Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City and a contributing editor to The Nation, where she also writes the advice column “Asking for a Friend”. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., and Rolling Stone among many other outlets. 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). She is the editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton, which is forthcoming from Verso Books this spring and can be pre-ordered here.
The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for mega-corporations everywhere and a sign that justice for women and workers can't be won in the courts alone.
If corporate America and right-wing libertarians get their way, thousands of female Wal-Mart employees will never get the substance of their case heard in court.
Today Starbucks went on trial in Manhattan, and I had the privilege of attending several hours of the proceedings today. On the way downtown, I noticed that a young woman on the subway seemed to be using a brown paper Starbucks bag as a purse. And it did make a pretty nice handbag! Starbucks's professions of concern for "corporate responsibility" are much like that: attractive packaging. In the trial that began today, the nation's leading purveyor of coffee-flavored milk drinks stands accused by the National Labor Relations Board of thirty violations of employee rights, especially firing workers for union organizing. Starbucks had seven lawyers present. The two fired workers in question-- Daniel Gross and Joe Agins, Jr., both IWW members -- were present. Gross wore a suit and looked sharp, as any activist appearing before a judge probably should. (Agins went for a less formal look -- a sleeveless muscle t-shirt.) Today both sides waded through the details of discovery; that is to say, the NLRB lawyers asked for documents from Starbucks, and the company's legal team whined about how "burdensome" it would be to get so many documents, because, since the turnover rate is so high, many of the relevant personnel files are now in storage. It is very difficult to get the files out once they go in, Stacy Eisenstein, one of Starbucks lead outside counsel, argued with a straight face. More incredibly, before the hearing had officially begun, she disputed the NLRB's contention that there was a union campaign going on when Gross and Agin were fired. If that is a major cornerstone of Starbucks's defense, the company could be in trouble, because the judge -- who seemed very fair-minded and interested in reaching reasonable compromises -- did not buy it, and allowed discovery based on the assumption that the date of the union campaign was relevant. (Also, there is ample public record of the campaign, including media coverage.) It will be interesting to see what happens. I can't be there for much of the rest of the trial, unfortunately, so I really hope other journalists and bloggers will go check it out. They are taking tomorrow off, and back in session Wednesday.
This Saturday, people around the world will attend more than 5,000 parties in honor of a much idolized, much abused celeb-of-the-moment. No, it's not Princess Di. These parties aim to help the planet, by committing the guests to work against climate change. It's the first time the political house party has ever been used globally, according to the organizers, and it's reached at least 114 countries so far, including Bosnia, Sierra Leone and the Philippines. (Note the rather severe troubles facing people in those countries. So, those of you thinking of not bothering because you have your own problems to deal with? You might want to think again.) Organized by Avaaz (which I've written about in this space before) and MoveOn, the house parties will coincide with the Live Earth concert. Big fat global concert events don't always accomplish much. (Remember Live Aid? Or worse, the dreadful "Feed the World" theme song? Block that 80s flashback!) But the organizers of these house parties believe Live Earth can be different, and they're aiming to, according to Ricken Patel, executive director of Avaaz, "turn the moment into a movement." Party guests will pledge not only to change consumption habits but more importantly, to engage in political action on this issue. They'll agree to pressure their governments to sign on to a global climate treaty agreeing to a 90% reduction in emissions over the next generation. What are you doing Saturday night?
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?