Will the Bangladesh factory disaster help U.S. labor organize?

Bangladeshi relatives hold photos of the missing and dead workers three days after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka on April 27, 2013. Police arrested two textile bosses over a Bangladeshi factory disaster as the death toll climbed to 332 and distraught relatives lashed out at rescuers trying to detect signs of life.

It’s time for annual shareholder meetings, which means the usual smattering of activist shareholder initiatives, protests by labor activists, consumer advocates, neighborhood activists, and the like.

This year, all that anti-corporate agitation is getting a boost from overseas. U.S. activists are pointing to the horrific Rana Plaza factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, on April 24 -- where more than one thousand (1,127) garment workers and others were killed -- to shine a spotlight on wages and working conditions here at home.

I asked a carload of striking Walmart employees to practice their protest chants on a cellphone as they drove from Maryland to Atlanta this week. The eventual destination for their multi-car caravan: Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting on June 7 in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The chant on the road to Bentonville:
“Whose Walmart?”
“Our Walmart.”
“What do we want?”
“Respect.”
“When do we want it?”
“Now.”

More than a hundred members of OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart), the union-supported group organizing Walmart store associates, are converging on Bentonville in what they’re calling their "Ride for Respect" They’ll hit 30 cities, including Seattle, LA, Miami, Chicago and Denver on the way.

The group also put out an online call several weeks ago to raise $8,700 to bring a leading Bangladeshi garment-worker activist (she’s also a former garment worker) to the U.S. this spring. Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, will soon be on her way to Bentonville, too.

Cynthia Murray was in the van; she comes from a store in Laurel, Maryland, where she’s worked for 13-years, and where she is -- as of Wednesday, May 29 -- on strike. Two years ago, Murray was part of a "truth tour" organized by OUR Walmart -- along with Akter and a warehouse worker from Joliet, Illinois. They toured the nation talking about worker rights and the global supply chain.

“We work for a billion-dollar company, which is doing injustice to them, just the same as they are doing injustice to the warehouse workers, and to workers at Walmart stores across the country,” Murray says of workers in Bangladesh who make garments for Walmart. She thinks with the recent fire (November 2012) and factory collapse (April 2013) in Bangladesh, more Walmart store workers, and shoppers, are paying attention.

Murray makes $12.40 per hour and works full-time. She’s helping to support a grown daughter who is ill, and her grandchild as well. She says she’s heading to Bentonville to tell the company and shareholders she deserves higher wages, a reliable schedule, and affordable health care. She says the company health plan would cost her about $5,000 per year.

“I’m one of those workers that can’t afford the Walmart health plan,” Murray says. She says many of her fellow-workers use government programs for the poor, like Medicaid.

Murray’s demands are on par with other low-wage workers in the U.S. A wave of strikes and protests has hit fast-food companies McDonald’s and Wendy’s recently. Labor- and community-backed organizations in half-a-dozen cities are calling on the companies to raise wages to a base rate of $15-per-hour, and not to block unionization.

But the grievances these and other U.S. workers cite pale in comparison to the life-threatening factory conditions, union repression and subsistence wages of places like Bangladesh. It’s a fact that activists in the U.S. who are trying to use Bangladesh as an organizing tool readily acknowledge.

“We know that the protections for workers are stronger in the United States,” says Guadalupe Palma. Palma is an organizer for Warehouse Workers United, a group working on behalf of low-wage temporary workers in Southern California who mostly move boxes for Walmart in warehouses contracted by the giant retailer.

“But the same type of system that is in Bangladesh and in other countries -- of sub-contracting and sub-sub-contracting -- is in the warehouse industry in the U.S.,” Palma continues. And she says that in the wake of the deaths in Bangladesh, the media’s exposure of how interconnected the global supply chain is -- from Asian factory to Midwestern superstore -- is helping her make her case. “At least it’s part of the conversation now,” she says.

Still, the global worker oppression argument -- linking low-wage Walmart warehouse workers in Southern California or shelf-stockers in Maryland to grossly-underpaid garment workers in Bangladesh -- can seem like a rhetorical stretch.

“Is there some stretching that goes on? There’s always some stretching that goes on,” responds David Meyer. He’s a sociologist and political scientist at University of California-Irvine, and author of the book ‘The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.’

Meyer says labor has always used workplace tragedies and outrages -- like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911) in New York -- to organize. Nowadays, it’s not so much about starvation wages or deadly factory conditions. It’s more often about living wages, the right to organize, legislative attacks on collective bargaining.

“In the United States, labor is fighting an uphill battle -- right-to-work laws are coming in in places where they’ve never been before,” says Meyer. “Activism about the garment industry -- even if the garment industry is abroad -- is meant to connect to activism for public sector workers, like teachers and firefighters.”

Meyer says labor activism around working and living conditions for the foreign workers who make cheap goods for U.S. consumers easily leads to coalitions with consumer advocates, religious and community activists, and youth activists, like the group United Students Against Sweatshops.

And given the ever-thinning ranks of union membership, Meyer says organized labor will need all the help it can get from sympathetic consumers and voters, if it’s to force change on the warehouse floor or in the retail aisle

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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