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Sweatshop Workers Speak Out! National Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, Twin Cities IWW Offices

National Sweatshop Workers Tour Kicks Off at Macalester College, IWW Headquarters

April 21, 2010

Kalpona Akter, of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), paying her respects at the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 workers, overwhelmingly women, died because their factory was locked from the outside.  In February 2010, 21 workers died in a similar fire in a Bangladeshi Factory Fire.

Kalpona has been working in sweatshops since she was twelve. Coming from already-desperate poverty, she spent a few years thinking of her exploitation in relatively benign terms: “I thought I had a good job! I worked for them, and they paid me money!” Even though, as she described moments later, she was working non-stop, for 23 days at a stretch, and living on the factory floors. At the age of twelve, she live with her family about 5 days a month between ‘shifts.’ It wasn’t until Kalpona heard about Bangladesh’s formal – and rarely enforced – labor laws that she realized her job was actually a horrendous violation of what other people thought her rights should, and could, be. Today, Kalpona is a union activist working at Bangladesh Center for Worker Soldarity (BCWS).

Along with Zehra Bano from the Home Based Women Workers union in Pakistan, Akter kicked off a national speaking tour on Friday at Macalester College. The “Sweat Shop Workers Speak Out!” tour is organized nationally by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and Sweat Free Communities (SFC), and was organized locally by the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, ‘the wobblies’) and Macalester College Religious Studies.  At many of the stops, other associated events will also be held. In the Twin Cities, an evening benefit concert was held for the workers by the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union with its local headquarters in Minneapolis’ historic Grain Belt Brewery Bottling Building in Northeast Minneapolis.  Local bands Cloves and Big Strong Men performed, along with performances from the Hype Dance Troupe, and DJ sets from DJ Colin of Spinner’s Suite.

Zehra Bano, of the Pakistani Home Based Women Workers’ Union, represents women who sew soccer balls in their homes,
according to piece-work rates.

Kalpona’s experience – moving from a situation of such desperate exploitation and poverty that she herself didn’t even realize it – is emblematic of the situation of workers in Sweatshops and Export Processing Zones (EPZ) around the world:  it was not until Kalpona discovered that laws existed protecting her as a worker that she felt emboldened to question the conditions of her labor, and to struggle to have those conditions improved.  The tour she and Zehra are now on addresses precisely the disconnect between nice words and good laws, and their lack of associated action and enforcement. Continue reading


Academic Workers! Don’t Mourn, Organize!

AAUP (American Association of University Professors, the largest professorial union in the USA) has a new issue of their magazine, Academe, out.  It is focused on Graduate Students and Graduate Student Labor.

Cary Nelson (president of the AAUP) has an excellent essay in there titled, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.”  More wobbly-inspired work within this magazine includes Joe Grim Feinberg’s essay on reviving old labor songs to create a new public sphere (Joe’s in the Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, a union I had to withdraw from, with some unhappiness, once I was no longer a graduate student).

Nelson writes:

“The only thing the PhD now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.”

I’m one of the very lucky ones.  I have  job right now.


Academic Freedom Still Under Attack

Ward Churchill’s case against the University of Colorado is coming up. Go Ward! Read more here.

Support Dr. Ginsberg, fired for criticizing US and Israeli policy in the Middle East from her position at North Carolina State University!

Sure would be nice if academics could organize better, and stop having to rely solely on petitions and lawsuits to protect their jobs, huh? [link]


RIP, Fellow Worker Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips

Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips has passed, dying of the congestive heart failure that had plagued him for nearly a decade, and which had destroyed his ability to tour and make a living. For a guy who works on death for a living, and writes obituaries for ‘fun,’ you might imagine I would deal better with the passing of Utah Phillips than I have.

It’s true, I haven’t broken down in tears, or called all my friends, but losing the Golden Voice of the American Southwest and a fifty-year member of my union, the IWW – which Utah claimed was the only organization he’d ever encountered that “never broke faith with its elders;” something I’m particularly proud of. I believe he was the only individual ever issued a ‘lifetime membership card’ in the One Big Union. Utah also met with a number of our local members here in the Twin Cities about a year ago, when he performed at a benefit. I was, unfortunately, not among them

As a folk singer (he started out playing the Hawaiian ‘traditional’ music popular during his youth), he has been tremendously influential. It is possible that bigger names – Pete Seeger, etc. – had more influence on an individual generation, but it would be difficult to find a person whose influence passed more effectively to the current generation.

His most famous song is one of his funniest – “Moose Turd Pie,” which you can hear on youtube.

One of the best introductions to who Utah was as a political person and a human being was rebroadcast on DemocracyNow! today, which dedicated nearly its entire hour to remembering Utah.

Want to learn more about his music? Buy a copy of Starlight On The Rails, which is not only a nearly comprehensive catalog of his music, but includes a spoken introduction to each and every song on the album, in true folksinger style.

Utah is survived by his family, to whom I send my condolences and best wishes that humanity will soon realize the dream of peace, freedom, and true democracy – anarchy – to which Utah dedicated his life. I’m deeply grateful to Utah, and miss him already.

Utah’s official website

Utah’s Last Public Letter

Here is the family’s obituary (after the jump…) Continue reading