October 11, 2013
Meeting with U Maung Maung – General Secretary, Phyo Sandar Soe – International Department, Secretary of Youth Committee, Khaing Zarag – Secretary of the Women’s Committee.
U Maung Maung explained that the FTUM has been back in Myanmar for just over a year after being in exile for 24 years. Our Yangon office was opened in September 2012. The FTUM has three training centers, two in industrial areas of Yangon and one in Mandalay.
They are comprised of 209 Locals with 22,000 members. The smallest Local has 30 members and the largest has 2,000 members. The majority of their members are women. Areas of work are – agricultural, garment industry and other industrial/factory work, train workers and construction.
Recent FTUM staff training has included ITUC Leadership and ILO Decent Work.
The training centers provide basic trade union training, field organizer training and ITUC international solidarity training. Their focus is on building up the foundations of their unions.
Our discussion included:
Burma’s economy – hard to push for fair play, infrastructure development – cronies have the advantage.
Land grabs – some cases have been filed – this is a change.
Media coverage of labor – focuses on issues/strikes.
2015 Elections and Political Parties – the FTUM is independent and want the interests of their members to be considered
Constitution – it doesn’t have an impact on labor law.
Labor Law – the FTUM has 15 points that are priorities for amendments to the labor laws
The FTUM is focusing on the needs of members, building union capacity – reports, meetings, responsibilities. They have been able to deliver union training, ESL training, training on the global labour movement.
The FTUM is also active in support to Burmese migrant workers in Thailand and Malaysia. They have an elementary school in Thailand with 540 students – the children of migrant workers.
The issue of underage workers in Burma is on-going – a national policy is needed, discussion at the Parliamentary level on the minimum age of employment.
Census – the first National Census in 31 years – work is getting under way – UNICEF and the EU are assisting.
The Minimum Wage – the FTUM has been participating in the discussions
October 8, 2013
National League for Democracy Headquarters
Meeting with U Tin Oo, U Saw Tin Win, U Win Tin? (joined us 2/3 into the meeting)
U Tin Oo is Vice Chairman of the National League for Democracy. He is a retired general, former commander in chief of the armed forces of Union of Myanmar, highly decorated soldier and a pro-democracy activist.
We thanked U Tin Oo and his colleagues for taking the time to meet with us and provided them with some background on the Organizers Forum and our trip to Burma.
U Tin Oo spoke about trade unions in Burma. He noted that the government of Burma refers to trade unions as “workers associations” and that the Labour Act now allows the formation of worker associations. Workers are not able to fully exercise their rights as workers. He noted that the Federation of Trade Unions of Myanmar is now active inside the country. Burma’s Parliament is debating the Minimum Wage Act.
He spoke about Act 18 and the government’s process for applying for a permit to hold a protest demonstration.
A major issue for farmers is that of land grabs by the military, leaving them without land or compensation.
The NLD’s Labour Committee is carrying out its work. Every two weeks Members of Parliament, grassroots council members, experts and others participate in training on workers’ rights.
There is some freedom now, some flickers of light.
The meeting then moved into a Q & A:
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is traveling around the country, getting feedback at the grassroots level on constitutional changes. “This constitution is rigidly rigid”. To make a change there has to be 75% of parliaments combined votes. The change then goes to a referendum.
How is the National League for Democracy structured?
Ward, Township, State, Division
Affairs Committees: Social, Labor, Education, Business, Environmental Conservation
How do Peace Agreements affect the constitution?
Ceasefire talks, federalism – issues of beneficial sharing and trust, need to make real trust to lead to real federalism.
Freedom of the Press?
Media Act – some restrictions exist that clearly deny press freedom
NLD’s position on the minimum wage?
We are trying to work with the government and proceed with the constitution for future betterment.
Regional differences in cost of living – is an issue with having a fixed wage
Need to get some agreement between labor and business so that wages are fair and moderate
Economy – ICG Report highlighted issue of crony capitalism, monopolies on some products. Does the NLD have a position on economic reform?
A business forum was held a few weeks ago that spoke about the country’s current infrastructure challenges. The questions are what investments, for whom? Need for transparency and accountability. Now the rich are richer and the poor are poorer, change of mindset needed, a share of the benefits to the middle class and needy.
