Over the past month, an oceanic divide has opened between European and American retailers on the question of how to respond to the manmade epidemic of deadly disasters in the garment industry of Bangladesh, the world’s second largest clothing exporter. In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza fire on April 24, which killed at least 1,127 workers, a group of roughly 40 European retailers—including H&M, Carrefour, Bennetton, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer—signed on to a plan binding them to fund both a regimen of independent factory inspections and the improvements required to make those factories safe.
But only three U.S.-based fashion companies and retailers—Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH (which includes the Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Izod labels), and Sean John (Sean Combs’s company)—have become party to the compact, despite the repeated urgings of anti-sweatshop and workers' rights organizations. Wal-Mart, Gap, Target, Sears, JCPenney, and other iconic U.S retailers have resisted. Under mounting pressure, however, last Thursday those companies and others, along with the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industries Leaders Association, and the American Apparel and Footwear Council, announced that they had joined together to “develop and implement a new program to improve fire and safety regulations in the garment factories of Bangladesh.” The announcement of the group’s formation made no reference to any pledge by the companies to fund the factory improvements.
More curious yet was the source of Thursday’s announcement. It was released by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C. think tank of sorts founded by four long-retired U.S. Senate majority leaders—Democrats George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, and Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole. According to the announcement, the retailer organizations had asked the center to convene a series of meetings to develop a joint policy for the industry, with the meetings to be chaired by Mitchell and another former Maine senator, Republican Olympia Snowe.
Describing itself as “the only Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship,” the center proclaims in its mission statement that it promotes “principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiation and respectful dialogue.” Those solutions, it continues, “are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates who represent both ends of the political spectrum.”
So what on earth is the center doing convening a process that will determine the commitments, if any, that U.S. retailers and clothing lines will make with no one but U.S. retailers and clothing lines at the table? “Respectful dialogue” is all well and good, all the more among “advocates who represent both ends of the political spectrum,” but in this case, that spectrum runs from Wal-Mart to Target, with a stop at JCPenney. Where are the labor leaders whom the center viewed as sufficiently important to mention in its mission statement? Where are the anti-sweatshop activists?
It’s not as if labor leaders and workers' rights activists have been absent from the public debate over the Bangladeshi garment industry. They’ve repeatedly and publicly demanded that U.S. companies that get their goods from Bangladesh commit their resources to upgrading the factories and safety procedures there, as their European counterparts have. From AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on down, there’s no shortage of labor leaders or U.S.-based advocates for Bangladeshi workers whom the center could have invited to its meetings if it wanted a genuine dialogue.
By opting instead to hold a discussion among only like-minded companies with a common interest in quelling the controversy at the lowest possible cost to themselves, the center has provided a useful reminder that bipartisanship has all too often meant a coming together of Democrats and Republicans in the service of the same corporate elites. At a time when congressional Republicans have no mission save to be against anything and anyone that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are for, it’s only natural to grow nostalgic for the days when Tip O’Neill and Bob Michael could cut a deal. But in today’s Washington, where corporate money flows everywhere, including into think tanks, and where labor is increasingly marginalized, bipartisanship can easily become a code word for whatever presumably responsible American corporations desire—such as the free-trade agreements that both parties have ratified. If it didn’t before, the process that the Bipartisan Policy Center has now convened—of the retailers, by the retailers, for the retailers—makes clear just how pro-corporate bipartisanship has become.
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