Vol. IX, Bulletin No. 7.                                                                          July 15, 2004


Class-Action Lawsuit Opens Way to Fairness
In U.S., But What About Millions More Abroad?

She is the lead plaintiff in Betty Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, which is by far the largest workplace-bias lawsuit in history. Betty Dukes, a 54-year-old greeter at a Wal-Mart store in California, became an instant celebrity after a federal judge ruled on June 22 that her lawsuit could go to trial as a class action embracing up to 1,600,000 past and present female employees of Wal-Mart in the United States.

Filed by Ms.Dukes and five other Wal-Mart women, the suit presented detailed statistics showing: 
A TV reporter asked Ms. Dukes why, rather than stay in such an environment, she didn't she just quit. Because, she replied, she liked working at Wal-Mart, but wanted the company to treat her and her colleagues fairly. Quitting, she reasoned, wouldn't accomplish that.

Now Mighty Wal-Mart Faces 'Combined Power of 1,600,000 Women'

The suit, filed three years ago, prompted Wal-Mart to make some changes even before the U.S. District Court in San Francisco certified it as a class action. One change is a new job classification and pay system that, according to company officials, is intended to insure fairness in pay and promotions.  More changes will most likely follow, whether the company decides to settle out of court or let the case come to trial.

"Up to now," explained Brad Seligman, executive director of the Impact Fund, a non-profit organization that is the lead counsel for the women, "Wal-Mart has never faced a trial like this. Lawsuits by individual women had no more effect than a pinprick. Now, however, [through class action] the playing field has been leveled. Wal-Mart will face the combined power of 1,600,000 women in court."

Note that this pursuit of justice by Betty Dukes and her colleagues affects only Wal-Mart in the United States. But what about the many more women who work for Wal-Mart and its contractors elsewhere in the world, especially in China?  As Peter S. Goodman and Philip P. Pan write in "Chinese Workers Pay for Wal-Mart's Low Prices" on page 1 of the February 8 issue of the New York Times:

"The Communist Party government [of the People's Republic] has become perhaps the greatest facilitator of capitalist production, beckoning multinationals with tax-free zones and harsh punishment for anyone with designs on organizing a labor movement." .

Workers of Wal-Mart and Its Contractors in China Left Powerless

Wal-Mart employs 19,000 women and men there in 38 Supercenters and other retail outlets. It has an even larger presence as a mass buyer of made-in-China merchandise, which it exports to its 5,000 stores in nine countries, including 3,586 in the United States.  More than 80% of the 6,000 foreign factories that supply Wal-Mart with goods are in China.

The number of women and men who work for those Chinese contractors and subcontractors far outnumber Wal-Mart's "associates" in China (as it calls workers on its own payroll). The company issues no statistics on those who do this "outsourced" work, but you can get a rough idea of the size of this labor from the staggering volume of goods they make for Wal-Mart to export from China:  $10,000,000,000 in 2001, $12,000,000,000 in 2002, and an estimated $15,000,000,000 last year, according to company figures announced in November.

Where can the counterparts of Betty Dukes turn to in China?  Nowhere. Not to the courts.  And of course not to the Communist Party/government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which has no units in Wal-Mart although they are legally supposed to be established even in foreign-owned businesses. (Wal-Mart does not deal with unions anywhere in the world, a company spokesman explained to People's Daily last October.) 

Two Reminders on a Historic Civil Rights Anniversary

In his June 22 ruling U.S. District Court Judge Martin Jenkins noted that the class-action ruling comes in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. "This anniversary," he wrote, "serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law whenever and by whomever it occurs."

Judge Jenkins' decision also serves as a reminder that a huge number of women in China working for American consumers have no way to assure their  equal treatment under the law. How long will this outrage endure?
*  *  *

Myopia on Rights of Working Women Is Global

In 1998 Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, a subsidiary of a Japanese multinational, settled a sexual harassment lawsuit by paying $34,000,000 and apologizing to more than 300 women who had long suffered sexual harassment at its auto plant in Normal, Ill.  In HRFW's reports on that Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case, I raised a broader issue:

"What is the moral difference between 'groping, grabbing, and touching' women making cars for us in Normal, Ill., and doing that (and worse) to women making toys and dolls for us in Shenzhen?"
At that time, I urged the World Trade Organization to cure its "morally reprehensible" myopia on worker rights. That myopia still plagues the WTO, and especially the global economy's working women.

U.S. Companies Shun UN Global Compact

Kofi Annan, General Secretary General of the United Nations, is convinced that the UN can and should help multinational corporations pay more attention to their global social responsibilities, but it is a conviction not widely shared by corporations in the United States.

Annan's chosen instrument is the UN Global Compact, a campaign in support of core principles on human rights, labor rights, and environmental standards, which he formally launched four yeas ago. Since then, about 1,500 companies from 70 countries have signed on, but only about 70 of them are U.S.-based.  DuPont, Gap, Hewlett-Packard, Pfizer, Starbucks, and Nike are among the rare U.S. brand-name adherents.

