latest Manufacturing Push

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Dave JohnsonThe White House unveiled new executive actions on Monday
directing federal money toward new technologies, apprenticeship programs and competitions designed to assist small manufacturers. The idea is to make the U.S. a magnet for new jobs and investment.

 

The new executive action will:

  • Allow the Pentagon, NASA, and the Energy and Agriculture departments to spend $300 million to develop advanced materials and new technology for sensors and digital manufacturing.
  • Direct $100 million in Labor Department funds for apprenticeship programs aimed at advanced manufacturing.
  • Authorize the Commerce Department to spend $150 million over five years in 10 states to help manufacturers adopt and market new technologies.
  • Give manufacturers access to state-of-the-art facilities like those at national labs – to connect industry and universities on research and development and develop ‘technology testbeds’ where companies can design, prototype and test new products and processes.

President Obama began the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership in June 2011. The administration so far has launched four manufacturing innovation institutes – “hubs” – and there are four more on the way. They have also invested nearly $1 billion for community colleges to train workers for advanced manufacturing jobs.

There is expanded investment in applied research for emerging manufacturing technologies, and a new initiative to get returning veterans into jobs in advanced manufacturing.

This blog originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on October 27, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141027/president-obamas-latest-manufacturing-push

About the Author: 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.

 

CHARTS: Economic Mobility Is Stronger In Union States

Friday, May 11th, 2012

waldron_travis_bio

The ability of American workers to be upwardly mobile in the economy depends heavily on where they live, according to a state-by-state analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts. The study, the first of its kind, found that workers in a group of states largely clustered in the Northeast and Midwest are more likely to achieve upward mobility, while workers in southern states are far less likely.

For the most part, the states in each group differ on one major characteristic: the states where upward mobility is more likely are almost all union states, while the states where mobility is less likely almost all are not. Of the eight states that outperform the national average for upward economic mobility, seven are union states, with Utah the lone exception. Eight of the nine that underperform the national average, however, are so-called “right to work” states, with Kentucky the only exception:

mobilitymapChart via USA Today

When relative mobility is considered, union states look even better. Every state but one (Utah) that outperforms the national average on relative mobility, defined as the percentage of residents starting in the bottom half of the national distribution who move up 10 or more percentiles in a 10-year period, is a union state. Meanwhile, 14 of the 15 states that come in below the national average are right-to-work states, with Missouri the only exception:

mobilitymap2

Chart via Pew Charitable Trusts

Though the study didn’t find (or attempt to find) a direct correlation between union representation and mobility, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan told USA Today that higher mobility there is likely linked to higher wages in manufacturing and public sector jobs, both of which tend to be more heavily organized. Those ties also exist in the other union states, which rely more on manufacturing than the right-to-work states.

As ThinkProgress has previously noted, unions played a significant role in the construction of the American middle class, boosting the mobility of lower-income workers. The decline in union representation, meanwhile, correlates closely with a sharp rise in income inequality over the last 40 years. Other studies have shown that workers who join unions earn higher wages and are more likely to have health and retirement benefits, and that union membership increases the likelihood of upward economic mobility.

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on May 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

Apple and Foxconn to Improve Working Conditions and Hours

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Laura ClawsonFollowing lots and lots of terrible publicity around the wages, working conditions and hours faced by Chinese workers manufacturing its iPhones and iPads, Apple asked the Fair Labor Association, an organization widely described as independent although it is funded by the corporations it oversees, to look into working conditions in the factories of its Chinese contractors. The FLA has now looked into Foxconn, the largest and most (in)famous Apple contractor, and:

Foxconn – which makes Apple devices from the iPhone to the iPad – will hire tens of thousands of new workers, clamp down on illegal overtime, improve safety protocols and upgrade worker housing and other amenities. […]

Foxconn said it would reduce working hours to 49 hours per week, including overtime, while keeping total compensation for workers at its current level. The FLA audit had found that during peak production times, workers in the three factories put in more than 60 hours per week on average.

To compensate for the reduced hours, Foxconn will hire tens of thousands of additional workers. It also said it would build more housing and canteens to accommodate that influx.

Foxconn’s changes will also affect other brands with products manufactured by the contractor, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Sony. It will also have an effect on competing contract manufacturers. Consumers, of course, can expect to pay slightly higher prices, although labor costs are a small fraction of the price of the devices, and if you’re going to complain that you’re paying a little more because Chinese workers are only working 49 instead of 60 hours per week, I don’t want to hear from you anyway.

Continuing oversight will be crucial, as it would be altogether typical for the improvements for workers to be rolled back once the spotlight was off Apple’s manufacturing process.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on March 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Michelle ChenApple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.

Daisey’s personal account is gratuitously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaignMake IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM),have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s “dramatic license” was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentatorshave highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, “Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.”

Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face–not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces.

Li Qiang, head of the New York-based China Labor Watch, told In These Times that in terms of the situations Daisey described, basically, “What he said about working conditions is true.” He added, “Through this kind of media reporting, maybe more artists or journalists, or others will go to China to investigate the real circumstances in Chinese factories….  This way, this issue can generate more public debate.”

While Apple has touted a new partnership with the third-party monitoring organization Fair Labor Association, many critics remain wary that Apple will continue to fail the workers at the dregs of the supply chain. Even worse, Apple might turn the scandal into a marketing opportunity, polishing its reputation with a dab of “corporate social responsibility” measures.

