Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been published in The Nation, Lingua Franca, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Left Business Observer, Dissent, The Sydney Morning Herald and Columbia Journalism Review. Featherstone has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsday, In These Times, Ms., Salon, Nerve, US, Nylon and Rolling Stone. She is the co-author of Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso, 2002) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic, 2004).
It's irresistible to beat up on rich, elite universities like Harvard, Yale and Stanford when they disregard the rights of low-wage workers. (I myself enjoyed beating up on Stanford just last month.) But workers who toil on lesser-known campuses deserve justice, too. At Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, janitors have been attempting to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The workers, mostly Haitians, have been enduring terrible wages, no benefits and no potable water. Many have lost their jobs for trying to organize, according to a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed by the workers. Often, when august institutions of higher learning find their inner Wal-Mart – as they frequently do, when their workers try to organize -- students and professors rally in support of the workers. Nearby University of Miami is a good example – there, workers were able to organize thanks to aggressive action from the campus community. Nova has taken some extreme steps to make sure this doesn't happen.
Earlier this year, it appeared that the university was not only violating workers' freedom of association, but also the free speech rights of faculty and students. For a few weeks in February, the university blocked emails with "seiu" in the address, according to Tanya Aquino, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 11. (This way, the only updates professors and students received on the labor situation came from Nova's president.) University officials have also discouraged students – most of whom are commuters, and therefore rely on email for information about campus life -- from sending each other updates on the workers' struggle. Some students have been admonished in threatening ways, with officials implying that they might be disciplined for participating in the campaign. (Nova officials did not respond to a request for comment.) The result of all this, according to Aquino, is that few faculty and students are willing to stand up up for the rights of the Nova workers. It's a dreadful example of how, in suppressing workers' rights, a university can diminish itself as a place of higher learning. How much could one learn at a school that forbids the expression of views on such critical human rights questions?
The Olympics are always big business, and the next summer's Games in Beijing may well be the most profitable in history. Much of the money is made through licensing; sale of Beijing Games mascots alone is expected to bring in profits of more than $300 million. But the workers making clothing and other items bearing the Olympic logo are not exactly sharing in this windfall. "No Medal for the Olympics on Labour Rights," a new report by PlayFair 2008, a coalition of human rights groups hoping to pressure the International Olympic Committee to set -- and enforce -- ethical standards, found, at the Chinese factories making official Olympic goods, grotesque disregard for workers' health and safety and for local labor laws. One of the companies involved, Mainland Headwear, which has the exclusive right to make Olympic hats, paid its employees half the legal minimum wage. Other companies were hiring children as young as twelve. Several others require workers to work more than thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as two weeks without a day off, to meet extremely tight deadlines for retailers eager to hawk Olympic goods. One worker said, "To hell with the Olympics product, I am so tired."
Human rights issues will -- and should -- loom large in discussions of next summer's Games, not least because the host is China, a country that is justly criticized for abuses. That doesn't mean, however, that we should join folks like would-be-president Bill Richardson, who's been taking a cue from Jimmy Carter and calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics (over China's lackadaisical response to the Darfur crisis). The Games -- while certainly a huge marketing opportunity for corporations -- are also about internationalism, human solidarity and fun, and a boycott is a slap in the face to athletes who have spent years training. (Other presidential candidates have soundly rejected the idea.) And of course, it's always hypocritical for Americans to boycott other countries on human rights grounds; in this case, the international community can rightly bring up Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and just a few other little problems for which the US is eminently to blame. (Then again, as the New Republic has reported, Richardson may be a wee bit out of his depth on such matters, despite having once been US Ambassador to the UN.) But that doesn't mean we should do nothing. PlayFair 2008 is seizing the opportunity presented by the Games to press for improved conditions in the sporting goods sector. The coalition is not calling on the Olympics Committee to throw people out of work by canceling factory contracts, rather, to live up to its own stated commitment to social responsibility and ethical sourcing by working with the factories to improve conditions. Check out the website to find out what PlayFair 2008 is asking the Olympics, sportswear companies, governments, and investors to do, and to find out how your organization can support its efforts.
