Signs of Life: Spring 2011

Small stories about big change.
Signs of Life Spring 2011






Domestic Workers Win Bill of Rights

A long-excluded workforce finally gets the protections it deserves.

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The first law in the United States establishing rights for domestic workers—privately employed nannies, housekeepers, and elder-care providers—went into effect in New York state in November.

Boston nanny photo by Sharon Mollerus

Photo by Sharon Mollerus.

“This is a workforce that has been excluded from the labor laws of this country, whose work has never been seen as real work … who work long hours—sometimes 50 and 70 hours per week for less than minimum wage,” says Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, organizing coodinator of Domestic Workers United (DWU).

A study by DWU found that of more than 200,000 domestic workers in New York state, 26 percent made wages below the poverty line or below minimum wage, 43 percent worked 50 hours a week or more, an 67 percent didn’t receive pay for overtime.

The new law, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, requires a minimum of one day off a week, three days paid vacation a year, overtime pay, and protection against discrimination and harassment.

DWU, a New York-based organization that informs workers of their rights at the neighborhood level, campaigned for six years for the new law. It is now advocating for inclusion of domestic workers in the New York State Labor Relations Act, which would provide them the right of collective bargaining.

In California, a domestic workers rights bill passed by the state assembly in 2006 was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Organizations working to pass another law in the state are encouraged by the success in New York, while domestic workers in Massachusetts and Colorado are campaigning for domestic workers’ rights laws in their states.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, an association of

33 member organizations, is aiming for reform of regulations at the federal level that will allow the Department of Labor to improve enforcement of laws protecting domestic workers.­

—Caitlin Battersby is an editorial intern at YES!

Fair-Labor Logos Find Factory Home

A new wave of campus clothing that's made with a livable wage.

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For more than a decade, activists urged college-logo clothing manufacturers to end poverty wages and labor rights violations in their factories. Campus-based organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops pressured companies to allow monitoring by the labor rights watchdog Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

Alta Garcia Apparel

Alta Gracia Apparel’s website allows you to check whether your college bookstore carries the company’s fair-labor products.

Photo courtesy of Alta Garcia.

These campaigns won a major breakthrough when Alta Gracia Apparel adopted a new business model designed to provide high standards for fair-labor conditions. The Alta Gracia factory, owned by American company Knights Apparel, opened in the Dominican Republic in August 2010 to produce college-logo clothing in cooperation with the local garment workers’ union.

Alta Gracia exceeds industry norms by paying a living wage—more than three and a half times the Dominican minimum. Based on a WRC cost-of-living study, this salario digno, or “dignified wage,” enables Alta Gracia workers to support their families, covering the costs of food, housing, health care, transportation, and education for their children.

Higher wages from the factory have had a ripple effect in the surrounding community. Food stands have opened to greet the lunch rush, shiny new motorcycle taxis scoot workers to and from the factory, and construction companies are building more secure and livable homes.

The Alta Gracia model also extends the notion of “school pride” beyond the American college campuses where the company sells its products. Workers’ children have access to early education, and workers themselves can now afford to attend weekend continuing-education classes.

“Alta Gracia has given my family the chance for a better education,” says union leader Yenny Perez. “The factory even has a free daycare where my 4-year-old can play while I’m working.”

Alta Gracia products are stocked in 350 college bookstores in the United States. They retail at the same price as comparable college-logo apparel, but are the first brand to carry a tag from the WRC confirming that Alta Gracia pays a living wage, respects workers’ rights, and allows unrestricted, frequent labor-condition monitoring.
-Rachel Taber is Alta Gracia National Organizer and a University of Washington and United Students Against Sweatshops alumna.

Dealing With U.S. Deficit: Outdoor Playtime For Kids

New Yorkers throw the "Ultimate Block Party" to reclaim play for city kids.

