Archive for the 'labor' Category

The Story of Stuff

Cross-posted at Feministe

Every morning I seem to find some distraction on the Internet that leads to me running out the door far later than I should have left or starting my work day woefully off schedule. Usually the distraction is something like Scramble on Facebook, but this morning’s distraction was enriching and enlightening enough that I don’t feel so bad about running late (and running even later in order to share it with you folks.) A friend of mine (thanks, Eli!) linked to The Story of Stuff, a short documentary on the insidious processes that go into consumption as we know it. The video has been online since December 2007 and has apparently had 2 million viewers so I risk recommending it to a bunch of folks who’ve already seen it, but I hadn’t and I thought it important to share.

Annie Leonard, a scholar who has done many years of research on consumerism, development, sustainability, and environmental health, guides us through the linear process that drives the material economy – extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal – exposing the many moments in the process that are often left out of the big picture but which are often most telling of the damage occurs within each of these steps. I’ve seen and read many things about consumption and its effects on our world, but this movie broke things down in a clearer, more complete and more urgent way than I’ve seen before. Leonard does a good job of bringing to light the environmental, health, labor, globalization and other social justice problems inherent to the system of consumption.

Some of the facts that Leonard cites are truly frightening. One fact that I’d never heard before and found particularly shocking: when talking about the countless toxic chemicals used in production and therefore brought into our homes and our bodies, Leonard says:

Do you know what is the food at the top of the food chain with the highest levels of many toxic contaminants? Human breast milk. That means that we’ve reached a point where the smallest members of our societies – our babies – are getting the highest lifetime dose of toxic chemicals from breast feeding from their mothers. Is that not an incredible violation?

I appreciated that Leonard called this a “violation,” because that’s precisely what it is. We have allowed corporations and complicit governments to violate our very bodies, as well as our environment and countless cultures and communities, simply in order to give us cheaper, more consumable products.* Leonard thankfully goes on to stress that “breast feeding is still best,” but as someone who plans to probably give birth and subsequently breast feed, that fact about the toxicity of breast milk is frightening and enraging. It really does feel like a violation – corporations and the government have allowed this shit to get into me.

Of course, there’s a large degree of agency here – we, primarily meaning Americans and other westerners, have a tremendous responsibility to reject the system of capitalism and consumption that got us into this mess. We need to wake up to the realities of what cheap, easy, and disposable all really mean in the long run – as Leonard says, someone, or more accurately many someones, are paying the real price for all of that cheap crap that many of us in the U.S. can buy easily thanks to our huge privilege relative to the rest of the world. Sometimes the people paying the price are far away and look nothing like (some of) us, but sometimes, as with toxic breast milk, we’re also paying directly and dearly. And whether we pay or someone else pays the immediate and direct costs, when it comes to the destruction of the earth, we’re all most definitely going to pay up sooner rather than later. And therefore we who live in the countries that use and abuse and benefit from the system of consumption the most have an urgent responsibility to do something about it.

Unfortunately, that responsibility and our agency to act on it are both so limited by our lack of information. The true costs of American-style production and consumption were never covered in my schooling, nor are they something that make it into the mainstream media with any depth or sufficiency. It’s easy to go through life just not knowing or even questioning how our actions and our consumption are part of a much larger system with far-reaching effects, and the profiteering corporations are more than happy to keep it that way. In such a dearth of information and truth, resources like this movie are vital and can go a long way towards providing the knowledge people need in order to understand what this culture of consumption is doing to them as individuals, to their communities, to other people, and to the environment.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out what the hell to do after looking at a video like that. I appreciate that the Story of Stuff site provides “10 Little and Big Things You Can Do”, along with a resources page that includes recommended reading and links to NGOs working on these issues.

* Note that for the most part this doesn’t mean “better” products in terms of durability and sustainability; Leonard also states that only 1% of consumer products are still actually in use just six months from the date of purchase, which boggles the mind.

Wage to Live: supporting restaurant workers in NYC

I’d like to start highlighting work by community and social justice organizations, so here’s a start: Wage to Live, a recently-formed non-profit organization that is working towards a living wage for restaurant workers in NYC.

