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ISSUE 121 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 2/29/2008

Guest fight for fair labor

By Bryan Beaudoin
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 29, 2008

Emphasizing the importance of globalization and its effect on our lives, conference speaker Robert Muehlenkamp stated that, "the world has never seen a transformation anything like what we are going through and you students will have to live with [it]."

This year's conference, entitled "Globalization and Social Responsibility: Working for the Common Good" was meant to emphasize the importance of globalization in altering the paradigms of employment and its effect on human gains across the world.

A number of notable and controversial speakers came to St. Olaf to speak on this topic, including Woodrow Wilson fellow Robert Muehlenkamp, local SEIU (Service Employees International Union) president Javier Morillo-Alicea and former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives and St. Olaf alum Steve Sviggum '73.

The conference also featured a number of break-out session examining topics such as Minnesota labor, social justice, biology in Southern India and their relation to globalization.

There was also a world service fair where students could network with non-profit organizations around the world.

During the Friday conference which examined labor issues in a globalized world, Muehlenkamp argued against the tenets of neo-liberalism.

"Neo-liberalism has produced failure," Muehlenkamp said. "It has created the most inequality this republic has ever seen." He contended that neo-liberalism only makes things better for the top 10 percent of the American population, creating a decline in living standards for the remaining 90 percent.

Muehlenkamp felt that the forces of globalization should be employed for the betterment of all, but provided few details about how this could take place.

However, Muehlenkamp did state that he felt that there was more of a chance of change after this upcoming election now that the "gays, gods and guns" debates were no longer on the forefront.

The second speaker was local SEIU president Alicea, who provided a more tangible microcosm of the changes globalization is making and how labor unions are reacting.

Describing the challenges that private security workers face in a globalizing world, he pointed out that despite an explosion in the private security industry after Sept. 11, there has been a "race to the bottom" as wages have leveled off and families who work in the security industry are not provided healthcare.

Like Muehlenkump, Javier felt that there was hope. "Workers in the United States are working with those in Malawi and the Philippines not out of a sense of solidarity, or sympathy but because now they all have the same employer," he said.

On Saturday, Bama Athreya, who works for International Labor Rights Fund in Washington, D.C., discussed workers' rights and challenges in developing countries such as China, Liberia and Cambodia.

She mentioned that major multinational companies such as Firestone and Wal-Mart do not always respect workers' rights in these developing nations, and that consumers are generally kept in the dark about the origins of the products they are buying.

She argued that we need to fight for minimum wages, worker safety and a strong multinational regulatory body to keep companies from simply moving to which ever nation will put up with their abuses.

"You have the power as the consumer," she said. "They need us to buy their products."

Students were generally receptive to the message of the speakers. They demonstrated concern for the subjects discussed with the many questions they asked of the speakers during the events.

Beth Graft '10 found the conference applicable to her own life.

"It provided a provocative look in to the issues that still exist in the abuse of basic labor rights and a reminder that we as consumers have the responsibility to support morally responsible companies," she said.

This year's conference is the eighth annual conference of its kind held at St. Olaf to further students' understanding of global events.

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