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‘They Have Forgotten the Lessons of Rana Plaza’
‘They Have Forgotten the Lessons of Rana Plaza’

Rana Plaza
Solidarity Center

Following the Rana Plaza collapse in which 1,134 garment workers were killed and thousands more injured in Bangladesh, the horror of the incident spurred international action and resulted in significant safety improvements in many of the country’s 3,000 garment factories.

But five years after the April 24, 2013, disaster, Bangladesh garment worker-organizers say employers often are not following through to ensure worksites remain safe, and the government is doing little to ensure garment workers have the freedom to form unions to achieve safe working conditions. Since the Tazreen Factory fire that killed 112 garment workers in 2012, some 1,303 garment workers have been killed and 3,875 injured in fire-related incidents, according to Solidarity Center data.

“Pressure from the buyers and international organizations forced many changes," said Tomiza Sultana, a garment worker-organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), among them less interference by police and factory management.

“We organized trade unions, recorded complaints and trained many workers. But five years after the tragedy, the police and local leaders are supporting the factory owners and harassing us and anyone who wishes to come to us. They have forgotten the lessons of the disaster,” she said.

A Disaster that ‘Cannot Be Described in Words’

“I can vividly recall that day. I can still see the faces of families who were looking for the bodies of their loved ones by only holding their photo ID,” said BIGUF President Nomita Nath. “This disaster cannot be described in words.” The multistory Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories outside Dhaka, pancaked from structural defects that had been identified the day before, prompting building engineers to urge the building be closed. Garment workers who survived the collapse say factory managers threatened their jobs if they did not return to work.

Ziasmin Sultana, a garment worker who survived the collapse, recalls managers telling workers on the morning of April 24 the building was safe, even though “the previous day we had seen cracks [in the building] form right in front of our eyes.” Shortly after starting work, the electricity went out and the building began to violently shake.

After packing into a crowded stairwell to escape, Ziasmin said she found herself falling: “Everything happened in an instant, and it was dark everywhere. When I came to my senses, I realized that three of us have survived and everyone else around us was dead.”

“The world saw how much our lives meant to the owners of these factories,” Nath said. “They did not care about our lives. They only cared about meeting production targets.”

In the wake of Rana Plaza, which occurred months after a deadly factory fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 112 mostly female garment workers, global outrage spurred several international efforts to prevent deaths and injuries due to fire or structural failures. Safety measures were instituted at more than 1,600 factories.

Hundreds of brands and companies signed the five-year, binding Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, which mandated that brands and the companies they source from fix building and fire hazards and include workers in the process. Many of the signatories recently have signed on to the renewed three-year agreement that takes effect in May. Extending the accord guarantees that hundreds of additional factories will be inspected and renovated.

Workers Still Struggle to Achieve Safe Workplaces

In a recent series of Solidarity Center interviews, garment worker-organizers from several national unions applaud the significant safety improvements but warn that employers are backsliding. And workers seeking to improve safety in their factories often face employer intimidation, threats, physical violence, loss of jobs and government-imposed barriers to union registration.

“The accord contributed to ensuring the safety of the factories, but there is a lot of other work that needs to be done,” said Khadiza Akhter, vice president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). She and others interviewed said factories are not regularly inspected, employers do not ensure fire extinguishers and other safety equipment are properly maintained, and safety committees sometimes only exist on paper.

“We are now working in this area for maintaining the standard of fire safety. This is a big task in the coming future,” Akhter said.

The Solidarity Center, which, over the past two decades in Bangladesh, jump-started the process to end child labor in garment factories and served as a catalyst in the resurgence of workers forming unions, in recent years has trained more than 6,000 union leaders and workers in fire safety. Factory-floor–level workers learn to monitor for hazardous working conditions and are empowered to demand that safety violations be corrected. Many workers, in turn, share their knowledge with their co-workers.

Bangladesh at a Crossroads

Accounting for 81% of the country’s total export earnings, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry is the country’s biggest export earner. Yet wages are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations, while the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Luxembourg and Montreal.

“The workers can barely survive with such low wages, as their house rents and even food prices have risen,” said Momotaz Begum, who has worked as a garment worker organizer with the Awaj Foundation since 2008.

