Labor Controversy Close to Home

Saigon Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant that can be found in two locations in Manhattan – one restaurant on the Upper West Side and one in the West Village – has been embattled with labor disputes for the past few years. In 2008, a federal judge awarded $4.6 million to workers of the two restaurants due to the owners’ violations of minimum wage and overtime laws.

However, protests still continue outside the restaurants even though there has been a change in management. The new owners of the restaurants have been accused of age discrimination against its workers.

The Justice Will Be Served Campaign! has been working with workers of the restaurants to end the long-standing dispute with the owners of the restaurants. They have organized picket lines and boycotts outside the restaurants for the past several years. However, it seems that even with a change in management, labor violations continue at Saigon Grill restaurants. What can be done to ensure the newest owners will turn the tide of the labor controversy that continually surrounds the restaurant?


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A Labor Law Bosses Would Love

By David Bacon

Backed by industrialists, Mexican politicians are on the verge of erasing most workers’ rights.

MEXICO CITY (4/14/11) – Changing labor law sounds like some technical modification, a subject lawyers argue about in musty hearing rooms. In Mexico it’s been front-page news for weeks. Changing the country’s labor law would transform the lives of millions of workers. It would cement the power of a group of industrialists who have been on the political offensive for decades, and who now control Mexico’s presidency and national government.

“Labor law reform will only benefit the country’s oligarchs,” claims Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who many if not most Mexicans think actually won the last presidential election in 2006, as candidate of the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution. Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, head of the miner’s union who was forced into exile in Canada in 2006, says Mexico’s old governing party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), which lost control of the presidency in 2000, “is trying to assure its return by making this gift to big business, putting an end to labor rights.”

In part, the change is drastic because on paper, at least, the rights of Mexican workers are extensive, deriving from the Revolution that ended in 1920. At a time when workers in the U.S. still had no law that even recognized the legality of unions, Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution spelled them out. Workers have the right to jobs and permanent status once they’re hired. If they’re laid off, they have the right to severance pay. They have rights to housing, health care, and training. In a legal strike, they can string flags across the doors of a factory or workplace, and even the owner can’t enter until the dispute is settled. Strikebreaking is prohibited.

The new law would change most of that.
Companies would be able to hire workers in a six-month probationary status, and then fire them at the end without penalty. Even firing workers with 20 or 30 years on the job would suddenly become much easier and cheaper for their employers, by limiting the penalty for unjust termination to one year’s severance pay. “That’s an open invitation to employers,” according to Arturo Alcalde, Mexico’s most respected labor lawyer and past president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers. “The bosses themselves say the PRI reform is the road to a ‘paradise of firings.’ It will make it much cheaper for companies to terminate workers.”

The justification, of course, is that by reducing the number of workers at a worksite, while requiring those remaining to work harder, productivity increases and profits go up. Meanwhile for workers, though, a permanent job and stable income become a dream, while the fear of firing grows, hours get longer, and work gets faster, harder and more dangerous.

The labor law reform proposal deepens those changes. The 40-hour workweek was written into the Federal Labor Law, which codified the rights in Article 123. That limit would end. Even the current 7-peso/hour minimum wage ($5/day) would be undermined, as employers would gain the unilateral right to set wages. The independent review of safe working conditions would be heavily restricted.
Mexican workers aren’t passive and work stoppages and protests are much more common than they are today in the U.S. Greater activity by more angry workers, therefore, wouldn’t be hard to predict. So the labor law reform takes this into account as well.

Even in union workplaces with a collective agreement setting wages and conditions, an employer could force individual workers to sign individual agreements with fewer rights or lower wages. Companies could subcontract work with no limit, giving employers the ability to find low-cost contractors with no union to replace unionized, higher-wage employees. And it would become much more difficult to go on strike.

The proposed labor law reform is the fourth in a series of basic changes in Mexico’s economic, legal and political framework over the last decade. A fiscal reform began the process of privatizing the country’s pension system, much like the Social Security privatization plans propose for the U.S. Teachers charge that Mexican education reform is intended to remove their influence over the curriculum, which still espouses values that would seem very progressive in a U.S. classroom. In many cases, they say, it will remove them from their jobs also. Current Mexican President Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) proposed an energy reform aimed at privatizing the national oil company, Pemex. Fierce opposition, however, was able to restrict it to some degree.

