Liza Featherstone

Voting for Hillary Because of Her Gender Doesn't Make You a Good Feminist - Bernie's Record Is Better

The following is an excerpt from the new book False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone (Verso, 2016): 

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McDuped: Why Fast Food Chains Are Inhumane

Around the United States, fast food workers have been striking and picketing, demanding a raise from $7.25 to $15 an hour, and the right to organise a union.

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Labor Head Andy Stern Has Some Unusual Corporate Bedfellows

When Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Lee Scott, CEO of Wal-Mart, appeared onstage together in early May, the pairing drew attention. The occasion was a lunchtime meeting of Better Health Care Together, a coalition of business, labor and political leaders, at a Hilton hotel in New York City. Stern had initiated the coalition with a letter to all the Fortune 500 CEOs inviting them to work with him on a solution to the nation's healthcare crisis. He says he was surprised that Wal-Mart -- and so many other companies -- responded. "When I write letters to CEOs," he explains matter-of-factly, "I usually don't get a response."

Outside the Hilton, several hundred men and women wearing United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) T-shirts, some of whom had come all the way from Maine and Pennsylvania, picketed the event, objecting to the "hypocrisy" of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott's appearance. Scott is accustomed to dodging protesters; his company has been engaged in a bitter public relations battle with the UFCW for years, with the union charging that Wal-Mart routinely violates the right to organize and offers stingy health benefits.

But the Wal-Mart boss wasn't the only target of righteous ire that day. The union activists were also upset about the presence of Andy Stern. "People feel he has sacrificed some of the basic principles of the labor movement" by appearing onstage with the Wal-Mart CEO, said Pat Purcell, an organizer of the Hilton picket. One of those principles is solidarity. "Our union is losing members every single day because of Wal-Mart," explains Purcell, director of special projects for UFCW Local 1500. "When we ask for help from other unions, we don't mean, You can have lunch with them but not dinner!" Though Purcell says he has "great respect" for Stern, he and other unionists feel that Stern enabled a public relations stunt by Wal-Mart, aimed at making the company look socially responsible.

Inside the Hilton, Stern was more popular. Over a dry repast of chicken, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell hailed Andy Stern and Lee Scott as "the odd couple of healthcare." Stern beamed when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who spoke by satellite, thanked him for his "great leadership."

To be fair, this moment aside, Stern's relationship with Wal-Mart is hardly chummy. SEIU continues to fund Wal-Mart Watch, an organization dedicated to relentless criticism of the retailer's practices, and this year the union will allocate more funding than ever to such efforts. In March Stern gave a speech at a Bank of America gathering blasting Wal-Mart for undermining "fair competition" and adopting practices that were "bad for business overall."

But many in the labor movement view Stern's overtures to Scott as typical manifestations of his business-friendly unionism, more focused on partnering with employers than on joining other progressives in a struggle against corporate power. Stern's 2006 book, A Country That Works, is full of statements like "employees and employers need organizations that solve problems, not create them" and "all parties want a mutually beneficial relationship based on teamwork." (Sometimes the business-speak in this book reaches comic proportions; at one point Stern praises civil rights icon Jackie Robinson as "a change agent who endured indignities as a pathbreaker.") Stern has unsettled many of his staff by publicly suggesting that he might not be against Social Security privatization or school vouchers (one organizer in the Midwest probably speaks for nearly everyone in SEIU in calling such statements "a bunch of horseshit ... in fact we are against those things"). Paul Krehbiel, an organizer who until recently worked for SEIU Local 660 in Southern California, points out that Stern briefly attended the Wharton business school before becoming a social worker: "Andy's just doing what he started out doing. He loves the business community!" Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (which competes with SEIU to organize nurses), bluntly calls Stern "the neocon of the labor movement."

Many progressives would be startled by DeMoro's characterization of Andy Stern. His union is the employer of choice for many idealistic college graduates. That's only in part because the membership of SEIU -- African-Americans and immigrants toiling in underpaid jobs -- inspires a natural solidarity from the left. It's also because Stern's personal style is agreeable to middle-class progressives. The 1960s-generation, University of Pennsylvania-educated former social worker is reflective and contemporary, not macho or swaggering like many old-school union leaders. He's also willing to try new things, and like many of his generation harbors a profound contempt for stagnant bureaucracy. These attitudes can be refreshing in a labor leader. Even photo ops with Scott can be attributed to this aspect of his temperament: When Stern is asked about his perceived coziness with business, he is quick to insist that he is pragmatic, often using phrases like "it's not academic" or "these are real-life choices" to suggest that critics are ideologues or pie-in-the-sky idealists.

Stern is also an internationalist. He's assigned SEIU staff to Australia, Poland, England, India, France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and South America, with an eye to running global campaigns pressuring multinational employers. As Stern explains in his book, "Imagine simultaneous protests on service contractors' global clients, or outsourcing strikes to countries where strikes are legal and will not provoke government retaliation." When SEIU was having trouble organizing American security guards employed by the Swedish firm Securitas, it sought help from the Swedish Transport Workers Union, which had a good relationship with the company. Securitas agreed to drop its opposition to the union drive.