Good monetary practices needed. Big problems in the US (wage furlough, debt ceiling crisis)
Forced labor, under age labor, labor trafficking – rule of law, how to stop forced labor around the border areas
Control of the Military?
Defense, Security Council influence – parliament. Approvals must be changed. In 1948 General Aung San – constitution was workable, supreme was the people.
October 6, 2013
Training Centre – Township in Yangon
Meeting with WSLB members Ko Zarni
Introductions were made – Workers Solidarity League of Burma leadership, Local Union Executive Committee members, Local Union members and a number of workers who were at the Center to participate in Sunday computer and English language training.
Burma Labour History
On the wall of the Center is a colorful poster advertising an upcoming event – the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Oil Field Workers Strike at the Chauk petroleum refinery, owned by British Oil Company (BOC). A wave of strikes and protests that started from these oilfields of central Burma in 1938 became a general strike with far-reaching consequences. The “1300 Uprising” as it is called – paved the way for a nationwide anti-colonial independence movement in Burma. Also noted was the role of American oil drilling workers who in 1916-1917 organized and won Burma’s first industrial era strike – against BOC Oil.
Yangon Industrial Zones
Our hosts explained that there are 600 factories located in the industrial zone in the area of the Training Center. 70,000 workers are employed at those factories. 80% of these workers are women and the age range of workers is 15-25 years. Many of these workers have relocated from various regions of Burma to Yangon in a search of work.
There are 16 industrial zones located in and around Yangon. Burma’s government estimates that 160,000 people are employed in these zones. WSLB estimates that the number of workers is closer to 300,000.
Development of Industrial Zones commenced in 1993.
Land was confiscated by the government for the industrial zones – an average payout occupant of 20,000 kyat per acre was made to the displaced occupants. In turn, business owners paid much more money per acre to the regime in order to build and operate factories on the confiscated land. The tax paid by the businesses to the government is 10% of production.
From 1993 to 2012 the international community was not very aware of the plight of workers in these industrial zones.
Working Conditions in the Factories of the Industrial Zones
Average workday – 11 hours
Six day work week – Monday through Saturday
Minimum Wage Rate
Until 2012 the average wage rate was 400 kyat ($4 USD) per day.
From 2012 some improvements to the wage rate were made.
The average wage is now 60,000 kyat ($60 USD) per month including overtime pay/attendance bonus. These average wages do not cover the basic necessities of life.
Labor Movement in Burma
Burma has a working population of 13,000,000
A small number of workers are in unions
Private Sector workers can form a union with 10% support
Union Organizers face intimidation, dismissal by Employers
Union Organizations are required to register with the government. The word “union” is not utilized by the government in describing of labor organizations – when registering with the government – unions use the term “worker association” instead.
The WSLB has 100 Union Locals affiliated to their organization. They have worked to organize 30 union locals.
Women in leadership – 7 board members are women.
The Organization relies on support through individual donations and donors that support their project and training work.
The WSLB provides computer training, English language training and labor education.
Other activities of the Organization include the upcoming publication of a Workers Journal that will highlight a “Know Your Rights” section and provide information on how to organize a union at a workplace. The journal will also include interview with workers and activists. The journal will be distributed to groups that have an interest in labor rights.
They are also consulting with Locals regarding the reform of Burma’s minimum wage – the WSLB’s position is that a” living wage” be instituted in Burma rather than a set minimum wage so that regional variations in cost of living are accounted for and that any living wage be based on an eight hour work day and not include mandatory overtime work and attendance schemes. Consultations are under way in regard to the minimum wage – the government will decide and is currently receiving input for workers unions, employers.
The WSLB spoke of the need to foster and develop a national federation of workers unions and to increase labor networking and capacity building.
Burma does not have a market economy- prices of basic commodities are controlled by the government.
Inflation – wages are eroded by high inflation rates. The government’s official inflation figure is 20% annual inflation. The real rate is higher.
I received a note from Fred Ross, Jr. and Mike Miller seeking support for this campaign to recognize, posthumously, Fred Ross, Senior, one of the great organizers for lower income families of all races and ethnicity, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over the years while I was at ACORN whenever I was asked if I was an Alinksy-organizer, I would often reply, “No, I was a Ross-organizer!” Fred Ross’s commitment to house meetings was instrumental in the role “organizing committees” played in the ACORN Model.
