Interview with Eric Frumin, Director of the Health and Safety Program
Brooklyn, New York
January 27, 2005

mR: microRevolt
EF: Eric Frumin, UNITE HERE


mR: Let's begin with where you work and what you do.

EF: My name is Eric Frumin I am the Director of the Health and Safety Program for UNITE HERE, which is the principal American, Canadian labor union in the garment, textile, laundry, and hospitality industries. We represent about 450 thousand workers in the US and Canada.

mR: And how long have you been with them?

EF: I’ve been with the union for over 30 years, 31 years in May.

mR: Why is an organization like UNITE HERE necessary?

EF: UNITE HERE is a good example of a trade union that fights for workers rights, and also has a broader social agenda, from workers rights to the rights of communities, poor people, middle class in the United States and Canada and around the world. The fact of the matter is that corporations, you know the high-level bosses, whoever they are, tend to keep power to themselves.It’s capitalism, and the purpose of capitalism is to make money for the people who have the power. Someone who doesn’t have the power needs protection, and we help them empower themselves to defend their own economic standards, to get justice on the job, to have a voice at work, to be able to fight against discrimination, abusive health and safety conditions, sexism, things like that.
So, this is a story of the ages. You know it was true under feudalism, it’s true in post-industrial revolution era, and it’ll be true for the foreseeable future.

mR: Okay, now I’m interested in that distinction that you made between feudalism and post-industrial society, can you talk about that? The differences, and the overlaps?

EF: Sure. You know, workers who were working for somebody else, depending on the kind of work they did, were either a craftsperson who would sell to his market where they were, needed, much in the same way that professionals, like doctors used to be treated in this society. Or they were people who were on the receiving end of the employment bargain in the so-called master/servant relationship under English common law. And those are very important principles in establishing how workers even today are treated. Barring union representation, at least for private sector workers and for many public sectors workers as well, there’s nothing to stop an employer from firing workers for any reason or for no reason at all. That’s what’s called, the so-called master/servant common law doctrine that started in feudal England, came over to North America, the so-called “employment at will” doctrine. It’s a horrible abusive way of treating workers in civilized societies. Europe abandoned it a long time ago. There are labor tribunals across western Europe and other countries which establish the need for “just cause” and give workers some sense of job security. We don’t have any of those legal protections in this country. Unless you’ve been discriminated against because of racism or sexism or your some protected class, the boss can fire you whenever he or she likes. Because the bosses keep the money for themselves -- no big surprise, And the only way you get any real protection to keep your job, to have these working conditions, to be able to negotiate a decent pay, is to organize together to get some real power. By and large that’s called labor unions. People try it in other ways, it usually doesn’t work. There are associations, open door policies. Sure -- any Walmart employee can go complain to their manager, that’s not going to make their family insurance coverage any cheaper. They’re still not going to be able to afford it.

mR: What do you think the most common misconception is about workers organizing into labor unions?

EF: Well, unfortunately the most common misconception about unions in America these days is the percentage of workers who are in unions. Most people if you ask them say “oh maybe 20%, 30% something like that.” Of course it depends where you ask them, if you ask people in North Carolina or Texas you might get a lower number because people down there understand that there are so few unions. But in point of fact in the private sector, we’re down to 8%, and that’s shocking to most Americans. Given what everybody knows is their important presence in defending the basic economic standards of living, they think unions are here in large numbers. The fact is those numbers have declined dramatically in the last 50 years, in part because of the abusive nature of labor law in America and in part because too many unions gave up organizing, they gave up the fight. That’s probably the most important misconception and the most common one. The other one is that the law protects peoples’ rights to a union.A lot of union members believe that, they don’t understand that the law gives very little protection. And, if they have a union now their union is at serious risk and they better fight harder. So, it’s kind of a dire-straits situation and some unions like ours are fighting to change that.

mR: What do you do in particular as Director of Occupational Safety and Health?

