Vol. IX, Bulletin No. 10.                                                          November 8, 2004

Outlook for Workers under GWBush II

Don't be surprised if new judges named to the U.S. Supreme Court in the next four years don't help overturn the court's controversial Roe v. Wade decision on legalizing abortion.  Another goal is much higher on the White House's judicial agenda for President George W. Bush's second term:   appointing conservative judges who will press to strike down certain federal laws, including those protecting the rights of workers.

That analysis is by Jeffrey Rosen, the magazine's legal affairs editor, in an article titled "Supreme Mistake" published in the weekly's November 8 issue. It was written and printed before the November 2 national elections, and is probably out of date.  The post-election reality is that Bush will most likely pursue both goals.

Based on the pre-election political situation, Rosen posited that the White House would not engage in a highly visible fight to elevate anti-Roe judges to the High Court, assuming that even many Republican Senators would not want to risk the wrath of women voters.  Instead, he predicted, the administration's goal for its future Court nominees would be to reverse, in a much less visible way, the human rights protections for workers added to U.S. legislation since the 1930s.

"These judges could change the shape of laws governing the environment, workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination, and civil rights, making it difficult for the federal government to address problems for which the public demands a national response," Rosen wrote.

Bringing Back the Good Old Pre-New Deal Days

The radical reversal that Rosen described may sound far-fetched.  But it is real enough to have a school of legal thought called "the Constitution in Exile."  It has adherents within and outside the judiciary dedicated to bringing back legal theories that Supreme Court justices once used to declare U.S. laws against child labor and other federal labor legislation unconstitutional. 

A likely Bush approach, Rosen wrote, will be to nominate "Constitution in Exile" judges with short paper trails on federal powers, that is, "stealth candidates" offering no obvious grounds for being opposed by Senate Democrats.  Besides, "unlike abortion, federalism is not, at the moment, an issue the public understands or cares much about."  But that strategy does not preclude Bush's pressing his anti-abortion agenda also.

A strong clue to Bush's overall labor approach during the next four years is the record of the Labor Department in the past four years.  The purpose of the Labor Department, in the words of the law that established it in 1913, is "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment."  According to the Department's own history, its creation was a direct result of a half-century campaign by organized labor for a "Voice in the Cabinet." 

The Labor Department certainly is not organized labor's voice in the Cabinet nowadays.  Nor, under its current leadership, is it a voice for working people, organized or unorganized, at least not as laid down in the Department's founding charter.  Rather, on domestic and international labor issues, the Department of Labor generally joins the Departments of Treasury and Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the White House in fostering and promoting the interests of  business.

562 Economists Favor Minimum Wage Rise

Whenever raising the federal minimum wage comes up in Congress, lobbyists from the restaurant, retail, and other industries converge on Capitol Hill to voice their opposition and to present the supporting testimony of economists who agree with them.  The business/economist combo is so formidable that it's been seven years since Congress last increased the minimum -- the longest period of inaction since Congress enacted the minimum wage law in 1938.

Now a small but important breakthrough has come in the anti-minimum wage front presented by economists. Four Nobel Prizewinners in economic science and 558 other economists have lent their support to the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2004, which proposes to increase the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to $7.  Their signed statement was released on October 7 by the Economy Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Hike in Minimum Wage Would Benefit Families

"We believe," the economists said, "that a modest increase in the minimum wage would improve the well-being of low-wage workers and would not have the adverse effects that critics have claimed....Research has shown that most of the beneficiaries are adults, most are female, and the vast majority are members of low-income families."

Moreover, the statement endorsed increasing minimum wages on the state level: "Modest increases in state minimum wages...can significantly improve the lives of low-income workers and their families, without the adverse effects that critics have claimed."

The Nobel Laureates who signed the statement include Paul A. Samuelson and Robert M. Solow, both professors of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The text and the list of the 562 signers are on the Website of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank. The Website also has a great deal of background information on why a raise in the wage floor is an essential (but not the only) part of a strategy to support working families.

States Move Forward While Bush White House Lags Behind

Despite a lot of political rhetoric about the precious value of families, this session of Congress was in no mood to defy the White House's opposition to increasing minimum wages. Meantime, voters in Florida and Nevada, despite favoring Bush, approved propositions raising the state minimum wage to $6.15, a dollar above the federal minimum  -- a sign that the election's "mandate" is not quite as conservative as Bush claims.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005 will offer a opportunity to demonstrate Congress' and the White House's concern for families.

China: Globe's Biggest Jailer of Journalists

State security police seized a New York Times researcher, Zhao Yan, 42, at a restaurant in Shanghai on September 17, and took him to a Beijing detention center on suspicion of "illegally possessing state secrets," a felony in China.  Ten days earlier the Times had printed a story that was then still a state secret --  the resignation of China's former President Jiang Zemin from a top military post, his last hold on power.  Zhao, an investigative reporter for China Reform magazine until April and hired by the Times in May, was assumed to have obtained the scoop. 

Only because of his Times connection did Zhao's arrest make news around the world. Such arrests, however, are common and unpublicized occurrences for ordinary Chinese who might reveal (or just possess) some fragment of a wide range of information that the Communist government withholds from the public.

A monopoly on information is a tool used by every dictatorial regime to maintain its hold on power. In China that monopoly has an additional purpose: "to conceal the failures of economic reform on which much of its current legitimacy rests," according to the magazine Human Rights in China (HRIC), published by an organization of the same name.

Every week China receives about $1,000,000,000 in foreign direct investment.  That huge monetary in-flow of money from the United States and other rich countries "is greatly dependent on [China's] carefully chiseled image of unmitigated economic success," says the magazine in an article "Labor and State Secrets" jointly prepared by HRIC and the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.