More controversially, Stern has formed relationships with the Chinese state union, which has been been criticized for helping the government suppress workers' rights. Stern, who played a key role in forcing Wal-Mart to allow the union into its Chinese stores, believes that a cold-war approach to China is obsolete. When I interviewed him, he had just returned from his sixth trip to China. "Our members and their members work for the same employers," he explained. "I just think workers' solidarity has a lot more possibilities when you're not dealing with ideology."

Another reason to cheer for Stern is that in a time of dismally declining union density, SEIU under his leadership has added members and seen some victories, improving the lives of home health aides, janitors and security guards, some of the country's most exploited workers. In May, for example, 4,000 Los Angeles security guards joined SEIU as part of a nationwide campaign to raise standards in that industry. Ruth Milkman, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, has called SEIU a "model of dynamic unionism," pointing out that "no other union has been more effective in organizing the unorganized in recent years."

But many observers wonder what Stern's new federation, Change to Win (CTW) -- founded with great fanfare when he led six other unions in a split from the AFL-CIO in September 2005 -- has thus far accomplished. ("Press releases," grumbles one internal skeptic. "Where is it headed? is something a lot of people here are asking.") Milkman, who championed the formation of CTW in articles, op-eds and scholarly work, calls it "a bit early to assess this" but agrees that "it is fair to say that, to date, there is not much to point to in the way of concrete organizing victories that were the work of Change to Win itself."

Within SEIU most people agree that Stern has been quite successful in implementing what is often referred to by his union's foot soldiers as "the program": building density in the union's three industries, building services -- the public sector and (most of all) healthcare. During his tenure, the union has grown by 980,000 workers (some of that growth has come about through mergers, but the "vast majority," according to SEIU communications director Steve Trossman, are newly organized members).

Stern believes that unions are losing political power -- and bargaining power -- because they represent a declining share of the population (at present, 12 percent of the workforce and 7 percent of private-sector workers). More controversially, he believes the only way to reverse this sorry state of affairs is to sign up more members by just about any means necessary. Many within SEIU worry that this near-exclusive focus on growth is hampering the union's ability to serve its existing members; they observe that with more resources directed to organizing, and more emphasis on consolidating small locals into larger organizations, it's becoming harder for workers to find their union rep or file a simple grievance. If union members don't feel the union is serving them, organizers say, they begin to ask why they are paying dues. Former SEIU organizer Krehbiel points out that in Stern's "200 page book, if there was half a page about current dues-paying members, that was quite a bit." Stern acknowledges the problem, but says, "You can't be islands of strength in a nonunion sea. ... The history of the labor movement is that we polish the pearls we have rather than trying to extend what we have to other people."

Stern is also coming under fire within the labor movement for, as CNA's De Moro puts it, "organizing corporations, not workers." Perhaps because Stern's views on these issues are so public, he's come to personify an increasingly common phenomenon in unions: a "partnership" approach to employers. Often, this means that companies agree to recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards ("card check") in return for concessions from the union that will help boost company profits.

Many organizers -- inside and outside SEIU -- say that workers signed up for union membership in this manner aren't as committed to the union as those who have won membership themselves, through a fight in which they were personally engaged. This matters especially when the "partnership" sours and the union faces a decertification campaign. Krehbiel acknowledges that workers signed up for SEIU in this way are "better off" than they would be without the union. But, using a metaphor evoked by several other people interviewed for this article, he said of Stern's emphasis on density, "He's building this huge shell, hoping the size will somehow carry us."

To many others, the idea of post-class-conflict partnership obviates a union's most basic purpose: to defend workers' interests. To DeMoro, Stern's view of a union's role amounts simply to supplying capital with workers -- and managing those workers. "To him, the union is just a human resources department," she says. "Or a temp agency." (DeMoro is an outspoken Stern critic. But committed SEIU staff members interviewed for this article -- mostly on the condition of anonymity -- shared most of her concerns. As if they were working for Wackenhut or Wal-Mart, some were even afraid to communicate using SEIU e-mail addresses or phones.)

But there's an even more controversial aspect to Stern's commitment to "partnerships." In his book, Stern writes that unions should "add value" to companies and assist "employers in overcoming unnecessary legislative and political obstacles to their success." These ideas have played out in recent contracts. Internal memos -- obtained by SF Weekly -- show that two large SEIU locals had made a deal with a group of California nursing homes, in which SEIU agreed that workers would not speak out publicly against abuse of patients, or health code violations, and would lobby for limiting patients' right to sue. (SEIU later backed out of its commitment to tort reform.) In exchange, the union could organize a certain number of nursing homes without interference. The SF Weekly story was based in part on an internal report from one of the largest locals involved in the deal, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW-West).