EF: My main job is to help a range of different people within the union develop important and effective strategies for promoting worker health and safety on the job as part of our campaign to organize new members and to improve the protections that existing members have. There was a time when a health and safety expert for a labor union concentrated primarily on dealing with a particular safety and health issues for the members alone, and I’ve done that for many many years. That involves a range of activities, meeting with employers, doing inspections, going to the Congress in Washington demanding new laws, fighting with the bureaucrats in the federal Labor Department and at OSHA to give us the standards and the enforcements that we need.Those were all important things. In the last few years we’ve come to realize that if we’re going to have any hope of having decent safe working conditions for workers in the US and Canada, we have to mount a much more aggressive fight, to defend the conditions we have and to bring a union health and safety message to non-union workers, and to the communities where they live. So, today our health and safety program is much broader and much more aggressive than it’s been in the past, because it’s linked to our campaign to organize work places where workers don’t have any rights at all other than the weakly enforced rights under the job safety law or some of the other laws.

mR: How do you go about doing that?

EF: One thing is we make sure that when a union organizer or a member talks to workers in plants, places where there are no unions: a hotel, a factory, a laundry, a garment distribution center, we talk to them about their working conditions, and about the health and safety hazards, about the injuries on the job, about the kinds of production pressures they’re facing, about how often they have to work extra hours until they can’t stand the pain, about how many of them are working in pain, about how many of them cannot afford to take a day off and let their bodies recover from these abusive conditions because they have no sick time, because the workers compensation system is so abusive and so difficult for workers. And gradually workers begin to respond and they say, “You know, it’s really terrible what’s happened to us, I know I go to work everyday, I try not to think about it, I have to feed my family, this isn’t a good job, I came from Mexico, I came from Haiti, this is the best I can get but you know what: Enough! We better fight to get these conditions fixed.” So it’s a mix of everything from having a high level joint program with a company [like] Levi-Strauss the paradigm of corporate social responsibility before they fired 30,000 domestic manufacturing workers and violated the heritage. We had wonderful joint programs with them, all the way to fighting for a bathroom with a dry floor for workers at a laundry in the Bronx.

mR: Maybe it will help to have a specific example for somebody who does not know about the health issues. And since you brought up Levis-Strauss, I’m interested in that, because I hear of it as this example of a sweatshop abuser, what’s the story behind that?

EF: Well Levis had an ethic which was distinctly different from it’s competitors, which they could afford. And they knew that their labor costs were going to be higher than their competitors, and they made so much money for so many years they were able to put their money where their mouth was, so to speak. As a company they failed to maintain their dominance in the industry, and the global economy began undermining their ability to compete in general.So they had problems on the design side, on the marketing side, on the production side in the global economy, they gave up their principles and decided to make a deal with several devils: one of them was Walmart, another is sweatshop contractors in other countries.So they probably say they do a great job monitoring the conditions of their contracting plants. And maybe they do a little more than some other companies, but the fact of the matter is that they closed down 35 factories in the United States and Canada.

mR: When was that, was that in the last decade?

EF: In the 90’s. The last one closed I think in 2002 in San Antonio. And they basically decided to act like a typical corporation that had their economic goals and now all they have left in the US are 4 distribution centers, so they’re no different than any of the other companies which were willing to tolerate terrible working conditions all along.

mR: So UNITE represented Levis workers in the States, but now they’re just distribution.

EF: All they have is warehouses, they don’t have any production facilities, they had 35 factories…

mR: So it’s just getting in the apparel and sending it out to retailers…

EF: They have their buying office in Asia, their buying office in Central America, just like all the other companies. They have their design people in San Francisco and they contract it out to China, to Mexico, to wherever. You will not find a pair of pants of Levis-Strauss that’s made in America anymore. Or Canada.

mR: Are there any direct safety and health issues with that company in particular that you’ve dealt with in the distribution centers now?