We all know that working in a restaurant can be a really rough job. Not only is it ass-busting, frustrating work (think of all the difficult diners you see out there, or how difficult a diner you can be), but the pay is often for shit. Restaurant workers are often tremendously underpaid; in NYC, many of these workers are immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and people of color. From the Wage to Live site:

Despite the increase in profits, patronage, and meal costs, the wages of workers within the industry have stagnated. Thus, restaurant workers are now earning one-third of the average income within the private sector. In 2005, NYC restaurant workers earned $21,658 where non-restaurant workers in the private sector earned an average of $70,834. Over the last twenty years, the wages of restaurant workers have lagged by 17% behind the growth in wages that have been felt in all other sectors. Close to half of all restaurant workers (44%) live below the poverty level and 13% (roughly 22,425 workers) are still earning below minimum wage. The stagnation in restaurant wages has coincided with a gradual shift in worker demographics. In 1980, more than half of all restaurant workers were born in the United States. Today, more than two-thirds of all restaurant workers are foreign born.

Wage to Live is trying to change these conditions. From their mission statement:

Wage to Live has several goals: to raise the wages of a severely underpaid workforce, to prove that low wages are not the inevitable bi-product of capitalism but the result of societal acceptance and a prejudice against immigrant workers and people of color, to demonstrate that businesses can actually pay well while remaining profitable, to increase the public’s expectation of responsible business practices, and to prove that organizations such as Wage to Live can be self-sustainable and replicable in other cities.

To these ends, Wage to Live is waging (heh) a “socially responsible consumption campaign” in which restaurants that pay a living wage become certified members and are promoted by Wage to Live. In turn, folks who want to eat out responsibly can refer to Wage to Live’s website to see which restaurants are actually paying their workers a living wage. Or trying to – I appreciate that Wage to Live recognizes that not all restaurants can afford to pay every worker a living wage and plans to offer guidance to restaurants who want to try to and memberships to those who are making a good effort, paying no less than $10/hour to every worker.

Want to support Wage to Live? Check out their website, sign up for their mailing list, make a donation to the organization. But most importantly, check their website this spring to find and support restaurants that are paying their workers fairly.

Supporting unions while you travel

My current job has me travelling for work more than I ever have before, and that involves frequent stays at hotels. One thing I never thought about before now is respecting hotel workers unions and their struggles with various hotels – avoiding hotels that are being boycotted or where workers are on strike or lockout. My girlfriend clued me in to the Hotel Labor Advisor, on a website maintained by UNITE Here. I’m going to make sure to check this before making my reservations in the future; hope y’all do, too.

Leaving on a jet plane

Well, my girlfriend and I are about to escape NYC for sunny Florida, to spend Christmas and the first couple days of Chanukah with my family. While I am in complete and utter support of the strike and the TWU, I’m also relieved to leave the madness for a little while.

I hadn’t heard until today that Bloomberg had called the transit workers “thuggish.” How disgusting can you get? This kind of inflammatory, racist and classist rhetoric, along with this obsession with the word “illegal” when talking about the strike, is just infuriating. And the mainstream media is, of course, playing along very well. From so many of the reports I’ve heard or read, you’d really think that most of the city hates the union and is against the strike, when really, it seems like the papers and the news shows are working really hard to find the most outrageous, virulent opinions and put them in the spotlight.

Roger Toussaint wrote an open letter to Bloomberg in response to the “thuggish” comment and other issues. It’s an excellent response. I especially loved this part which speaks to the whole issue of the “illegal” strike:

But what about our conducting an “illegal” strike? What about the law? You are all over the media with high-minded talk about “illegal” behavior, castigating criminals and screaming that no one is above the law. Your hypocrisy knows no bounds. You must hope everyone has forgotten your biography: “Bloomberg on Bloomberg.” You boast on Page 59 on how you started your rise to great wealth, great enough to enable you to buy the Mayor’s office twice. You set up your office “…all without permission, violating every fire law, building code and union regulation on the books.”

I guess illegality is in the eye of the beholder. A confessed lawbreaker has the gall to lecture 34,000 hard working people whose only crime is standing up for their families and for dignity and respect on one of the toughest, most dangerous jobs in New York.

Right on, Toussaint.

La Mala over at Mamita Mala makes similar points about how the media (FOX News, specifically) has bought into the whole “illegal strike” hysteria:

… don’t ya think it’s a little incendiary for the logo regarding the strike to read ILLEGAL TRANSIT STRIKE.

I mean when is the last time they put up a logo saying ILLEGAL POLICE BRUTALITY or um ILLEGAL SPYING BY U.S. GOVERNMENT? Hmmm?