Global Witness

Labor Presents Its Case to WEF

New York was divided last week between those dismissing the World Economic Forum protests as the trivial—and potentially dangerous—pursuit of confused youth and those struggling, as AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney said, "To put a human face on globalization."

All week, columnists and commentators took their easy potshots at the would-be anarchists and their huge puppets, the groups like Pagan Cluster and the protesters with names like Starhawk and their long, rambling, and often contradictory lists of grievances.

For insight into the protesters' potential for mischief, most of the media turned to the welter of readily accessible former law enforcement officials who, while drawing hefty pensions at taxpayers' expense, have landed high-paying private security consultantships from nervous corporations.

Gap rally on Fifth Avenue: For those who cared to listen, labor spelled out globalization's dark side.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Gap rally on Fifth Avenue: For those who cared to listen, labor spelled out globalization's dark side.

Such sophisticated coverage could only be found in New York, media capital of the world.

And yet few found their way to the real stories told Thursday afternoon at Sweeney's forum on East 59th Street at a theater just eight blocks north of the police-barricaded Waldorf-Astoria and the WEF's conference.

Several hundred representatives of the city's labor movement, many wearing their union jackets, crowded into windowless Gould Hall at the French Institute to hear the roundtable discussion by factory workers from Mexico and Guatemala, an ex-railroad worker from China, a laid-off steelworker from Cleveland, a soon-to-be unemployed autoworker from New Jersey, a Chinatown sewing machine operator, and a bartender fired from his job at the Metropolitan Opera House for pushing the idea of a union. They sat around a large horseshoe-shaped table, at the center of which was moderator Richard Trumka, the big-shouldered former mine-worker who is Sweeney's next in command as AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.

The theme—"Make the Global Economy Work for Working Families"—was proclaimed in an immense colored backdrop on the wall behind the speakers. This is a very different demand than the apocalyptic end-the-world-economy rhetoric employed by a handful of protesters and reported mirthfully by the press.

It began with a story from Sofia Sazo, a diminutive woman with long dark hair from Guatemala who worked as a machine operator at the Shin Won garment plant in Guatemala City making sweatshirts and blouses for the Gap and other American retailers.

She averaged 10 hours per day at her machine, Sazo said, but there were some days when managers demanded they remain as late as 4 a.m. and then return by seven the same morning. "We only had time to bathe," Sazo said through an interpreter. In order to keep up the pace, employees drugged themselves. "I too took pills to hold up under the hours," she said. There were also incidents of physical abuse, slaps from supervisors—designed, she said, to press the workers "to meet production goals."

Even with the forced overtime, wages still amounted to about $200 a month. Pilferage was apparently a major employer concern, and workers were searched on their way into the plant and when leaving. "It was humiliating, they touched us all over," said Sazo. She has since become an organizer with a project sponsored by the International Textile Garment Leather Workers Federation, affiliated with UNITE, the U.S.-based garment union. "I'm here today to make sure we have dignified work," she said.

Across the table, Agnes Wong, a sewing machine operator at a UNITE-represented shop in New York's Chinatown, gazed at Sazo. "I feel so bad for my sister here that she is working like that," she said. Since arriving in the U.S. in 1974, Wong said, she had learned that "big companies always looking for cheaper operators." These are found, she explained, not only in the far-flung corners of the third world but right in New York as well, where undocumented workers make $2 an hour in homegrown sweatshops.

The unfettered route of capital toward those low-cost operators was also illustrated by Santiago Perez Meza, who told about how excited and proud he had been in 1999 to land a job at Kukdong, a Korean-owned plant in Puebla, Mexico, that manufactured shoes for Nike. The plant promised a bevy of good working conditions, including above-minimum wages, social security, day care, a cafeteria, and transportation to and from work. The transportation, however, turned out to be dangerous, the meat in the cafeteria had worms, and the right of workers to win time off from the job was almost nonexistent, even in times of sickness and disaster. "It was so hard to get sick leave, we felt like getting sick was a kind of divine punishment," he said.

Most surprising to Perez and other workers, however, was the discovery that they already belonged to a union—an official, government-recognized entity whose officers warned them to leave the business of working conditions to them. Perez disagreed and helped organize a walkout last year. When the company met some demands and the workers returned to work, Perez and four other leaders were summoned to the management office and fired at the request of union officials. This might have been the end of the struggle at Kukdong except that the strike won notice among anti-sweatshop activists in the U.S., who protested to Nike. Plant managers were later ordered to end harassment and improve health and safety conditions, and ultimately, recognize a new, independent union.

Han Dongfang, who traveled from Hong Kong for the Forum, nodded as he listened to the other panel members. He was a railway worker in 1989 when he joined other advocates of free trade unions at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was declared a "counterrevolutionary" and jailed for 22 months. He now publishes the China Labour Bulletin, a newspaper aimed at Chinese workers, and hosts a Hong Kong-based radio talk show where he takes calls from workers in mainland China.

"I got a call in January from a 19-year-old girl from Guangdong Province," said Han in English. "She works for a toy factory that manufactures for the U.S. She said for the two months before Christmas, they worked from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Some days they worked to two or five in the morning." The wages, Han said, were less than 20 cents an hour. "How do you believe this?" he asked the audience. This was "the toy explosion," he explained, under which many American manufacturers have switched production to China under new, liberal trade agreements. Han said he asked the woman why she just didn't quit. She told him this would be impossible, since she had paid the factory owner a month's wages just to get the job in the first place. Her employer had also held back her first month's wages. "If they run away, they lose the money," Han explained. "That's how they keep workers there."

Trumka turned to Han and asked if things perhaps had changed since his arrest 13 years earlier. A year ago, Han responded, he learned of a silk-factory worker who had sent an open letter to officers of the official trade union asking them to "reorganize" his plant, where conditions had badly deteriorated. "He was sent to a mentally ill hospital," said Han. "This is the result for people who want to organize independent unions today."

After the forum, the trade unionists walked (police officials prohibited them from marching) through a steady drizzle to 54th and Fifth Avenue to protest across the street from the Gap. Cops shepherded the protesters into metal pens, and the unionists waved their "What About the Workers?" signs and yelled encouragingly to leaders who addressed them. Those pictures were duly recorded in all newspapers and on television, thus providing the photographic backdrop to stories about the "trivial" protests being waged in New York's streets.

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