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Painter Man, Circa 1963

Caffé Puccini, North Beach, San Francisco 25 3 94


A year ago he went
from climbing ladders
with brush and bucket in hand
to pushing buttons in an elevator


This was on the edge of Chinatown
in Boston not far from where
as high school seniors
you and I feasted on chop suey


He, my father, had been an artist,
a dancer, a lover, a house painter,
and a sailor
stuck now in a job
he said had its ups and downs


His elevator was different from others
he painted the walls
as if when entering you were invited
into his livingroom
fireplace and all


It was warm
even during the coldest,
the windiest, the snowiest
northeasterner in memory


But if you were one of the lucky ones
as I was, his son, you could go to the top floor
where he lived
in his loft with his Rubenesque lovers,
two sisters, from Maine
surrounded by huge canvases


Of them mostly
covered with colors only he could conjure up
covered with images uncovered
by each floor of the elevator
his mind ascending


Philip Hackett

A snowball’s chance

may 22, 2000. It all began with a swoosh.

No, this week’s harangue is not directed at Nike. In fact, sweatshop reforms in remote third-world countries marked only the first step. Today a worldwide transformation is taking place, one that will leave its mark on San Francisco as well as Bangkok. Like a rolling snowball, this movement has gathered many species of healthy moss. It has drawn together several strands of concern that have energized people of conscience in recent years, to create a new take on life in the 21st century. Where it will all end, no one knows. Swooshes are like that. But with a little hind- and foresight, we can give the snowball a push in the right direction.

Several years ago, the vigilant people who work in places like Global Exchange and Human Rights Watch noticed that globalization had created a new kind of colonialism, a mutually profitable collaboration between international corporations and local governments to set up factories for the inexpensive production of goods. "Compose locally, dispose globally" became the key to the new skyrocketing economy. The system could only work if the people at the manufacturing end were paid as little as possible and kept so busy that they hadn’t the breath to complain.

But globalism means that nothing can be kept a secret. Before long, Americans had become accustomed to hearing the voices of workers in China or El Salvador describing working conditions that we thought had disappeared a century ago. We discovered that a $20 baseball cap was often made by someone in the Dominican Republic who earned as little as 69 cents an hour, someone who wondered, "What I want to know is why do we get paid so little, if these caps sell for so much? I'm working 56 hours a week, and sometimes I can't afford clothes for my children" (www.uniteunion.org/sweatshops/schoolcap/schoolcap.html). Not fair, they said, and they began to put pressure on companies like Nike to give labor practices the same priority as prices.

Globalism also means that nothing can be kept a secret at home. Before long, investigators were turning their attention to conditions in the United States, discovering, like Feminist Majority researcher Olivia Given, that clothing is still made in "filthy cramped rooms" in the middle of Manhattan (www.feminist.org/other/sweatnyc.html). "All the women we encountered" she reported, "sat hunched over sewing machines. Teetering piles of fabric overshadowed each workbench. Metal cage doors sealed the entrance to each workroom. We spoke briefly, in Spanish, to some of the women working in these locked cages. Many of the young women were working to support families. They expressed a guarded dissatisfaction with their pay and working conditions."


Here the snowball took a sharp turn, into a new bed of moss.

The sight of do-good organizations protesting the mistreatment of workers is a ho-hum event in the corridors of power. But about a year ago, a group of new players entered the arena, armed with cash-filled pocketbooks. At the forefront, moving rather reluctantly, were most of the major colleges in the United States, whose budgets allocate millions of dollars every year for articles bearing their logo. Articles like the $20 baseball cap made in the Dominican Republic. Sniffing at the deans’ and trustees’ heels, herding them along like a band of recalcitrant sheep, were their students, trained from birth to be consumers and savvy to every marketing trick on the books. Why did they suddenly awaken from their decade-long apathy? It’s hard to tell, but perhaps they resented being used as procurers of corporate income. Their agitation worked, and campus after campus fell into line, refusing to sign contracts with manufacturers who couldn’t guarantee fair and open manufacturing facilities.

But then the students — like the labor researchers who preceded them — turned their attention toward home. On many campuses, anti-sweatshop campaigns coincided with demonstrations and negotiations to secure fair wages for the low-income employees at their own colleges. Again they prevailed. The latest to arrive on the side of the angels is Ohio State, where students have been supporting striking groundskeepers, bus drivers, custodians, food-service workers, and maintenance employees in a three-week strike. Professors moved classes off campus. Students engaged in tactics honed over previous generations, including rallies, vigils, and sit-ins. They caught the attention of the Columbus city council, which also leaned on the university. Many of the striking workers earn less than $10 an hour. Said Councilwoman Charleta Tavares, when she discovered that a local fast food restaurant was offering its employees $8 an hour in addition to stock options, a pension plan, and other benefits, "When we say we pay our fast-food workers this kind of rate, what does it say for people who have worked for years making $9 or $10?" The university’s new contract provides a $2 raise.


Still the snowball tumbled along, until it ran smack dab into a big pile of globalism right in the middle of the City That Knows How. The global market is a free market, at least when market freedom fuels the engines of corporate wealth. And the market that inhabits the Bay Area is on a wide, free roll. The digital technology industries that grease the corporate engines, have — as even the Saharan nomads must have heard by now — sent local real estate prices into outer space. If an Ohio State groundskeeper has trouble making ends meet in Columbus, imagine his difficulties in a city where (according to the California Budget Project) a single parent must earn more than $17 an hour to support a family.

The digital brigade may make more than that, but the diligent band of workers holding together the rest of the city often do not. Nor should they, argue many of the people who pay their salaries. And so, for obvious practical and humane reasons, Supervisor Tom Ammiano struck a compromise. He proposed a living wage ordinance to ensure that employers under contract to the city, or doing business on city property, will pay a minimum of $11 an hour plus medical benefits. But these are unskilled laborers, critics cry. These are the people who care for our disabled and our elderly, who wash dishes and clean up our restaurants, who inspect our baggage at the airport and guard our buildings, who administer our homeless shelters. If they’re unskilled at their jobs, then we’re in a truly sorry state. It’s more likely that their performance — and our well-being — will suffer from their grogginess, as they try to make ends meet by moonlighting.

Strong arguments have been advanced against the ordinance, generally by those whose purses will be pinched. Various studies have produced varying estimates of the cost. But we really don’t have any choice. A service economy runs on service workers. Questions of humanity aside, rational foresight requires us to protect their livelihood.

The Supervisors Finance and Labor Committee meets Wednesday, May 24 at 10:00 a.m., in 263 City Hall, for a final hearing on the question before it goes to the full board for a vote. You can expect fireworks, as the snowball comes home to rest.