Why have U.S. firms been so leery of the Global Compact?  During a summit meeting of Compact leaders at the United Nations on June 24, Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist who is a senior fellow in the Council on Foreign Relations, speculated:  "We're a highly litigious society. Once a firm has signed onto something, then a whole bunch of lawyers can argue that it is some type of common international law."

To dispel that fear, the American Bar Association  recently provided a written guarantee that the Compact has no binding force under U.S. statutory law.  The Compact itself has no monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Firms signing it are expected just to make a "sincere effort" to follow the core principles of the Compact. 

For the International Chamber of Commerce, which has members in over 130 countries, the Global Compact is an "an important rallying point for the support of internationally agreed basic values," but its recent statement emphasized the importance of the Compact's retaining "its voluntary nature" and adhering "to its original concept --  aspirational and exhortative in nature."

Union Leader Pressing for a Sanction to Firms Violating Compact

For Fred Higgs, general secretary of the 20,000,000-member International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) and a labor member of the Compact's 17-member advisory committee, the Compact needs to adopt "an ultimate sanction for those companies that clearly have no intention of applying the 10 principles for which they had signed up to." That sanction, he said in a report to colleagues in the international labor movement, "would be to de-list the company from the Global Compact register."

Even Business Week, in a July 12 article, called it a problem that the Compact has "no system for activists to verify company claims and few clear standards by which to judge them." Actually, at present there is no system for anyone, including the Compact staff, to verify company claims.  "We have to shift now to quality assurance," says Georg Kell, Compact director.

But I doubt that such a shift, if meaningful, would enlist many more American corporations in Kofi Annan's human rights cause. There first has to be a shift in the attitude of organized business in the United States, as well as in the attitude of the White House.

Bush Shuns International Labor Leaders

Each year since 1977 without fail, Prime Ministers and other hosts of the annual G8 summit meetings have met with leaders of the international union movement to listen to labor concerns.  Among the heads of government who engaged in these pre-summit consultations were President Ronald Reagan (in 1983), Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain (1984), President George H.W. Bush (1990), and President William J. Clinton (1997). 

Normally, then, such a meeting would have been held with the U.S. host, President George W. Bush, prior to the
June 8-10 G8 summit held in Sea Island, Georgia. But it didn't happen. In a June 8 statement, John Evans, head of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, "expressed dismay today at President Bush's refusal  to meet with an international trade union delegation ahead of the June 8-10 G8 summit." 

Evans' committee,
which represents 70,000,000 working men and women in the G8 and other countries, had wanted to discuss "concentrated action on the economy, especially jobs, and renewed multilateral cooperation on peace and security issues."  Evans had to settle for distributing a policy statement on that subject to officials in the State Department and other G8 delegations.

Kohl's Code of Conduct Put to a Test

What good are the worker rights principles in a corporation's code of conduct if the corporation violates them in practice? 

Oddly, they can be very useful, even if they were adopted only as a public relations gimmick. But somebody has to press for their enforcement.

Take a current example. Workers at two Southern printing plants, confronted with vigorous management resistance to their efforts to unionize, have formally charged that the owners, Quebecor World Inc., one of the world's largest printing enterprises, have seriously violated U.S. labor law.  The latest complaint, filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on June 1, cites unlawful threats of plant closure, disparate treatment of workers who want to form a union, surveillance of workers, and the promise of additional benefits to workers who do not support the union.

Code Applies to Contractors and All Other Business Partners

Quebecor itself has no published code of conduct on labor, but at least one of its customers, the Kohl's department store chain, does.  Kohl's code of conduct -- which it calls "Terms of Engagement for Kohl's Business Partners" -- covers a wide range of worker rights that it requires all its vendors, suppliers, contractors, and other partners to respect. On the right to unionize, Kohl's code states:

"Workers must be free to join organizations of their own choice. Business Partners shall recognize the rights of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Workers shall not be subject to intimidation or harassment in the peaceful exercise of their legal right to join or to refrain from joining an Organization."

Moreover, Kohl's is proud of its commitment "to high standards and performances on issues of social responsibility" and of its system of enforcing compliance. "A statement of principles is insufficient to achieve compliance with those principles," Kohl's said in its April 2004 report to shareholders, and went on to spell out its record of "aggressive enforcement of our Policy."  That included more than 3,100 monitoring visits to over 1,200 manufacturing facilities in 73 countries around the world.

So it was logical that the Graphic Communications International Union, which is trying to organize Quebecor workers in North America, is not relying solely on its complaints to the slow-moving NLRB, but is also reaching out to Kohl's to live up to its code covering business partners. And the AFL-CIO and other allies are also reminding Kohl's of those obligations.

"Tell Kohl's to live up to its ethical code and insist that Quebecor respect worker rights," says an appeal from Andy Levin, director of the AFL-CIO's Voice@Work Campaign. 