EF: Yeah, we work with them to try to make sure that the workers in the distribution centers don’t have serious health and safety problems and sure they’ll do a better job there. But how many tens of thousands of workers in these contractor plants in developing countries, and of course in China is the big one, are treated abusively and they’re completely denied the right to have their own [independent] power and organization to fight their employers. Levi’s can’t guarantee workers in China the right to have an independent union no matter what kind of deal they sign with their contractor. It’s illegal in China to have an independent union; it’s against the law; just like it’s illegal in parts of this country to have unions. So, they’re just a part of the global marketplace mainstream for the apparel industry in North America, Europe, you know.

mR: Did you watch this change? Can you talk about that, because that might be interesting…

EF: Well…

mR: Because you’re saying this with a certain amount of cynicism and dismay, as if this is a result of an economic crisis that’s going in this direction – where everything is outsourced, but how was it before? As someone who works with workers how do you embrace the situation? How can consumers think about it? It’s so complex I'm not sure where to begin…

EF: In some respects it’s very complex. You know we are not dealing with the model 50 years ago of New York is the American fashion design center with a “market week” where the suppliers would send their reps to New York and they’d have little show rooms and the department stores and they would deal with it as if it was some bazaar. And we’re certainly no longer dealing with the few large American companies that had significant production facilities of their own, whether it was Liz Claiborne or Hart, Schaffner and Marx, or Levi-Strauss or Wrangler, those models fell in the kind of manic logic of the global economy that has compelled corporations that have to compete in this marketplace to move their production off shore.You know, they’re business people, they’re corporations and they’re going to do what the system allows. In a way, I don’t fault them for it, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. That’s the nature of the beast. We don’t like the system, as workers as consumers, as communities, which are beginning to wake up and realize that the Walmart business model is destroying our country. And we have to fight it, but don’t expect business to feel bad about it or to change, because they’re in business to make money.

You know, when the head of US steel was asked why he took 4 billion dollars in the early 80’s from a company which desperately needed investment, terrible competitive problems, old antiquated mills, terrible competition and bought an oil company. He said, “We’re not in the business to make steel. We’re in the business to make money.” David Roderick right there in Pittsburgh, I mean it was like as clear as could be. So, you know these are the rules that we don’t like to admit to, that our country lives on people. People think, “Well there are some ethics in business”, corporations put out there sort of 'green washes” as the environmentalists call it, they have huge PR campaigns that talk about corporate social responsibility, at the end of the day, when it comes to making money whether you’re Levis-Strauss or Walmart or your neighborhood fly below the radar sweatshop, that’s capitalism, and workers and communities have to have the their own power to protect themselves and to create a different business model.

There are other models for how to organize the economy and how to organize society, and people all around the world are discussing those models and fighting for them. People in Argentina are fighting back against a terrible ravishing of their economy by supporting worker owned co-ops. In Europe they set a floor, a floor is hard to defend, but they set a floor for how much leeway companies can have, they have higher tax rates so that you have a social basis for defending people’s living conditions. You know there are a lot of different versions of it but unfortunately in America we’ve chosen a pretty backward version. Even the Canadians understand that you can’t function in a society like this; 45 million people without health insurance, this is nonsense. The Canadians look at us like we’re from another planet. So it’s a system where the powerful will take advantage of what they can, and unfortunately the progression in our country has been to take more and more and more, they don’t stop taking, there’s never enough money for them, never enough profits. So, time for us to fight back.

mR: Can you give us day to day examples of health and safety issues.

EF: In some industries we fight just to keep the fire doors open, just to make sure the exits are not locked. You think, “My God, why do you have to do that?” but there are still bosses in America who will lock the fire exits because they don’t want people to leave without permission.

mR: How do you find that out? How does that come to your desk?

EF: That’s what a union does. A union is an organization which pays attention to details, whether it’s someone’s right to get vacation pay or keeping the fire doors open, or making sure that someone continues to get health insurance when they’re pregnant and they have to go on maternity leave. I mean those are things that are not required by law, well, fire doors have to be unlocked by law but the law is not around when you need them. There are a thousand OSHA inspectors for the entire country. In most states, left to their own devices, it would take OSHA a hundred years to get around and inspect every workplace.

mR: You said OSHA? What’s that?