All the reforms have been part of a program of economic liberalization opening Mexico to private domestic, and especially foreign capital. Lopez Obrador calls the labor law reform “part of a series imposed on Mexico from outside over the last two decades, including the energy reform, fiscal reform and education reform.” In fact, the World Bank pressured Mexico to adopt an earlier labor law reform after the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, and Calderon’s predecessor, Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox, won it. The two labor law reform proposals are not identical, but very similar. Both reflect the surging power of corporate employers in Mexico, and the way the PRI and PAN often trade places, pursuing the same political and economic agenda.

“At the same time,” Lopez Obrador notes, “the fight against inequality and poverty is not on the national agenda.” Mexican poverty is already a scandal for a country whose leaders insist its economic growth merits a seat in the “first world.” Changing its labor law would make that poverty more permanent, however, as well as rendering unions more impotent in challenging it. Juan Manuel Sandoval, a leader of the Mexican Action Network Against Free Trade, predicts, “We will become part of the first world – the back yard.”

In 2010 Mexico had 53 million people living in poverty, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology. Even the CIA says half the country’s population lives in poverty, and almost 20% in extreme poverty. The government’s unemployment figures are low – 5-6% — but a huge number of working-age Mexicans are part of the informal economy, selling articles on the street or working in jobs where the employer doesn’t pay into the official funds (the basis for counting employed workers.) Some estimate that there are more workers in the informal sector than in the formal one.

Even the formal jobs don’t pay a wage capable of supporting a family, however. According to the Bank of Mexico, 95% of the 800,000 jobs created last year paid only $10 a day. Yet when a maquiladora worker buys a gallon of milk in a Tijuana or Juarez supermarket, she pays more than she would on the U.S. side. Prices are a little lower further south, but not much. The price of that gallon of milk used to be fixed and subsidized, along with tortillas, bus fare and other basic necessities. Previous waves of economic reforms decontrolled prices and ended consumer subsidies, as Mexico was pressured to create more favorable conditions for private investment.

And investors have done very well. In one of the recent diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, the U.S. government admits “The net wealth of the 10 richest people in Mexico — a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty — represents roughly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.” Carlos Slim became the world’s richest man when a previous PRI President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, privatized the national telephone company and sold it to him. Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who owns TV Azteca, is now worth $8 billion, and Emilio Azcárraga Jean, who owns Televisa, is worth $2.3 billion. Both helped current Mexican President Feiipe Calderon get elected in 2006.

German Larrea and his company Grupo Mexico got the concessions to operate some of the world’s largest copper mines. Grupo Mexico was accused of industrial homicide by miners’ union president Gomez Urrutia after 65 people (many of them contract workers) died in an explosion in February 2006. Since June 2007 the Grupo Mexico copper mine in Cananea has been on strike. Last year Larrea and the Mexican government cooperated in using armed force to open its gates and bring in strikebreakers.

In reality, much of the PRI’s labor law reform is already the reality on the ground in Cananea, at other mines, or among maquiladora workers near the U.S. Mexico border. For years the rights of workers in northern Mexico, and even the rule of law itself, have been undermined by the growing power of corporations.

The corporate transformation of the Mexican economy began long ago, moving the country away from nationalist ideas about development, which were dominant from the end of the Mexican Revolution through the 1970s. Nationalists advocated an economic system in which oil fields, copper mines, railroads, the telephone system, great tracts of land, and other key economic resources would be controlled by Mexicans and used for their benefit.

Under President Lazaro Cardenas in the late 1930s, Mexico established a corporatist system in which one political party, the PRI, controlled the main sectors of Mexican society – workers, farmers, the military and the “popular” sector. PRI governments administered a network of social services, providing healthcare and housing, at least for people in those organized sectors. Cardenas also nationalized Mexico’s most important resource – oil – in a popular campaign.

National ownership of oil, and later electrical generation, was written into the Constitution. Land redistribution and nationalization had a political as well as economic purpose – the creation of a section of workers and farmers who would defend the government and its political party, into which their unions and producer organizations were incorporated.

After World War Two, Mexico officially adopted a policy of industrialization through import substitution. Factories produced products for the domestic market, while imports of those products were restricted. The purpose was to develop a national industrial base, provide jobs, and increase the domestic market. Large state-owned enterprises eventually employed hundreds of thousands of Mexican industrial workers in mines, mills, transportation and other strategic industries. Unions had their greatest strength in the public sector. Foreign investment was limited.

