Tag Archives: Social justice

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

Listen up, Congress: We need swift COVID-19 measures that put people first

 By Mary Babic

Cross-posted from Oxfam America’s “Politics of Poverty” series

The swift and devastating spread of the coronavirus in the US is dealing a staggering blow to our public health systems and our economy. It is also exposing how working families have been struggling for decades. As Americans grasp the enormous and long-term impact, they support policies that will deliver to those most affected and pave the road to an equitable recovery.

 The groundswell is crystal clear: A new Oxfam-Data for Progress national poll, conducted days ago, indicates overwhelming support (greater than 70 percent) for measures that directly help working people, including: paid sick leave for all workers, emergency funding for food supplies for those affected by the crisis, free testing for the virus, and moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.

Even “very conservative” voters indicate majority support for emergency cash payments, waiving copays for coronavirus treatment, and increasing federal funding for Medicaid. On the flip side, support drops noticeably for policies that prop up large businesses.

Support extends across all divides

Stunningly, support for these measures cuts across ideological, racial, and age divides. Simply put, voters recognize that this is a moment of great peril. As the clock ticks and the numbers rise, the pandemic is quickly revealing how many working families were already struggling to stay afloat, living paycheck to paycheck.

Americans want to prevent them from falling into bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger. Women indicate stronger support for actions to protect working people. This may reflect the fact that women face disproportionate hardships during crises. They are the primary caregivers of children, the ill or disabled, and the elderly, and being confined in the home increases care work and stress. In addition, women are currently on the front lines as nurses, doctors, personal aides, and cleaners. Finally, we know from long experience that domestic violence spikes in times like these.

Among the overall insights: 86 percent support free access to coronavirus testing, vaccination, and care for every American. Eighty-six percent support strengthening unemployment assistance (especially for workers who depend on tips, gig workers, domestic workers and independent contractors). Eighty-five percent support an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut offs. Just 54 percent support low–interest government loans for oil and gas companies.

Americans are saying it loud and clear: We cannot sit back and watch as the pandemic devastates the most vulnerable and flattens our economy. It’s time for proactive and effective government action. While Congress recently passed legislation that mandated paid sick leave, it excludes 80 percent of workers. We must do better.

An effective policy agenda

If our response is left to the market, COVID-19’s impacts will cascade through our economy, further deepening poverty, gender, racial and wealth disparities.

It is not time for half-measures and incremental tweaks to an economic system already fragile and rigged in favor of the powerful. Instead, we need decisive, audacious actions to prevent long-lasting and grave economic consequences for everyone—especially for those pushed out of progress for decades.

As Congress feverishly negotiates its third economic rescue package, Oxfam has developed a full economic policy agenda. Here are some highlights:

Protect working people being hit the hardest 

Payroll tax cuts are a farce: ineffective, regressive and potentially bankrupting Social Security. Instead, Congress should deliver:

  • Cash payments to all individuals.
  • Recurring boosts to federal anti-poverty programs.
  • Paid sick and family leave to all.
  • Increased unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Fiscal relief to states, counties, and cities that will bear the brunt of this crisis.
  • Investments in emergency shelters for women facing domestic violence at home.

 No blank checks to big business, but lifeline support to smaller companies and workers

An economic triage rescue plan would prioritize support to small businesses on the edge, not the country’s most powerful multinational companies flush with cash.

  • This is not a time for bailouts, or corporate tax cuts, for big business.
  • This is not a time to re-write tax policy to the benefit of the wealthy (which endangers resources we will need in the long term).

Moreover, we agree that assistance to corporations should be conditioned on forbidding recipients from: reducing payrolls; violating existing collective bargaining agreements; demanding concessions from workers; outsourcing; increasing workloads; and, companies must agree to a $15 minimum wage once the crisis has passed.

Any sectoral assistance should be explicitly time-limited and subject to certain conditions, including and especially prohibiting share buybacks; freezing executive bonuses; requiring board approval for political lobbying expenditures; and country-by-country tax reporting.

No free lunch to certain sectors

Any assistance to corporations should not exacerbate existing inequalities, worsen public health outcomes, or impede the necessary global transition to a zero-carbon economy. In particular, sector-specific benefits for oil and gas producers, who’ve long-received subsidies and tax breaks, should not be considered at this time.

Affordable testing, treatment, and vaccination will be essential for economic recovery. Any assistance or incentives for the pharmaceutical sector must ensure that breakthroughs in treatment and vaccines become a global public good, accessible and affordable to everyone.

Mary Babic is the Senior Communications Officer for the US Regional Office at Oxfam America.

 

Dr. King’s Radical Revolution Of Values

By Richard Eskow

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. http://www.marines.mil/unit/mcasiwakuni/PublishingImages/2010/01/KingPhoto.jpg

Today, January 20th, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If Dr. King hadn’t been murdered, he would be 91 years old. How would he view today’s activists?

The words to his “I Have a Dream” speech will be repeated from podiums and in classrooms across the country. But many of the people repeating these words have never heard other King quotes, like this one:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

King’s Answer

To those who condemn idealism, who preach the quiet cynicism of self-limiting “pragmatism” and insist it’s “how the world works,” Dr. King had an answer: He was, in his own words, “maladjusted.”

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, he said:

There are certain things in our nation and in the world (about) which I am proud to be maladjusted… I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.