Such deals raise questions about how far unions should go in this vaunted pursuit of density. Many wonder if it is wise in the long run to act against progressive ideals in order to win new members. Working against patients' rights could, after all, alienate natural allies. Backroom moves like this also undermine the union's efforts to emphasize common interests among healthcare workers and patients. In June SEIU launched SEIU Healthcare, which will push for reforms like improved nursing staff-patient ratios and more training for nurses, changes that would be in the interest of members and would also, as SEIU's Steve Trossman is quick to point out, "improve the quality of care."

When I asked Andy Stern about the deal discussed in the UHW-West memo and the SF Weekly article, his response was strange and contradictory. He at once questioned whether SEIU had in fact made such a deal, claimed he wasn't familiar with the details and blamed the local. (Much of the criticism of the nursing home deals -- inside and outside SEIU -- has been directed personally toward Stern, and it is clear from some UHW internal documents that the local holds the international at least partly responsible.) Stern admitted that sacrificing principles for growth is a danger in partnership deals but pointed to the complexity of organizing in today's workplace: "Here's the question we face. Ninety percent of nursing home workers in this country live pretty much in poverty. Don't have unions. Don't have healthcare. All of our activities to date to solve that part of the problem have not worked. So every day, nursing home workers go to work and they're poor." To some organizing in the SEIU trenches, their boss's realism resonates -- to a point. "We've negotiated some really shitty contracts," says one staff member. "Sometimes you have no choice -- you just keep trying to build density and hope you build enough power to get a better deal next time." But even this veteran of labor realpolitik said he was surprised by the California contract: "The tort reform is bad!"

What's more, Stern's business-friendly orientation appears to influence his approach to national policy questions. More problematic than the photo-ops with Lee Scott, Stern's crusade for "healthcare reform" is vague ("not even an inch deep," according to one SEIU researcher). His support for any sort of change has been promiscuous: He's praised Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan and Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal in California, which have been criticized as giveaways to the insurance industry and don't adequately address affordability or cost issues. Asked if the Better Health Care Together Coalition has agreed on anything more than the fact that there is a problem, Stern says, "That's probably all we will agree on." Of a single-payer system, Stern said in a speech given at the Brookings Institution, "I think we need to find a new system that is not built on the back of the government. I am here to also say I don't think we need to import Canada or any other system." One SEIU staff member says sadly of such comments, Stern "doesn't hold social democracy in high regard."

Stern is not oblivious to the suffering caused by health insurance companies denying care -- a problem that none of the incremental plans he supports can address. But to him, the problem of insuring the uninsured is the paramount moral question: "It's a question of, How are we going to get everybody covered?" Then, Stern thinks, something more like a single-payer system will be more politically palatable: "Once we have everybody covered we're going to realize there are more efficient ways and less efficient ways. More costly and less costly ways to do it."

Stern's views on this are significant because several other major labor unions and other progressive groups -- buoyed by Michael Moore's new movie -- have been campaigning to pass single-payer healthcare in California. SB 840, written by State Senator Sheila Kuehl, passed the State Senate, 23 to 15, in early June and is headed to the Assembly. Given the tremendous public interest in and the widespread frustration with the current system, many activists think we have the best opportunity in years for comprehensive reform. Stern's lack of enthusiasm for single-payer healthcare is one of the main reasons the California Nurses Association, a longtime independent union, joined the AFL-CIO this year when that federation agreed to support single-payer. Explaining why it is so important that unions work toward this goal, CNA's DeMoro, whose union is leading the California fight, explains, "There has never [in any country] been a single-payer healthcare system without the labor movement."

To the CNA, Stern's refusal to put his political weight behind single-payer is unconscionable. "The single biggest obstacle to single-payer healthcare in this country," says Michael Lighty, CNA's policy director, "is Andy Stern." I laugh at this, thinking of a few others (the insurance industry and American individualist, anti-government ideology, to name a couple). But DeMoro clarifies her colleague's point with an analysis of the current fight in California: Stern "is the biggest obstacle to moving the Dems, because he gives them cover to do nothing."

However, when asked about single-payer, Stern insists he's not against it: "We supported Howard Dean, and he was for single-payer." (In fact, when Dean ran for President, he said he would not propose such a system, because it wouldn't pass Congress. He also said, "I do not believe in free healthcare or free anything. ... If you want to totally reform the healthcare system, I'm not your guy.") More significant, Stern claims that in California SEIU has been lobbying for Sheila Kuehl's bill and expects to support some version of the governor's as well. Indeed, besides the CNA, he boasts, SEIU is "probably the leading supporter" of the single-payer bill. Those involved in pushing for that bill in Sacramento were, to put it mildly, surprised by this contention (reactions ranged from "outrageous" to "bullshit -- absolutely not!"). SEIU has turned out members to some hearings in support of the bill but has not otherwise been active in the fight. Yet Stern's statement is, in a Clintonian way, true: SEIU has formally endorsed SB 840 and is one of the largest organizations to do so.

