Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Steven Ashby
Steven Ashby
Photo © 2007 Tyagan Miller

Ruth Needleman
Ruth Needleman
Photo courtesy Indiana University Northwest

'You Fight for Everybody'

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

"Is Wal-Mart a sweatshop?"

The question hovers uneasily in the late morning sunlight streaming into the office of Steven Ashby, a professor in the Indiana University Division of Labor Studies. Through the broad bare windows of his sixth-floor office, the town of Bloomington and the IU campus look especially peaceful and placid, untouched by the world of sweatshop labor. But we are not talking about faraway factories in China where most of Wal-Mart’s merchandise is made. We are talking about well-heated, brightly lit stores across the United States, like the brand-new 213,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter on the west side of Ashby’s hometown.

No doubt many would take issue with the question. But Ashby defers an answer. "In the United States," he muses, "a workplace that violates one or more labor laws is a sweatshop. So if you are paying people below minimum wage, or you are working them past 40 hours and not paying time-and-a-half, then you could be considered a sweatshop."

And in state after state, he points out, Wal-Mart has been guilty of such violations. They have forced their workers to work off the clock. They have fired, harassed, or disciplined employees for exercising the legal right to form unions. Women workers at Wal-Mart have filed the largest gender discrimination class-action lawsuit in history. The list goes on.

But the question of Wal-Mart’s sweatshop status opens up even broader issues. So much so that Wal-Mart itself is the topic of an increasingly popular course Ashby teaches. In Ashby’s view, Wal-Mart and its corporate practices provide "a kind of prism on class relations in America, a way to talk about how workers are treated, issues of globalization, and where the economy is going, which is increasingly retail and service."

As the world’s largest, most successful retailer, Wal-Mart has become an emblem of the globalizing economic trend. Like the railroads and steel mills in the 19th century and the automotive industry of the 20th, the super-retailer is "an object of fascination, admiration, denunciation, and wonder," observes Nelson Lichtenstein, the editor of Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism.

The Wal-Mart Economy

Globalization, notes Ashby, took off in the 1980s. In city after city, manufacturing plants closed and went to Mexico, and more recently, to China. Between 1998 and 2003, IU’s hometown of Bloomington lost about 6,000 manufacturing jobs when large plants moved out of the country.

"What happens," Ashby explains, "is that people will find another job, but it’s at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. Instead of $15 to $20 an hour, they are making $5 to $10 an hour. So if you just look at unemployment statistics, it looks like we’re doing fine. Unemployment in Monroe County is low. But poverty is tremendous. If you look at some of the elementary schools, for example, a large number of the children are getting taxpayer-subsidized meals. In one school, it’s as high as 70 or 80 percent. This is because of poverty wages. Their parents are not unemployed, they’re just poor. They’re not being paid a living wage."

And of course it is not just school meals these families need, but food stamps, housing, health care, and other social services that most Wal-Mart workers can not afford on their full-time salaries. "Taxpayers," says Ashby, "are subsidizing Wal-Mart to make up for the low wages of its employees." And Wal-Mart’s savings to consumers, he suggests, are not worth the price its workers and society pay. He points to another model for large retailers: "Costco pays its workers about 50 percent more than Wal-Mart and allows them to unionize. And they are doing fabulously well."

The Road to Gary

Perhaps no Indiana city is as strongly linked to the decline of manufacturing as Gary, where Ruth Needleman, IU Northwest professor of labor studies, has lived since 1981. An unusual personal odyssey led her to the heart of Gary’s labor, past and present, and ultimately into studying the role education plays in promoting justice and democracy in the workplace.

Needleman began her career in 1969 as a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies and literature at University of California in Santa Cruz. She went to Chile in 1972 and 1973 to work on a book about right-wing entrepreneurial groups trying to overthrow the popularly elected government of Salvador Allende, just before the 1973 military coup. What she learned was so disturbing that when she got back to the United States, she resigned her position at Santa Cruz and went to work for Cesar Chavez. "That experience really said to me I have to see what I can do. I felt my place was not in the university," she recalls.

After a stint as an editor of the United Farm Workers Union newspaper, Needleman worked as a plastics fabricator in a New York sweatshop and unloaded trucks part-time for the United Parcel Service in Detroit.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. She was unloading packages one day, when her back went out. "At the time," she recalls, "somebody told me about this program called labor studies. I thought, ‘They’ll pay me to do what I love best?’ And I’ve been in Gary ever since. As it turns out, I’m an educator and I love it, so in a way I’m grateful that I got seriously injured on the job."

She has focused her labor studies scholarship on race, class, and gender among workers, particularly in the steel industry, and has recently returned to her interest in Latin America with research on U.S.-Latin American labor relations. Since 1993, however, when she started a program at IUN known as Swingshift College, much of her work has centered on her greatest passion: worker education.

Educating for Change

"Each day," Needleman says, "I learn more and more from my students about the cultural and organizational changes going on in the workplace." She cites an example: new policies regarding workers’ health and safety.

