Good Consumers, Bad Citizens
A few days ago, I was listening to a radio talk show discussion of the bill passed on May 7 by the New York City Council, requiring some businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees.
The first caller was indignant. “This bill is anti-consumer!” he bellowed because, he insisted, it would raise prices. I thought, no, this bill is pro-citizen, helping out people, many of them in extremis — and just when did we stop being citizens and become merely consumers? When did access to material goods and low prices become a right more important than public health and welfare? When did our celebration of profit take precedence over fundamental fairness and justice?
I thought of this again the other night while attending the ceremony for the Hillman Prizes in Journalism, named after the late union leader Sidney Hillman, once the influential president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. One of the awards went to ABC News for its coverage of a deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh where Tommy Hilfiger clothing was being manufactured. Deliberately locked in and unable to escape, 29 died.
Confronted with the evidence, Hilfiger and his parent company finally pledged over $2 million to improve fire safety at dozens of other facilities in Bangladesh, but six months later, another fire took more than 100 lives. According to the Sidney Hillman Foundation, an ABC News producer “obtained evidence that showed clearly that Wal-Mart, Sears, Disney and other retailers’ labels of clothes were being made there at the time of the fire, and written warnings from Wal-Mart’s own inspectors that the factory was not safe.” All in the name of cheap clothing made by workers in a country that has the lowest minimum wage in the world, $37 a month, while exporting $18 billion worth of apparel yearly, second only to China.
The Hillman Prize came just weeks after the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed 1,127 workers, and indeed another award was given by the Hillman Foundation in the name of the workers and in honor of labor activists fighting for safer factories in that country, many of whom have been intimidated, beaten and even murdered.
And yet, unlike nearly three dozen European companies, almost all American businesses refuse to sign onto a formal plan for Western retailers to fund safety upgrades at these Bangladesh factories where their clothes are manufactured. The American firms cite fears of legal liability. But as Paul Lister, director of legal services at Associated British Foods, one of whose subsidiaries has signed the agreement, told The New York Times, “It’s not a perfect document. We’ll deal with the imperfections in the document, and we have to deal urgently with the underlying issue — the moral and ethical issues of fire safety and building integrity in Bangladesh.”
Nonetheless, Matthew Shay, president of America’s National Retail Federation, claims the plan “seeks to advance a narrow agenda driven by special interests.” He means, of course, labor. Where profit is concerned, any excuse to foot drag will do and as Michigan Congressman Sander Levin pointed out to the Times, “It’s been left up to the retailers, suppliers and government all these years, and that hasn’t worked.”
That hasn’t worked because unless citizens shame them — in the wake of tragedy or crisis — the collusion between government and industry will continue to place the needs of corporate America first. And even a calamity will not necessarily slow it down – just look at the 2008 banking crisis and the increased size and power of the very financial institutions that got us into the mess.
Witness the JPMorgan Chase shareholders meeting in Tampa, Florida, last week. Its chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon has unparalleled authority – rivals call him “the sun god” — and yet Bloomberg Businessweek reports, “The litigation section of the bank’s quarterly filings now runs to almost 9,000 words, or 18 single-spaced pages.” The magazine listed the institution’s “year of federal investigations into whether it manipulated energy markets, inadequately guarded against money laundering, abused homeowners in foreclosure, facilitated Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and misled the public about the ‘London Whale’ fiasco, the worst trading loss in JPMorgan’s history.” What’s more, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and California’s attorney general are each looking into how JPMorgan Chase has gone after credit card debt.
Despite this impressive litany of potential transgression, Dimon handily beat back an attempt by some stockholders to split his job in two, which theoretically would have added some much-needed adult supervision, regulation and corporate oversight. He did so with a concerted campaign of pressure and public relations; support from such pals as Mike Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley; threats to resign; and with this one simple statistic: record earnings of $21.3 billion last year.
Dimon delivers value and that’s all that counts — over the last year, shares have risen more than 50 percent. As New York magazine columnist Kevin Roose wrote, “No matter what happens, it seems that as long as Jamie Dimon is making money for JPMorgan, he can get away with basically anything.”
Profit will out, whether in Wall Street boardrooms or in the ashes of a south Asian sweatshop. All of which makes for ever wealthier plutocrats, consumers kept content with cheap goods, and if we do nothing about it, lousy citizens.