Nationally, Stern says, SEIU is supporting a single-payer "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All" bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, in addition to several other healthcare proposals moving through Congress. Defending his strategy of lobbying for multiple, often conflicting, reforms, Stern is (almost) self-deprecating: "People at the Brookings Institution joke, Next month we're going to have four different proposals about universal healthcare and Andy Stern's going to be supporting all four." To justify his support of tepid reforms, Stern tells me several heartbreaking stories about people he has met who have no healthcare, including a man in Minnesota who sat with his wife at the kitchen table and decided which of their kids was least likely to get sick, since they couldn't afford to insure all of them. Of the Massachusetts plan, Stern argues, "People are working now, through a political process, particularly now that we have a new governor there, to make it better. Most states have nothing to make better. Is it better to be in Massachusetts with someone trying to make it better, or waiting for California to pass single-payer? I don't know." He adds defensively, "We are not going to let the perfect become the enemy of the good on this issue."

Within SEIU, the rumor mill hums with speculation that Andy Stern has ambitions beyond the union. Certainly, some of his rhetoric and triangulation make him sound like a politician, but Stern denies any plans to step down from SEIU or seek public office.

Labor dissidents can denounce him as a sellout, and of course some will. But they could also read Andy Stern as a sign of the times. When Stern makes compromises that cause fellow progressives and unionists to cringe, it's because he doesn't think there are other ways for the labor movement to grow. He speaks of unions "adding value" to corporate enterprises and crusades for dubious, middle-of-the-road reforms because he doesn't think there is any other language, or any other ideas, that will resonate with Washington policy-makers. An effective grassroots movement for social democracy could change that. The rumblings of discontent within SEIU -- and the growing movement for real healthcare reform in California -- may be hopeful signs. Stern is a close reader of the zeitgeist. As Rose Ann DeMoro says, "If he sees the tide is turning, he'll change."

Workers of the World Unite Against Starbucks

Last week Starbucks faced legal and political trouble from its own workers. On the third anniversary of the founding of the IWW Starbucks Union, baristas in Chicago marched into a shop and told the manager they were signing up. (Starbucks workers have chosen to organize without government-mediated elections, through an interesting model called "solidarity unionism.")

Meanwhile, baristas in Grand Rapids, Michigan announced that they were filing a legal complaint against the company for violating their organizing rights through unlawful surveillance and other questionable tactics. All over the world -- Austria, England, Spain and Australia, as well as the United States -- Starbucks workers demonstrated in front of stores to protest the company's union-busting practices.

When you pay $4 for a cup of coffee-flavored foamy milk at Starbucks, part of what you're buying is an illusion of corporate social responsibility. The store exudes a warm glow of righteousness, from the recycled paper napkins to the empathetic messages about sustainable trade and ecological practices (Our farmers are happy! Buy a better lightbulb! Have some more foamy milk!).

The workers behind the counter are hoping the public will look beyond all the greenwashing and support their campaign, which has succeeded in raising wages and improving conditions for some workers.

The baristas are asking for better wages (some make as little as $8.75 an hour even in costly Manhattan), guaranteed hours with the option to work full-time and more affordable health insurance. (Despite widely-believed corporate spin to the contrary, Starbucks insures a smaller percentage of its workforce than Wal-Mart.)

In New York, the National Labor Relations Board (that bastion of radical left-wingers) has accusedStarbucks of violating workers' freedom of association in about thirty different ways, including illegally firing, threatening and disciplining workers for supporting the union. Managers forbade workers from talking about the union -- even when off-duty -- or wearing union buttons. The trial is in June. I'll be attending, and covering it, so stay tuned.

Is Wal-Mart Big Green or Big Mean?

A laughing baby is covered in baby food. He's making a gushy mess, as babies do, but having a grand time. A magic word reassures us -- before we've had a chance to worry -- that the food itself is wholesome. That word, of course, is "organic." More surprising, to many viewers of this advertisement, will be the origin of this virtuous feast: Wal-Mart.

This summer, the mega-retailer launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with an irresistible promise: "Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart price." The commercial, which cannily plays to mothers' worries about how pesticides and additives may affect their children's health, has run on network and cable TV; a print version will appear in Parenting, Real Simple, Self and Cooking Light. Already one of the nation's leading organics vendors, Wal-Mart announced this past spring its intention to enter the market far more aggressively, to double its inventory and eventually offer organics at only 10 percent above the price of conventional food.

Food bearing the government's organic label can be, for low- and middle-income shoppers, prohibitively expensive. That's why, to many observers, an "organic Wal-Mart" represents the democratization of healthier -- and better-tasting -- food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart's move, which will "turn hundreds of thousands of acres" now being farmed conventionally to organic. "Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth," he says.

Scowcroft also points to research by the Swiss government showing that organic farming can reduce global warming -- actually drawing nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere. Like the retailer's push for fuel-efficient trucking, Wal-Mart's entry into the organic sector could turn out to be another example of how one decision by this company -- however market-driven -- might do tremendous good, simply because of its scale.

