Servitude: “a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life”
Democracy: “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”
Plutocracy: government by the wealthy
Labor union: an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions
You may have seen the recent flurry of stories about how hi-tech products are made in China. The stories focus on Apple, but it isn’t just Apple. These stories of exploited Chinese workers are also the story of how and why we — 99% of us, anyway — are all feeling such a squeeze here, because we are suffering the disappearance of our middle class. Our choice is democracy or servitude.
Working In China
A collection of excerpts from the Charles Duhigg and David Barboza story, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad and the Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher story, How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work both from the NY Times:
Rousted from dorms at midnight, told to work:
Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
“Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow.”
Banners on the walls warned the 120,000 employees: “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow.”
(How close is that to the very definition of servitude?)
Long shifts, legs swollen from standing:
Shifts ran 24 hours a day, and the factory was always bright. At any moment, there were thousands of workers standing on assembly lines or sitting in backless chairs, crouching next to large machinery, or jogging between loading bays. Some workers’ legs swelled so much they waddled. “It’s hard to stand all day,” said Zhao Sheng, a plant worker.
Write confessions if late:
Mr. Lai was soon spending 12 hours a day, six days a week inside the factory, according to his paychecks. Employees who arrived late were sometimes required to write confession letters and copy quotations. There were “continuous shifts,” when workers were told to work two stretches in a row, according to interviews.
Injuries from speed-up toxics:
Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.
Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.
American companies forcing Asian suppliers to squeeze workers:
“You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”
The Results For The 1%
A series of recent newspaper headlines tells the story of how China’s working conditions benefit the 1% here.
NYT: Apple’s Profit Soars
CBS Moneywatch: Apple shares close at record high
SF Chronicle: Apple CEO’s Stock Awards Lift Compensation to $378 Million
ZDNet: Apple: made in China, untaxed profits kept offshore. We don’t even get to tax the profits from moving our jobs to China, to use for schools, roads, police, etc.
The Results For The 99%
Headlines like these show how things are going better and better for the 1%. But what happened to our middle-class prosperity? We allowed companies to move jobs and factories across the borders of democracy to places where workers are exploited, calling that “trade.” This enabled the breaking of unions and the weakening of our democracy.
The threat is in the air: “Shut up and take the wage cuts or we will move your job to China.” How is that threat used on us? Here is an example: We have heard the stories of Mitt Romney’s company Bain Capital, and how it “earned” its millions. According to the Christian Science Monitor, this is the story of what happened when a Bain-owned company “came to town”:
The new owner, American Pad & Paper, owned in turn by Bain Capital, told all 258 union workers they were fired, in a cost-cutting move. Security guards hustled them out of the building. They would be able to reapply for their jobs, at lesser wages and benefits, but not all would be rehired.
Workers in countries like China where people have no say have low wages, terrible working conditions, long hours, and are told to shut up and take it or they won[t have any job at all. They are given no choice.
Increasingly workers here have their wages, hours, benefits, dignity cut and are told to shut up and take it or their jobs will be moved to China. Because we are pitted against exploited workers in countries where people have no say, we have no choice.
The unions are weakened, the government doesn’t enforce or weakly enforces labor laws and regulations, age, gender or race discrimination laws, worker safety laws, so workers are placed in a terrible squeeze. Workers who try to organize unions are isolated, moved, smeared, fired, humiliated, whatever it takes.
This quote by Steve Jobs is from How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured 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.
Democracy Brought Us Prosperity
We used to be a democracy, where everyone used to have a say in things. Because we had a say we built up a country with good schools, good infrastructure, good courts, and we made rules that said workers had to be safe, get a minimum wage, overtime, weekends… we protected the environment, we set up Social Security. We took care of each other. This made us prosperous. A share of the prosperity for the 99% was the fruit of democracy.
China, on the other hand, is not a democracy, and workers in China don’t really have a say. So they don’t make much money, they don’t have good working conditions, the environment isn’t protected, etc.
We Used To Protect Democracy
We used to protect our democracy. We used to put a tariff on goods coming in if they were made by people who didn’t have the ability to speak up and better their condition. We’d let the goods in but we would use a tariff to strengthen our country, our infrastructure, our schools – our democracy. This brought us prosperity.