Make IT Fair recently denounced the FLA partnership as “a mere PR stunt,” citing comments by FLA president Auret van Heerden praising Apple facilities as “way, way above the average of the norm.”  Activists call on Apple and other industry leaders to adopt more stringent ethical codes, which protect the environment from damaging extraction of raw materials, honor collective bargaining rights, and protect workers and their communities from discrimination and rights abuses.

Apple’s real attitude toward its workers has been far from charitable. In a statement responding to TAL‘s retraction, SACOM (whose campaigns have informed both Daisey’s and TAL‘s reporting) pointed to the ongoing ramificiations of an incident that inspired Daisey’s narrative—a mass poisoning at a facility where workers were exposed to the chemical n-hexane while polishing gleaming touchscreens:

In contrast to Apple’s statement that they have all been treated successfully, many workers still suffer from weak limbs and other health problems after nine-month hospitalizations. The victims sent three letters to Apple last year, but the company did not answer them at all. Likewise, after the explosion at the iPad case manufacturer Riteng in Shanghai in last December, which injured 59 workers, Apple has not sent anyone to visit the victims. The young workers are in despair because their faces were disfigured due to the fire from the blast. Some of them suffer from bones so severely shattered that they may be permanently disabled. Three months have passed, but the victims have not received any compensation….

While Apple hypocritically expressed that the company was deeply saddened by the tragedy, it has never apologized or offered compensation to the workers for its negligence in complying with work safety rules.

For all his professed empathy for Foxconn workers, Daisey’s exaggerations were stupefyingly self-serving. Even as he awkwardly attempted to express contrition in the follow-up dialogue with Ira Glass, he insisted that within the realm of theater, he had legitimately blended fiction and nonfiction to create a more emotive experience for a Western audience.

The claim reveals that Daisey lied to elevate his role in the story. He basically decided that the ugly truth wasn’t quite dramatic enough for him—a sideways insult to the workers whose cause he claimed to champion.

In a correspondence with In These Times, SACOM project officer Chan Sze Wan said, “we worry that the public will misunderstand [and think] Foxconn is innocent after the Mike Daisey’s case.” As a research-based group, she added, SACOM “will continue to provide accurate information to consumers to solicit their supports,” but ultimately, voices of workers themselves will need to be heard:

Nowadays, Foxconn workers do not have real worker representative system in the factory. So, SACOM has to channel their grievances to Apple. However, we always emphasize that workers should be the ones to monitor the working conditions at their workplace and fight for the rights.

Following the string of suicides, a quote from a Chinese blog captured the workers’ story more eloquently than an American performer ever could:

Perhaps for the Foxconn employees and employees like us
– we who are called nongmingong, rural migrant workers, in China –
the use of death is simply to testify that we were ever alive at all,
and that while we lived, we had only despair.

In the context of that hushed plea, the media hooplah over the fudged Foxconn narrative simply distracts us from the real masterwork of fiction that Apple and other tech giants continue to peddle: the imaginary world of our gadgets, a cosmopolitan universe that pretends to connect everyone while in fact sharpening the lines between consumers and the invisible workers that enable that carefree lifestyle. And we’re all buying it.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

Apple’s Overseas Jobs, The Tech Industry, And The American Economy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Alyssa RosenbergOne of the big dynamics in the debate over SOPA and PIPA is who’s getting money from whom. The entertainment industry’s currently spending a great deal more on lobbying than the tech community is; MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has threatened to turn off Hollywood campaign contributions to Democrats if SOPA or a form of it doesn’t pass; and both Democrats and Republicans are attempting to position themselves for the future. What a big, and usefully clear, New York Times story about Apple’s decision to move much of its work overseas makes clear, though, is while the tech industry may eventually have more to offer in terms of lobbying cash and campaign contributions, it may not have much to offer Democrats in terms of creating critically important American manufacturing jobs. In a conversation between Steve Jobs and President Obama before the former’s death, the Times reported that this exchange took place about the Apple jobs that have moved overseas:

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

The president’s question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

It’s absolutely true that there would have to be radical changes in the American economy to retrain workers, to move huge parts of the supply chain back to the United States, and perhaps most difficult, to get American workers to expect a vastly different standard of living or to get Apple executives to accept slower development times and more expensive production costs. I’d argue that American workers have already made substantial compromises on the former proposition. But I don’t foresee a future where companies are going to move toward the latter out of the goodness of their own hearts. There’s no question that companies have a right to maximize profits, and that if they don’t care how they’re perceived or about creating a sense of moral obligation to buy their products, they have every right to produce their products wherever and under whatever conditions they can get away with. But if they’re going to take that approach, I sort of wish they’d be as blunt about it as possible, so we don’t risk mistaking shiny toys for some sort of greater good.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on January 23, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture reporter for ThinkProgress.org. She is a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com and The Loop 21. Alyssa grew up in Massachusetts and holds a B.A. in humanities from Yale University. Before joining ThinkProgress, she was editor of Washingtonian.com and a staff correspondent at Government Executive. Her work has appeared in Esquire.com, The Daily, The American ProspectThe New RepublicNational Journal, and The Daily Beast.

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