Anti-sweatshop Action in Grand Rapids – 1996

As part of the growing anti-globalization/anti-free trade movement that was growing in the US, especially after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, organizers with the Institute for Global Education held an action at the Woodland Mall to bring attention to the sweatshop labor practices of the global corporation, Disney.

In the Spring of 1996, the Institute for Global Education had brought Charles Kernaghan, the head of the National Labor Committee, to Grand Rapids to speak about the work of his organization. Kernaghan made national headlines when he confronted Kathy Lee Gifford over the sweatshop conditions at a factory in Honduras that was manufacturing her clothing line.

Kernaghan used confrontation as a way of exposing the growing international garment industry’s practices of using sweatshop labor, a practice that led to the book that Naomi Klein wrote, No Logo. One of the biggest brand names that the National Labor Committee took on was Disney, which was being confronted by the amount of sweatshop labor the company was using, especially in Haiti.

We have written about other organizing around Haiti, in a 3-part series that dealt with West Michigan connections to Haiti in the early 1990s, especially the clothing manufacturer, HH Culter, which used to make clothes in Grand Rapids, before moving their operation to Haiti.

Bringing the spokesperson for the National Labor Committee to Grand Rapids was important at the time, as it led to a greater awareness of how globalization was impacting workers around the world. In addition, bring Charles Kernaghan to town help to create the seeds of a movement that began in Grand Rapids in 1996, a movement that would later call itself the anti-globalization movement.

The first action, which was specifically designed to challenge anti-sweatshop labor, took place in Grand Rapids in late November of 1996 at the Woodland Mall. The image below if from an article in the Grand Rapids Press.

There was another campaign against Nike in 1997 that Grand Rapids organized put together, which was followed by many other actions that confronted sweatshops. In addition, there was an effort after the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, to bring labor organizers, environmentalists and community organizers together to confront the growing connections of globalization that were taking place in West Michigan, which we will explore in future articles.

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Grand Valley Labor News series on Amway – 1980

We recently received a three-part series of articles written by Michael Johnston, a Grand Rapids labor historian and former journalist with Grand Valley Labor News (GVLN).

This recently acquired three-part series is important, since he provides important analysis about co-founders Rich DeVos & Jay Van Andel. The GVLN series is also important because it looks at the anti-labor practices of the Ada-based corporation in the late 1960 and early 1970s.

Part I of the series provides more of an overview of the Amway Corporation and its co-founders DeVos and Van Andel. One thing important from Part I in the series is the information about how much media the Amway corporation produces and owns, both in the United States and around the world.

In Part II of the series, entitled, The Right Wing Idol, Johnston takes a look at theideological worldview of the Amway co-founders and provides details on who these two members of the capitalist class were funding at the time. This investigation into which organizations DeVos and Van Andel were funding is similar to our post from another source in the late 1990s. It is important to have some comparisons in different decades to see how their contributions to Right Wing entities had evolved.

In addition, the picture that accompanies Part II in this series (see above), is from May of 1980, where some 500 people were in Calder Plaza to protest Amway’s anti-labor practices. Most of those protesting were from various trade unions, but there were also representatives from ACORN – the Association for Community Organizing for Reform Now.

In Part III of the series, the writer takes a close look at Amway’s anti-union position, beginning with examples from the 1960s, when the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (part of the AFL-CIO) attempted to unionize the Amway plant in Ada.

This story is particularly interesting since it discusses how Rich DeVos began holding mandatory in plant meetings to counter the union efforts. Part III devotes a fair amount of attention to this dynamic, since DeVos has made this practice of regular meetings with employees an important part of his strategy to undermine workers who attempt to create a union within the company founded on a pyramid scheme.

(A big thank you to Michael Johnston for sharing this series and for allowing us to post in on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site.)

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1991 Resistance to the Gulf War in Grand Rapids: Part II

In Part I of this article, we looked at how people in Grand Rapids resisted the US military attack on Iraq in the early part of 1991. In today’s post we will look at the aftermath of that US war and the ongoing resistance to the killing of Iraqis by people in Grand Rapids.