For some reason, we started letting our companies move our factories over there, forcing our workers to compete with workers who have no say. We got tricked, by people who call that “trade,” and said it would be good for us. (Like cutting taxes for the wealthy “job creators” is good for us.)
We opened the borders and let the big companies move the jobs, factories and industries over the border of our democracy, to places where workers don’t have a say, so they are exploited. And the result was the big corporations were able to come back and cut our pay, and get rid of our pensions, and tell us, “take it, shut up, or we will move your job, too.” We made the wages and working and conditions and environmental protections prosperity that democracy brings into a cost. We turned ourselves into a cost. We made democracy a competitive disadvantage.
Plutocrats Say Shed Benefits Of Democracy
Plutocrats say we need to shed the benefits of democracy and become more like China if we want to compete. They say get rid of regulations, employee protections, environmental protections, good wages, benefits like pensions and time off, etc… They say that We, the People (government) “get in the way of doing business.” They say the taxes that pay for good infrastructure and schools and police and courts and services like Social Security and care for the disabled and health care for children “take money out of the economy” but they mean these take some of the money that they have been taking from the economy.
Democracy Is The Best Economics
Look at the primary target of the corporate/conservatives: unions. That should tell you something. This is a power confrontation. This is the power of the 1% overcoming the power of the 99%.
Democracy is the power of the 99% to make the decisions, and to build structures that protect us from exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. This confrontation is the story of the origin of our country — how We, the People confronted the power and corruption of the British aristocracy, overcame that power, and built a country of, by and for the people.
Democracy and the taxes it enabled us to ask from the wealthiest is what enabled us to build the infrastructure and schools and everything that enabled our prosperity. The regulations of democracy are what enable our smaller businesses to compete with the giants. The shared prosperity — redistribution of wealth — is what enabled the middle class to grow, and turned us into the most prosperous country and largest market in the world.
Unions are about building up the power of groups of people, to confront and overcome the advantages of wealth and the power wealth brings to a few. When a union is strong enough to be able to confront the power of big corporations the result is that the 99% get a share of the pie. When unions are strong we all get better wages and better working conditions and a say in how we are treated, whether we are in unions or not. The benefits flow to the rest of the economy.
It would be nice if our system worked well enough that we didn’t need to organize unions on top of the structure of laws and regulations, but it is just the fact of life that the wealthy and powerful and their corporations have throughout our history been able to exert tremendous influence over legislative bodies, again and again. So to fight that working people organize and build these organized unions of people, and leverage that power of the group to demand wages and benefits and weekends and a share of the prosperity. The story of the power confrontation between unions of working people (99%) and the large corporations (1%) is the story of how we built a middle class that brought us the prosperity we enjoyed.
It is not just a coincidence that the weakening of the unions coincides with the decline of the middle class. It is not just a coincidence that the current rise of the plutocrats brings in a swarm of anti-union legislation. It is not just a coincidence that the times when our democracy is strongest we all do so much better. And now, when our demcoracy has been weakened by the money and power of the 1% and their corporations, the rest of us are so much worse off.
Not US v. China
This is not about US workers and markets vs China. Working people in all countries are at risk when their countries trade with countries where workers are exploited. China’s huge trade imbalance is threatening the world’s economy. The loss of manufacturing to countries that exploit workers is threatening workers in many countries.
The US market is still large, and the US can still demand that imported goods be made according to better standards for workers. The rest of the world can also demand that China’s workers be brought up to international standards. And we can certainly hold companies like Apple accountable, and demand that they only buy from suppliers that treat and pay workers according to international standards, because allowing companies to cheat, exploit workers and commit fraud drives the good companies out of business.
This is not about taking jobs back from Chinese workers! This is about demanding they be paid fairly and given a say in their workplaces! This is about not exploiting people there or here!
Trade can be an upward spiral, rather than a lever for exploitation of the 99% by the 1%. If Chinese workers are given a say and paid fairly then they can buy things we make and we can keep buying things they make.
Unions = Democracy = Middle Class = Shared Prosperity
Jon Stewart explains:
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF.
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