EF: Oh sorry, OSHA is the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that’s the federal job safety police. They administer the OSHA Act, which sets job safety standards and health standards. They have inspectors who go out and do inspections. A lot of the inspectors are good, and if you as a worker know your rights, you can get them to come to your workplace inside of a few days. And if you know what the standards are you can make sure that they catch the boss violating those standards and issue the penalties and issue the orders to do the clean up, things like that.

So anyway, how does it come to my attention? Usually it comes to my attention only if for some reason the boss doesn’t respond when the people who are the leaders of the union in that workplace, the workers themselves, if they haven’t gotten them fixed and somehow they need more help getting it done. They told the boss “We’re going to get OSHA in here, we’re going to stop working”, you know, there are different methods they have for getting the boss to ”straighten up and die right”, because it works. They’ll come in here and talk to me about [it], maybe they need me to point out the page in the law where it says “you’re violating the law,” because the boss is such an idiot that they have to show it to him, you know that happens. But those are examples of some fairly straighttforward, simple safety issues.
There are other issues that are a lot more complicated. For instance, in the hotel industry, the hotels push maids, housekeepers to clean way too many rooms in a shift. Some places they require workers to clean 3 or 4 rooms in an hour, change the sheets, scrub down the bathroom, vacuum the floor. Imagine doing that in a hotel room in 15 minutes. And risk of injury to hotel workers in general is higher than the risk of injury to coal miners.

mR: Why is that?

EF: Because the hotel managers push them to do too much work too fast. Imagine trying to clean 24 hotel rooms in an 8 hour shift, that’s 3 in an hour, in 20 minutes, one after another, boom boom boom. It’s damn near impossible. You can’t do it without hurting yourself, without rushing, without bumping into things, without hurting your back from lifting the bed over and over and over. You have 8 folds for every single sheet, you have to pick it up, stuff it underneath, then in the middle, then in the other corner, then around the back, that’s just one sheet, then you have to do the top sheet, pick up the corner, stuff the sheet in, pick up the middle of the bed, stuff the sheet in, pick up the corner of the bed, stuff the sheet in, go around the other side, stuff the sheet in, you think Charlie Chaplin had it bad, then what about the blanket, then they go to the new bed where the mattress weighs 85 pounds, not only is there a blanket there are 3 sheets, they went from 2 pillows to 7 pillows now the new duvet cover weighs 50 lbs and they have to shake it out every time, because oh no, they have to promise the guest that this is going to be washed every single change of guest it has to be washed and it’s horse shit. But these poor housekeepers are abused, they need protection. So it’s not just a factory, it’s not just a little sweatshop it’s Hilton, it’s Marriot, it’s brand name companies around the world, just like it is Levis-Strauss and Nike and you know the apparel companies.

So, some of the issues are about the basic, brutal production workload, whether you’re the classic Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line, kind of a workload, or you’re a truck driver pulling down 12 hour shifts trying to drive and get some place and unload your truck -- and truck drivers have the highest injury risk than any job title in America, we don’t represent them but you know that’s kind of an image some people can understand, or you’re a hotel housekeeper. They can be abusive conditions. There are a lot of ways of fighting this stuff, the only way that really makes a difference is when they have a union to give them the means, the power to limit their workload to a human pace, to give them the tools they need to do a job so that the housekeeper isn’t running back and forth to the supply closet in the middle of trying to do 3 rooms every hour because the boss doesn’t give them enough sheets to work with, gives them a cart that falls over, you know, just the basics, we’re not asking for a lot, just a little respect.

mR: And those things are consider health and safety, [the expectation] to do something repetitive in a short period of time that is heavy, repetitive, dangerous…