But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart's move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry. To advocates of local economies, like Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and co-chair of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, an organic Wal-Mart could do "more harm than good" because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry. For example, she cites Wal-Mart's likely impact on many small farmers. In other industries Wal-Mart's aggressive competition has proved devastating to small producers, from TV manufacturers to conventional pork farmers.

Though Wal-Mart, like Whole Foods, has agreed to source some products locally, most family-scale organic farmers will not supply big-box retailers directly. But many farmers will nonetheless struggle to meet Wal-Mart's price, in order to supply competing retailers or simply hang on to customers. "Every farmer has to compete because Wal-Mart is in every market," explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive research group that advocates for small farmers. "From an economic justice standpoint," he adds, Wal-Mart's plan to go more aggressively organic is "a disaster" because it could prove ruinous for so many family farms.

Some of the concern over small farmers may be sentimental, a remnant of our national identity as a land of Jeffersonian citizen-yeomen. And some detect, in the progressive reaction to Wal-Mart's organic ambitions, a whiff of countercultural cliqueishness. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, which supplies organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, is a former hippie who lived on an organic solar- and wind-powered farm in the 1960s and '70s. He dismisses Wal-Mart critics in the organic movement as "activists who don't want to think of organic as a segment. They think of it as a lifestyle." To Hirshberg, organic Wal-Mart is a sign of the movement's success, and those who don't like it are elitist purists, dedicated to their own marginality.

But there are unsentimental reasons to root for small farmers in this drama. They are important to a progressive vision, partly because they are more likely to be farming organic out of principle than a large corporation is and thus more inclined not to cut corners and compromise standards. People who live on their farms with their families also have a compelling incentive to treat the land better.

Regina Beidler is a Mennonite who lives with her dairy-farmer husband, Brent, and 8-year-old daughter, Erin, on 145 acres with forty cows in Randolph Center, Vermont. Because the Beidlers farm organically -- which as defined by the Department of Agriculture means no pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers -- Erin roams the farm freely (her job is to push the button on the grain elevator). "It's reassuring to know she isn't being exposed to those [toxic] substances," says her mother. "It's much more child-friendly."

Perhaps even more convincingly, as groups like the Organic Consumers Association point out, transporting food long distances is a staggering waste of energy and contributes to global warming. According to research by Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, our food typically travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to reach our plate, 25 percent farther than in 1980. By the time we sit down to eat it, a meal from a conventional grocery store has used four to seventeen times more petroleum than a meal made from local ingredients.

While Wal-Mart officials have expressed concern about the "food miles" issue, industry observers predict that most of Wal-Mart's produce will travel significant distances -- Chile, Kenya and China are some of the likeliest low-cost sources, according to Mary Hendrickson, director of the University of Missouri's Food Circles Networking Project -- raising confusing questions about whether organic Wal-Mart will, on balance, hurt or help the planet. (Just to confuse the environmental issue still more, Bob Scowcroft points out that converting all those acres in China will clean up a lot of groundwater there, which is obviously good for the Chinese.)

Most small organic farmers interviewed for this article believed that in organics, as in many other sectors, Wal-Mart's low prices would, ultimately, mean lower standards. Stonyfield Farm's Hirshberg, who has had many discussions with Wal-Mart officials about the company's commitment to organics, says Wal-Mart does not plan to lower its price by lowering standards; rather, he says, Wal-Mart is committed to delivering the savings through efficiencies within its own system. But Wal-Mart's behavior as a major player in the organic dairy industry has already suggested otherwise. It has also provided a window on how the company will treat small organic farmers: just fine, until they can no longer provide the lowest possible price.

When Wal-Mart began selling organic milk, one of its first suppliers was Organic Valley, a cooperative of small farmers committed to organic principles. Organic Valley farmers, including Regina Beidler, were proud to be reaching Wal-Mart's customers, people like themselves who were struggling to make ends meet. But Organic Valley faced a milk shortage, so when the co-op found itself outpriced by a competitor, Horizon, which is owned by Dean Foods, the farmers decided not to engage in a price war to stay on the Wal-Mart shelf but to continue supplying the smaller food stores that had long formed the backbone of their customer base. "We didn't want to make compromises," says Organic Valley CEO and farmer George Siemon, meaning that the farmers needed to get a fair price while maintaining their product's integrity.

Horizon, which controls 55 percent of the organic dairy market, meets Wal-Mart's low price in part by providing appalling conditions for its cows. The Cornucopia Institute's Mark Kastel, first reached for this article as he was standing on Horizon's 4,000-cow Idaho feedlot, says the cows were "standing in 90-degree heat. No shade, no water. These animals are living very short lives." (To be considered "organic," animals -- whether they are raised for meat, milk or eggs -- must be given some access to the outdoors. It is an irony of the bureaucracy and inequity surrounding federal certification that by following the letter if not the spirit of such regulations -- that is, for some of their lives Horizon's cows are outside, even if they have no room to move around -- Horizon can call its milk organic, while many small farmers, whose cows roam freely and munch on grass, cannot; in many cases the farmers can't afford the expense of the certification process, or are put off by the paperwork.)

