Labor Rights


Next week marks the beginning of World Fair Trade Day! It’s a day to celebrate and bring awareness to the issues of labor rights and Fair Trade. Only a few days after International Worker’s Rights Day, World Fair Trade Day is just as important when it comes to labor issues. It is a day to draw attention to a different way to do commerce, a responsible way.  Although there are many ways to support Fair Trade in your daily life, but to celebrate the movement in one day across the world is pretty exciting!

What’s more exciting is we are participating in Fair Trade Boston’s World Fair Trade Day Scavenger Hunt! We have teamed up with Fair Trade Boston and Cambridge’s Sudo Shoes to participate in this awesome fair trade party. The Scavenger Hunt will take place all over the cities of Boston, Cambridge and Brookline on Saturday May 12th from noon to 3pm.  People wanting to participate are encouraged to RSVP and download the free SCVNR app.

All day on Saturday, participants will be visiting many locations including Ten Thousand Villages, Ben & Jerry’s, and Sudo Shoes. The best part is you can win a Fair Trade prize at every location you visit! The more locations you visit, the more likely you will win one of the Grand Prizes from awesome Fair Trade companies including yours truly (Autonomie Project), Ten Thousand Villages, Equal Exchange, Haley House, Ben &
Jerry’s, and City Feed and Supply.

But the fun doesn’t end there! After the Scavenger Hunt ends, everyone is invited to a Fair Trade Ice Cream Social! All are asked to meet at the Equal Exchange Cafe to have delicious Fair Trade ice cream floats from Ben & Jerry’s, Maine Root, and Equal Exchange.

We are super excited to be participating in such a unique and fun event for Boston area residents! If you are in the area, please join us for the Fair Trade Scavenger Hunt on May 12th and win some awesome Fair Trade goodies. Why not go?

It’s May 1st and to many that means a day of Spring flowers and Maypoles, but today stands for so much more. May 1st is also International Worker’s Day and while that may sound like a far cry from an American holiday, the history and meaning of May Day is just that: American.  The origins of this day date back to 1886 in Chicago, IL.  During this time, there were no laws regulating the work day, meaning employers could force their employees to work long hours and there was little employees could do. No 8-hour comforts existed as we have in this century.  But the labor movement was making motions.  They had set May 1st, 1886 as the day in which the 8-hour work day would be set by law.

Tensions ran high as a general strike was called in Chicago. Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets in a mostly peaceful protest. But like many protests, police were quickly on the scene and an unidentified person through a bomb into the chaos. The blast and resulting police gunfire ended the lives of eleven and wounded countless others. What followed was a Nineteenth Century witch hunt where eight labor organizers and labeled “anarchists” were convicted, seven sentenced to death.  In the years that followed, they were pardoned as there was not enough evidence to connect them and the investigation and trials were seen as questionable.

You may recall this historic event as the Haymarket Affair. Not only was it a historical moment in labor rights history but it directly affects your personal every day life, as you enjoy the perks of an eight-hour work day without the threat of loss of life. In 1890, demonstrations were called to commemorate the lives lost that fateful day in Chicago. It is a way to remember the struggles workers have endured over the years.  For over a hundred years, May Day has become the official holiday in many countries around the world.  In the US, it is an unofficial holiday but is still of top importance for workers around the country.

About six years ago, I participated in my first May Day protest in Sacramento, CA (capital of California).  There were hundreds of thousands, largely farm workers, marching for Immigrant Rights. For far too long, slavery has existed in our country under the guise of cheap food. I was there, in the thick of it. Seeing first-hand how organizing can make a difference and that May Day can still have an impact. Although we are still struggling to protect farm workers under the same laws that many of us take for granted: eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, and basic needs, the demonstration shone light on the issue.

And now as I write this from Oakland, CA, I can hear the helicopters circling hundreds of Occupy and labor union strikers standing up for financial and social reform in our country.  It doesn’t take much to see that a growing disparity is happening in the US. As the economy continues to tank, the people who are baring the weight are the workers.  The struggle still continues for farm workers, for factory workers, for nurses, teachers, police officers, and others carrying the load.  So while purchasing union-made, Fair Trade, and supporting UFW and the likes is important in our day-to-day lives, don’t forget the struggles the existed before and still continue to this day. Use May Day as a platform for your voice to be heard. Thousands of workers and students are going on strike and marching through the streets to demand reform today. Will you join them?