EF: Human Rights Watch issued this report yesterday about the meat packing industry in America, I don’t know if you saw the report of it, in which they described the abusive production pressures. This has been another model for abusive conditions in American workplaces going back a century, Upton Sinclair wrote the Jungle as an expose in the first decade of the 20th century. The myth about that book was that it was about food safety, and what would go into meat and sausage, what the book is really about is the abusive treatment of the workers in the meat packing industry, and how parts of their bodies would end up in the sausage. And we’re right back there in Human Rights Watch yesterday, it’s pretty scary. So these are extreme dangers to workers that take many different forms depending on the configuration of the industry, you could be a truck driver, you could be a hotel housekeeper, you could be a worker in a chicken factory, they’re all working too fast and they need protection. And under our system the only way you’re going to get that is a union, we wish we had the laws to protect it but unions don’t have the power politically in this country to get those laws passed. We’ve learned that lesson the hard way, increasingly over the last 20-30 years and so it’s really now a matter of just patiently setting ourselves about organizing a lot more workers and getting us the ability to have that kind of power.

In some industries people have it, I would venture to say a union electrician in New York City doesn’t worry too much about whether they have the power to shut down an electrical installation job, because they’re not worried about the boss firing them and they have so much power over the electrical contractors in New York, the plumbers union is the same thing, but that’s the exception. [It] proves the rule for workers in general, even workers in places with relatively strong unions like New York and California.
Of course, the other thing that makes the whole thing a wild card is the abuse of immigrants which has raised problems of workers in the American workplace to a qualitatively new level because…

mR: Since when?

EF: There certainly there was a huge wave of immigration a hundred years ago that created plenty of opportunities for employers to abuse workers and immigration has always been a huge contribution to the labor force in America, in many many different kinds of ways. The problem is, is that the latest wave of immigration which has been very powerful for the last 10-15 years, has been happening at a time where we don’t have the other protections. Immigrants are not moving into unionized workplaces in the way that they were 50 years ago. They are not coming to a country which is serious about enforcing labor law. They are not coming to a country where employers thought they had the obligation to provide health insurance to people. They are not coming to a country where employers were socially ostracized for killing workers anymore. They’re not, employers kill workers all the time and it’s like no big deal. And you’re not coming to a country where the competing groups were willing to put up with it, competing groups have been fighting back. It’s no coincidence that the hotel industry stopped hiring African Americans over the last 15-20 years.

mR: How’s that related?

EF: They can hire immigrants who aren’t going to fight them. Where as African Americans stopped putting up with abusive mistreatment, they know how to fight back, they learned that lesson. They fought back enough to know that you don’t have to put up with it. So the hotels turn around and say fine we’ll hire people who don’t know how to fight back. It was one thing to hire immigrants at a time when all the workers in the workforce are willing to fight, but when you populate an entire workforce of immigrants when a meat packing factory in North Carolina is 95% immigrants and there’s no one there who knows how to fight back, it’s a recipe for disaster.

mR: I’m interested in particular in apparel, and you’re saying that there’s less and less unions in apparel manufacturing in New York? Because why… it’s not that there are not apparel manufacturers?

EF: There is far fewer than there were in the past. I would say that the New York apparel workforce now is probably 10% of what it was 50 years ago. New York is not an apparel manufacturing center to speak of anymore. There are probably double the number of apparel manufacturing workers in Los Angeles than there are in New York. The number of organized apparel workers in Los Angeles is about a tenth of what it is in New York. Organizing apparel workers in Los Angeles is almost an entirely hopeless affair. We know, we’ve tried. We’ve watched apparel companies in Los Angeles respond to union organizing by closing the door and moving to Mexico. It’s as simple as that, they just make it very clear. You show up, you organize a union, “Why be here, we don’t have to be here, we’re moving to Mexico”, that’s the great gift of NAFTA there [is] nothing to stop them. So there were 100,000 workers in Los Angeles apparel industry almost none of them are unions and any of those workers who try to organize a union know what’s going to happen. Companies will shut down and move to Mexico. And they can get away with it; American Apparel is a good example, there’s nothing to stop them from doing it. It’s such a powerful threat for the industry, because people have seen it happen over and over again. And not just because of unions, for whatever reason, it’s a huge problem.