The Organic Consumers Association has urged shoppers to boycott Horizon. As savvy consumers learn that sometimes the organic label tells an incomplete story, Organic Valley stands to benefit. "Organic Valley has long been built on the idea that family farming is a better way to give care to animals and the land," Siemon says diplomatically. "Consumers have a hard time believing that large factory farms are really organic."

To be sure, some family-scale organic farmers are benefiting from Wal-Mart's entry into the industry. Horizon buys at least half its milk from hundreds of small-scale farmers, as even a dogged critic like Kastel, author of a report called "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk," acknowledges. And while Organic Valley isn't supplying Wal-Mart directly anymore, some Organic Valley milk does end up, much transformed, in the Wal-Mart customer's shopping cart: Stonyfield Farm buys milk from the cooperative to make organic yogurt. Says Stonyfield's Hirshberg: "If you're serious and sincere about family farms, then your ultimate goal is to be in Wal-Mart, to be where food is sold."

Still, the Horizon/Wal-Mart alliance is potentially ominous for family-scale dairy farmers, because, as Kastel points out, "there's a shortage today, but a year from now," as producers rush to meet the demands of big retailers like Wal-Mart, "you could have a surplus." A milk surplus could erode the organic premium and drive many small organic dairy farmers into bankruptcy, just as it has wiped out many of their conventional neighbors. Organic farmers, especially in the Northeast, are already in a precarious situation because of high fuel, grain and transportation costs.

Travis Forgues, a second-generation farmer in Alburg, Vermont, the state's farthest-northwest town, milks eighty grass-fed cows. A 33-year-old father of three young children, he speaks for many small farmers when he says, "If we didn't have the organic market, my dad and I would have been out of here long ago." On the danger of a surplus fueled by demand from Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, Forgues says, "Anyone who's not worried about what's going to happen is crazy."

With Wal-Mart on the scene, the strength of alternative and local economic institutions will determine whether small farmers like Forgues survive. With 871 farmers and growing, Organic Valley, the largest organic farmers' cooperative in the country, is still going strong even without Wal-Mart's business, maintaining farmer control while still distributing on an impressive scale. (In the grocery store on my corner in New York City, which is not a natural-food store or a food co-op, Organic Valley milk is sold right next to Horizon, and that's the case in stores all over the country.)

Farmers agree that the co-op model is critical, helping them maintain some power in an increasingly concentrated market. "The farmer has to be in the driver's seat," says Forgues. Because of the organic milk shortage and the Organic Valley cooperative, he continues to get a fair price and has survived a difficult season far more easily than most of his farmer neighbors. Of Wal-Mart, he says, "We're not going to cut our price so we can get onto that shelf. We have to make sure farmers don't get removed from the process, as happened in the conventional food market."

In a nod to the savvy consumer's growing interest in nearby food, Organic Valley is in the process of regionalizing many of its operations, so that even though farmers in twenty-three states belong to the co-op, customers in New England buying Organic Valley milk will be, increasingly, buying from New England farmers. Farmers' markets, which are growing in popularity, will also be critical institutions in the organic Wal-Mart era.

Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who tends 400 certified-organic acres with his brother, sells to a local cheesemaker (as well as directly to customers through mail order) but also relies on the weekly farmers' market in Madison, where he sells beef. He doesn't think Wal-Mart is going to affect his business. "People who come to the farmers' market are shopping there because they want to deal directly with the farmer," he says. "They want to meet the person who raised it, put it in their hand. When they get home they can say, 'This came from Mike, this came from Jim.' When you're sitting down to dinner that makes so much difference. I'd be surprised if they would go to Wal-Mart just because it's cheaper."

For local food to become more than a niche market and begin to transform our relationship to the environment, however, energy is going to have to be a lot more expensive. For the majority of Americans to have the incentive to buy local, the cost of food transport would have to reflect its true environmental costs. Many local food advocates speak -- half with alarm, half wishfully -- of "peak oil," the notion that we are running out of oil and will soon be forced to grow our own food and cooperate with our neighbors. That neo-primitivist scenario, if it ever comes to pass, is not going to arrive nearly quickly enough to substitute for the necessary work of persuading Americans to change our lifestyles, and advocating policies that conserve energy.

"Consumers have to be more educated," says Goodman. He thinks it's important to tell people why the prices are higher: Organic is not overpriced; rather, conventional food is cheap because its costs are passed along to the environment, small farmers and the health of those who eat it. "If people can't afford to buy organic," he says, "it's because they are not paid enough in their jobs, and don't have health insurance."

That, Goodman insists, should be part of a broader economic justice agenda: A living wage should allow a person to buy responsibly grown, healthy food for her family. "With organic food," he explains, "there's no hidden cost." It's also true that at farmers' markets and roadside stands, organic food is often cheaper than in stores, because there's no profiteering middleman.