Without a union, garment workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace hazards or seek living wages. Worker advocates say Bangladesh is at a crossroads—and they hope the government and employers choose a future in which Bangladesh workers are partners in the country’s economic success and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

But even in the face of severe employer harassment and government indifference, worker-organizers like Tomiza, Nath, Akhter and Begum, all of whom began working in garment factories as children or young teens, are helping workers join together and insist on their rights at work. Today, 445 factories with more than 216,000 workers have unions to represent their interests and protect their rights.

“I believe that the workers must be aware of their rights and they must be united to achieve them,” said Shamima Akhter, an organizer with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation. “We train them to let them know what they deserve, and we empower them so that they can claim their rights from the factory owners.”

In Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center implements the Workers Empowerment Program—Components 1 and 2—which provides training and rights education to garment workers and organizers with the support of USAID.

Iztiak, an intern in the Solidarity Center Bangladesh office, conducted the interviews in Dhaka. This post originally appeared at the Solidarity Center.

Kenneth Quinnell Tue, 04/24/2018 - 16:57

Left with the Bill
Left with the Bill

While President Donald Trump continues to tout his massive tax giveaway to corporations, working people aren’t buying it. Gallup found that a majority of Americans disapprove of the law, and it’s easy to understand why: We know we’re being left with a bill for $1.5 trillion.

The Gallup poll is the most recent in a string of surveys finding that Americans are rejecting the new tax law. Even the law’s own backers are starting to run away from their handiwork.

While corporations are pocketing billions in tax cuts, most working people aren’t seeing a cent. In fact, 82% of Americans say they haven’t seen any difference in their taxes—or that they’ve even gone up.

A report this week from the Joint Committee on Taxation found that one provision alone funnels $17.4 billion to people making at least $1 million per year.

What’s more, despite promises that corporate tax cuts would lead to higher wages and more bonuses, working people are being left empty-handed.

In fact, less than 0.0015% of U.S. businesses have followed through and shared anything with their employees.

Kenneth Quinnell Tue, 04/24/2018 - 15:56

New Jersey: Labor Makes History with Signing of Equal Pay Bill
New Jersey: Labor Makes History with Signing of Equal Pay Bill

New Jersey equal pay bill signing
New Jersey AFL-CIO

Today, a historic milestone was reached in the fight for women’s equality and universal workplace justice as Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) signed the Diane B. Allen Equal Pay Act into law. This legislative effort, which was spearheaded by organized labor in New Jersey, represents years of hard work, testimony, meetings, campaigning, outreach and coordination with stakeholders all around the state.

The New Jersey State AFL-CIO was proud to work hand in hand with the prime sponsors of this bill, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D) and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D), and recognizes their tireless work that enabled this historic victory. We further thank state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) for making this issue a top priority and ensuring a prompt vote on this pressing matter that has been allowed to persist for far too long.

“No organization has been on the frontlines longer or done more to address the gender wage gap than organized labor,” said New Jersey State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Laurel Brennan. “A union contract has long guaranteed equal pay for equal work to women and all demographic groups. It is thanks to this model, along with labor’s commitment to pay equity as a universal right, that we celebrate this historic moment for all New Jersey working families today.”

“With the strongest equal pay law in the nation, our labor movement and our state can stand proud in recognition of the progress we have achieved,” said New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech. “This is a fight for which organized labor will continue to bear the torch until all working people around the country are ensured equal pay for equal work.”

Once again, the New Jersey State AFL-CIO recognizes the enormous efforts of our affiliates, community allies and elected officials, along with Gov. Murphy and his administration, for the extraordinary teamwork that made this victory possible. We know that the benefits of this law to women, families, businesses and working people across all demographic groups signal a new direction for our state and a future that represents our shared values of progress, economic fairness and workplace justice.

Kenneth Quinnell Tue, 04/24/2018 - 12:27

DC LaborFest: We're in the Same Boat
DC LaborFest: We're in the Same Boat

LaborFest
DC LaborFest

The fifth annual DC LaborFest—anchored by the 18th DC Labor FilmFest runs May 1-31 in Washington, D.C. Check out the complete festival schedule, including event descriptions, film trailers and links to RSVP or buy tickets. The essay below, by Working America’s Karen Nussbaum, is featured in the LaborFest’s 2018 program guide. 