So we do have some apparel manufacturing in New York City still left, not much, but it’s a dynamic industry, it changes, companies go into business, they go out of business, right, that’s the nature of the industry, especially the smaller companies. And labor law being what it is, the difficulty of organizing being what it is.

mR: Can you talk about those in simple terms, like what are the problems in labor law?

EF: But just to finish the thought, the unionized company to shut down, to organize it’s new reincarnation, it might even be the same plant, the same floor, it might even be the same machines, just a different company, they’re very very difficult. And then came 9/11 which whacked the apparel manufacturing industry of New York right in it’s heart, in China town, shut the whole industry down for months at a time, they couldn’t afford it. So between that and the price differential of going off shore, it’s been very very difficult to maintain a manufacturing base for apparel in New York. It doesn’t mean we give up the fight, we still promote New York made apparel, we still work with employers to keep their cost down to get low cost health insurance for workers, to stop the rezoning manufacturing, all the things that make a difference for employers at apparel companies to try to stay in the city but it’s very very difficult because the system drives them out. Never mind the ultimate system which is the customer which is Walmart which is the big chains who just keep driving their prices down down down. Walmart could care less if they say I can’t afford health insurance. “Too bad, we don’t pay health insurance to our employees, why should we give a damn if you can’t afford it for yours.”

Now what are the specific reasons? Employers have incredible power when they want to fight workers on their organizing drive. They can close the plant and pick up and leave and no penalties involved, they can just do it. It might take them 20 years to be found to have violated the labor law, cause those are the cases that happen, but they can do that, and by then what difference does it make? They can violate the law and fire the ring leaders, the people who say, “Trust me, come to my house tonight, we’re going to talk about this,” the people who take the lead. They pay no penalty for that. They might after 3 or 4 years have to rehire someone but it effectively shuts down the campaign and they don’t pay any penalty, all they have to do is pay the workers back pay. And deducted from that is whatever other money the workers made on whatever other job they had.

Since the worker wasn’t necessarily getting health insurance they don’t have to pay for all their workers’ problems with medical care for that whole period of time. So, why would someone want to stick their neck out? You have to be a very brave person as a worker in America to put up with that kind of terrorism, that kind of intimidation, that kind of harassment. What else can employers do? They can almost say whatever they want, about how bad the union is. They can talk about unions in any other situation and pretend like it’s the union that they’re talking about here. They can accuse a union of being corrupt and criminals going out on strike even though it has nothing to do with the workers here, and make it sound to these workers who know nothing about it, as if they’re talking about the very workers who are meeting with them to say why the union is a good thing. So the campaign of lies, misinformation, intimidation, harassment, it’s a matter of record. It’s unheard of in any other industrialized country. No other industrialized country allows employers the kind of free hand to terrorize their workers that we have in the United States. Not Canada, not the UK, nowhere in western Europe, we hold the record for this one among industrialized countries.

mR: Any thoughts on why that is?

EF: Yeah, because we don’t have the power to stop them, that’s the system. Employers keep the power. Fredrick Douglass made the observation that power concedes nothing without a struggle. They’re not going to give up the power they’re not going to allow someone, some other force, especially their own workers to have that kind of power to stop an employer from squeezing money out of the workers, from increasing their profits. They’re not going to give it up voluntarily. I mean there might be the occasional Aaron Feuerstein at Malden Mills [inventor of Polartec] – he is an incredible person who’s unfortunately now lost control of his company. He was willing to do an awful lot [after their devastating fire], he had an extraordinary sense of ethics about his workers. There have been some industrialists in the past who have claimed that they felt they really had the obligation to treat workers with the respect, who recognized workers’ rights to have their own union. But they’re very much the exception -- and the rule is that employers will take advantage of whatever weaknesses there are in the system to keep their power. The system in the United States of legally recognizing the right of workers to have a union, only began in the 1930’s, and only at a time of tremendous economic upheaval. Revolution was in the air, and FDR, an industrialist, realized unless they made some concessions, there were going to be some problems. There’s a fascinating book about the Triangle fire called Triangle, which describes how the events of the Triangle fire led to the New Deal and various incarnations, including the laws of labor organizing, that you should take a look at.