Taking their case to the shopper, Organic Valley farmers like Travis Forgues have been traveling the country on speaking tours. The Organic Consumers Association is working to create a domestic fair-trade group, whose label would assure the consumer that food was produced in a way that was environmentally and socially responsible -- giving an edge to smaller, more conscientious producers over Dean Foods. With the goal, too, of making local organic produce affordable to the poorest Wal-Mart shoppers -- those who will probably never be able to afford a meal at the White Dog Cafe, which runs around $50 -- the OCA is also working to broaden a program making it easier for farmers' markets to accept food stamps.

Many organic farmers are social activists and idealists who care about the environment, animal rights and economic justice. But many are also entrepreneurial -- and that's how they will survive the new era of big-box organic. The challenge Wal-Mart poses, says Bob Scowcroft, is "to get consumers who discover organics at the Wal-Mart to get out of their car and to the farmers' market."

Is Wal-Mart Really Going Green?

It was easy for Wal-Mart's critics to laugh this past spring when CEO Lee Scott proudly announced that he drove a Lexus hybrid. For Scott to expect praise for his consumer choices given the abysmal record of his massive company -- which has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act while contributing to sprawl, air pollution, and a host of other serious problems -- seemed to insult public intelligence. It also seemed a strange maneuver for a man heading a company known for shunning environmental concerns. Indeed, in Robert Greenwald's new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, one veteran activist says she has never encountered a company as unresponsive as Wal-Mart.

But since then, Scott's green inclinations seem to have grown. In late October, he unveiled plans to hold Wal-Mart's suppliers to higher environmental standards and to begin selling clothing made from organic cotton. Just four days later, in a speech to employees, he outlined his goals for being a "good steward" to the environment. Scott plans to increase fuel efficiency in the company's truck fleet -- one of the largest in the world -- by 25 percent over the next three years, and to double fuel efficiency over the next decade from 6.5 to 13 miles per gallon. He promised to cut energy use at new stores by 30 percent and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions at the more than 5,000 existing stores, warehouse clubs, and distribution centers by 20 percent over the next eight years. He also said the company would offer cheaper health insurance to its employees, and called upon the government to raise the minimum wage.

Baby Steps or a Sea Change?

How meaningful are Scott's plans? Are they simply attempts to divert attention from concerns about Wal-Mart's notoriously shoddy treatment of its workers? The mixed reaction from progressive activists reveals no easy answers.

The new proposals are, by Scott's own admission, a response to increasing public pressure on both social and environmental issues. Reactions from activists have varied, reflecting divergent analyses of the company and differing opinions of how best to approach it. Without exception, they fault the plan for vagueness, and for including no intention of public reporting. But some advocates are cautiously hopeful.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club -- which has, as he puts it, "frequently crossed swords" with the company in community battles -- said Scott's speech was "environmentally important and substantive, but it did not address some of the environmental problems with their business model."

Despite concerns about the company's use of "cheap land" and encouragement of sprawl, some critics still see Wal-Mart's size and market power as a potential plus. "Wal-Mart ought to be using its competitive advantage to raise standards," Pope says, and others agree. "Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the world," says Gwen Ruta, director of corporate partnerships for Environmental Defense, which has been in talks with Wal-Mart about these issues. "I'd like to see them flex their purchasing muscle. If you can make a change in Wal-Mart, even if it's a small change, it's really a big change, especially if it affects the supply chain." (Wal-Mart has thousands of suppliers, and many manufacturers say its dominance is so complete that it would be impossible to stay afloat without doing business with the company.)

From the point of view of Pope, Ruta, and others, the proper response to Wal-Mart's proposals is to see that the company actually lives up to them. Some will do that by continuing to fight community battles or assisting with public education efforts, while others will work more closely with Wal-Mart, hoping to influence company officials. Says Pope, "We have to acknowledge [Scott's plan]. We have been very careful not to call it green-scamming. It's more like, when your kid is making progress going to bed, you acknowledge the progress, but you still have to make sure they get all the way to bed."

Pope is also on the board of Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition that began with seed money from the Service Employees International Union. He says he sees connections between Wal-Mart's abuse of the environment and of its workforce: both reflect the company's fanatical obsession with keeping costs low. This connection is often made by activists at the community level, where environmental groups tend to work closely with labor and other social-justice groups, but such alliances have been slower to emerge among national groups. However, Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch says the contingents have been talking to each other far more this year, as a result of national visibility and momentum on Wal-Mart-related issues.

Down With Love

Many environmental leaders acknowledge that they have put less pressure on the company than social-justice activists have. And perhaps the most intriguing fallout from Scott's announcement is its dismissal by labor advocates, who have managed to keep Wal-Mart's offenses against workers in the news on an almost-daily basis. Rather than claiming credit for the initiatives and praising Wal-Mart for taking action on a matter of pressing public interest, Chris Kofinis of Wake Up Wal-Mart -- a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers -- calls the new plan a "publicity stunt."

