July/August 2002 IBEW Journal
A Cultural Connection
For the most part, the island populations on Guam and Saipan have had very little experience with unions. But Hawaii is the second-most heavily unionized state in the country (behind New York), so organizers have a valuable opportunity to present workers with the benefits of collective bargaining. "Its a big educational process," Dias said. "When you are suppressed and degraded all of your life, its all you know."
Dias, who is also the Hawaii state AFL-CIO president, said Hawaii has a unique relationship with Guam and Saipan because all are Pacific islands with ties to the United States.
"Distance-wise we are closer to them than any other western civilization," Dias said from his office in Honolulu, Hawaii. "A lot of the traditions are similar."
Efforts to Repeal Right-to-Work
Things have changed in the two years since Guams legislature enacted the right-to-work law. The 15-member assembly lost some key Republican members and forces seeking to repeal right-to-work have the solid votes of nearly half of the legislators. But the bill is in the hands of a Republican committee chairman who is unlikely to release it to the full legislature this year. (Because the law was passed by the legislature, it can also be revoked by a vote of its assembly, unlike enactment by referendum, as happened in Oklahoma last year and in Idaho in 1984 in the only two states in a quarter century to adopt right-to-work.)
Political realities also cloud prospects of repeal. This year, the governors four-year term and every seat in the legislature is up. Because of the uncertain political landscape, observers do not expect much action this year. But IBEW leaders Ahakuelo, Dias and McAlister all expressed hope for the laws eventual repeal.
"I think the prospects are good," Dias said. "Now that we have a coordinated effort from the unions there, we have a good opportunity."
Although both Guam and Saipan are territories of the United States separated by a couple hundred miles, there are important differences. Guams minimum wage is the same as that of the United States while Saipans is only $3.05 an hour, about half of that on the U.S. mainland.
As the only U.S. territory exempted from American minimum wage and immigration laws, Saipan has been an attractive site for clothing makers seeking to use the "Made in the U.S.A." label. Many of todays best-selling retailers, including the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, The Limited and Ralph Lauren sell clothing manufactured in Saipan. The popular clothing lines have been targeted by anti-sweatshop activists for protests and lawsuits.
Most of those working in the factories are foreign contract workers from China, many of whom must pay recruitment and travel fees just to get to Saipan. Once there, they are housed in extremely crowded quarters, locked into factories and required to work unpaid overtime and even forced to have abortions. Working and living conditions of Saipans 15,000 garment workers are the subject of a film screened across the United States in May by the human rights group Witness titled "Behind the Labels: Garment Workers on US Saipan." The New York Times editorialized in May that legislation to bring Saipan under mainland minimum wage and immigration laws has extensive support in Congress but has been repeatedly blocked by House Republican whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
U.S. Representative George Miller (D-California), a longtime advocate for tougher labor laws in the Marianas, hailed the May approval by a U.S. District judge of a settlement involving more than 30,000 sweatshop workers who claimed underpayment of wages and other abuses at the hands of the islands garment industry.
"Sadly, the Congress has refused year after year to respond to the disgraceful conditions in the Marianas, not only in the garment industry but in the construction and hotel industry as well," Miller said. "All of our efforts to correct these abuses have met with stonewalled indifference from the leadership of Congress."
IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill said aggressive organizing on the islands is symbolic of the IBEWs ongoing commitment to securing for all workers the opportunity to find a voice. "The fact that business increasingly follows an unrestricted, one-world economy makes it imperative that the IBEW organize workers, especially those working under the American flag."
Guam & Saipan: