‘Invisibilizing the Workers Who Actually Do the Work’ – Transcript of CounterSpin's special Labor Day episode on workers and corporate media

Janine Jackson assembled some of CounterSpin‘s best segments on workers and media for a special September 2, 2016, episode for Labor Day. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Mural, Pomona Day Labor Center (cc photo: Pitzer College)

Mural, Pomona Day Labor Center (cc photo: Pitzer College)


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Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines of the mainstream news. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: a special episode in celebration of Labor Day.

It’s presented by corporate media as, most importantly, a long weekend with a parade—or, more seriously, as a holiday fought for by US trade unions to honor American workers. But the day has more complex origins. A national holiday had been a goal of US labor—several states already celebrated—but Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day in the midst of an attack by federal troops on striking Pullman railway workers, leading many to see it as an attempt to appease workers more than honor them.

It’s fitting that the holiday remind us of the struggles as well as the advances of US workers, who face today some of the same problems as in 1894, including distant and disconnected owners, whose self-enriching, anti-worker policies are enabled and, if need be, enforced by government. We’ll be revisiting a few, we think, illuminating conversations about work and labor, and media coverage, this week on CounterSpin.

• • •

Child workers, Bangladesh (Photo: Global Labour Rights)

Child workers employed by Bangladesh’s Smart Fashion sweatshop. (Photo: Global Labour Rights)

JJ: Any understanding of US workers in 2016 will acknowledge that labor is in many ways international. The ability of textile workers in South Carolina to seek improvements in wages or conditions is tied directly to the ability of the corporation they work for to pay people in, say, Vietnam far less. Among its impacts, globalization has spurred solidarity among workers around the world, who recognize that the conditions that a company like Walmart condones and profits from abroad affect Americans—not only as consumers of the products made, but as workers fighting for better lives.

After a horrific fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh killed more than 100 workers making clothes for big brands like Walmart, Disney and Sears, CounterSpin spoke with Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium about how media focus on whether Walmart knew its clothes were being produced at that particular factory obscures the multinational’s power.

Scott Nova: Whatever the relationship between Walmart and this factory that burned on Saturday—and there’s no question that Walmart clothes were there—it’s important to understand that Walmart is the biggest buyer of apparel and the most powerful player in the Bangladesh apparel industry. And what Walmart does is place tremendous pressure on its contractors in Bangladesh, as in other countries, to produce at the lowest possible price. That, in turn, gives factories a very powerful incentive to reduce production and labor costs by running roughshod over the rights of workers. That, combined with a total lack of regulatory effort by the local government, is what produces sweatshop conditions and deadly fires.

JJ: We asked Nova about often-heard contentions from corporations and their media advocates that these are considered good jobs and good wages in, in this case, Bangladesh. And, besides, if those workers got paid more, the price of the clothing they make would necessarily skyrocket.

SN: First of all, no job is good if it kills you. And workers should not have to take their lives into their hands when they walk into the workplace.

You know, it’s important to understand, Bangladeshi workers are willing to work for low wages. Unfortunately, they’re not paid low wages, they’re paid brutal, sub-poverty wages. Eighteen cents an hour is the minimum wage for apparel workers there, not even enough to feed a family. And so what you’ve got is Western brands and retailers who are taking advantage of the poverty and desperation of that country to get workers to work at absurdly low wages in dangerous conditions, because those workers lack any alternative.

But the reality is that none of this is necessary. Labor costs as a percentage of the final retail price of garments is tiny, maybe 1 to 2 percent of final retail price. Which means that Gap and H&M and Walmart, and the other big players in Bangladesh, could easily afford to greatly increase wages, and to ensure that their suppliers undertake the necessary fire safety precautions, with a minimal impact on the corporate bottom line and a minimal impact on prices for consumers. Unfortunately, they refuse to pay one penny more to the factories.

JJ: As for those corporate claims, cited credulously in press accounts, that they simply don’t know who their contractors or subcontractors are, Nova had thoughts about that too.

SN: It’s nonsense. These are corporations, Walmart in particular, that work extremely hard and effectively to maintain very tight control over supply chain logistics and production in their systems. Indeed, at Walmart, tight control of the supply chain as a means of minimizing cost is essentially a religion. So it’s very hard to swallow claims from these companies that, in fact, they have so little control over their supply chains that they do not even know on a given day which factories are making their clothing. And the bottom line is, they have the power to ensure that they know which factories are making their clothing, and they have the power to ensure that those factories operate safely. If they don’t know which factories are making their clothing, that’s because they’ve chosen not to know.

• • •

Upper Big Branch memorial (cc photo: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin)

Upper Big Branch memorial (cc photo: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin)

JJ: Workers die on the job in this country too, of course. Twenty-nine miners died in an explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia as a result of safety violations by operator Massey Energy. Unusually, in this case, a higher-up, Massey CEO Don Blankenship, was to some degree called to account, sentenced to a year in prison earlier this year. Attorney Bruce Stanley told CounterSpin the pressure to pursue such cases needs to start locally, and that’s not easy for many reasons.

Bruce Stanley: I was a local reporter on a small southern West Virginia newspaper out of college, and I appreciated the strain that one would feel when making decisions about whether or not to write stories about certain, quote, “powerful local officials.” I mean, that pressure on local media is palpable. Unless there is an independent media there, the notion of some young prosecutor, or any prosecutor, standing up and saying, hey, enough’s enough, and we need to take an independent stand here—it calls for a conviction that, frankly, most average citizens don’t possess.

And when you weigh that against the economics of a local economy, a single-engine economy, it gets very difficult. You know, a lot of these miners’ families who complain about the safety issues associated with operating in a Massey mine, many of those same families were the ones who were complaining about the alleged war on coal, where coal is saying, hey, we’re being regulated out of business by the Obama administration. So it becomes a very, very difficult dynamic.

I think it’s also important to remember, though, and I do want to revisit, quickly, the nature of the federal charge that he was charged against—that is not local. That is something that the national politicians could do something about. That’s something that the Congress of the United States has had on its desk for some time now, and has chosen not to act. And that’s a choice not to act, as a lack of leadership from Washington representatives from the coal fields.

You know, Shelley Capito and Joe Manchin and Mitch McConnell all represent constituents who are laboring in unsafe mine conditions, where that one-year maximum penalty is all that’s out there. They can change that anytime that they want. The administration would back that change, and they know that, and they choose not to.

And so that one is very problematic, when weighed against what you know is going to be the inertia at the local setting, because of the overall power of coal in these communities, what they could be doing with the stroke of a pen, essentially, at the national level to prevent that. Why should it be that it’s 30 years to lie to Wall Street, one year to conspire to violate the mine safety laws of the United States? And that’s a choice that Congress had made.

JJ: One thing media could do, Stanley said, is to stop referring to workplace deaths as if they were extremely rare, or remnants of the past.

BS: As I said earlier, 53 men, at least, died under Don Blankenship’s watch. You know, we watched Upper Big Branch because 29 died in one spectacular, stupid explosion. But there are another 20 miners or so underground, one or two at a time, dying because of the same management style, the same sense of dollars over men, the same sense of production over safety, that accounted for Upper Big Branch. The laws are on the books, there are inspectors there to enforce the law, and there should be prosecution for the people who disobey the law. End of story.

If that becomes the rubric, if that becomes the way in which we conduct ourselves as a society, then hopefully we will get to the point where the Upper Big Branches, or the Aracomas, or the mangled arms and twisted limbs and broken backs, are things of the past. But to put it off as — sometimes I get concerned that we think that, you know, I can turn off the TV and it goes away. Well, it doesn’t go away. It’s there. And it’s not going to go away until that step-after-step, step-by-step, mechanical effort is undertaken to get the law in place and enforce the law, period.

• • •

Restaurant worker (cc photo: Daveblog)

The tipped wage is “essentially legalized gender equality.” (cc photo: Daveblog)

JJ: From coal mines to fine dining sounds like a leap, but the unequal struggle between workers and owners plays out there as well. And as we discussed with author and advocate Saru Jayaraman, in restaurants we can see clearly how defending workers rights connects and overlaps with defending the rights of women and of people of color. Jayaraman talked about the fight to eliminate the tipped wage.

Saru Jayaraman: Our campaign is not actually, at this minute, to eliminate tipping altogether; that’s a huge misconception. We are trying to eliminate the lower wage for tipped workers, which this industry has gotten away with for over 100 years.

The true history is that tipping originated in Europe; when it came to the United States in the late 1850s, there was a massive anti-tipping movement, so great that five states passed bans on tipping. And two industries, the restaurant industry and the Pullman train company, squashed that movement, and demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves and not pay them anything and let them live on customer tips.

And that idea, that the restaurant industry in particular could not pay its workers a wage, and let them live on customer tips, was codified into the very first minimum wage law, as part of the New Deal, which gave tipped workers the right to a zero-dollar minimum wage. And we’ve gone from zero dollars in 1938 to a whopping $2.13 an hour, which is the federal minimum wage for tipped workers in our country.

Now, there are seven states that have completely eliminated that system, and demand that the restaurant industry actually pay its workers a full wage and let tips be on top of that: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska all demand that the restaurant industry pay a full wage, and let tips be on top. Our campaign, our effort, has been to eliminate that lower wage for tipped workers, that two-tiered system that’s essentially legalized gender pay inequity, because it’s mostly women living on the lower wage.

Because when you are a woman who lives off tips for the majority of your income, as 6 million women in America do, you have to tolerate whatever a customer might do to you, however they may touch you or treat you or talk to you, because the customer is always right, because the customer is paying all of your income, truly, because your wage is so low—if you get $2, $3 or $4 an hour, as it is in 43 states, your wage is so low it goes entirely to taxes, and you’re living completely off your tips. So if you are living completely off your tips, you are completely dependent on the whims of the customer, and you have to tolerate this kind of behavior.

And our research shows it goes a step further; we found that management in states with lower wages for tipped workers encourages women to objectify themselves, wear tighter clothing, show greater cleavage, in order to get more money in tips, at three times the rate as they do in states like California, where a woman actually gets a full wage and doesn’t have to rely on the whims of a customer.

JJ: In restaurant work as elsewhere, sexism also intersects with racism.

SJ: People of color and women of color get segregated into lower-level segments of the industry, and lower-tipping occupations and lower-paid occupations. You will see people of color in casual restaurants and fast food restaurants; if they’re in fine dining, you’ll see them in what we call the back of the house, the kitchen, or in lower-tipped positions, like a busser or a runner, who often earns one-fifth of the tips that a server will make.

And so when the industry says nobody actually earns $2.13 an hour, these are well-paid tipped workers, well, there is a segment of the population for whom that’s true; there are these wealthy white servers. I won’t even say wealthy, actually; I’ll say better-paid white servers, who work in fine-dining restaurants. And they should be paid a livable wage, they should be remunerated for the professional work that they do, as this is a profession, this is a skilled profession, as it’s recognized to be in other countries.

But a big part of the problem is that people of color are not able to actually get to those great, livable-wage fine-dining server and bartending positions. Those jobs are not accessible to the vast majority of workers in this industry.

So we need to do two things. We need to lift the floor, by eliminating the lower wage for tipped workers and raising the wage overall for everybody, and we need to build the ladder — so that while we are lifting the floor, we also create better ability for workers to move into continuously higher-paying positions, especially fine-dining server and bartending positions, which can be family-supporting jobs.

• • •

Workers advocating for a higher minimum wage. (cc photo: Light Brigading)

Workers advocating for a higher minimum wage. (cc photo: Light Brigading)

JJ: The fight to increase the minimum wage has been one of the most vibrant and visible labor struggles in recent years. And it’s been recognized by corporate media as an unapologetic, creative campaign that encourages us to see that workers are consumers, and vice versa. But while media cover activism, their “serious talk” about raising the wage is still dogged by old myths, preeminent among them that a higher minimum wage would hurt business, especially small business. Holly Sklar told CounterSpin how her group, Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, gives the lie to that line.

Holly Sklar: There’s a big misunderstanding that there needs to be some kind of a split between business and workers on raising the minimum wage, or on the economics of it, but in fact we think—and we are a national network of business owners, executives and business alliances, who do believe a fair minimum wage makes good business sense.

