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  • Walmart To South Africa?

    Written on September 29, 2010

    South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company.  Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa

    "We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."

    Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:

    We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law. 
    The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
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  • Standing Up For The Rights Of Others

    Written on September 27, 2010

    "...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..."   - President Barack Obama

    In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.

    In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.

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  • Labor Day In Hell

    Written on September 13, 2010

    The new Albert Shanker Institute-supported report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, released on Labor Day by the human rights organization Freedom House, has received some notable attention in the press, both here and around the world. One photo essay in Foreign Policy, titled "Labor Day in Hell," illustrates 14 of the worst-offending nations, among them Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan (see the screenshot below).

    Indeed, the report, which examined the state of labor rights in the world for the year 2009, found serious violations of workers’ freedoms in all parts of the world except Western Europe. Countries were ranked on a five-category scale of Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive.

    The United States was rated as Mostly Free—the same rank accorded to Bolivia, Mongolia, Romania, and Zambia—less free than all of Western Europe and such nations as Australia, Canada, Chile, South Africa, and South Korea. As the report notes, although American law recognizes core labor rights, the U.S. political environment is "distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest." So not Hell, but not Heaven either.

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  • Free Labor In A Hostile World

    Written on September 3, 2010

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, the Albert Shanker Institute-supported report he cites below, is available here. A "Map of Workers’ Rights," depicting its findings is here. 

    This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the independent trade union movement that played so crucial a role in the collapse of Communist rule in Poland and ultimately everywhere else where it held sway. Solidarity emerged from a series of spontaneous strikes called by workers at the shipbuilding yards of Poland’s Baltic coast cities. It quickly spread throughout the country, pulling in workers from steel works, textile mills, and coal mines. Soon, the working class was joined by the intellectual opposition, a loose movement of academics and former student activists that had been gathering momentum as the corruption of the Communist system became increasingly apparent. 

    Solidarity thus quickly evolved into a broad movement for democracy, with a free-wheeling press, a diplomatic apparatus, and close ties to Poland’s influential Catholic Church. It was, however, the support of Poland’s huge working class that ensured Solidarity’s staying power. Where Communist regimes had faced down opposition stirrings among students and intellectuals in the past, it had never been confronted by an adversary as large, disciplined, and well-organized as Solidarity came to be.  

    It’s worth mentioning during this U.S. Labor Day period that U.S. unions, led by individuals such as AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and AFT President Al Shanker (from whom this blog is named), among many others, were Solidarity’s staunchest supporters in the U.S.

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  • Youth Unemployment: A Global Concern

    Written on August 20, 2010

    The global economic crisis may be leading to a deep sense of despair among the world’s youth, warns the International Labor Organization (ILO) in a just- released report (see here and here) – with potentially damaging social and economic consequences for us all.

    Youth unemployment is at its highest level since the agency began tracking it in 1991, the ILO reported, noting that among other impacts “…[i]n many countries with stagnant economies and poor prospects for productive employment, [young people are drawn to] religious sects, secular ideologies and revolutionary movements."

    Although the report cites disaffected Nepalese youth and their growing attraction to Maoism, most Americans will probably be more interested in how this issue plays out in the Middle East and North Africa. That region is currently experiencing an unprecedented "youth bulge," with young people between the ages of 15 and 29 accounting for over 30 percent of the overall population, some 20 percent or more (for some countries, the estimates are over 45 percent) of whom are unemployed. Under the circumstances, the danger of a rise in radical Islamist extremism can’t be overstated – especially since, as the ILO notes, the figures for sub-Saharan Africa don’t adequately reflect the extent and extremity of the region’s poverty and lack of government services.

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  • Do Americans Think Unions Help Everyone?

    Written on August 4, 2010

    The question in the headline is fundamental when trying to understand attitudes towards organized labor, as well as the relatively low union presence in the U.S. The "if I can't have it, nobody can" attitude that anti-labor advocates try to promote among non-members packs far less punch if people understand that many of the conditions they take for granted - trivial things like sick days, minimum wages, and yes, weekends - are in no small part thanks to past and current efforts of the U.S. labor movement. Awareness of these efforts, and of the positive union effect on everyone's wages and benefits, is also, no doubt, partially dependent on one's experience with unions (e.g., coming from a "union family").

    So, it might be instructive to take a quick look at attitudes towards labor's effects in the U.S. compared with those in other nations, and whether this appears to be related to the degree of unionization. Basically - do Americans think unions help all workers, and how do our attitudes stack up against other nations?

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  • Willie Sutton In China

    Written on July 20, 2010

    When asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, convicted bank robber Willie Sutton famously replied, "because that’s where the money is." While Sutton later denied making the remark, it was such a fabulously duh response to a dumb question that the medical profession later adopted "Sutton's Law" to describe the principle of "going straight to the most likely diagnosis."

    So, what has this got to do with China? Well, in a recent Financial Times article, we learn that the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), fresh from its disastrous showing at the Honda strike (where its minions were videotaped beating up striking ACFTU members), has turned its attention to foreign-owned investment banks.

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  • What's Next For China's Workers

    Written on July 14, 2010

    China's workers burst into the world headlines again recently (see here, here, here, and here, for example)—taking to the streets to protest wages and working conditions, and exciting speculation about the possible political, social, and economic implications. Strikes and protests by Chinese workers are increasingly common. The Economist, citing an official Chinese publication, reported that "labor disputes in Guangdong in the first quarter of 2009 had risen by nearly 42 percent over the same period in 2008...." (These are government numbers, so the real numbers are likely to be even higher.)

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  • One Person, 2.5 Votes

    Written on July 14, 2010

    According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the U.S. is ranked 139th in voter turnout out of the roughly 170 democracies in the world. To whatever degree participation is a measure of how well a democracy functions, the United States' is among the worst.

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