My favorite moment this awards season was when Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton came out on stage together at the Emmys. The stars of “9 to 5” conversationally used the most famous words in the 1980 smash hit—“sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”—and got a prolonged standing ovation. “How cool,” I thought, “to be associated with an iconic movie.”

The movie about turning the tables on a boorish boss was inspired by 9to5, the national organization of women office workers I helped organize in 1973. And it was a hit because it reflected the hidden truths of an invisible workforce, 20 million women office workers. Fonda and the writers spent hours talking with our members. The movie changed the national debate about women and work because there was an organized national movement ready to turn the popular farce into action.

“9 to 5” may not be “Battleship Potemkin” or another of Sergei Eisenstein’s great works, “Strike,” which is one of the many exciting films featured in this year’s DC Labor FilmFest. The festival also celebrates the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, swinging from “Swing Shift,” another film about working women with a great cast to “The Young Karl Marx,” which may have you tearing up at the dramatic reading of "The Communist Manifesto" at the end. (OK, I did.) You’ll have the opportunity to see a score of movies that touch on many facets of working people’s fights over the past century.

But “9 to 5” (shown at the DC Labor FilmFest in 2005, when Jane Fonda was presented with the festival’s Labor Arts Award) has particular resonance, and it’s not just #MeToo.  

9to5, the organization, captured a moment when working-class and middle-class women found themselves co-workers in offices across the nation, and their common cause across class and race was explosive. The surge of women into the workforce in the 1970s hit the wall of few job opportunities for women. Nearly 25% of women worked as clericals. The next biggest occupation, nurses, trailed at 9%, followed by teachers and cashiers at only 5% each.

And that’s how it felt. If you were a college graduate, you might become a nurse or a teacher, but you were more likely to get an office job alongside of high school graduates. As organizers at 9to5, we knew how important this was. So we fostered common cause among the lifelong insurance workers who trained men to be their own supervisors and the publishing house employees who weren’t allowed anywhere near a book.

By the mid-1980s, employers caved. In the face of organizing, lawsuits and popular opinion (thanks, at least in part, to the “9 to 5” movie) they opened professional and managerial jobs to college-educated women—women like their daughters. The women’s workforce settled into a class structure that looked like that of men. Inequities still abound—women still earn only 80% of what men earn, and the pay gap is nearly twice as great for Latina and African American women. And as we know from #MeToo, sexual harassment is still pervasive.

Changes in jobs and working conditions are creating common cause across class and race again today. Since the 1970s, employers have put a lid on wages and cut way back on benefits. When I started working I earned minimum wage, but I had five days of vacation and five paid sick days—and that was common. Today, only about half of private-sector employees have paid sick or leave time. Employers have abandoned this responsibility to such a degree that voters are turning to city and state legislation to require paid leave. More than 60% of workers had pensions in the 1970s—today only 23% have a pension and the benefits are only half as valuable. And we know health care remains unaffordable for too many.

Working America sees it when we talk to people at the doors. "I used to think of myself as middle class, but I guess you'd have to say I'm working class," is a common comment. "I have a middle-class job, but I can't afford a middle-class house or car," one man told me. "I'll never be able to afford to retire," older members worry. I may be drawing more from E.P. Thompson than the young Karl Marx, but it looks to me like economic conditions are changing class consciousness.

So, as Dolly sings in the song, “You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends,” and the next big blockbuster will reflect a resurgent workers’ movement that builds common cause across class and race on economic issues. In the meantime, have fun at the movies!

Karen Nussbaum is a co-founder of 9to5, and a board member of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Kenneth Quinnell Tue, 04/24/2018 - 12:22

Big Week for Workers as More Than 10,000 Working People Join Together in Union in One Week
Big Week for Workers as More Than 10,000 Working People Join Together in Union in One Week

Foxwoods Victory
AFL-CIO

This past week alone, more than 10,000 working people chose to join together in union for the freedom to negotiate a fair return on their hard work. From flight attendants to graduate students, each day more working people are gaining the power to change an economy rigged against us.

