Caught In The Web: Sing Out
Labor activists have, of course, always used musical performance to raise consciousness about workplace abuses, but YouTube makes the potential audience much bigger, and has been inspiring considerable creativity. Anyone needing ideas about how a protest can be fun for bystanders and participants alike—and, better yet, how it can go viral—should immediately check out “Bad Hotel,” a video of a protest of the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, where workers have called for a boycott over unaffordable health care and other issues. The video begins with two women inquiring about the rates, when one suddenly says loudly, “Honey, we can’t stay here. This is a bad hotel.” Her companion bursts into song at top volume: “Oh, noo-ooo-ooo, don’t get caught in a bad hotel,” a takeoff on Lady Gaga’s catchy hit, “Bad Romance.” A band emerges from the shadows, playing full instrumentals, and about twenty dancers come forward, all singing along: “I want to party, and do it in drag, but not in a bad hotel/I love San Francisco and I want your gay ass/But not in a bad hotel.” The text at the end of the clip explains that the action was taken as part of Sleep with the Right People! That’s a coalition of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and UNITE HERE, boycotting Hyatt and other hotel chains that refuse to bargain in good faith with their workers. (Here’s the full list of hotels to boycott: http://www.hotelworkersrising.org/HotelGuide/boycott_list. php.) The video has been widely forwarded, and the hotels in question do seem to be losing business as a result. A tactic—disruptive protest in a hotel lobby—that might once have raised the awareness of about fifteen bystanders can now easily go global, if the video is engaging enough. Check it out, but be warned: You’ll be humming “Bad Hotel” for days, and will eventually be compelled to forward the video to your friends—or at least post it on your Facebook page.
Web video and music can also be used to call attention to exploitation of workers in the global South. Thanks to the ease of making and distributing video on the web, Westerners can hear an all-girl Cambodian band called The Messenger, comprised entirely of former garment factory workers. Formed in 2005, The Messenger, whose style is traditional Cambodian folk music, travels around the countryside playing songs about the plight of rural women who come to the city to be garment workers. About 20 percent of Cambodians rely on the wages of a garment worker for their survival, yet the work is stigmatized and the women of the factories (who number around three hundred thousand) are often shunned, partly because of the cultural taboo against women working, a problem the band highlights in a song called “Don’t Look Down on the Garment Workers.”
The best way to learn about the band—and hear its music—is through the work of Anne Elizabeth Moore, a Chicago-based blogger, artist, and journalist who has been traveling frequently to Cambodia. Her interview with The Messenger is on the Truthout site (http:// www.truthout.org/i-dont-want-be-famous-iwant-our-people-get-enough-rice-the-messenger-band-interview57535). “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” her short film about them—which includes visits with current garment workers in Cambodia—is on Camb(l)o(g)dia, Moore’s blog (http://camblogdia.blogspot.com).
Fearful of discouraging U.S. investment with talk of sweatshops, the government has been trying hard to suppress criticism of the garment industry but some, like The Messenger Band, with the help of Western friends like Moore, still find ways to speak up.
While the “Bad Hotel” performers play with celebrity culture by impersonating one of its most accomplished practitioners, The Messenger Band rejects it outright. Says lead singer, Vun Em, “I don’t want to be famous. I want our people to get enough rice.”
Death at Work
The subject isn’t much fun, compared to a Lady Gaga-esque video, but a number of sites are emerging as go-to sources on the under-reported tragedy of workplace death, which only gets attention in the wake of a dramatic event like BP’s April oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, in which eleven workers lost their lives. One of the worst workplace disasters in recent history was the coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia on April 5, in which twenty-nine miners died. With that news cycle long past, readers seeking to learn about the ongoing investigation of the mine operator, Massey Energy, and about mining safety problems in general, should follow Coal Tattoo (http://blogs.wvgazette.com/ coaltattoo), a fantastic blog on the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette’s website, written by Ken Ward, Jr., an award-winning reporter and West Virginia native, who has covered the coal industry in the region for nearly two decades. One of Coal Tattoo’s many highlights: a report on thirty-four-year-old Phillip Newton, a miner who had died in Kentucky last December with no media attention. As Ward writes, Newton “died the way most U.S. miners do, alone, and one by one.” Why? The mine operator didn’t take steps to secure the roof—one of the most common safety problems miners face. As Ward observes—and continues to report—“this industry too often puts production ahead of the men who keep our lights on.”
Another invaluable—if grim—resource is the Weekly Toll (http://weeklytoll.blogspot. com), a blog tracking death in the American workplace. Many people think of workplace death as a thing of the past, part of the sorry history of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While large-scale workplace catastrophes like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are less common today, a glance at the Weekly Toll reveals how many U.S. workers, like Phillip Newton, still die “one by one” on the job.
And the carnage is not limited to famously dangerous industries like mining: in April the site noted a tree trimmer crushed by palm foliage; an AT&T technician, electrocuted; a road worker pinned underneath his dump truck when an elderly motorist struck; and many other human beings whose last moments reveal volumes about the carelessness with which capital regards the lives of those who labor for its profits.
The Weekly Toll is maintained by a group called United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF), founded by a woman named Tammy Miner, after her brother, Shawn Boone, a thirty-three-year-old maintenance worker, died on the job, suffering burns over 90 percent of his body after an aluminum dust explosion.
The blog helps to publicize workplace death, but also puts names and faces on the problem. USMWF now works to prevent workplace death by improving safety protections because, they say, “going to work shouldn’t be a grave mistake!” Its emotional—and political—impact is much like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial: affecting because it names the dead, rather than simply offering generalities or numbers.
But real numbers on the subject of workplace death are needed, of course, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics website (http://www. bls.gov/iif) has the total number of workplace deaths by year—5,214 in 2008, shockingly high considering that most do occur one at a time, not in large, high-profile accidents like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion—as well as special reports on especially dangerous industries like coal mining, oil, and gas.
Crack for Political Junkies
Biting your nails over the 2010 midterm elections? (Who isn’t?) Bookmark Politico (http://www.politico.com/2010). During the primaries, the blog streamed the results live from the Associated Press and will certainly offer the same for the November election. The site also offers the latest polls, the latest news about any race in the country you might be following, and a calendar with all the dates you could possibly need to know (filing deadlines, primaries, state conventions), whether you’re a voter, an activist, or a candidate. While making full use of the new media—streaming, live tweeting, etc.—Politico also offers actual reporting, and the latest scoops and actual articles on the election, helping to make up for the recent collapse of many local newspapers. Which candidate(s) lied about military service? Who’s getting punished by the Far Right for not being crazy enough? You may find the mix of gossip and serious news distasteful, and you may rightly deplore the effect of a twentyfour-hour news cycle on political discourse, but if you want the best, most up-to-date information on this election, you’re going to log on.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—that corporations and unions can spend unlimited funds to influence elections—it’s going to be more important than ever to track money in politics. The Center for Responsive Politics site (http://www.opensecrets. org/news/2010/02/midterm-elections-will-costat.html), which has always been the best source for this kind of information—whether you’re tracking the political activities of big business, or hoping to hold your union accountable—has introduced some new features, including a widget, self-updating in real time, that counts the amount of money spent so far (http://www.opensecrets. org/action/countdownwidgets.php). Download it and put it on your own website to spread the word.
New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008