In general, we know that it is absolutely the case that you cannot build a strong economy on a falling wage floor; and the minimum wage, adjusted for the cost of living, has fallen dramatically. At the federal level, $7.25 is actually lower, adjusted for inflation, than the minimum wage of 1950, and it’s a third lower than 1968. And so you cannot build a strong economy, and you cannot really build a strong business for the long haul, on falling real wages.

Most businesses in the country are small businesses, and so by definition most of our members are small businesses, although we have some very large businesses as well, and we have business alliances—for example, the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 30,000 businesses—that support raising the minimum wage. Small businesses understand very well that workers are also consumers. If there’s not enough money in the wage base of the economy, of the people they are hoping will come in and buy their goods and services, they feel it every day.

And they also feel very directly what it’s like to have a worker who, if they’re underpaid, if they’re not really earning enough to even keep a roof overhead, put food on the table, buy the winter jacket of a growing kid, they’re distracted by this financial stress that’s continual. And so they believe very strongly that the workers should earn enough so that they can focus on the business, on the customer, and not be constantly worried about just how are they going to make ends meet, how are they going to make the rent, and so on.

My point is that’s a big myth that has been sold. I mean, if cutting wages and cutting benefits and this whole notion that the more you can squeeze out of the workers—at the same time, as in the giant corporation, not in the small business but in the bigger corporations, you go in the exact opposite way, you have more and more of the revenue of the company going to fewer and fewer hands at the top—you know, we’ve already tested that. That’s my point, that that model is delivering us worse economic growth, that model is giving us a shrinking middle class, and that model is what produced the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. There’s nothing theoretical about that. We have seen what this business model, this economic model, produces—and it’s terrible. It’s terrible for workers and it’s also terrible for most businesses.

The biggest thing businesses have complained about in recent years is that they’re just not seeing enough consumer demand; they’re not seeing enough consumer buying power; they need more. You know, you need people to buy what they are making in order to sustain the business and to grow the business, and there’s obviously a direct connection—I say obviously, but folks like Donald Trump, ideologically, don’t want to see it as obvious—you need people to have enough wages to be able to buy what they need. And if you are going to have a growing middle class, you need people to be able to buy more than just the bare necessities, right? And that’s what we’ve lost sight of.

• • •

Boston Globe delivery workers rally (photo: North Shore Labor Council)

Boston Globe delivery workers rally (photo: North Shore Labor Council)

JJ: Media lose sight of the struggles of working people and how they figure in the economy, in good part because they so rarely listen at any length with any degree of seriousness to working people. It can be hard to get big media to tell labor’s story, even when it’s their own story. Professor Aviva Chomsky told us about the labor disruption by newspaper deliverers at the Boston Globe.

Aviva Chomsky: I think a lot of people still have in mind that newspapers are delivered by 12-year-olds on their bicycles, and that’s not how it is at all anymore. Newspaper delivery has become big business, and it’s done through an elaborate system of subcontracting. And the people who deliver the newspapers are adults, they do it by car, and their routes are far longer and more complex than what the kids in the neighborhoods used to do.

So newspaper delivery is a job that’s done through subcontracting. It’s a 365-day-a-year job, it has to be done in the middle of the night, from about 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., no matter what the weather, what the conditions. And it’s a job that’s extremely poorly paid; that is, you have to have your own car, your own insurance, you have to drive hundreds of miles a week. But you’re not considered an employee, you’re considered an independent contractor. And therefore the employer—which is the subcontractor who is contracted by the newspaper—doesn’t have any of the responsibilities that an employer has. They don’t have to pay you minimum wage, they don’t have to give you unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, Social Security. They get out of all their responsibilities as an employer.

JJ: Right.

AC: And, not surprisingly, this is an area of the economy where a lot of the people who work there are immigrants, and a significant number are also undocumented. Because it’s designed to be sort of a hidden, underground piece of the economy.

So that’s how it’s been. But then the Boston Globe decided they wanted to make it even cheaper for themselves, and they contracted out to a new delivery company that promised to give them a lower rate. And, basically, the only way to get a lower rate is to pay your workers even less. And there is something just a little bit ironic about this whole situation, that this is the newspaper, this is the people who are supposed to be doing the investigation and bringing the news, and that they’re relying on this very hidden system of distribution.