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  On a crisp, clear day last October, 50,000 parents and children gathered in New York’s Central Park to play. There was a drum circle and dancing, a giant game of “Simon Says,” and an adventure playground built by kids out of wood, cardboard, and fabric.

Kid with drum photo by Kum Kit Tan

Nearly 50,000 parents and children gathered in New York’s Central Park for “The Ultimate Block Party,” organized to demonstrate the importance of play. Experts in child development worry that many American children don’t play enough.

Photo by Kum Kit Tan.

The Ultimate Block Party, organized to demonstrate the importance of play, drew five times as many participants as the organizers had expected.

With overbooked family schedules and restrictions on physical freedom, experts in child development worry that many American children are missing out on playtime. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, American children spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of a TV or computer screen.

“For a child to reach their full potential, unstructured outdoor play is essential,” says Fran Mainella, co-chair of the US Play Coalition at Clemson University. “Without the opportunity for play, decision-making, creativity, and imagination are restricted.”

The US Play Coalition, an organization of educators, is just one of many groups around the country who are working to correct America’s play deficit. Another is KaBOOM!, a nonprofit that helps parents set up neighborhood playgrounds. Their play campaign has established

1,900 playgrounds so far, often starting with community-building play day events.

Play for Tomorrow, a new coalition of educators, researchers, and businesses, organized The Ultimate Block Party in New York, and is working with other cities to host similar giant play day events throughout North America. —­Alyssa B. Johnson is an editorial intern with YES!

Tolerance in a Small Town

Residents rally for their Muslim neighbors when authorities target the local Islamic center.

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Last summer, during the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, the battle for tolerance spread to upstate New York, where the sleepy town of Sidney, population 5,993, suddenly found itself in the media spotlight.

Sufi Muslim Center photos by Osmanli Traveller

Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani Dergahi is a Sufi Muslim center in Sidney, N.Y.

Photo courtesy of Osmanli Traveller.

A Sufi Islamic center and farm in the town contains a small cemetery on its grounds. When a member of the Sufi community was killed in a car accident and buried there, Sidney’s town supervisor Robert McCarthy called the cemetery illegal and said its two graves might have to be moved. In August 2010 the town’s board of supervisors tasked its attorney with researching how to close down the cemetery.

The Sufis, who had in fact obtained the necessary burial permits, expressed outrage at a heated town meeting in October. “Nobody called me. Nobody sent us a letter. You made assumptions about us that were not true,” said Meryem Brawley, one of the center’s owners.

Amid an overflow crowd of 150 people, one community member after another spoke out in support of the town’s Sufi neighbors. In reference to the media’s coverage of the controversy, town resident Patrick McElligott said, “For a while, Sidney was put in the hot seat and started to look like the butt of a national joke, but we’ve overcome that because everybody came together.”

The repercussions of the controversy have gone far beyond the town meeting. Two groups—Impeach Bob McCarthy and Sidney First—formed to change the town’s leadership.

According to McElligott, more Sidney residents are reaching out to their Muslim neighbors and visiting the center.

Tom Schimmerling, the Sufis’ lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors, was so inspired by the events that he plans to travel across the country in his new turban (a gift from the Sufis) this spring to see for himself what it’s like to be Muslim in America. Sven Eberlein

Frances Fox Piven“We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.”

-Frances Fox Piven, longtime scholar of social movements, suggesting that the unemployed mobilize for government investment in public-service programs, infrastructure, and green energy.


Benefit Corps, a New Kind of Company

Corporations committed to both profits and people could change the mindset of the business world.

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For-profit corporations have become known over the past two decades for layoffs, outsourcing, and determination to maximize profits for investors—no matter the cost to employees, consumers, or the economy. But such practices may be waning: States across the U.S. are considering laws to enable entrepreneurs to create corporations that do as much for society as they do for their shareholders.

outdoor office photo courtesy of office now

Photo courtesy of Office Now.

