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Deathtraps Have Got to Go: Chicago Day of Action

Labor activists attempted to deliver a message to the GAP that, in case they didn’t know, the pressure is on.

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Inside the GAP outlet at the corner of State and Washington Street in Chicago, the song “Heart Skips a Beat,” by English pop icon Olly Murs, provided surreal background music as a coalition of labor rights allies attempted to deliver a letter to the store manager. The song is featured on Murs’ second studio album, In Case You Didn’t Know. As part of the International Day of Action to End Deathtraps, Chi-town labor rights activists attempted to deliver a message to the GAP that, in case the company didn’t know, the pressure is on.

“We’re really here to lend our support, show solidarity and do our part to put pressure on the GAP and Wal-Mart,” said Martin Macias, president of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), in reference to the show of support for workers in Bangladesh who have suffered disproportionately due to profit maximization strategies of companies like GAP.

Macias, 24, majors in urban planning. He hosted a news program on WRTE community radio in Chicago, which was sort of a politicizing experience for him. He views his work with USAS and his role in broader social movement unionism as a natural progression.

He assumed the role of principal organizer for the June 29 Chicago GAP action. Help came from Chicago Jobs and Justice, Workers United, United Steelworkers, the faith and labor action group Arise, as well as other labor allies. They all assisted in putting together another action outside the GAP store on Chicago’s North Side and one at Wal-Mart on the South West Side. The global day of action specifically targeted the two multinationals for concrete reasons.

Although dozens of other companies have signed onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh that would ensure certain safety standards be met in workplaces, the GAP and Wal-Mart are holding out, offering an alternative proposal that worker rights groups see as suspect.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) estimates more than 1,800 workers have been killed in preventable factory accidents in Bangladesh in the last eight years. The (in)action from companies like Wal-Mart and the GAP and the direct action in Chicago comes after more than 1,100 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh just a few months ago – the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of manufacturing facilities.

“What we’ve seen since the factory collapse is that over 60 companies have signed on with that agreement,” Macias said, emphasizing that the Accord was democratically constructed with input from workers and that it outlines a way to make factories safe.

In contrast, activists consider the alternative proposal put forth problematic.

The problem with the substitute offer is that “the money they’re proposing to put in is not enough to cover the 200-plus unsafe factories that they alone between themselves source from,” Macias said. “And it’s not an agreement with workers.”

No strangers to struggle, after several months of dialogue and debate, Macias and the UIC Students Against Sweatshops successfully pressured their university to begin carrying apparel by Alta Gracia, a company committed to paying workers who make the clothing a living wage. The students also support the Sweat-free Communities Campaign launched by Chicago Fair Trade.

Putting living wages, labor issues and elements of economic democracy at the forefront of their praxis, the Chicago chapter is part of the official United Students Against Sweatshops organization, and because of the official organizational structure, they do have formal leaders, like Macias. But in Chicago they do not practice top-down vertical power.

“We’re not a hierarchical organization,” Macias said. “It’s very horizontal.”

Those demonstrating suggest the GAP has yet to demonstrate the same appreciation for horizontal politics, economic justice or even a modicum of responsibility for complicity in deathtrap production.

A prominent protest chant reverberated down Chicago’s commercial thoroughfare that Saturday afternoon: “GAP, GAP you can’t hide. Because of you workers died.”

In between amplifying chants by way of megaphone and talking to passers-by about how GAP and Wal-Mart heretofore have regarded sacrifice of human lives as minor externalities, Macias further expounded upon the importance of the Fire and Building Safety Accord, juxtaposing it with the hollowness of the alternative proposals adduced.

He said the main issue with the purported alternative the mega-corporations put forth is that it effectively undermines worker rights while affording pretenses of corporate accountability. The alternate agreement – which is less an agreement and more like a unilateral decree from concentrated capital, not unlike notorious free trade agreements (e.g., NAFTA, CAFTA) that have negated workers’ rights on a global scale – is basically unenforcable. And it does next-to-nothing to protect a fundamental facet of the internationally interwoven socio-economic fabric.

“I believe that workers’ rights are integral to society,” Macias said. He tends to think that the people who know best what such rights entail are the workers themselves. For that reason UIC Students Against Sweathshops are not only pushing the agreement made with the Bangladeshi workers, but also taking conceptions of solidarity one step further, solidifying social relations frequently severed by commodity exchange.

“We’re going to send a delegation to Bangladesh to actually meet with the workers,” he said, adding that it will be a good opportunity to facilitate dialogue. He hopes to foster reciprocal goals for worker self-determination, labor with dignity and basic social justice.

Similarly, Macias and fellow activists recognize retail workers in GAP and Wal-Mart stores across the US also work in exploitative conditions. UIC Students Against Sweatshops supports the Fight for 15 campaign demanding $15 an hour for Chicago retail workers along with the right to unionize without fear of repression.

While windfall corporate profits abound in an era in which the national CEO-to-worker-compensation ratio has increased to 272.9-to-1 last year, according to an Economic Policy Institute report, street protests and planned actions assume primary importance.