But in any case, those rights were only conceded legally to workers in labor unions in the 30’s and unions only really expanded under the extraordinary powers that the government had during World War II when employers really were limited in how much they could fight back. The day the war ended employers started their fight back; we had huge strikes in this country, 1946-47. In 1947, the US Congress went ahead and passed the Taft Hartley Law, to greatly limit the rights of unions and union activists. Unions also changed then too. They had gotten strong, they had gotten powerful, they stopped fighting, stopped organizing because at that time in many places unions had a lot of power. They were 95% organized in the auto industry, 90% organized in the steel industry they really thought they had a lot of power and they stopped organizing.

We in the textile industry knew that was never the case. The southern textile industry was like a heartbeat of reaction and racism. We never got organized in the southern textile industry and we kept fighting to organize workers in the southern textile industry in the 50s, in the 60’s, in the 70’s when other unions basically gave up.

mR: So there’s been an on-going lack of organizing in the textile industry, in the apparel industry?

EF: Well more in the textile industry…

mR: What’s the difference?

EF: Textiles make fabric, you know, weaving mills, knitting mills, yarn and fabric. Apparel is where you cut the fabric and make it into a piece of clothing. So textile factories, in the past, in the industrial model, tended to be huge, the lowest wages, the worst conditions, that’s what the system produces that’s what the Walmart business model produces. But what we are finally seeing is some communities, some labor unions taking the lead and saying “No, we’re not going to make compromises on this anymore, we’re going to stand up and fight for the kinds of conditions in the community that work, that we need. Now, we’re not going to do it by just confining our fight to one community or even one country it has to be a global fight for the first time, but that fight has the ability to be mounted.” And fortunately we see people in other countries doing the same thing. People in Brazil decided they had enough with the US business model, with the IMF, they threw them out. They elected a metal worker Lula to be their president, of the Workers Party. And what was the first thing that Brazil did? They came to the World Trade Organization, to the WTO, and said to the United States, “You’ve been subsidizing your sugar industry and your citrus industry, we’re not going to bend over for it over anymore, we’re not going to take it. You want to have trade negotiations with us, for a Free Trade of the Americas agreement, like NAFTA but from Canada to Chile? Fine, but there’s got to be some equity.” And the United States said, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Boom. The whole trade talks blew up in Cancun last year. Why? Because Brazil went there with South Africa and a whole bunch of developing countries and said “We’re not going to put up with this anymore, you’re impoverishing our farmers, you’re not going to do to us what you did to Mexico, where you threw a quarter of a million corn farmers off the fields because Archer Daniels Midland was able to export cheap corn from Nebraska to Mexico. We’re not going to put up with it anymore.” Just like in Brazil they’re setting up a social model to fight poverty, to fight hunger, to do a who range of things., One of the most unequal societies in the world is finally coming to grips with [poverty], so there are models to change it, but we’re pretty backward We have a long way to go in this country but the evidence of people beginning to fight back is there. To me it is unquestionable and that’s the optimism.

Is it good today? No. Are apparel workers in the United States today sitting ducks for some Walmart executive in Arkansas pointing to a map in China and saying “Aha, this is where I’m going to make your product”? Sure, they’re sitting ducks. We didn’t get here over night but we have the ability to change it. And unions like us are willing to do it, so let’s get on with it.

mR: Wow, I’m so glad you got to say all that. Realism is good but it is good to hear some optimism too. Should we get to your favorite question?