Today is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the accomplishments of powerful gender of female. But also, it is a day to highlight the struggles that continue for women today. The theme of 2012 is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”  We thing it is a perfect theme for Fair Trade to embrace, as Fair Trade is a viable and empowering alternative to conventional life for many women. In several countries around the world, Fair Trade is sometimes the only outlet woman have to find work to send their children to school and thus improving the lives of their families.

As a female owned and founded business, International Women’s Day is important to us. We thought in honor of the day, we would highlight some of our own Fair Trade woman warriors. One of our products that uses plenty of female Fair Trade power is our footwear. Ethletic sneakers, flip flops, and rain boots are all made from Fair Trade sourced rubber, tapped right out of a certified sustainable rubber forest. Many of the female workers here are Tamils, which have long been disenfranchised and oppressed by the ruling government. Many women in the region do not have many options available to them. But working at the Fair Trade Rubber Plantation is a viable option. The women who work there receive health care for themselves and their children, assistance with school, and they banded together to bring water and electricity to their villages. Society and the government does not give these women advancement or access to their needs, so they have empowered themselves and are working for Fair Trade ideals. Now that their children can go to school and electricity is running in their towns, the next generation will have even more opportunity then the last.

Another great female empowerment story is behind the Proxy Jewelry we carry. The jewelry is made by a women’s worker owned cooperative in Guatemala. The women live in a community outside Guatemala City and had very little opportunity to find work. That’s when they decided to take their lives into their own hands by starting a co-op. As owners, they have full control over their lives and work, in fact every member of their cooperative has an equal vote. Using their awesome jewlery making abilities and sewing skills together, they now run a cooperative where the children receive help with school, healthcare, and child care as well. They also now run a soy milk store and school through their cooperative. We are completely impressed with their story and find it inspiring. Since they could not find work through conventional means, they made work for themselves and have improved their own lives as well as their families and most important their children.

Both the female Fair Trade workers of Sri Lanka and Guatemala have met the theme of International Women’s Day by connecting each other and definitely inspiring the future. They have chosen to provide for their families and inspire their daughters to make an even better future for themselves. And every time you support the products they have made and other Fair Trade items like these, you are empowering them even further.

In celebration of all the awesome women behind our Fair Trade workers you can find the Ethletic Flip Flops on sale for only $5.50 (that’s a 75% savings) and all the Proxy Jewerly 10% off.  Both are great to add to your upcoming Spring wardrobe and even better you can tell their story every time someone compliments your style. So here is to all the female workers of the world: Happy International Women’s Day from the women workers at Autonomie Project. ❤

In mid December a groundbreaking law was quietly approved in Albany, NY. Not even a month later the same exciting law went into effect in Sacramento, CA, with people in line to sign up. So what could this new innovative law be? It is the beginning of a new era in responsible companies! Both California and New York were the first to enact a law that would include conscious corporations as a type of business. Not only will these new laws benefit the corporations who are certified, but society.

Companies who will be classified as “Benefit Corporations” will be held accountable for how their business impact the environment, their workers, and their community. They will be required to publicly publish environmental and social performance which will be monitored by third parties. Basically, this is going to provide a new frontier of transparency for the consumer and a new era of corporate responsibility. The New York law was largely written and sponsored by B-Corp, which has spearheaded the idea of the benefit corporation for a while now. Their co-founder, Andrew Kassay, urged the importance of this law taking effect, “The benefit corporation bill will unlock billions of dollars in impact investment capital and enable entrepreneurs across [NY] to start businesses that solve some of society’s greatest challenges.

The real question is, will corporations and businesses make this move? Will they want to become a Benefit Corp? It seems likely, especially in the wake of California’s inauguration of the bill. Classification of Benefit Corporation began on January 3rd, 2012, with twelve eager companies ready to sign up! The first and possibly the largest to sign up was the clothing company, Patagonia, which has long lead the way in environmental outdoor clothing. They had championed the bill and wanted to show their support by being the first company to file in 2012. Founder and CEO, Yvon Chouinard, released a statement about the historic day: “Patagonia is trying to build a company that could last 100 years. Benefit corporation legislation creates the legal framework to enable mission-driven companies like Patagonia to stay mission-driven through succession, capital raises, and even changes in ownership.” Some other companies who signed up this year were Give Something Back Office Supplies, Green Retirement Plans, and Thinkshift Communication to name a few.

Major corporations such as Patagonia and smaller green/socially conscious businesses signing up means good news for the consumer and new Benefit Corporation classification. This could also mean good news for states like NY and CA who adopt this legislation. With the economy causing businesses to flee these states due to high taxes, bureaucracy, and expensive property, this could be a useful for drawing in new business or keeping other socially conscious businesses in state.