Below you will find the letters that Fred and Mike have helped distribute that have been signed by several Congresspeople and sent to the White House. Hopefully, you will join us in adding your name in support of this call for recognition for those who work in the vineyards of the freedom fight.
As President Barack Obama considers candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I write to you today to join me in a letter that urges the President to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.
Since 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.
Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life. “For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.
To join this letter, please contact Christina Partida (Grijalva) at Christina.Partida@mail.house.gov.
Raúl M. Grijalva George Miller Lucille Roybal-Allard
Member of Congress Member of Congress Member of Congress
Dear President Obama,
We, the undersigned, are writing to ask you to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross, Sr.
Last year, when Dolores Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom she recognized Fred Ross Sr. as the organizer who mentored both her and Cesar Chavez. Cesar once described his relationship with Fred Ross by saying “I learned quite a bit by studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer I know, Fred Ross Sr….he changed my life.”
For nearly half a century, Fred educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear, despair and cynicism. He was a pioneer who fought for racial and economic justice.
In the thirties and early forties, he organized “Dust Bowl” refugees in the migratory worker camps that John Steinbeck wrote about, helping them form camp councils and self-governance. In the mid-forties, he worked with Japanese Americans during World War II. He organized community support to combat wartime hysteria and prejudice. He helped newly released “internees” find employment and housing in Cleveland and San Francisco.
After WWII, in the midst of KKK activity, he organized eight Civic Unity Leagues in California’s Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican Americans and African Americans together to battle segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theatres. In Orange County he organized parents to fight the practice of segregation in local schools and successfully integrated School Boards across the Citrus Belt through voter registration drives and civic engagement. One of the most dramatic outcomes of his work in Orange County occurred when parents sued the School Districts and prevailed. (Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, et al. 1947), creating the legal precedent for the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.
In 1947 Saul Alinsky hired Ross to organize the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles’ Eastside Barrio. In 1949 the CSO helped elect Ed Roybal, the first Hispanic ever elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
In the early 1950s, Ross met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. He recruited them to become fulltime organizers with the CSO and became a lifetime mentor. Together with CSO leaders across California and Arizona, they successfully overcame voter suppression efforts and passed landmark legislation on behalf of immigrants. Ross recruited and trained many other Hispanic leaders, including Cruz Reynoso who was later appointed the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice in California, and who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. Later he recruited and trained young farm worker, Eliseo Medina, who dedicated years to the UFW, became the Secretary Treasurer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and is a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform today.
In 1965, as part of the “War on Poverty,” Ross worked through Syracuse University and trained many of the organizers who went on to be leaders in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the deep south.
Perhaps, Fred Ross Sr. is most remembered for his work with America’s farm workers and their struggle for justice and dignity during the 1960s and 1970s. He trained close to 2,000 grape and lettuce boycott and strike organizers in every major city in the United States and Toronto, Canada. The powerful pressure that resulted from massive collective action led to the passage of the historic California Agricultural Labor Relations Act signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown in 1975.
In 1983 Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred Ross Jr., and trained organizers to defeat the unfair Recall election of San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein who had been targeted because of her support for tough gun control regulation in the aftermath of the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. Fred Ross Sr.’s house meeting method was instrumental in recruiting the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to defeat the Recall by an 80% margin.
In the mid-1980s, Fred Ross Sr. joined his son, Fred, to train yet another generation of organizers to challenge the Reagan foreign policy in Central America. He died in 1992 at the age of 82.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Fred Ross Senior left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”
Jerry Cohen, former UFW General Counsel stated, “Fred fought more fights and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again.”
That Fred remains an unsung hero, despite decades of unselfish work and achievements, is largely his own fault. Carey McWilliams may have put it best when he wrote: “(Fred) is a man of exasperating modesty, the kind that never steps forward to claim his fair share of credit for any enterprise in which he is involved.”
The late Los Angeles Times Associate Editor, Frank del Olmo, called Ross “one of a small cadre of underappreciated people who saw the potential in the Mexican American community long before anyone else did, literally generations before anyone else did, and helped nurture it and bring it along at a time when there was really no certainty that the potential they saw would ever come to fruition. I’m enough of an historian to believe that this kind of quiet heroism should not be forgotten.”
Fred Ross Sr.’s enduring legacy an organizer who built collective action, citizenship engagement, and leadership development has never been more relevant or important to our democracy.