Enrique Davila, professor at San Diego City College, calls the system “nationalism in rhetoric, selling out the country in practice.” Under successive PRI administrations a vast gulf widened between the political and economic elite, who managed the state’s assets and controlled government policy in their own interest, and workers and farmers, especially those not in the formal sector. To protect this elite, the country’s political system became increasingly repressive.

In the 1970s, to finance growth while the price of oil was high, Mexico opened up its financial system to foreign capital (mostly from the U.S.), and the country’s foreign debt soared. Managers of state enterprises like the oil company ran private businesses on the side, along with politically connected union officials. Rackets and corruption proliferated while labor and campesino leaders who challenged the system were imprisoned or worse.

The debt and the hold it gave to foreign financial interests spelled the end of nationalist development. Oil prices fell, the U.S. Treasury jacked up interest rates, and in 1982 the system collapsed when Mexico could no longer make debt payments. The government devalued the peso in what is still infamous as the great “peso shock.”
In the Constitution Mexicans still had the right to housing, healthcare, employment and education, but millions of people went hungry, had no homes, were sick and unemployed, and couldn’t read. The anger and cynicism felt by many Mexicans toward their political system is in great part a product of the contradiction between the constitutional promises of the revolution a century ago, plus the nationalist rhetoric that followed, and the reality of life for most people.

In a desperate attempt to generate jobs and revenue for debt payments, the government encouraged the growth of maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories on the northern border. By 2005 over 3000 border plants employed over 2 million workers making products for shoppers from Los Angeles to New York. In 1992 they already accounted for over half of Mexican exports, and in the NAFTA era, became the main sector of the economy producing employment growth.

Maquiladora development undermined the legal rights of workers in the border area, and any laws viewed as discouraging investment. The government had a growing interest in keeping wages low as an attraction to foreign investment, instead of high enough that people could buy what they were making. The old official unions, including the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) controlled restive workers, rather than organizing them to win better conditions.

One of the most important methods of control is the protection contract. Cooperative unions sign agreements with factory owners, who pay it “dues” for workers who often have no idea that the union and contract even exist. They find out quickly, however, when they try to organize any independent effort to raise wages or improve conditions. The company and official union claim a contract already exists. If workers try to protest, they’re forced into a process before “tripartite” labor boards dominated by business owners, politicians dependent on them, and the official unions.

Labor history in Mexico for decades has been dominated by valiant battles fought by workers to organize independent unions and rid themselves of protection contracts. Thousands have been fired, and some even killed. Despite defeats, organizations like the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), the Border Committee of Women Workers (CFO), Enlace, and the Workers Support Committee (CAT), have helped workers challenge this system. Some of these battles, fought together with independent unions like the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), have won union contracts, slowly building an independent and progressive sector of Mexican labor.

The FAT and the National Union of Workers, to which it belongs, have made their own proposals for labor law reform. They’ve suggested making all contracts public to let workers know what union they belong to, and to shine a light on the corruption of the present system. They would reform the labor boards, making its process more usable to workers, and remove some of the government controls used to punish independent unions. The PRI proposal would not make protection contracts public or limit them, nor would it change the labor boards or enhance union rights.

Instead, it takes direct aim at those independent unions, some of which have been organized in fierce fights against shutdowns and privatization, like the recent one at the government-owned Mexicana Airline. New private businesses in aviation and other industries don’t want to see these unions spread by organizing their workers. A new private carrier, Volaris, for instance, recently started service to the U.S. Now that the government has forced Mexicana into bankruptcy and laid off its workers, Volaris hopes to take over the old airline’s routes, and perhaps even its assets. What it doesn’t want is the Mexicana union.

The new labor law reform would restrict unions to the one company or enterprise where they start. Industrial, or even craft, unions, representing workers at many employers, would become impossible to organize. The new private businesses in Mexico would face no challenge by a union seeking to set a base wage for a particular industry, for instance. Unions would have much greater difficulty in organizing solidarity among workers, in any effort like the ones that led to the large industrial unions in either the U.S. or Mexico.

Progressive unions in Mexico today are fighting for their survival. The state institutions that enforce Mexican labor law are already heavily stacked against them. PRI’s reforms would make turn the struggle for survival into a desperate war.

