Why We Fight: Unions Are Critical Edition

There’s been a lot of chatter about this article from The New York Times on Apple’s move to China for their manufacturing.  But there is an underreported backstory here involving the management of these factories and the workers whose lives are ruined by Apple, Dell and other American electronics manufacturers.

Now I don’t really care for This American Life.  Ira Glass is a whiner and I don’t have patience for whiners.  But this piece on manufacturing in China really hit home.  Next time you pick up your iPhone to surf the web or make a call, think about this for a minute.

Then the workers start coming in. They come in in twos and threes and fours. They come in all day. It’s an eight, nine-hour day. I interview all of them. Some of them are in groups.

There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.

I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.

But that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.

And the thing that unites all these people is that they are all the kind of people who would join a union in a place where joining a union can destroy your life. I talk with one woman. She’s very birdlike, very nervous. And she just wants to explain to me how it is that she came to be in a union, because she never thought she would ever be in a union. It’s just that she couldn’t get her company to pay her overtime. And she complained and complained. This went on for weeks and for months.

In the United States, unions were forged in the front lines of industrial capitalism.  That fight has moved to China.  When we think about the fight for union rights for public sector workers, we should never forget the struggles of our brothers and sisters around the world who face unimaginable horrors in the workplace just to feed their families.  And their capitalists are as callous as our capitalists.

“Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” Gou said, according to the website run by Taiwan’s China Times News Group.

The Hon Hai chairman was reportedly entertaining Taipei Zoo director Chin Shih-chien onstage when he asked Chin “how animals should be managed” and instructed Hon Hai executives present to listen carefully to the zookeeper’s advice.



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