The article provides 11 pages of detail on how regulations issued by the Labor Ministry and the Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and enforced by the State Secrets Protection Bureau, "transform broad categories of information into state secrets."  One such category is child labor, which has increased sharply, according to anecdotal evidence gathered by the Labor Bulletin.  Government statistics are unavailable because the Labor Ministry has put a "highly secret" stamp on "undisclosed information and statistical data on the handling of child labor cases nationwide."

Piling Secret Categories on Secret Categories Galore

Other categories of undisclosed labor information classified as secret or highly secret are industrial accidents, occupational diseases, wage policies, unemployment rates, embezzlement of social insurance funds, strikes, other kinds of labor protests, collective bargaining demands, China's activities in the International Labor Organization, communications with foreign trade union organizations, and "countermeasures" against free labor unions in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.  Also highly secret are government and Party discussions on revising "major socially-sensitive policies."

Of course, information on those jailed for violating those and other secrecy regulations is a secret.

So the current lack of information on the fate of Zhao Yan is not unusual. His employer, the Times, had no word from him or about him from the Chinese government.  When prosecutors issued a formal arrest order for him in late October, they said nothing about the charges against him. Neither his family nor his lawyer has been allowed to see him.  After the State Department expressed concern about his arrest and its implications for foreign reporters, the Foreign Minister warned that "outside forces should not interfere."  All par for the course in China.

The Paris-based human rights organization, Reporters Without Borders, says China has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world -- 27. On press freedom generally, it ranks China 162nd on a list of 167 countries.
* *  *
Vietnam's Monopoly Control of Information Puts It in Same Class as China

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is number 161 on that list, and its government regularly provides evidence for why it merits such low ranking. 

In March last year Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a 61-year-old medical doctor, human rights activist, and writer, sought to email information abroad refuting the government's claim that freedom of information exists in Vietnam. For that the government arrested him, ironically proving his point.  Over the protests of the U.S. State Department, the AFL-CIO, Reporters Without Borders, the New York Academy of Scientists, and many other groups in the United States and Europe, the People's Court of Saigon last July sentenced Dr. Nguyen Dan Que to two and a half years in a forced labor camp 1,200 miles from his family in Saigon.  

Unions for Working Children?  Bad Idea

In Bangalore, India, a child welfare group has set up a union to protect the 13,000 boys and girls who work full time in hotels and restaurants.  In Delhi another nongovernmental organization runs a union that gets better pay and provides social services for some 300 children who work for adults as shoe shiners, rag dealers, porters, market vendors, and other street jobs.  But do such unions provide a model to cope with the plight of India's 60,000,000 children working in its agricultural, commercial, and industrial sectors?

No, says Ram Mital, a leader of the national labor confederation HMS.  In 1992 the Delhi NGO filed an application to have a group of 300 child workers officially recognized as a union, but the National Register of Indian Trade Unions rejected it.  "To recognize their union would indirectly mean encouraging child labor," Mital explains. "The question is its elimination."

Gus Ryder, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), agrees.  "Child labor trade unions don't make sense," he says.  "Children should not be at work."

India's Economic Boom Masks Widespread Child Labor

The union-for-children issue is explored in an ICFTU report prepared for an international conference at which trade unionists, politicians, and child welfare leaders will focus on how to eliminate child labor in India and other South Asian countries. 

The theme of the four-day conference, to be held  in Hyderabad, India, in November, is "Out of work into school: children's right to education is non-negotiable."   Titled "India: economic boom masks widespread child labor," the eight-page ICFTU report frequently quotes Kailash Satyarthi, who founded the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) as well as the Global March Against Child Labor, both based in Delhi.  Among the Satyarthi insights cited: Not all of India is a child labor horror story, the ICFTU report points out.  In the state of Kerala in southwest India government and civic leaders have long pursued progressive social policies that have kept its young children in school rather in paid or unpaid jobs. 

Many economists and other learned persons blame poverty for causing poverty.  But, echoing Satyarthi and others who know the truth, the ICFTU report formulates the problem correctly:  "Poverty is both a consequence and a cause of child labor.

Toward a Human-Centered Technology

Good news. Several of the great minds of information technology have decided that today's computers are far, far too complex, and are initiating research  projects to simplify them.  What a relief.

I feel empathy with a computer user named John Maeda, who is quoted in the October 30 Economist.  "The computer knows me as the enemy," he says. "Everything I touch doesn't work."  He goes on to list some of  his frustrations -- the error messages that don't make sense, the "plug-and-play" devices that won't play, the anti-virus programs that mysteriously crash, and so on and on.  Routine stuff for an ordinary computer user like me.

But hold on.  John Maeda is no ordinary computer user.  He's one of the world's topmost computer geeks, with a master's degree in computer science and a PhD in interface design, and currently a professor in computer design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Like others in his field, Maeda's new research project has three objectives for the computer and its multiple software programs: simplify, simplify, simplify..

Other experts are on the same wave length.  Donald Norman, author of The Invisible Computer, writes: "Today's technology is intrusive and overbearing....It is time for human-centered technology, a humane technology." 

That reform won't happen next year, or the year after that, but knowing that it is underway may keep me from smashing my laptop against the wall the next time it breaks down when I'm on deadline writing Human Rights for Workers

I just wish that the top U.S. geeks in international trade would learn a similar lesson -- that it is time for a human-centered international trade policy.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IX-10, November 8, 2004
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
hrfwtoo@yahoo.com. (Send e-mail)

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