Scenes from the struggle for economic justice

Oakland's Community Democracy Project, Bangladeshi sweatshop activists, California domestic workers, and more May Day warriors

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At an April 25 rally in SF, Bangladeshi activists fight for 112 workers who died in a fire making garments for Walmart.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE


Hacking Oakland's budget

Sporting trucker hats, nose rings, and in activist Shawn McDougal's case, a white tee with "Revolutionary" printed across the front in simple black lettering, the young, energetic activists assembled at Sudo Room, an Oakland hacker space, come across as unlikely ballot-initiative proponents. Nevertheless, in a few short weeks, the all-volunteer Community Democracy Project crew intends to hit the pavement and begin collecting signatures for a measure to introduce "participatory budgeting" to Oakland city government.

Their objective is to set up a kind of direct democracy system for hashing out the city's discretionary spending. The proposal would create a charter amendment and a new Oakland city department to reconfigure the politically contentious budget allocation process, by "shifting accountability in a way that more people are able to engage," says organizer Sonya Rifkin.

The proposal envisions convening democratic "neighborhood assemblies," each of which would represent roughly 4,000 Oaklanders. Any resident age 16 or older would be free to attend meetings and vote on NA proposals. The NA proposals would then be forwarded onto citywide committees and synthesized as proposals for the ballot, whereupon the electorate would have the final say.

For the Community Democracy Project organizers, who mostly became acquainted through Occupy Oakland, the radical concept is just as much about achieving equitable budget allocation as it is about stoking the embers of community building. To place it on Oakland's city ballot, the ambitious campaigners hope to collect 40,000 signatures in the next six months.

It's a tall order, yet the activists appear undaunted. It's a movement, McDougal says, comprised of "regular people, realizing that they don't have to be spectators. They can be participants." (Rebecca Bowe)

Solidarity with Bangladeshi sweatshop workers

News of a Bangladesh factory collapse last week that killed hundreds of low-wage workers reached San Francisco just as labor organizers were preparing to rally for stronger safety measures in overseas sweatshops.

Last November, a fire broke out in the Tarzeen Fashions factory in Bangladesh, killing 112 employees who produced garments for Walmart and other retailers. Sumi Abedin, a 24-year-old garment worker who earned about $62 a month working 11-hour days, six days a week, survived the blaze.

Through a translator, Abedin told reporters, "We were trying to exit through the staircase, and then we saw a lot of burned bodies, injured bodies. And I jumped through a third floor window because I thought, instead of being burned alive, even if I die, my mother will get my body."

Abedin was standing outside San Francisco's Gap headquarters, flanked by Bay Area activists from Jobs with Justice, Unite HERE, Our Walmart, and others. They were there to call on the popular retailer to sign a fire-safety agreement to implement renovations, at an estimated cost of about 10 cents per garment. In a statement, Gap noted that it had implemented its own four-point plan "to improve fire safety at the selected factories that produce our products."

Gap had no direct connection with the Tarzeen Fashions blaze that Abedin narrowly escaped. Yet Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity organizer Kalpona Akter explained that the campaign was targeting Gap because "they're saying they have corporate social responsibility," yet have refused to sign onto the worker-sanctioned, legally binding fire safety agreement endorsed by BCWS, which brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and German retailer Tchibo have committed to. "This is one appropriate thing Gap can do in this moment," Akter said, "if they really wanted to prevent this death toll in other parts of the world." (Bowe)

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