In response to the wave of victories, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

We’re living in a profound moment of change. By joining together in a union, working people are joining, fighting and winning together for the dignity that we’ve earned. Despite rigged rules and aggressive corporate attacks, 260,000 new union members joined our ranks last year, and three-quarters of new union members are under the age of 34. As we gain density, we gain power. As we grow in numbers, we grow in influence. That’s how we start to build the America working people need.

Nearly 5,000 JetBlue in-flight crew members will have the freedom to negotiate with the airline’s management after they overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining the Transport Workers (TWU) on Tuesday. Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, said:

At a time when our economy favors the rich and powerful, today’s victory by JetBlue’s inflight crewmembers to join the Transport Workers Union demonstrates the power working people have when they come together.

JetBlue’s 5,000 inflight crewmembers want nothing more than a share in the profits they make possible, a say in workplace policies and procedures, and a seat at the table. Having a powerful union voice evens the playing field and ensures these hardworking, dedicated employees receive the dignity and respect they deserve.

In a historical victory for graduate teaching and research assistants at universities who have been fighting for a fair return on their work, more than 5,000 Harvard University teaching and research assistants decided Thursday to join UAW. Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A, said:

I want to congratulate Harvard’s student workers on their incredibly hard work and welcome them to the UAW. They overcame obstacle after obstacle to win a union for themselves and their peers. We look forward to supporting them as they move into bargaining a contract. We have a history of successfully bargaining with NYU, UConn, UMass and, most recently, The New School and are looking forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue with Harvard. Today’s victory is a crucial moment in the growing student worker movement—it signals that the appointment of an anti-union NLRB will not stop the thousands who are fighting for their unions. We stand with them.

The labor movement is growing in Southern states, as evidenced Thursday when 700 working people at Atlanta Gas Light, in Atlanta, voted to join the Electrical Workers (IBEW). Lonnie Stephenson, international president of IBEW, thanked the new members:

On Thursday, 2,000 personal support workers and 400 registered nurses at Spectrum Health Care in the greater Toronto area joined the Machinists (IAM). International President Robert Martinez of IAM said:

This victory for Spectrum workers is the best example yet that the IAM’s new strategic growth plan is working. Across our union, we are thinking of new ways to bring dignity and justice on the job to working families who deserve representation at work. Our power at the negotiating table is growing by the day—and that’s good news for IAM members of today and tomorrow.

In Pleasanton, California, 400 registered nurses from Stanford Health Care’s ValleyCare Medical Center will join National Nurses United (NNU) after a majority of them voted to join the union. NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, said:

Congratulations to the ValleyCare RNs. Your vote to join with your CNA colleagues across the Bay Area and throughout California will have an enormous impact on your patients, your neighbors and your colleagues. We are proud of your decision.

In Marlborough, Massachusetts, 220 working people from nurses to clerical staff at UMass Memorial-Marlborough Hospital decided to join the State Healthcare and Research Employees Union, an affiliate of AFSCME.

The wave of working people in newsrooms who join together in labor unions continues to grow. Last week, an overwhelming majority of editorial employees of the New Republic have signed on to a union organizing effort and have asked management to recognize The NewsGuild of New York/TNG-CWA Local 31003 as their local union. Grant Glickson, president of Local 31003, said:

At a time when our industry needs unions, we are excited to see the staff of this 100-year-old publication demand a seat at the table and a say in the future of the publication. We look forward to working with management in these shared goals.

On Friday, hundreds of working people at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, voted to be represented by the New England Joint Board of UNITE HERE. Warren Pepicelli, manager of the New England Joint Board, said:

[These] workers sent a strong message of unity by voting yes today. We’re hopeful that Foxwoods will respect the workers’ decision and schedule negotiations as soon as possible. We look forward to negotiating in good faith with Foxwoods to address the many concerns that workers have.

At a time when powerful corporations and special interests continue to use a rigged system to their benefit, this kind of momentum proves that working people are standing up to defend the freedom to join together in union.

Kenneth Quinnell Tue, 04/24/2018 - 09:55

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