Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wal-Mart will police Labor conditions at US suppliers.

Hundreds die at Wal-Mart supplier in Bangladesh
by Richard Mellor

What a New Year’s treat.  Low waged workers that are employed by subcontractors that supply retail giants like Wal-Mart will have a brighter future apparently.  Wal-Mart says it will monitor these subcontractors in the same way it police’s working conditions at its supplier’s factors around the world.

Wal-Mart insists that this auditing system will be “…similar to the one it uses to monitor overseas factories in places such as China and Bangladesh….”, the Wall Street Journal reports. When I was active in my Union, contracting out of services was something we fought hard to prevent as wages were lower, benefits non existent or slim and conditions in general not up to par. But having Wal-Mart corporation police working conditions is a sick joke, it's hard to imagine that such a development can be reported on without a barrage of responses from the heads organized Labor but we should be used to their deafening silence by now.

Wal-Mart has tried to avoid any responsibility for conditions in the supply warehouses saying that the logistics companies that it contracts with should be targeted.  The logistics companies pass the buck as well claiming that the staffing agencies they deal with are expected to comply with Labor laws.  Workers have complained about horrendous conditions in these warehouses, one group of workers at a warehouse in Mira Loma Calif. complained of temperatures of 125 degrees and that the staffing company that ran the place deducted wages for workers that demanded “safety goggles and dust masks.”  The suppliers have also been accused of arbitrarily withholding wages and overtime pay and of even denying proper medical care to workers suffering from heatstroke. 

The group Warehouse Workers United is backed and funded by the UFCW and other Unions that fund workers’ legal efforts and lawsuits.  The claim is that the UFCW has tried to unionize workers at Wal-Mart but failed.  This issue of why they fail is the question.  The UFCW leadership, like the entire leadership of organized Labor in the US accepts that concessions to the employers have to be made and has consistently offered their members wages and benefits up at the negotiating table.  Like all of them, they have also called workers out on strike for concessions, fewer concessions than the employer is demanding; not very inspiring. It is hard to motivate people around a program of concessions.  Their strategy fails because rather than mobilizing the millions of workers in this country around a fighting program and an offensive of our own, the tactics amount to relying on the courts on the one hand and electing a friendly Democrat on the other.

The conditions in retail and industries that we are talking about here are so bad that the strategists atop organized Labor feel that they can win important allies to the cause for organizing low waged workers and bring in more revenue at the same time. It’s hard to argue against someone increasing their pay to $10 an hour from $8 and most decent people are horrified at the thought of wages being withheld and safety concerns ignored. On top of this, many of these low waged workers are women and workers of color so the issue of racism and sexism can be used to draw in support from liberal groups who believe in equality and fairness for all, including the boss, they can accept us all being poor but don't discriminate.  Like the Union leadership they accept that wages and conditions at the higher end need to be driven down to accommodate the needs of “tough economic times”. We have to be realistic, but there is such a thing as fairness.

It is obvious to any thinking worker that we are in a war here.  Working hours, wages, conditions are all under assault as hedge fund managers and other coupon clippers rake in billions of dollars a year as this blog pointed out yesterday.  It is the power of a united working class movement that will change this situation. Bosses like the Waltons that own Wal-Mart and the others that are part of private equity groups or investment blocs (Bain Capital of Romney fame and Goldman Sachs have each owned Burger King for example) that invest in production will only respond to power.  GM, that swore a Union would never be accepted in its plants and that was one of the largest corporations in the world at one time changed its mind after workers occupied its factories and shut down production.  This is not a utopian dream, some glorification or desire for a lost past, it is what will work today. Strikes today are merely 24-hour protests, but if you can’t shut down production, you can’t win.

In the previous blog we pointed out the potential power of organized Labor which is a mere 12% of the workforce but at the time of the 1968 French General Strike when ten million workers occupied their workplaces only 10% of workers were organized.  Both coasts of the US can be shut down as I hinted at yesterday.  Wal-Mart can be shut down but not using the present methods and without demands and goals that are worth fighting for that can draw workers and our communities in to activity.  Truckers, airlines, the public sector, retail, all these sectors are under assault but workers have to see power in order to openly confront the boss especially one like Wal-Mart.  Even small community businesses can be won to our side with the right program, and if they see our power; they too are under assault. There is still a tremendous disdain and hatred for the rich and corporations in this country, especially since the onset of the Great Recession.

Within organized Labor the obstacle of our own leadership will inevitably be overcome, but we can hasten this development by openly challenging their concessionary, class collaborationist policies; but not by simply calling them names or blaming their obscene salaries and perks which are a secondary issue.  Ideological corruption is the culprit; they accept capitalism and worship the market.  By building fighting opposition caucuses in our locals that can offer an alternative and battle for the consciousness of the ranks and the working class as whole we can turn this tide; the times of middle ground and room to maneuver have passed.

Our greatest crisis is one of leadership

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