The miners union has been forced out of many mines by government-sponsored company unions. Its leader is still in exile in Canada. President Calderon declared Mexico’s oldest and most progressive major union, the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME) “non-existent” in October of 2009. He dissolved the state-owned Power and Light Company for central Mexico, and fired all of the SME’s 44,000 members who worked there. Most Mexicans believe that is a prelude to privatizing the electrical industry. Already, despite the Constitutional prohibition, almost half of the electricity generated in the country comes from private producers. Nevertheless, the union has been able to win back its legal recognition, and is fighting for the rights and jobs of the 16,000 members who have refused to accept their termination.

Meanwhile, unions in the U.S. and other countries have tried to find ways of supporting Mexican unions. In February five international union bodies, the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), UNI Global Union, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), cooperated in organizing actions in 40 countries. Over 50,000 workers, students and human rights activists demonstrated at Mexican consulates or otherwise showed their public opposition to the reform. Twenty-seven actions took place in Mexico itself.

The international federations and Mexican unions formed a coalition, which agreed to press the government to abolish the protection contract system and to stop the use of force against strikers at the Cananea mine, the Power and Light Company, and in other similar situations. The unions demanded an end to repression against the miners union and the SME; and that government officials be held responsible for the explosion at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine.

In April unions, community organizations, and even churches and farmers filled Mexico City’s main avenue, the Reforma, in a huge march to the central plaza, the Zocalo. Agustin Rodriguez, general secretary of the union for workers at the national university, STUNAM, warned them, “It is clear that they are trying to modify and reform the Federal Labor Law to turn workers into slaves. That will not happen.” In the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, legislators from the PRD announced they would begin holding “days of information” in neighborhoods, helping ordinary people understand the changes that await them.
As the presidential election of July 2012 draws closer, politicians increasingly try to calculate the way the reform might influence it. For the PAN, having the PRI introduce the proposal helps cement a political alliance against the left, and makes the PRI complicit in the government’s anti-labor crusade. This causes problems in the PRI, however. Even some official union leaders, affiliated with the PRI, seek to defend themselves against accusations from their base that they’re betraying their union and history. A few have even called the bill an “aggressive attack on workers,” while others advocate more meetings to discuss the proposal, echoing the call by the PRD.

Carlos Navarrete, PRD coordinator in the Senate, ridiculed the secrecy in which the PRI proposal was introduced. “The country needs good-paying jobs, with secure benefits and a level of technology that makes them competitive,” he argued, “not stealth initiatives made with no public debate.” The longer the debate goes on, however, the closer the elections approach. Some PRI candidates, at least, would rather not have to defend an unpopular reform, fresh in the memory of voters. They’d like to see a vote as soon as possible. “The PRI and PAN deputies will try to pass it during holy week, when people are on vacation,” predicts Lopez Obrador.

On the defensive or not, though, the independent unions and left wing activists are far from beaten. They’ve defeated previous efforts, and popular support is on their side. If they can mobilize it effectively, they can still defeat the present proposal and hold the government at bay. July of 2012 is not that far away.

For more articles and images, see

See also Illegal People — How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)

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For Indigenous Peoples, Forced Resettlement Carries a Heavy Toll

Tribal groups around the world are losing their lands, and ways of life, to industries and governments

The man in the photograph stands at the side of a dusty road, his arms outstretched, a mbaraka rattle in his left hand. In front of him, a black car thunders past. There is a dignity in his gesture that is not in keeping with the black-tarpaulined shacks of his temporary community. The red earth on which the shacks are built was once covered by forest; now it is denuded and littered with trash.

The roadside camp is home to a community of Guarani-Kaiowá Indians, largest tribe in Brazil. For the Guarani, land is everything. It is not only the origin of all life, and a precious gift from Nande Ru, the great father; it is life itself. Today, however, the endless deforestation of Mato Grosso do Sul, (which, ironically, means “thick forest of the south”), in southern Brazil has turned their land into a vast, dry network of cattle ranches, soya fields, and the sugar cane plantations that supply the booming bio-fuels market.

Destroying vast swathes of forest has left many Guarani squeezed onto tiny patches of land, either in designated reserves or by the road, where they drink water from plastic tanks and polluted streams. Gone, for most, are the forest gardens where they planted manioc and corn; gone is the ability to freely hunt game. The impact of this land loss on the physical and mental health of the Guarani people has been profound.

Guarani-Kaiowá leader Amilton Lopes spoke about the impact to Fiona Watson, Field Director of Survival International, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples and where I have worked as an editorial consultant since 2009.

“You become spiritually empty,” he said. “When you are linked with nature, surrounded by forests, you have life. You have everything.”

