Ric McIntyre on workers' rights


In the aftermath of 9-11, a boom in demand for American flag lapel pins was easy to anticipate. Richard McIntyre, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, knows of a fellow American who tried to win the manufacturing job for these pins to sell them to Wal-Mart. As McIntyre describes it, Wal-Mart demanded such a low price that the flag pins -- the kind for which Barack Obama faced criticism (for not wearing one during the bygone campaign season) -- that they were instead made in China.

Much has been detailed about how Wal-Mart, a king of American retail, has effectively transferred American jobs to China with its insistence for rock-bottom prices from suppliers. McIntyre joined us yesterday morning for a taping of WPRI/WNAC-TV's Newsmakers, so I asked him: does Americans' support for Wal-Mart, with its heavy reliance on products made for next to nothing in China, show that people in the US don't much care about workers' rights?

McIntyre, whose new book, Are Workers Rights Human Rights, and Would it Matter if They Were?, explores the same subject, describes it more as being a situation of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In other words, if the situation was unfolding on such a grand scale in Rhode Island, it would cause much more local concern.

One of the main topics of McIntyre's book is how businesses increasingly, with a lengthening of the supply chain and/or of the labor pool, try to disavow responsibility when things go wrong. He noted local examples of such situations, such as the plight of immigrant workers at a fish-processing plant in Naragansett (detailed in the Phoenix here), and of the dubious practices used by some temporary agencies (as reported in the Phoenix here).

While critics sometimes make overstated charges of the power of organized labor in Rhode Island, labor membership has been on the wane in the US, and the global fiscal crisis seems likely to make more dire the conditions facing workers on the margins, particularly in developing nations.

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