The standards for being a "good employer" in this country have changed a lot in the last century. One example of this trend is Starbucks, who certainly pay and benefit their employers better than any other large food service chain in the country, and that's not to be sniffed at. But Starbucks also aggressively union busts and intimidates those who would organize for collective bargaining rights.
On labor standards for their coffee growers, Starbucks is similarly selectively enlightened: it's great that they will only sell fair trade coffee, but only if STARBUCKS, and not international oversight and policy experts like the Workers Rights Consortium or the U.S. Labor in the Americas Project, get to determine what fair trade means in the details. On this matter of defining fair labor practices overseas, Starbucks' standards fall predictably lower than than those of the people who study the issue for a living.
Putting American Apparel's porn-lite ad campaigns aside for the moment to focus solely on the company's labor practices, you'll find a similarly mixed picture. This retailer's terrific website boasts glowing worker testimonies and makes their L.A. factory seem like a dream spa, which I'm sure it truly resembles - the workers get generous breaks, plenty of light and air, and even massages! But what if they want to form a union? No freakin' way. American Apparel spent considerable energy and money in 2006 making sure this did not happen through intimidation, harassment, and firings.
What's with the paternalism and the massage bribery? How can an employer honestly say they respect and honor their workers' lives when they won't allow them to make their own decisions about representation? And with more American workers joining the service sector each day, when will Starbucks organizers, for example, gather a critical mass in the face of the company's vast money and influence? Will they ever?
While we're at it, Betty just received this email from a community organizer in Oakland, CA, regarding IKEA (the place where all Betty's furniture came from for the last five years):
On the good side, [IKEA] have met and exceeded a local hire policy
requirement in East Palo Alto for several years now...the City staff person...holds
the company's feet to the fire.
On the bad side, they are deeply afraid of workers talking to each other,
or, God forbid, organizing. We conducted a survey of big box retail
workers in Emeryville, where the Bay Area's first IKEA is located. In
order to stop us, they tried to get my surveyors arrested, called me at
home and intimidated my wife, implied to workers that they would be fired
if they responded to our survey and hired a *very* expensive union-busting
law firm to write threatening letters to us. All over a 15 minute survey
being conducted by undergrad students. Not nice people.
Like her boxy, functional IKEA furniture, Betty also enjoys her occasional Starbucks holiday cookie and corn syrup coffee, and she owns some underwear from American Apparel, which she figures is a step up from the Gap in terms of worker rights and even the environment. Cold comfort? Yes. A step in the right direction? Perhaps. Maybe the American labor movement and all civil rights struggles (Betty thinks particularly here of the gay rights movement) have more in common than just gallons and gallons of coffee. Must progress always be so slow?