To Sefl, dismissing the environmental overtures is politically "short-sighted. Just to say it is bad, bad, without consulting our environmental friends would make us sound like blowhards."

Plenty of environmentalists also consider Scott's announcement a sham, however, and find it difficult to imagine a truly green Wal-Mart. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who is working on a book on big-box stores, views Wal-Mart's size not as an opportunity, but as a critical part of the problem. To her, the company's new initiatives "miss the bigger picture. What is truly sustainable is local sourcing. Of course we will always have trade, but sourcing locally cuts down dramatically on fuel and energy use." She says local businesses are more politically accountable to communities and more invested in them; when you live and work among people, you may be less likely to dump toxins in their water.

And for Wal-Mart to promise more fuel efficiency while it continues to expand its operations, Mitchell says, "is like the person who buys a car that is 25 percent more fuel efficient, then drives it twice as much, and expects us to applaud." Mitchell thinks environmentalists should oppose Wal-Mart's growth. After all, the more stores Wal-Mart builds, "the more we have to drive -- that is the biggest piece of the company's environmental impact," she says. "The best thing for the environment would be if Wal-Mart stopped building stores." The very week of Scott's speech on the environment, the company announced plans to add more than 60 million square feet of retail space.

Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, is equally skeptical of Scott's newfound environmentalism. "It is a distraction, because the real environmental impact comes from what Wal-Mart sells: cheap commodities that are designed to wear out quickly," she says.

Indeed, Bureau of Labor Statistics economist Patrick Jackman, who has extensively studied Wal-Mart's prices, believes much of the savings consumers derive by shopping there may be offset by the poor quality of the goods. This disposability, Rogers points out, has a "double impact" on the environment: more raw materials must be extracted to replace the defunct products, while at the same time the discarded items are sent to polluting landfills.

Environmentalists' disagreements on Wal-Mart offer a window on progressive confusion about the retailer: Is Wal-Mart a purely rotten model, or merely missing opportunities to be a force for positive change? Asked about the larger concerns that Mitchell and Rogers raise -- worries that can't be easily allayed by fuel-efficient trucks or organic cotton T-shirts -- Ruta is philosophical. "The fact is, Wal-Mart exists," she says. "We might as well try and make it better."

On the Wal-Mart Money Trail

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051121/featherstone

The Ten Worst Jobs in America

For a rich country, the United States has a lot of abysmal jobs, so any list of this kind will necessarily omit some true horrors. Still, there's no doubt these are 10 of the very worst (in no particular order).

Poultry processor These folks quit their jobs five times as often as other workers, and it's not hard to see why. This job boasts an impressive "ick" factor -- you can imagine how gross these plants smell. The workers -- two-thirds of whom are black women -- are surrounded all day by gizzards and offal. The pay is lower than any other job in the manufacturing industry, except apparel. It would be tough to decide which was the worst task in a poultry plant -- would you rather be crapped on and scratched by live birds; slaughter and behead them; or pull their guts out? The work is repetitive, with relentless pressure for profit-maximizing efficiency. Bathroom breaks are discouraged and often punished. Because of the brutal pace and casual safety training (portrayed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal investigation of the industry) one in four poultry workers are injured or made ill by their jobs. Cuts from the equipment -- knives and scissors -- are common, as is carpal tunnel syndrome. Many poultry plant workers live in trailers on the premises, paying their rent through pay deductions. Alarmingly, this has been one of the fastest growing factory jobs in recent years.

Sewing machine operator There's no offal on the factory floor, but the upsides to this job end there. Garment workers' wages are even lower than those of poultry workers. They also face a constant threat of unemployment; because of unregulated overseas competition, apparel is expected to lose 245,000 jobs by 2012, probably more than any other industry. Sewing areas are the noisiest parts of the factory, and operators must sit for long periods leaning over machines and work under intense time pressure; repetitive stress injury is common. Their average wage is about $7.72 an hour; of course, in illegal "underground" shops, even lower -- or unpaid -- wages are common. Only 8 percent of U.S. garment workers are covered by a union contract; even those who are union members have found it almost impossible to bargain for better wages and conditions in recent years, because of global economic pressures. Most people doing this job are women, and in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, most are immigrants. There are about 140,000 sewing machine operators in the U.S. garment industry today.

Farm laborer Waking up early and planting things -- it sounds like the bucolic, Jeffersonian dream, but more often than not, it's a nightmare. Farm workers are among the poorest in the United States; not only are their wages low, they must also endure the instability of seasonal work, and usually receive no benefits. They're excluded from many of the legal rights and protections other workers enjoy: farm employers are not obligated to pay overtime, and many don't even have to pay minimum wage. Some small farmers are even exempt from many occupational health and safety laws, and in any case, throughout the industry, enforcement of such laws is weak. Hundreds of farm workers are killed on the job every year, and tens of thousands injured. They must work around toxic pesticides, with horrifying long-term effects on their health: poisoning, cancer, and, when pregnant women are exposed, birth defects. In a given week, around 793,000 people rely on hired farm work as their primary source of income.


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