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The ethics of disaster capitalism
As we head into the Labor Day weekend, I have been thinking a lot about my scarce resources and how the “buy local” soundbite is marketed versus enacted. “Buy local” has been the social antidote to the corporate siege of small businesses–the idea that if we vote with our dollars by spending it locally, then we may have a stone’s chance to topple the Goliath of anonymous corporate greed.
Vermont has got this buy local thing down pat–our Capital’s cute downtown is (or was) lined with family-run businesses. It’s a point of pride that we buy and sell to one another. Support the apothecary, the family restaurant, the stationers, and they in turn support us. But there’s not much to buy right now.
Barre and Montpelier flood recovery efforts continue. Montpelier hasn’t fully reopened yet–many shops have utilized the temporary pop-up on Saturdays on the college green. For a couple of days last week, downtown Barre has been drowning in a loud drone of a vacuum truck that was drying out one of the 19th century buildings. Folks are out of jobs, and the bills are piling up.
Alongside the physical cleanup is the scale of fundraising underway. The largest statewide fundraiser has raised a little over $6M, with about a third of that already disbursed. Separate private funds are also popping up to support recovery by region and by sector. Additionally, many, many GoFundMe pages are actively soliciting support for individual campaigns. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Beyond donating cash, recovery-related merchandise is also available. Two efforts come to mind: the Better Together campaign at VTDigger and the Vermont Strong (and tough) plates from the state. Both offer consumer goods in trade for profit sharing with established relief funds.
Invisible sweatshops and captive labor
On the heels of the blandest rebrand ever, the VTD Better Together merch is a line in muted colors on clothing made overseas. The proceeds are to be split between the Digger newsroom and the Vermont Community Foundation. I do appreciate the sourcing clarity, though besides countries of origin, we do not know if these items qualify as fair trade. Will anyone wear this? I doubt it.
The slogan is wholly unoriginal and looks like a product offered by another charity, The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. While there’s a whole history of branded merch in return for a donation (VPR mug, anyone?), this clothing line smacks of a shallow, opportunistic grab for some of the cash flowing to relief efforts. Anyone wearing these might as well be wearing Melania’s famous “I really don’t care” coat.
Because while I appreciate the “transparency” of the sourcing info, Nicaragua, Honduras and Bangladesh are not the places one thinks of when one thinks of ethical clothing manufacturers. It wouldn’t have been hard to find a t-shirt maker in Vermont. But maybe they figured we wouldn’t really care about preserving Vermont jobs, as long as they get their 50% share of the profits.
The Vermont Strong plates however are a tested (if boring) commodity–Gov. Shumlin authorized them in 2011 as part of the relief efforts of Tropical Storm Irene. Relief funds from the sale of these plates amounted to $543,000 over the five years they were on sale. Slightly updated, there are two versions for sale to benefit this current relief effort. One comes bundled with a pair of limited edition Darn Tough socks. There is a limit of three per household though businesses can order them for resale. I have issues with the Vermont Strong verbiage, but I’ll save that for another post.
Unlike the Digger merch, the plates and socks offered are made in Vermont. Though I assume that the plates will be made where all other license plates are made: at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Saint Albans. The state-run facility employs 14 inmates, who are paid between 25-cents to $1.35 per hour. At the highest end, that’s a tenth of Vermont’s minimum wage. Vermont’s captive labor workforce is budgeted for about $1.6M. That’s a lot of wages that are not contributing to payroll taxes, retirement savings, or Social Security. Incarcerated workers are under complete control of the system and have minimal protections against exploitation and abuse.
According to an ACLU report from last year, “In Vermont, most incarcerated workers have been paid $0.25 per hour since 1988, when the pay scale for non-industry jobs was last revised.” It seems that despite the progressive pay scale, our inmates are working for the lowest wages.
Darn Tough seems to be the only purveyor of integrity. They boast long term employees and employ veterans.
Who benefits from prison labor?
“The chief beneficiaries of prison labor are (1) the prison system itself; (2) state, local, and federal governments; and (3) private sector companies which can exploit a captive labor force that has much to lose and little to expect,” reports the ACLU.
In truth, we all benefit–from the neat cemeteries and city parks, to the clean highways, the road signs, and license plates we are compelled to purchase when we register our vehicles. There’s no escaping the fruits of the prison labor we permit. It surrounds us.
The sales from the plates and socks will be split to benefit the BEGAP program and the VCF relief fund, so why should the matter of prison labor matter?
According to the DOC’s FY23 budget report, they acknowledge that the prisoners of color are disproportionate to the general population. Vermont is not unique in this–many states have the same imbalance.
The $1.6M in wages that the Vermont Correctional Industries budgeted is basically legalized “under the table” wages. They are not taxed, do not contribute to any accrued social benefit, and is well below acceptable rates for non incarcerated people doing similar work. At the minimum, a person could be making $2 per day for a full day’s work. That’s Third World wages.
Vermont’s progressive veneer is easy to buy–there are even lookalikes of Vermont Strong plates, ones from Irene are selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. From an informal survey of my Facebook friends, most of them intend to purchase the Vermont Strong plates. Both the fundraising effort and the desire for some tangible relic of this disaster are contributing factors. I’d also say it leans into the American consumerist impulse to retail therapy our way out of hard times.
Like many of you, I’ll be barbecuing and partying with friends on this long holiday. Typically the Old Labor Hall in Barre hosts an event about labor movements, but they were likewise flooded and are remediating. I remember once attending a talk by historian and musician Mark Greenberg on songs of labor movements, and he ended the program with the entire room joining in a round of “Solidarity Forever”. It was quite moving to pledge my allegiance to the betterment of workers everywhere.
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Disclaimer: I worked at VTDigger for a time. Meme via the internet
Note: the Better Together line was only available through Aug 31st, some links above may no longer work. Here’s a link to a story about the line, for context: https://vtdigger.org/2023/07/25/better-together-merch-collaboration/
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