In recognition of this unsung hero we urge you to confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously upon Fred Ross, Sr. This recognition would be a beacon of hope for living and future organizers committed to social justice.
Members of Congress
After eleven (11) years of fascinating visits and dialogues around the world, the Organizers’ Forum, its board, participants, and consistent institutional stakeholders are having a dialogue of their own about the next 10 years of programmatic dialogues around the world. The discussion is tilting towards two emerging themes that have been products of past dialogues becoming alternate offerings of the Organizers’ Forum.
One consistent focus has been to visit countries in transition to better understand both what is happening and the role of mass-based organizations, social movements, labor unions, community organizations, and non-profits in driving or adapting to these transitions. Along this line we were in Brazil on the eve of the seminal election sweeping Lula and the Workers’ Party into power, we visited South Africa 10 years after the end of apartheid, we were in Egypt last year within months of the revolution and overthrow of Mubarak, and most recently Bolivia to understand the role and relationship between social movements and Evo Morales, the country’s first president to have come from the ranks of the majority indigenous population and social movement participation with the Water Wars and the cocaleros. Similar points could be made about our explorations in Indonesia, Russia, Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Turkey, as we tried to understand democratic claims, the role of Islam, the participation of women, and the conflicts between state economies and political experience.
Another consistent theme in many of these same countries as well as in our Australian dialogue has been our attempts to better understand the role of migration and immigration and its impact on the country. A closely connected and related theme of these dialogues has often the treatment, tensions, and cultural conflicts in these countries and how they dealt with minorities, ethnic, and religious groups, whether Roma in Turkey, Karin refugees in Mae Sot on the Thai border, Coptic’s in Cairo, non-Muslims in Indonesia, and others. For example during this last dialogue, while in Cochabamba, one of the participants made a fascinating proposal for a future dialogue in Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, so that organizers working with immigrant communities in various areas of the North America might better understand the economic, cultural, and organizational roots of populations in their home areas. We like the idea but believe it will take significant commitment and organizational assistance from some of our partners to realize fully.
At this point as a placeholder we are looking at the following likely International Dialogue venues to try and combine these themes and interests, while allowing various proposals for the future to surface and season.
2013 International Dialogue: Burma from Sunday, September 29th through October 4th
The “opening” of Burma or Myanmar in the last year or so has been breathtaking and has included signs from the United States of relaxing restraints, the end of house arrest and then election to the Parliament of Nobel Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other signs that the military rule has ended. What created this opening at this time? What were the role of struggles along the border, pressure from the opposition and the Buddhist monks and adherents? How will the economy be improved? How will relationships with the scores of ethnic and linguistic minorities be resolved? What will be the impact on the region? There are a lot of questions worth exploration as well as coming to understand once again how revolutionary change happens in real time and learn from it. Dates for the dialogue are scheduled for Sunday, September 29, through October 4th.
2014 International Dialogue: Nicaragua from Sunday, September 29 through October 3rd
Nicaragua is a country caught in contemporary contradictions. There is no question that there are mass organizations. Certainly in the first stage of the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980’s there were dramatic reports and scholarly works on the importance of community organizations in creating new forms of participation in society and government, particularly in lower income areas. Other social movements impacted women, labor, and ethnic minorities along the Coast. In the last battles of the Cold War, heavily supported by the Regan Administration in the United States, the contras were involved in a controversial shooting war an eventually Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas were pushed out. More recently there has been another chapter to this story. After a series of electoral defeats at the ballot box, the Sandinistas have returned to power and Ortega is now serving a second consecutive term, having been re-elected successfully. What happened here? Is there a democracy? Has there been real reform? Is this a case where a government is still moving progressively or is there now simply a consolidation of power behind the ruling party? What are the role of social movements, women, campesinos, community organizations, and unions now? Are they free and autonomous? Why is Nicaragua reportedly the poorest country in Latin America? We would to answer these and other questions from Sunday, September 28, through Friday, October 3rd.
In line with our other emphasis, the following chart contains a list of the 25 areas within the United States for example which have the highest totals of Nicaraguan immigrants. Many as you can see are in Florida, California, Louisiana, and Texas (source: Wikipedia).
US communities with largest population of people of Nicaraguan ancestry
The top 25 US communities with the highest populations of Nicaraguans (Source: Census 2010)