JJ: The deliverers went out for a month, and someone had the idea to have Globe reporters deliver the Sunday paper, leading to a round of fish-of-water stories, but not much else.

AC: It’s not just the Boston Globe reporters, but this story was picked up nationally. So it was in the New York Times, the fact that Boston Globe reporters spent one night doing what immigrant workers do 365 days a year, that suddenly made national news. So NPR, as you said, the New York Times, Columbia Journalism Review; it was popping up everywhere, this amazing fact that newspaper reporters spent a night delivering the paper. And I’m surprised that no one was sort of embarrassed to acknowledge just how big this divide is, and how unlikely and shocking it was that something like this could happen, that newspaper reporters could actually see how the paper gets delivered.

There were a couple of Globe reporters who really did try to get under the surface, and I have to especially give a shout-out to Marcela Garcia, who’s one of the few Globe reporters who actually speaks Spanish, which helped a lot, who actually interviewed some of the workers there.

But most of the Boston Globe’s reporting, and the national-level reporting, ignored the workers completely. That is, it told the story about how the Boston Globe workers went out, but the emphasis was that the whole problem was software, that is, that the new company had inadequate software. So it tried to go from one extreme, of the reality of this grittiness and the exploitation involved in this actual physical labor, and turn it into something technological and computerized, further invisibilizing the workers who actually do the work.

• • •

Teachers union rally, Tennessee (cc photo: amsd2dth)

Teachers union rally, Tennessee (cc photo: amsd2dth)

JJ: The people who do the work are often invisible in corporate news media, even as their beliefs, feelings and motivations are debated by well-heeled pundits and politicians. When CounterSpin spoke with labor journalist Mike Elk a few years back, a number of pundits were contending that US media snobbishly overlooked the country’s heartland, which, it turns out, they thought meant NASCAR and conservatism. We asked Elk his thoughts on that, and on labor coverage in general.

Mike Elk: I mean, I grew up in Appalachia, and I think Bible Belt conservatism is much different than anybody thinks. I started union organizing in West Virginia, and guys would show up to meetings with Bush/Cheney stickers on their bumpers, and then they’d be talking about needing to go on a strike. So it’s a complex issue, and I think the way that people like Chuck Todd present it is just unreal.

But, you know, take a great story. A Pew study showed—this was in 2009—in 2009, only 2 percent of those quoted in stories about economics are union members, despite union members making up to 12 percent of the population. This is incredible. I mean, the largest organized group of workers only being quoted in 2 percent of stories.

But I think covering the labor movement, people often come up with ideas of how to revive the labor movement. And it typically is this bizarre debate, where if labor just gets its message right, they’ll somehow revive the labor movement. It completely ignores the fact that there’s more than enough enthusiasm in this country for the labor movement. Polls show that the majority of people in this country would join a union if they can.

The problem is the barriers, the people getting fired on their jobs, and things like that. Only one out of six union drives ever results in a contract. So the big barriers are, how do you get people to risk everything? How do you get people to stick together? What are the smart strategies that people are able to do to get that kind of momentum? And then how do they take on a company? And that’s something you don’t get.

I was thinking about one of the first big labor struggles I ever visited. When I was about seven years old, I went down to Ravenswood, West Virginia, and those guys down there, they were locked out for about a year and a half. And they came up with a plan to go all over the world and track down, eventually, the owner of the company, which was Marc Rich, a financier who was in exile in Switzerland, because he had sold goods to Iran in violation of the embargo, as well as tax evasion and wire fraud and a number of other things. And they shook him down, a bunch of rednecks from West Virginia. I mean, they went over to Switzerland, and they formed ties with the Swiss labor movement, and then they were able to put some pressure on him in Switzerland, so that he thought he was going to get kicked out of Switzerland. And that’s an incredible story.

Where do people come up with that desire to, instead of just give up and make a separate deal, to actually do something? And I think that’s a really big question. And that—almost all labor coverage doesn’t get covered, it becomes this elite debate about, you know, how do unions strike the right message? We already have the right message. It’s how do we come over with the boss, how do we get good contracts, how do we do smart campaigns?

JJ: That was labor journalist Mike Elk. Before that we heard Aviva Chomsky, Holly Sklar, Saru Jayaraman, Bruce Stanley and Scott Nova.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.