The life expectancy of the Guarani people is low (45 years; the average in Brazil is 72 years), and their rates of malnutrition, alcoholism, violent crime, and suicide are high. Statistics released by the Brazilian organisation CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionario, the Indigenist Missionary Council) in 2008 report that 80 Guarani children had died as a result of malnutrition in the previous 5 years. “Almost all the Guarani’s forest been taken from them in the past 100 years, so they have been left with very little land to plant on,” Watson said.

To most of the world’s 150 million tribal people, land and life are inextricably linked.

After visting the Guarani people’s Apyka’y community at the end of 2010, Watson said she found that they have little access to clean water and are suffering from diarrhea caused by chemicals that are used on sugarcane plantations and bleed into rivers, killing their fish and causing diarrhoea. “They are also suffering from intense headaches caused by vinhoto, a chemical that is the by-product of converting sugar cane into ethanol,” Watson said.
Dilma Modesto, a Guarani health agent from the Guyraroká community said she is worried. “Since the sugarcane has been planted, children, adults and the elderly have been suffering from many diseases,” she said. “We have coughs, sore throats, headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Many children are suffering. I want the children to be as they were before, when all was OK.”

All hasn’t been OK, however, since the Guarani occupied their ancestral lands, where they had access to forest, water, plants, and animals. “Almost no other tribe in Brazil has survived after suffering such a scale of loss of land as the Guaraní,” Watson said. This dispossession has triggered not only physical problems, but mental health issues as well. More than 625 Guarani have committed suicide since 1981, the youngest being only 9 years old. In 2009, their suicide rate was 10 times the national average, according to CIMI. ‘”The Guarani are committing suicide because we have no land,” said Rosalino Ortiz, leader of the Yvy Katu community. “In the old days, we were free. Now we are no longer. So our young people look around them and think there is nothing left. They lose themselves. Then they commit suicide.”

The Guarani’s health problems are not uncommon. To most of the world’s 150 million tribal people, land and life are inextricably linked. “We cannot separate our place on Earth from our lives on the Earth nor from our vision nor our meaning as a people,” Cherokee Jimmie Durham told Congress in 1978. George Rich, an Innu man from Canada, told me, “The land is a part of your life. Without it, you are nothing. Everything that is connected to the land are symbols of Innu identity — of who you are as a human being.”

For the Innu, the northernmost Algonquin-speaking peoples of North America, this “nothingness” that comes from being divorced from Nitassinan, the sub-arctic expanse of tundra, lakes, and forests that has been their homelands for 7,500 years, has exacerbated alcoholism, glue-sniffing, and shocking suicide rates. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Canadian government and the Catholic Church, looking for land and souls, respectively, pressured the once-nomadic Innu into settling in fixed communities. The transition for a traditionally mobile people was traumatic — and still is. A recent report published by Michael Jong, Vice President of Medical Services at the Labrador Health Centre, shows that suicides between 2006 and 2009 were 75 per 100,00 per year,7 times the Canadian average.

“I’ve seen Innu people who, when in ‘the country’ were strong, healthy, intelligent and felt good about themselves, become drunk as soon as they return to the resettlement village,” said Colin Samson, a sociologist based at the University of Essex who has worked with the Innu since 1994. Samson said it’s hard to prove that Innu suicides are directly linked to their dispossession, but that the onset of such high rates coincided with the resettlement program. “It is not accidental that as the Innu people have gone from having meaning and purpose in life to having none, and as their position and authority have been taken away, so severe mental health problems have arisen,” he said.

Resettlement can also cause more immediate problems. Exercise levels drop, as former hunters and gatherers transition to a sedentary existence in resettlement villages. Nutrition decreases substantially. In general, the standard of health of tribes who still live on their own lands is far better than those who have been forcibly removed. Correspondingly, rates of depression, addiction, and suicide soar.

World Health Organisation statistics report that, in some regions of Australia, Aborigines with sedentary lives have a diabetes prevalence rate as high as 26 percent, while in the Pima reservation of Arizona more than half of Indians over the age of 35 have diabetes (while those living in the mountains have none). In Botswana, since the government forced the Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to eviction camps outside the reserve, the Bushmen have been gripped by alcoholism, unemployment, depression and HIV/AIDS.

