Guest Post - Jonathan Rosenblum on Rana Plaza and the local-global march against sweatshops | WisCommunity

Guest Post - Jonathan Rosenblum on Rana Plaza and the local-global march against sweatshops

Rana Plaza and the Local-Global March Against Sweatshops

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Today is “Rana Plaza Day.” That's not a good thing. More than a thousand apparel factory workers died two years ago as they sweated literally to keep the sweat off your backs. The building collapsed on top of them, just after a dramatic street side negotiation in which managers forced the workers back into a tectonic building.

All this is pretty far from Madison, WI--in fact, 7261.1 miles from central Madison to the Savar industrial section of Dhaka Bangladesh on Mapquest. You can’t take a bus. You can get a one-stop from O’Hare on Qatar Air.

But then there is Madison City Ordinance Section 4.25. When then-Alder (now federal court of appeals clerk) Austin King advocated for that ordinance ten years ago, consumer consciousness was just waking up to the connection between the label on your shirt or hat and the conditions of the workers making them. Students at University of Wisconsin and its now-arch-rival, Duke, were leading the way to innovative ways of connecting workers and consumers through programs called “independent monitoring” and “codes of conduct.”

I know, because I was advising both groups of students. I count Madison and Durham, NC as adopted home towns. I had been one of the early trainees in modern sweatshop fighting, thanks to my ex-employer, the International Labor Organization. I was so very proud of what the students in both cities had accomplished in demanding fair labor standards for the workers making their stuff.

And that’s why I’m disappointed today with the two most recent mayors of Madison, Mayor Dave and Mayor Paul.

Thanks to Ordinance 4.25, I can—you can—see the list of factories from which the city, through suppliers, sources its apparel for the city. Two of the factories are within a few miles of where government regulators and managers, both, forced those workers back into an industry-caused earthquake zone. In fact, caps worn by city workers might well have been made in the Savar industrial zone, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Activists are still fighting brands to ensure the safety standards of buildings and workplaces in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

To Alder King’s credit, the ordinance established a citizen’s panel that would oversee implementation of what could be real advocacy for the workers who made city apparel, including the Fire Department, Police Department, Madison Transit and others.

Over the past five years, in sometimes small steps, that panel made real progress. Among the starring Madisonians were Alder Satya Rhodes Conway, writer and editor Mary Bottari, Carol Bracewell, Lisa Subeck, Matt Earley, and a bunch of UW students who have come in and out. Former city purchasing director Monette McGuire, who served on a national board, took real leadership.

Last summer, in a special series called “Cities Rising,” dedicated to innovative city government, The Nation magazine [] wrote that:

[T]o commemorate the anniversary of the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, launched a contracting policy that commits the city’s vendors to promote fair labor standards. The city’s new “sweatfree” contract guidelines aim to eradicate labor abuse from its international supply chains for the production of government uniforms, including the apparel worn by firefighters and other agency personnel.The guidelines build on the city’s existing sweat-free procurement policies, with disclosure and monitoring mechanisms that aim to ‘[raise] the bar for human rights due diligence in government contracting’ by providing a nationwide model, according to the advocacy network Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium (SPC).

…[B]y establishing a framework for mass procurement under an enforceable government contract, Madison might serve as a template that other cities and towns can adopt.

Okay, so Madison’s a model--what’s the problem?

The problem is that our leadership seems to regard sweatshop activism as just one more Madison fantasy “foreign policy.” Neither mayor ever set foot in a meeting, much less sent a message to the committee to convey interest. In 2011, as the Wisconsin Uprising led to a clash of new politics versus old, Paul Soglin won a new term. His first communication to the sweatshop committee, through then-purchasing director Monette McGuire, was that he wanted to disband it because there were too many city committees.

Last summer, just as the committee was threading the needle of real sweatshop monitoring, UW student Luke Gangler applied to the mayor to become a member of the Committee. So what did the former activist for Students for a Democratic Society do? Without telling anyone on the Committee, he had his staffer tell Gangler that appointments were frozen.

Just a few months later, as we arrive at Rana Plaza Day, the mayor has reportedly told new alders that despite Ordinance 4.25 requiring a citizen’s panel, the antisweatshop panel will be dissolved. When asked to explain the dissolution, the mayor’s executive assistant Enis Ragland –apparently assuming no one knew about last summer’s email to Gangler--responded with a new email baldly stating that the mayor was having trouble finding people to serve on the committee.

An alternative international panel, based somewhat inconveniently in Sweden, would replace the citizen’s panel. If the mayor goes through with eliminating the citizen committee here without citizen deliberation-- and appreciation for four years-plus of work-- I hope that the new council will revolt. And I will certainly resign from any role—this isn’t what citizen voluntarism was meant to be.

But let’s not forget former mayor and increasingly neoliberal philosophe Cieslewicz. Although I’m not aware that he opposed the Committee, he has recently written that the very word “solidarity”—the only word left for workers like those in Bangladesh to fight the power—should be banned by labor. Everything would be okay, writes Citizen Dave, if the world were run by more Uber and Lyft entrepreneurs. [] That’s putting faith in the very management types who would measure profit and opportunity by “surge pricing.”

But take note: it’s surge pricing, and a lack of a real global community that led the Rana Plaza managers to meet at the street corner two years ago to tell the workers to shut up about the quaking building and go back to work.

So today, and again on Labor Memorial Day next week on April 28, consider what kind of city government you want—one that celebrates innovative policies and the citizens who engage in them. Or one that sneers at citizen participation, declares solidarity dead, and sends emails telling volunteers that government is frozen.

Postscript Not to miss a pox on all houses, I should note that Scott Walker cancelled Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration action to join the antisweatshop coalition a mere few weeks after he came into office. But one could imagine how Walker also would have responded to the Rana Plaza workers’ attempt to collectively bargain for their lives that April 24, 2013.


April 24, 2015 - 5:44pm