Ever wonder why you can still get a manicure for $5 in parts of New York City? Or why waiters here are mostly white, while all the busboys are immigrants? All this is explained in a disturbing report just released by the Brennan Center for Justice, which shows that abusive is becoming the new normal in the urban workplace. The authors of Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, studied 13 industries over three years, and found that violations of wage and hour, health and safety, discrimination and workers' compensation laws, as well as of the right to organize, were commonplace, and generally went unpunished. (The authors are currently studying unregulated work in other cities, and are finding that the problem is a national one, so don't dismiss this as an New York-centric story!)
Consumer patterns play a part; we all expect more convenience, services and goods, even when we don't make much money. Just yesterday, I discovered that I could get a massage for $10.50 even in Manhattan (the Brennan Center reports that massage therapists in this low-priced segment can make as little as $275 a week, and employers routinely fail to protect them from customer harassment). Some businesses -- discount stores, nail salons -- keep prices low to serve poor consumers (whose work may also be largely unregulated) but to do that, must miserably exploit their workers, not even paying minimum wage, much less overtime.
Yet consumer poverty can't explain everything, because high end restaurants are no picnic for workers, either (in fact, they seem to to be worse than fast food and other chain and franchise restaurants). In the city's restaurant industry, illegal discrimination based on race and ethnicity is so common it goes almost unnoticed. So are violations of minimum wage: $5 an hour is about average, and it's not unusual for coat checkers and delivery guys to make as little as $3 an hour.
On some West Coast college campuses this week, students and workers have been outspoken. Tuesday afternoon the Stanford students occupying their presidents office were arrested, as expected. The next day, at UC Davis, fifteen people -- food service workers, students and others -- were arrested while demanding that the university stop subcontracting the university's food services, and allow the workers to join the union. Subcontracting to notorious unionbuster Sodexho Marriott saves the university money but results in shoddy conditions for the workers. Earlier this month, 24 people were arrested in a demonstration on the same issue. It's the end of the school year, and the administrations will probably try to get away with making some nefarious decisions over the summer, while the students are gone. Let's hope this spring's organizing has laid the groundwork for a highly organized fall 2007.
This morning, eleven Stanford University students began occupying the lobby of their president's office demanding humane conditions for the workers who make clothes and hats bearing their school logo. Specifically, the student activists are asking President John Hennessy to take a constructive role in fighting sweatshops by joining the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) by the end of today (if you're reading this on the East Coast, note that he still has a few hours). The WRC was founded by students and labor rights seven years ago as an alternative to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a far more industry-influenced monitoring group; the WRC, which has 169 collegiate members, has succeeded in improving conditions for some workers, and many observers agree that the competition has improved the FLA. "We know President Hennessy has the moral integrity to take this step," said Bethany Woolman, a sophomore who was occupying the presidential lobby. "But we know he needs the support of students to do it."
Today Starbucks faced legal and political trouble from its own workers. On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union, baristas in Chicago marched into a shop and told the manager they were signing up. (Starbucks workers have chosen to organize without government-mediated elections, through an interesting model called "solidarity unionism.") Meanwhile, baristas in Grand Rapids, Michigan announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics. All over the world -- Austria, England, Spain and Australia, as well as the United States -- Starbucks workers demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company's union-busting practices.
Last week your humble correspondent learned, over a dry repast of catered chicken with some of our nation's most influential men, that unlike Canada and many other civilized democracies, we cannot have single-payer health care because Dennis Kucinich is short. I wonder what these luminaries would say about a new report from Save the Children showing that the United States compares poorly to other developed countries on an equally basic measure.
So much City Council legislation -- whether in New York or other cities -- is essentially performance art, even if its intentions are progressive. You know the genre -- banning the N-word, declaring a "hate-free" or "nuclear-free" zone, or that such and such city -- or small town in Vermont -- is against the war in Iraq. Stuff that makes people feel good, maybe helps raise some "awareness," but doesn't change anyone's life significantly, or even reshape reality in any way. That's why it's refreshing to see New York City Council members Eric Goia and Rosie Mendez introduce the "Responsible Restaurant Act," which will improve compliance with minimum wage and other labor laws in the city's restaurant industry. Better enforcement will also help restaurants who do obey the law remain in business -- by making life more difficult for those who are trying to maintain a competitive advantage by stiffing their workers.