But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…

Dr. King also said: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

“We must… realize,” he continued, “that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

A Radical Spirit

In other words, Dr. King was a radical.
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Walk to Feed the Hungry in Connecticut

By Shim Bo Sunim

A brief account of the Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, which took place this past Saturday in Collinsville, Connecticut. This is the first time the Connecticut walk was held in this location.

 

The Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, took place on Saturday, October 5, in Collinsville, Connecticut. The walk was attended by about 20 participants. The day was lovely, with clear blue skies and a morning autumn chill that energized our walk. Alison Zhou and her husband John set up registration in front of the historic Collins Axe Factory building and kindly provided donuts and coffee.

The walk began promptly at 10:00am with Shim Bo Sunim inviting the participants to walk slowly and contemplatively, reflecting on those for whom we were walking. The route, which was roughly one mile, contained an area of the scenic Farmington River Trail that includes an old train bridge. All the walkers kept in single file as hikers, bikers, and joggers passed by. At the midpoint of the walk we entered busy Route 179, and made our way around on to the municipal bridge and proceeded to Main Street, around the block and down the hill to our gathering place, Canton Historical Museum. We concluded the walk at 11:00am. A big thank you to those walkers who carried the walk banner the whole way!

On the second floor of the museum, we set up a seating area and luncheon for the walkers. Walkers were invited to sit and rest, at which time Shim Bo Sunim asked the participants to share reflections about the walk, which were very touching and insightful. At the end of the sharing, Shim Bo Sunim read Bhante’s letter to the group. Thank you, Bhante, for the informative letter and your words of thanks.

After this, the group enjoyed a delicious lunch of roasted vegetables, rice, salad, fruit, and water donated by the ShopRite grocery store of Canton, owned by the Joseph Family. We thank them, and also Mr. Don Scott, the Director of the Museum, for donating the meeting space. The morning ended with participants kindly helping in the clean up.

Many thanks to members of the White Lotus Haven Zen sangha who participated and helped prepare for the event. Board Secretary Ira Morrison prepared and distributed a press release for us and also set up the luncheon. We also thank photographer John Schwenk and videographer Noah Barrios for capturing the event in photos and video.

The walk raised $881. Our youngest contributor, 8-year-old Odin Sakon, donated $6 plus change that he had been saving—a really wonderful act of charity! We look forward to hosting the walk again next year.

From Me to We. My New Year’s Resolution

By David Korten

It’s not likely that many of us will mourn the passing of 2018. It’s been a deeply troubled year defined by wildfires, floods, earthquakes, water shortages, financial chaos, political gridlock, flows of displaced persons, growth in the gap between rich and poor, the rise of dictatorial leaders, and a dire consensus warning from scientists on the impact of climate change.

I’ve been pondering my New Year’s resolution for 2019. Deep change is clearly needed. But what can I do that might measure up to the magnitude of the problem? A promise to turn down my thermostat? Buy an electric car? Give to a charity? Take in a refugee? The possibilities that come to mind—even those that might involve serious commitment—seem trivial, given the scale of the problem. Continue reading

Supporting Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

The Buddhist Humanitarian Project: An Appeal to the Global Buddhist Community

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group traditionally resident in the Rakhine State in Myanmar, have fled their country because of the extreme violence directed against them by the Myanmar military. Their villages have been burnt, their people (including elders and children) shot in cold blood, and women subjected to sexual cruelty. The violence, sadly, has been supported by extremist Buddhist monks, contrary to the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness and communal harmony. Close to a million refugees have sought sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh, where they are being accommodated in overcrowded, unsanitary makeshift camps with pressing needs for food and health care. The refugees want to return to Myanmar but are afraid for their safety.

The global Buddhist community has a responsibility to show that such violence is not the Buddhist way.

The Buddhist Humanitarian Project is an initiative of the Clear View Project, a 501(c)(3) organization based in Berkeley, California, under the leadership of Hozan Alan Senauke, former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The project has launched a new website to garner support for the Rohingya refugees.

To learn more about this project and its activities, you can visit the website at:

http://www.buddhisthumanitarianproject.org/

At the website you can learn the various ways you can help to ameliorate this heartrending crisis.

  • Among other things, you can sign a letter to the Myanmar State Sangha Council and government officials, urging them to reject the violence and support the refugees.
  • You can donate to respected nonprofit organizations working on the ground in the Rohingya refugee camps. The website offers a list of reliable organizations.
  • You can also share this information on social media and by email with friends and members of your sangha or community.

 Your support can say to Rohingya peoples and to the world that the rain of the Buddha’s compassion falls on all beings equally.

To learn more about the crisis and how to support the refugees, visit:

www.buddhisthumanitarianproject.org

Poverty Is Both a Political and a Moral Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty reports that “the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion.” Isn’t it time to wake up, discard both dreams and illusions, and act on the basis of the truth?

AThe U.S. views itself as the exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice for the world. In the popular imagination, it is the land of plenty where everyone can thrive, the land of opportunity where anybody who works hard enough can realize the dreams of their heart. But is this really so or just a comforting illusion?

For two weeks this past autumn, Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, sought to find out, traveling over the U.S. to assess the state of extreme poverty in this country and its impact on human rights. His travels brought him to California, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as well as Puerto Rico. His report, published in mid-December by the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights, pulls the curtains on the illusions this country cherishes about itself and reveals the startling truth about where we stand and where we are headed. Although the extent of poverty and income inequality in the U.S. has been documented several times in the past, it is still telling that the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty would undertake such an investigation in America, of all places, and expose the U.S. as an outlier among the economically advanced countries.
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