A new way of business has begun and we are happy to see it happen. Even better news, in both NY and CA, the bills were able to pass without much object. This means the political and social climate is accepting of transparent business tactics and changes like these could take hold in other states. Now if only more states could come on board, Benefit corporations could flourish in our nation. 

Rumors swirling the debut of the iPhone 5 have been circulating for the past several months and as a current iPhone user, I am tempted, like most others, to get my hands on one.  Smartphones, particularly the iPhone have become an aspect of everyday life for many in America.  But at what cost? In recent reports and some articles published by AP and the likes, reveal that there are many costs that come with the iPhone. 

The problem starts with minerals.  In order to make your smartphone to work as seamlessly as we all love, they are manufactured with three basic minerals: tin, tantulum, and tungsten. This sounds normal, but here’s the kicker. Those minerals are often mined in the conflict ridden Democratic Republic of Congo. Serious labor and human rights violations are occurring in order to mine these minerals, including civil war and flat out murder.

But unfortunately in the life of the iPhone the violations dont’ stop there.  Apple has recently been accused of terrible labor issues surrounding the manufacturing of their products including computers, iPads, and iPhones. Some of these issues include overworked employees, suicide of employees, and even child labor. 

Those things alone are enough to make the consumer ill, but on top of labor issues, smartphones are made with materials that are far less than environmentally friendly.  Recent reports have come out showing Apple factories release harmful toxins into water, soil, and the air we breathe, not to mention all the plastic that is used to create the phones in the first place.

And just when you think you can’t handle the guilt anymore, Grist recently ran an article about an iPhone game that “will make you ashamed of your iPhone.”  The game features four main levels: mining materials in the Congo, including mistreating workers and adding to civil war, saving possible suicide victims at manufacturing plants in China, drumming up excitement among consumers, and throwing out the iPhone and adding to wastefulness. Check out a preview for this game below.

Don’t think we’ve singled out the iPhone alone. All brands smartphones and other electronics used mined minerals from the Congo and many have similar labor and environmental issues in the manufacturing process. So what is the answer? Well, obviously giving up the convenience of said electronics would eliminate all these violations in the supply chain.  But in our modern world, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. One step is to use your current model as long as possible, do you really need to upgrade to the iPhone 5 just because Apple said it is better? Another way to go would be to purchase used and refurbished phones, thus saving them from landfills and not adding to new manufacturing. Lastly, be sure to recycle your phone when it is finally ready to upgrade.

So to answer our opening question, yes we all should be ashamed of our iPhones. And the only way to change it, is to let Apple and other smartphone manufactures we won’t stand for it! Write them today and stop purchasing their brand new items!

Your grill is all fired up, or maybe you’ve browsed the paper for all the great sales, or your family car is packed with camping equipment in preparation for this holiday weekend.  All this excitement is leading up to the official send off to summer: Labor Day Weekend.  Everybody gears up to send off summer with a bang through parties, vacations, and super sales. One last weekend to go swimming or camping before the Fall weather settles in.

But isn’t this weekend supposed to be about something else? Oh that’s right: it’s Labor Day! But what exactly is Labor Day? With all these summer distractions, we seem to have forgotten what this holiday weekend is supposed to represent. Labor Day is meant to honor the labor unions and movement in general. This seems to have been forgotten behind all of the hooplah of drinking and shopping. It is even more important to pay attention to in this political climate where the union and worker’s rights have suddenly become the enemy of the far right.

The true story of how Labor Day came to be is far more exciting than any party you might attend this weekend, or at least to us history nerds.  The very first Labor Day was created in 1885 by Central Labor Union in New York, but became an official holiday in 1894 by Grover Cleveland.  The holiday was established less to honor the workers than to pacify the labor unions who were in a heated battle with the US Government.

Basically Cleveland created the holiday in order to ease tensions created during the Pullman Strike, which was a nationwide railroad strike that halted train travel beginning in the Chicago area.  This being the days before cars and airplanes, the train was the main mode of transportation. Imagine the entire airline industry going on strike today. Anyway, there were serious wage reductions and the workers fought back in 27 states. Everything raged out of control when strikers and sympathizing protesters set fire and the US Marshalls were called in. Unfortunately, everything spiraled even further out of control with the US soldiers killing several striking workers. You read that correctly, the government murdering it’s citizens.

And here is where Cleveland stepped in. In 1894, he made it his priority to reconcile with the Labor Union Movement. He instituted a national holiday in order to honor the labor unions and workers around the world.  It was originally mean to only be a day to honor them, a description or the original celebration included a parade that would celebrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Somehow a century later it had evolved into another consumer driven party.