Maryland was the first state to pass Benefit Corporations (“B-Corps”) legislation. Co-sponsored by State Senators Jamie Raskin and Brian Frosh and Delegate Brian Feldman, the law, which went into effect in October 2010, creates a new class of corporation committed to having a positive impact on the environment and society. Vermont and New York passed similar legislation in June. Legislators in other states, including California, Colorado, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, are considering the issue.

Businesses incorporated under B-Corps laws have social goals and commitments written into company bylaws. This ensures that companies will no longer face the hard choice of sacrificing their socially beneficial goals in order to fulfill their responsibility to investors when, for example, an acquisition offer is on the table. Under traditional corporate law, company heads can’t refuse such an offer for fear of a lawsuit from shareholders.

“There have been a number of socially conscious companies that have been forced to sell out to large corporations and end up sacrificing the public side of the equation,” explains Raskin. “Ben & Jerry’s is an excellent example. The directors of the corporation were required to accept a handsome buyout offer even though they knew the business would lose its soul.”

B-Corps may choose any goals that will have a measurable “general public benefit.” They can go totally “green,” offer worker training or literacy programs, or host activities that promote the arts and sciences. Companies incorporated under the law will have to submit an annual report detailing not only their finances but also their good works.

According to Sean Smeeton, president of Taharka Brothers, the law is just the right match for his Baltimore-based ice cream company. The company works to dispel misperceptions about young men from Baltimore’s underserved communities, while helping them gain work experience, leadership skills, and the opportunity to become stockholders in Taharka Brothers.

 “The Benefit Corp movement should bring a change in mindset to the business world and entrepreneurs,” says Smeeton. “The two will be able to acknowledge the vital role business can play in making the world a better place.” —Walaika Haskins


According to a poll by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, most Americans want to protect Social Security.

To balance the U.S. budget, 61 percent favored taxing the rich, 20 percent chose cutting military spending, and only three percent were for cutting Social Security.

RootsAction is a new organization for “economic fairness, equal rights, civil liberties, environmental protections—and defunding endless wars.” Supporters include Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Daniel Ellsberg, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Bill Fletcher Jr.

Public Pressure Saves 2,200 Mountain Acres

An Appalachian victory in the battle against mountaintop mining.

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One of the most environmentally damaging mining practices may be on the way out.

Sandra Diaz photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices

“The science is overwhelming in showing the detrimental impacts on the water and the community health impacts,” says Sandra Diaz of Appalachian Voices.

Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices.

In January 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blocked a proposed West Virginia mining project that would have been among the biggest mountaintop removals in Appalachia. Mountaintop removal is a method of mining that involves blasting the tops off mountains to excavate coal.

The EPA used its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto a permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine to dispose of coal-mine waste in nearby streams.

Had it been allowed to move forward, the project would have destroyed more than 2,200 mountain acres, dumping more than 110 million cubic yards of coal-mine waste into more than six miles of adjacent streams. The pollution would have been carried downstream.

“The science is overwhelming in showing the detrimental impacts on the water and the community health impacts,” says Sandra Diaz of Appalachian Voices, an activist group working to end mountaintop removal. While this decision represents a victory in the fight to protect Appalachia’s communities, wildlife, and forestland, mountaintop removal persists. Already 500 mountains have been blasted, and more than 2,000 miles of stream buried.

Activist organizations have cultivated a nationwide movement against mountaintop removal by pushing legislation and raising awareness of the method’s harmful effects. The EPA received over 50,000 public comments about Spruce Mine.  —Rebecca Leisher is an online editorial intern at YES!

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A Dutch parliamentary ­committee heard complaints that Shell ignored human rights abuses and understated its responsibility for oil spills in Nigeria. The hearing also considered what authority Dutch courts should have over multinationals.

Chris Hedges“Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive.”


-Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner and former war correspondent, explaining why he joined a civil disobedience protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outside the White House on December 16, 2010.

Signs of Life: Spring 2011 is part of , the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.



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