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Ethix Ventures Interviews Timothy Beaty: Thoughts On Labor Organizing and Fair Trade Movements

Ethix Ventures Interviews Timothy Beaty: Thoughts On Labor Organizing and Fair Trade Movements

As the Director of Global Strategies at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Timothy Beaty builds union alliances between workers with a common employer or in global supply chains. Before this, Timothy worked with the AFL-CIO, American Center for International Labor Solidarity, and Public Services International. Even earlier in his career, he was an organizer, negotiator and trainer with the Florida Education Association, the Farmworker Association of Florida, Operating Engineers and Laundry Workers.

Ethix: In a YouTube video and in this recently-produced proposal, you argue that the fair trade movement should adopt unionization as a goal. Why are the Teamsters, who mostly represent workers in North America, so concerned about the international fair trade movement?

Timothy Beaty: When a fair trade certified chocolate company in Seattle called Theo used intimidation, harassment and lies against its employees who wanted to form a union and join the Teamsters it seemed to contradict the fair trade ethos. The fair trade certifier – IMO – said they certified that Theo was in compliance with international labor standards, but they are not. IMO did two audits and told us there were some findings but they are secret and Theo has not moved to correct their anti-union behavior. There are an expanding number of fair trade labels and our experience is that some of them don’t do a good job of enforcing their own labor standards while others are just bluewashing / fairwashing for corporate profits. In this way fair trade consumers are deceived.

The Teamsters are very active with unions worldwide in solidarity efforts, particularly regarding multinational employers where our members work including transportation, logistics and food processing. I think that the fair trade movement and the labor movement share important core values, so we are hoping to build understanding and solidarity towards our common social justice goals. Many European unions are pioneers in the fair trade movement in their countries so we’ve been learning from their experience as well.

I know there is a debate in the fair trade movement about whether or not to source from plantations/estates. My comments here are only about parts of the supply chain for fair trade products that involve hourly paid workers.

Ethix: In order for a large factory or plantation to receive fair trade certification, is your expectation that the workers there must be represented by a union? Or does the workplace simply need to be open to and tolerant of unionizing?

Timothy Beaty: Yes, a union freely chosen by the workers and the collective bargaining agreement they negotiate is the best way to empower workers. It’s also the best way to monitor compliance with labor rights standards. The process of organizing a union where one does not exist takes time, but just as the fair trade movement encourages small farmers to organize into cooperatives, they should be encouraging the formation of a union among employees when those we seek to empower are employees.

Our experience is that most employers don’t want their workers to have an independent union and they use their power over employment, pay and working conditions to manipulate towards the control they prefer, as Theo did. We feel strongly that the fair trade movement should have a preferential option for worker empowerment by encouraging a union.

Ethix: What do think is the largest hurdle to your model actually being put into place?

Timothy Beaty: There are a lot of products being labeled fair trade these days. Cut-flowers, bananas, tea, sugar are examples of products you see with fair trade labels on them that are probably sourced from large plantations with for-hire workers. Chocolate, soap and coffee are examples of products that require processing normally taking place in a factory in the consumer country. In each plantation or factory there will be obstacles to unionized workforces specific to that workplace. If we can get the fair trade movement to make a serious commitment that equates empowerment of workers in the production and value chain with freedom of association and collective bargaining then I think the biggest hurdle is the plantation and factory owners and managers. Their tendency is to game the system against independent worker representation and a binding collective bargaining agreement.

Ethix: As we’ve written in this blog post, we are concerned about the current Fair Trade USA apparel pilot project. Could you share your thoughts on this proposal?

Timothy Beaty: I understand the Global Union Federation for textile and garment workers has expressed concerns about this pilot. I urge Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) to work with the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) to address their concerns.

I think the anti-sweatshop movement is doing an amazing job of educating consumers about looking behind the label to the conditions for workers in the factories that make the garments. Ethix is a helpful contributor in this effort. I particularly want to give a shout out to United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), and the Clean Clothes Campaign– they are terrific organizations. Every fair trade garment labeler must ensure access to workers rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining in their standards. Unions are far superior to any other method of monitoring workplace rights and health and safety standards. And their organized voice creates a unique vehicle for improving the communities where these factories operate.

Ethix: From your perspective, what does the Sweat-Free Movement need to do in the next six months to have the most strategic impact on worker rights?

Timothy Beaty: The SweatFree Movement should throw all its support behind those workers and organizations currently engaged in struggles in the supplier factories of major global brands, especially the major sports-apparel brands Nike and Adidas, both prominent in the upcoming Summer Olympics. These two brands should be forced by public pressure to take full responsibility for the conditions and wages in the factories producing their goods. Adidas has been particularly resistant to the idea of brand responsibility, most recently refusing to pay severance of US$1.8 million to over two thousand Indonesian workers who lost their jobs when their factory PT Kizone was closed.

I also think the focus on Apple should be supported because of the high profile of the Foxconn case and the importance of the struggle for worker rights in China. Winning broad public support for the concept of brand responsibility – a concept more and more understood and embraced by the public – will have the greatest strategic impact in the struggle for workers rights.

We look forward to your thoughts. You can also download the entire interview here.

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