Among the Innu today, however, there is hope and determination. This year, a band of young Innu men will walk across their ancestral territory, as they did in 2010, to raise awareness of the chronic levels of diabetes among Innu people. “Dressed in white, like winter caribou, they walked in single file hauling their toboggans, rising early in the morning, travelling through the Innu homeland Nitassinan, until nightfall,” wrote Armand Mackenzie, a lawyer for the Quebec Innu, of their journey last year. “The Young Innu Cultural Health Walkers don’t walk to be popular,” he wrote, “but for a simple reason: to fight against diabetes and to promote physical activity amongst our People.”

For hundreds of years, the Guarani have also travelled vast distances across their ancestral territories, but for a different reason: in search of a fabled place where, it is said, their people can live free from pain and suffering. This place they call yvy marane’ý, the “land without evil.” Living in roadside camps, they are still far from this land. Neither their health is likely to improve, nor their suffering diminish, unless they are able to recover parts of their land. “We are like the plants,” said the late Marta Guarani. “We cannot live without our earth, without our land.”

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Better Work Initiative: ILO, IFC Partnership

This is the program Lizzie mentioned in class tonight through the ILO to raise the bar and set the stage for a race to the top in labor standards.



Better Work is developing practical tools to help enterprises improve their compliance with labour standards and increase their competitiveness.

Better Work is a unique partnership programme between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Launched in February 2007, the programme aims to improve both compliance with labour standards and competitiveness in global supply chains.

Better Work involves the development of both global tools and country-level projects, with a focus on scalable and sustainable solutions that build cooperation between governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and international buyers. Donor support also plays a large role in implementation of global and country-level activities.

Improving compliance with labour standards in global supply chains is an important part of a pro-poor development strategy. The protection of workers’ rights and entitlements helps distribute the benefits of trade to promote human, social and economic development. Compliance with labour standards can also help enterprises be more competitive through a variety of factors such as access to new markets and buyers and new sources of financing and credit, and can contribute to high productivity and quality. Better Work supports enterprises in implementing the ILO core international labour standards and national labour law.

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This American Life: NUMMI Auto Plant

Host Ira Glass introduces the story of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., aka NUMMI. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: How it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. But today, GM cars still don’t have the quality of Japanese imports, GM is bankrupt and on March 31, NUMMI will be closed, sending thousands of car workers looking for jobs. In this hour-long story, NPR Automotive Correspondent Frank Langfitt tells the story of NUMMI and why GM—and the rest of the American car business—wasn’t able to learn from it more quickly. (4 minutes)

Act One:

The rise of NUMMI, or how one of the worst auto plants in America started producing some of its best cars, thanks to lessons learned from the Toyota production system. (25 minutes)

Act Two:

Why did it take so many years for GM to begin implementing the lessons of NUMMI across the company? NPR Automotive Correspondent Frank Langfitt continues his story. (26 minutes)

This episode contains interviews with the following individuals: David Champion, Jeffrey Liker, John Shook, Bruce Lee and Joel Smith of United Auto Workers / UAW, Rick Madrid, Billy Haggerty, Richard Aguilar, Earl Ferguson, Ernie Schaefer, Mark Hogan, Steve Bera, Larry Spiegel, Dick Fuller, Geoff Weller and James Womack.

Click here for This American Life: NUMMI plant episode

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Centennial

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire || families of the workers and union members at the Centennial Commemoration. Sen. Chuck Schumer makes ties to workers right to organize and the forces against unions that are alive today in WI, IN, OH..

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Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Centennial Events

some of these have passed already, but lots going on tonight and tomorrow to commemorate the centennial anniversary.


Join SweatFree Communities and International Labor Rights Forum to Commemorate the Centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Find Solutions to Today’s Sweatshops

On March 25, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located near Washington Square in Manhattan, killed 146 workers who could not escape because the doors were locked—to prevent theft, the employers said, and to keep out union organizers from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  Most workers were young women and recent immigrants. The fire became a rallying cry for the labor movement, resulting in changes in labor law and fire safety regulations that continue to protect all of us today.

In 2011, 100 years later, the garment industry again operates like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.  Sweatshop conditions are the norm worldwide, and in countries like Bangladesh garment workers are even killed in fires when they are locked in and unable to escape—just like in the Triangle fire.  In the United States, laws and protections won in the aftermath of the fire are under renewed attack. In March 2011, SweatFree Communities and International Labor Rights Forum are putting on a series of events with workers and labor rights organizers from Bangladesh to educate about the factory fires and sweatshops of today, and to spark renewed action for decent working conditions and basic protections for workers worldwide.