But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore what Labor Day really stands for. As we mentioned, we often forget the sacrifices those who came before us have made.  Especially when the economy is suffering and the some in power have made a vendetta in breaking down the unions, the unions that so many died to create.  Maybe this weekend, try to fit in a little labor right’s history or attend a local parade. Or at least, think of those who sacrificed their lives so you could be treated fairly in your workplace. They are the reason you have Monday off and can kick back while drinking a brewski as the summer ends.

We all know the history of the American Civil War, but did you know about the second largest armed uprising within the United States? I am probably the biggest history nerd I know and I only recently read about the Battle of Blair Mountain . Sure, I know about the struggles of the early 20th Century workers and the power of early corporations, but somehow this story circumvented my radar, or was buried in my brain caverns under all the history books I’ve read in the past twenty years. The story plays out like a modern day sweatshop:

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries “Big Coal” was running the show in West Virginia. They had set up “company towns,” meaning a single company not only owned the mine and equipment, but the workers, the hospitals, the houses, the utilities, the stores and the government as well. Workers were subjugated to long days and dangerous working conditions–some of which would make your hair stand on end. In a recent re-telling of the story, Robert F Kennedy Jr explained, “Working conditions were horrendous: men and their sons worked 12 to 16 grueling hours in dark, dangerous mines dying from a notorious plague of subsurface explosions, cave-ins and black lung

On top of dealing with these conditions the workers were basically feudal serfs to the coal lords. In the towns in which they lived, the companies owned the police and hired cronies to carry out intimidation and suppression, even using tactics such as espionage and murder. And just to add salt to their wounds, some local and state governments condoned these actions by turning a blind eye and supporting the companies.

Well in the early 20th Century the miners were fed up with this controlled lifestyle, which is deliciously ironic considering they existed in a “free” society. With workers unionizing all over the country during this time, union leaders entered the area through some sympathetic politicians. After a major supporter of the miners, Sid Hatfield, was assassinated in broad daylight, the workers formed a 10,000 member protest and marched for six days to the top of Blair Mountain. What proceeded was a deadly battle between Big Coal cronies and miners that included an order from President Warren G Harding (perhaps one of the most corrupt US Presidents ever–which is saying A LOT) to intercede on the side of the coal companies. The miners were gunned down and surplus WWI bombs were dropped upon them. Not to say they didn’t arm themselves and after intervention from the US Forces on their own citizens, they dispersed. Fearing they may be convicted by a corrupt government for treason, they tossed their ammunition and arms into the woods surrounding Blair Mountain. Almost a century old artifacts can still be found along the mountain, which is quite literally a gold, or shall I say “coal”mine for a history lover like myself.

The aftermath of this insurrection proved to be pivotal not only for the workers but for the union movement itself. Sixty years later, unions are one of the Average Joe’s only protection from somewhat unchecked corporate power. Sure, the government now includes higher working standards and moderation of companies, but how long will that last? Only a year ago, the Federal government ruled corporations have the same access to First Amendment Free Speech as a US citizen, and can legally fund campaigns with no limitations. At first glance, this may seem minor, but the consequences have the power to rattle the very foundation of our democracy. The corporations, which have proven themselves can not be trusted, will literally and legally buy out elections. On top of this, the extreme right, who says they stand for the people, have taken an all out war against public unions in the MidWest.

Although the country and world has changed drastically since the Battle of Blair Mountain, Big Coal still exists and is currently backed by many a politician. Recently, Blair Mountain has been pegged to have it’s top blown off and mined. Mountaintop removal mining is not only ecological harmful, but it also results in job loss for the area and in this case destroys a historic landmark–still filled with artifacts, if I may remind you. Luckily, environmentalists, labor groups, and historians have banded together to save Blair Mountain and bring attention to worker’s rights, sustainability, and the protection of the Appalachian legacy. The March on Blair Mountain began earlier this week and will culminate with thousands of supporters atop the symbolic mountain. Hundreds have been marching in the heat and thunderstorms all week and a few hundred, including ex marines and a wheel chair bound grandmother have been arrested.

Thousands are expected tomorrow, June 11th, to show solidarity. If you are not in the region, you can follow the March online and send your support virtually. Even more important, let you voice be heard. Sign the petition for Obama to preserve Blair Mountain and end mountaintop removal mining simultaneously.

So it seems we have entered a new era where rather than evolving and working on the unions, who by the way are not a perfect solution either, we are letting them be destroyed. This is where the people step in. We need to preserve our democratic power.

Gina Williams

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