In a recent class, one of her students, a union representative and employee at U.S. Steel, told the class that he had cut his leg severely on the job. After reporting the incident to his employer, he received multiple five-day suspensions.

Companies, Needleman learned, have adopted what they call a "behavior-based approach" to workplace injuries. Rather than using an engineering solution to correct a problem in the environment, they attribute the problem to worker behavior. This means that when workers report an accident, they are written up for multiple violations. This disincentive to report accidents combined with 12-hour shifts and increased workloads has contributed to higher accident rates. "We have had more accidents and deaths in the steel mills in recent years than have occurred since the pre-union period," says Needleman.

What’s the reason for this blame-the-behavior approach? "The pressures of globalization," Needleman answers. "Companies want to cut labor costs, and they want to cut as many workers as possible. If they can discharge workers for a cause, they don’t have to pay them unemployment. It is a way of downsizing."

The story illustrates as much about Needleman’s research and teaching as it does about current labor practices. She was "so appalled" by her student’s tale, she says, that she is now studying the issue of blaming worker behavior, and she has begun talking to her students about how to fight for a safer workplace and "how to put a stop to this incredible harassment, because now, as you can imagine, no one reports their injuries."

"Every day," she adds, "my mind is triggered by changes going on in the workplace and by my students."

Needleman has spent much time in both Brazil and Canada studying the pioneering worker education programs in those countries and establishing exchange programs for Swingshift College students. "I’m very focused on the whole process of how people learn, how to make that a process of creating engaged citizens in which people come out feeling responsible for themselves and each other, and believing there is such a thing as a common good that might take precedence over other things."

In Brazil, she says, "I think they get it. They are turning these marginalized, unemployed, uneducated workers into mainstream citizens who see things like activism, policy, politics, and society as part of their terrain, something they have to be involved in."

The Common Good

Like Needleman, Ashby has been a laborer, activist, and historian of labor for decades, and a belief in a common good goes to the heart of his involvement in the labor movement as well. As he explains, "the idea that we each have a calling greater than advancing ourselves, that we must advance all people, that we have to stand with one another, take care of one another, that injury to one is an injury to all—these are some of the fundamental principles of unionism."

For both scholars, the history of the U.S. labor movement reflects a shifting adherence to these principles. In her book Black Freedom Fighters in Steel, Needleman explores the rich history of the labor movement through the stories of five black labor union and civil rights leaders. All were born in the South between 1897 and 1921 and moved north as young men to find jobs in the Gary steel mills.

The story, she recounts, "changed as I wrote the book. I soon realized that I was looking not at a side story of labor history, but a core story. Industrial organization would never have happened without the black workers who often put up with racism and exclusion in the hope of moving their agenda. They knew the union was the only way to fight for some kind of economic democracy. They knew they couldn’t get anywhere without building alliances."

During the Cold War, however, unions became more conservative and more institutionalized. Because they feared being labeled communist or socialist, unions expelled 13 million members whose union leaders were considered too radical. As this occurred, "blacks turned in other directions—to civil rights, the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, and a focus on political rights."

Ashby’s work also focuses on U.S. labor history before and during the Cold War. "In the 1930s and ’40s, there were uprisings in labor across Europe and the United States," he says. "That’s when we got all of the progressive legislation, including the Wagner Act of 1935, which gives workers the right to form a union. In the United States, we finally had unions accepted as part of the fabric of society."

But Ashby points out that the United States did not advance as far as Europe and Canada because of the virulent anti-Communism of the McCarthy era. "So, for example, we did not get national health care. With the rise of the civil rights movement, most of the unions stood to the side and did not participate. The labor laws became weak and ineffective, and the unions became much more bureaucratized. They lost sight of the fundamental principle that you fight for everybody."

More recently, Ashby explains, there have been signs of reform. In 2005, seven unions split off from the AFL-CIO, the umbrella federation of labor unions in this country. "Led by the service employees, along with teamsters, farm workers, and others, they have formed their own federation called Change to Win," Ashby says. These groups, he explains, see a need to go back to labor’s roots, to form coalitions bringing students, clergy, and others together. For example, a group called Justice for Janitors recently succeeded in organizing workers in Miami and Houston. They are "reaching out to allies and saying this is not just about the workers, it’s about the whole country," Ashby says.

Needleman notes that AFL-CIO unions also are engaged in forming broad coalitions. "The emphasis on international alliances was pioneered, in many ways, by unions such as the Steelworkers and AFL-CIO, who recognized the importance of globally coordinated campaigns when transnational corporations are involved," she says. "The Goodyear campaign is one example."

Ultimately, both historians see a new labor uprising on the horizon. Ashby believes "there will eventually be a global labor upsurge. You can’t keep people down in slave-like conditions and have peace. You may have another revolution in China in the next 10 years. Workers are going to at some point revolt en masse. As they will here. At some point we’ll see Wal-Mart organized."

Likewise, says Needleman, a new, diverse leadership and rank-and-file, made up of women, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants, is seeking to produce changes in organized labor. They, too, are paving the way, she says, "to take on globalization from the grassroots up."

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.