Chicago Jobs With Justice activist Ada Fuentes assumed a major role in the GAP action, taking turns with Macias rallying those who had assembled. She concurs that concealed and degraded as it is under corporate capitalism, human interconnectedness cannot be denied.

“We’re here to tell Wal-Mart and the GAP that the standards that they’re setting internationally affect what happens here in the United States as well because they don’t respect the workers internationally that make the clothes; they don’t respect the workers that work within their store chains [and] their supply chains,” she said. “We’re here to call them out and tell them that they need to sign on to the pact.”

Fuentes does not think too highly of the other options the GAP and Wal-Mart are pursuing. Nor does she think too highly of either company at present.

“It’s pretty clear they have no standards,” she said. Still, she thinks the attention that public actions generate educates consumers, informs associates in the stores and publicly embarrasses companies for perpetuating injustice.

“We cannot continue to let corporations do the shit that they’re doing around the world,” she told everyone over the megaphone.

A protest at the GAP shareholder meeting May 21 in San Francisco prompted CEO Glenn Murphy to suggest that his company is seeking “small changes” to the Fire and Building Safety Accord in order to sign.

Macias says he is aware of the institutional perspective that Murphy is coming from.

“On the very basic level, I understand his rhetoric,” Macias said. “What does that mean for me? To me, it means it’s BS. … It’s very much in their interest to have very little change. If GAP can keep their agreement and their structure under their terms, of course it’s going to benefit them.”

Putting profits over people is not only a policy prerogative, it is also an in-built systemic imperative.

“He has a responsibility, actually a legal obligation to his shareholders,” Macias reflected in relation to the GAP executive’s motives.

Academic dissident Noam Chomsky has described corporate entities like the GAP and Wal-Mart as “largely unaccountable private tyrannies,” and both Macias and Fuentes tend to agree.

But at the same time, they insist inhumane corporate practices and even undergirding political-economic circumstances are far from immutable.

“They need to be held accountable for what they’re doing,” Fuentes exclaimed with intimations of emphatic politica afectiva. “We are going to continue to hold them accountable. We are watching what they are doing.”

Not only are they watching but they are also attempting to play a pivotal role in serious social transformation, altering the market-based values inculcated in society by big-business practices.

Concerted cries encapsulated the emergent relational ethos in steadfast opposition to institutional avarice: “Hey GAP, step off it. Put people over profit.”

Ben Lorber, a Warehouse Workers for Justice activist, echoed similar sentiments based on his own personal experience working in a Wal-Mart warehouse outside of Chicago where the working conditions were near-intolerable due, ostensibly, to the company’s profit-based cost-cutting measures. Likewise, he had a personal message for the GAP CEO and other corporate higher-ups.

“I’m sure you could make a lot more significant changes if you put people over profit,” he said. “And so I think you should throw those minor changes out the door and put the workers first all throughout the supply chain. All major corporations from GAP to Wal-Mart… The blood is totally on their hands.”

Lorber said a physical presence out in the streets can have an enormous impact, pressuring those companies to do what is in the interest of workers and people generally.

Macias encourages people to sign both the petition to call on GAP to end deathtraps by assenting to the legally binding accord. Concerned citizens can also sign a similar petition calling on Wal-Mart to do the same and take action on preventable building collapses and factory fires that have torn through the Bangladesh garment industry in recent years.

The ILRF authored an open letter to legislators asking them not to allow Wal-Mart and GAP to legitimize an ineffectual (and unenforceable) program and tell companies instead to accept the binding agreement with unions in Bangladesh. The ILRF coordinated another letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to publicly support the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and demand US brands and retailers immediately sign the agreement. The Clean Clothes Campaign, an ILRF partner, suggests people post messages on GAP’s Facebook page, urging them to sign the Accord.

Appeals in the formal political arena and online media campaigns illustrate the multifaceted approach to an evolving struggle. But direct interpersonal interaction remains indispensable, as Macias and affiliated labor coalitions aver.

After being dismissed by managerial staff inside the GAP store, everyone went back to demonstrating right outside GAP’s door. Showing the spontaneity and economic acumen of activists involved, the action climaxed as Macias led the group over to Randolph and State where Old Navy, a company with ownership ties to the GAP, is located, capping off the day of demonstrations.

Yet efforts will continue. Younger generations are eager to participate.

Patty Macias, a high school student and Martin’s younger sister, was adamant about being involved in the action and she distributed fliers throughout the day. She is contemplating attending UIC next year and possibly then taking on a leadership role in USAS.

Other youth took part in the protest, embodying the growing spirit of resistance.

Pedro, a spry 7-year-old, accompanied his mother, a Jobs With Justice ally, to the event. He marched with a sign taller than himself that said, “GAP Inc,” at the top with a red octagon shape beneath with the words “STOP Corporate GREED” printed inside.

So Olly Murs might have provided an odd soundtrack to the day’s events, but perhaps lyrics by activist and indie musician David Rovics are more apropos, proclaiming that with each injustice:

“Comes a new generation from under the rubble
Saying, ‘We are not afraid’
They will pretend we are few
But with each child that a billion mothers bear
Comes the next demonstration
That we are everywhere”

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