Wednesday, March 23, 5:00-7:30 pm at Fashion Institute of Technology

5:00pm free food! 5:30-7:30pm panel & runway show

  • John Liu, New York City Comptroller
  • Kalpona Akter, former child garment worker and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity
  • Mitch Cahn, President of Unionwear, a U.S. garment manufacturer
  • Judy Gearhart, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Forum

Runway show showcasing solutions to the global sweatshop, live music, and more!
Fashion Institute of Technology, Great Hall, D Bldg, NW corner of Seventh Ave & 27th St. (entrance on 27th)
Free and open to the public. Learn about cutting edge initiatives by industry, government, and workers to humanize the global garment industry and promote the local industry.

Thursday, March 24, 9:00am-6:30pm at CUNY Graduate Center

Join the Murphy Institute for Worker Education (CUNY) at the CUNY Graduate Center on March 24, 2011 for a day long national conference honoring the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The conference will gather unionists, public officials, scholars and students to examine a wide range of issues that reflect the complexity and importance of the fire’s legacy.
Check out the plenary with Kalpona Akter, former child garment worker and Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and panels with her colleague, Babul Akhter, and representatives of SweatFree Communities and International Labor Rights Forum!
CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 10016
Register here — free and open to the public.

Thursday, March 24, 9:00-9:45pm at The Living Room
Sweatfree Campaigner & Musician VALERIE ORTH
Valerie successfully organized a coalition of over 52 organizations in San Francisco to pass one of the nation’s first and strongest sweatfree purchasing laws in 2005. Now a fearless singer/songwriter, she promotes social justice through her music. This special performance aims to spread the word for Sweatfree New York!
The Living Room, 154 Ludlow St, NYC
9:00pm sharp, $10, Ages 21+
For more information, and to see her new music video, visit
Friday, March 25, 11:00am-1:30pm

Workers United is directing a procession to honor the victims of the Triangle fire. The procession will feature shirtwaists and sashes carried aloft bearing the names of the 146 victims, historic photographs, and labor union banners. Marchers will include family members of the victims, labor unions, theater and dance companies, school children, and participating organizations.
All are welcome to participate.
Walk with SweatFree Communities and the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity!  Wear armbands with names of both Triangle victims and Bangladeshi factory fire victims.
The procession marchers will gather in the vicinity of Union Square and proceed to the Commemoration site located at the former home of the Triangle Waist Company:
Corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, NYC. (One block east of Washington Square Park). The procession will arrive at this location around 11:30am.

Friday, March 25, 7:00-9:30pm at Cooper Union Great Hall

The culminating centennial event — An evening of music, spoken word poetry, and solidarity in commemoration of the 146 victims.
Hear Metropolitan Klezmer performing klezmer music written about the tragedy, uncovered 100 years later. Spoken word poetry from youthful voices from the New York City area. Clara Lemlich’s historical speech from the very stage where the Uprising of the 20,000 began. Solidarity Forever by the NYC Labor Chorus. Irish folk rock from Larry Kirwan of Black 47. Worker testimonials from Bangladesh, Egypt, and West Virginia.
Cooper Union Great Hall, 7 East 7th Street, New York, NY 10003
Sponsors: Cooper Union, Education and Labor Collaborative, Labor and Working Class History Association, Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, Sparkplug Foundation
Free and open to the public

Midnight March 23 to 4:00pm March 25

On the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle fire tragedy, the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State invites the people of New York to fast from solid food for 40 hours, to pray and to spend quiet time reflecting on what kind of workplaces we want for all who labor within New York’s borders… and beyond.
Sponsored by the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, a founding partner of SweatFree Communities.
More information here.

Sunday, March 27, 3:00-5:30pm at Theater for the New City
Following the play, Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of International Labor Rights Forum will share brief remarks on modern day sweatshops and factory fires.
Theater for the New City presents the world premiere of “Birds on Fire” by award-winning playwright Barbara Kahn with music by EMMY nominee Allison Tartalia. Birds on Fire portrays what might have been the lives of four unidentified victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village.
March 17 – April 3, 2011. Thurs – Sat at 8 P.M., Sun at 3 P.M. Tickets: $12, 212-254-1109.
155 1st Ave@ 10th St. Subway: L to 1st Ave, 6 to Astor Place.
For more information about these events, visit or contact or 413-586-0974.


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