EF: The consumer part?

mR: Well…

EF: I think we dealt with sweat free versus union busting, and the last one was why should consumers care?

mR: Right.

EF: This country has survived as an economic entity because people make enough money to be able to spend it and that model is severely at risk. You can’t send that many jobs off shore you can’t destroy the retirement income the health insurance of so many people and expect those people to continue to buy. We had a lot of poverty in this country before the so-called creation of the middle class in the 40’s and 50’s and 60’s off of basically good union jobs. We had a lot of poverty before Medicare was enacted in 1964. We had a lot of poverty before Social Security started taking care of older people. Poverty is coming back. Not in the ways that show up clearly on whatever the statistics are for how many people are impoverished -- although we have 20 million kids living in poverty in this country. It’s coming back by setting a trap, by stealing away people’s medical insurance, by forcing them to spend down their savings, to refinance their house, to run their credit card debt up the wazoo, to leave us vulnerable to huge oil price hikes. This is one attack after another on the basic economic standards.

We built up a lot of wealth in this country for middle class people. Of course, the wealthy have always had a lot and they continue to get more. They haven’t stopped. Middle class people built up a lot, they’re spending it down cause they have nowhere else to get it from. Baby boomers are paying for their kids’ apartments and their kids’ health insurance, because jobs in America don’t come with health insurance anymore. What happens to the next generation when these kids don’t have pensions, someone who’s in their 20’s now isn’t earning their pension. In 20 years, in 30 years, in 40 years, they’re going to face retirement with no pension. With the so-called private account with an IRA, it’s all a gamble. That’s what we’re facing if we don’t re-establish a middle class society where the possibility of it -- where people can consume and at the same time know they have the income to support it. We also have a consumer society built upon terrible environmental degradation, automobiles, energy consumption irrespective of global warming.

We’re crazy, the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts, there is something fundamentally wrong with the consumer society in America whether it’s purchasing products that are made from sweatshop labor in the US or around the world, whether it’s paying no attention to the environmental effects of energy consumption or planning more roads, more highways, more cars. We’ve got to look differently at what we’re doing and say “Are we willing to change basic consumption in America?” It’s not enough to just have a credit card that sends a penny off to some charity. Bigger houses, bigger cars, more consumption…

mR: Who is going to be the voice behind that message?

EF: All over the world people talk about sustainable development. We stopped talking about it in this country. We don’t have a discussion in the United States about sustainable development.

mR: Who’s responsibility is that discussion, is it media, is it schools is it …

EF: It’s everybody. Sustainable development is such a broad issue that we all have a responsibility to it; people in their daily lives have to do it, journalists, community organizations, churches. We’re so wowed by the consumer society now, we think it’s the holy grail, people go to church they pray, that’s fine, ever other day of the week they’re going to the church of the dollar. Reverend Billy if you haven’t heard his thing, he understands this very well. Reverend Billy talks about consumption and sustainable development in a way that is accessible to people and we need 100 Reverend Billys. And they’re not just reverends and they’re not just comedians and political speakers, they could be there in many different ways. I mean we’re spending some ridiculous portion of the gross national product on insurance companies and middlemen in the health care industry. We could cut it in half by having a single payer plan like the Medicare plan that Canada has. It’s ridiculous.

But that’s what the system produces, so we have to live up to the facts, admit that capitalism is about making as much money for rich people in corporations, and say “Fine but that is not my agenda and I’m willing to work on a different agenda.” But it’s not going to happen by accident. Workers and unions can to do their part, other people have to do their part. I think people learned in this last election, you can’t sit out an election and just wonder who to vote for on election day, you got to get out there and fight for it. If we had a democratic party we would have done something -- unfortunately we don’t really have one. Maybe by the time the next election there’ll be a real democratic party that knows how to fight. But people learned a lot. Don’t leave it up to the politicians to fight our political battles, we’ve got to go out there and fight it ourselves. So those are some of the approaches, we’re still figuring it out, there’s no easy answers to this.

mR: Thank you so much.