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
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
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
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.