For a way that you can help, click on <http://www.unionvoice.org/campaign/Kohls>.

How U.S. Trade Pacts Hurt Consumers

"Break the patents, treat the people," said a banner in a protest march preceding the International AID conference in Bangkok in mid-July.  A similar demand was made less dramatically by a private international agency, Oxfam, in a report timed for the same event. Oxfam charges that the U.S. government is pressuring Thailand to sign away rights to life-saving medicines in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) currently under negotiation.

The patent rules in the proposed U.S.-Thai FTA, if adopted, would close down Thailand's access to inexpensive generic anti-HIV/AIDS medication.  Dr. Mohga Kamal Smith, Oxfam's health policy advisor, said:

"The U.S. should not exploit Thailand's economic dependence on export to the American market by imposing stricter patent provisions that serve primarily the interests of U.S. corporations and go far beyond the world standards set by the WTO [World Trade Organization]."

Officials of the U.S. Trade Representative, though profuse in their pro-free market and pro-consumer rhetoric, are negotiating FTAs with developing and developed countries that provide global reinforcement to monopoly patents held by the super-rich U.S. drug industry. 
(For information on how the industry deceives and exploits U.S. consumers, see "The Truth About the Drug Companies" by Marcia Angell, M.D., in the July 15 issue of the New York Review of Books.)

Families on Work-Work-Work Treadmill

Running Faster To Stay in Place: the Growth of Family Work Hours and Incomes is the title of a forthcoming joint publication of the Economic Policy Institute and the New America Foundation.  A part of that publication is previewed in an EPI "snapshot" revealing an overlooked fact: that although the average weekly work hours of Americans have risen only slightly, the average work hours of families are up 11% since 1975.

The snapshop, prepared by EPI senior economist Jared Bernstein, throws light on the stress felt by many Americans in trying to balance conflicting demands of work and family life.

Diary: Four Real American Kids

Recent celebrations -- the opening of the World War II memorial in Washington and the 60th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy -- brought back memories of events that I wrote about in an article of mine published on the op-ed page of the Washington Post on August 1, 1979, under the title "Real American Kids."  Here is the first part of that article, written while I was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer serving as labor attache to the U.S. Mission to the European Communities in Brussels, Belgium.

BRUSSELS – We were watching the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor as reenacted in the movie “Tora Tora Tora.” While the TV screen pictured Japanese bomber pilots, their destructive deeds done, triumphantly returning to their battleships, my youngest son, then 10 years old, turned to me for reassurance: “We got back at them later, didn’t we, Dad?”

    A typical reaction of an American boy. Except that my son Phong is not a typical American boy.

    Phong, his two brothers, and his sister are of Vietnamese origin, the children of my wife’s first marriage and hence legally my stepchildren. Phong, now just turning 15, first arrived in the United States less than seven years ago, and lived there only half that time before I was again assigned abroad in the Foreign Service.

    Phong was with my wife, Dzung, and me in June when we made a pilgrimage to the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy. All of us stood speechless as we looked out at row after row of white crosses and Stars of David marking the graves of nearly 10,000 American soldiers who died in the area. Phong broke the silence.

    “Dad,” he asked, “do we have any relatives who fought in Normandy?”

    “No, son. Some of us almost made it, but not quite.”

    “Oh,” Phong said, his voice edged with disappointment.

    In their newly adopted country, Phong and our three other children learned English with remarkable speed, to the point that they sometimes chide their mother for her lingering Vietnamese accent. What is even more remarkable, though, is how quickly and fully they have identified with the United States.  Soon after we moved into a home in Vienna, Va., the four of them knew all about the Washington Redskins – much more than I ever knew or cared to know – and rooted for them with the fervor of longtime Washingtonians.

    After we moved to Brussels, it was Thuy, the oldest, who bought an American flag sticker and insisted we display it on the rear window of our station wagon. He wanted to make sure that people did not draw any erroneous conclusions from our Belgian license plates.

After this article was published, the Ambassador told me, dryly, "You must have a lot of free time to do outside writing."  Actually, little that I've written in my life flowed more easily and quickly, because essentially I was recounting personal stories. My 700 words in the Post were built around eight anecdotes, four of them in the first half of the above article. But of course that was no excuse for me, an underling, getting my by-line into the Washington Post.  It never happened again.

Update: All our four children continue to thrive in the United States.  They have retained their Vietnamese first names, except for Phong, who now is Tony.

Fading Faith in 'Free Trade'

The July 5-12 issue of America, a Jesuit magazine published in New York City, carries an article of mine titled "Fading Faith in Free Trade," a theme that it supports with evidence from public opinion polls and the published views of three leading economists. I don't yet have the text on this Website, but you can read it by clicking "previous issue" at http://www.americamagazine.org. Access to articles in that Website is free to non-subscribers during July and August.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IX-7, July 15, 2004
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2004
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