Just weeks after the US military ended the invasion/war on Iraq in February of 1991, it became known that the PR film of Hill & Knowlton had done a great deal to sway public opinion and the US Congress to get their support for war. The Center for Media & Democracy initially published a report on how the PR firm had fabricated information, particularly the story about Iraqi soldiers taking Kuwaiti children out of their incubators and killing them. This PR effort used a Kuwaiti girl, who testified at a Congressional hearing, but was only discovered later that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US. Watch this documentary on the PR industry and at 24:50 you will hear how Hill & Knowlton developed their campaign to demonize Iraq.

Another thing that came out of the war was the brutal air assaults by the US military, particularly on Iraqi troops that were in retreat. In late February of 1991, US fighter pilots dropped bombs on the Iraqi military, which was retreating on highway 80 towards Basara. One of the images that came out of the US military assault was the picture below, of an Iraqi soldier who had been burned alive in the vehicle he was in during the US bombing campaign.

Another incident that received attention later, was the revelation that the US military was putting snow plows on the front of Abrams M1 tanks and burying Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert. The independent media had reported on this earlier, but here is a link from a New York Times article later that year. It was this crime that got the attention of several anti-war activists in Grand Rapids.

In late June of 1991, the Grand Rapids Press announced that George H.W. Bush would be coming to town to celebrate the 4th of July. It was also reported that the same kind of tanks that were used to bury Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert just months earlier, would also be in a parade that Grand Rapids would be having for President Bush.

Three Grand Rapids anti-war activists decided that they would protest not only Bush’s visit, but the tanks that were used to violate international law, which would be in the parade. You can see from a GR Press photo below, that the three activists tried to lay down in front of the tanks, but were quickly stopped by Secret Service and local cops.

The three activists decided to challenge their arrest by using International Law as a defense. The group went to trial in November 1991 and defended themselves. The day before the trial the court change the judge, who would no longer allow them to use International Law as a defense, despite the fact that they had submitted a 40-page brief.

Judge Christensen would not allow them to use an International Law argument, so the three activists just tried to get the jury to hear their side of the story. The three activists were charged with blocking a roadway. However, the jury did not find the three activists guilty, since the cops dragged them out of the way so fast that the parade never missed a beat.

The Grand Rapids City Attorney was so upset, since he was beaten by three young activists who defended themselves. Unfortunately, there was no other resistance to the Gulf War or its aftermath, like the ongoing US bombing of Iraq in the No Fly Zones that took place during the entire 8 years of the Clinton Administration, right through the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, until another war/invasion of Iraq took place in March of 2003.

 

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1991 Resistance to the Gulf War in Grand Rapids: Part I

In the summer of 1990, it began clear that the US government was beginning to marginalize Iraq, with the intent of going to war with the Middle Eastern nation.

The US was claiming that Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait was an act of aggression and by late Summer of 1990, the US began a military build-up against Iraq, getting Saudi permission to use their country as a base in which to begin an invasion.

Activists in Grand Rapids began holding weekly demonstrations in front of the federal building in downtown, sometime in September of 1990. The weekly demonstrations grew in size between September and the New Year, as the Bush Administration began to ramp up campaign to justify an invasion of Iraq.

The US news media was going along with US government’s propaganda and also began to beat the war drums. CNN, which was a fairly recent player in news market, became the first 24 hour news platform and made the US build-up to the war in Iraq its main focus, providing daily coverage of US military press briefings and creating digital graphics for promoting the Gulf War.

The US military assault on Iraq, known as Operation Desert Storm, began as the national known as Martin Luther King Jr. day was being celebrated. Once the war started, the Pentagon, along with most major news outlets began framing the issue to the public as Support for the Troops. Many cities across the country, including Grand Rapids, decorated their downtown districts with yellow ribbons tied on trees or lamp posts. Such displays was meant to silence any anti-war sentiment and equate being agains the US war as being against the US troops.

There were protests every Monday in Grand Rapids, mostly in front of the Federal building, but sometimes those in the demonstrations would march. The picture above is a student-led march that began at the Federal building, but continued throughout the downtown area. These demonstrations lasted until late February of 1991, when the US ended their military attack against Iraq.

During those 6 weeks of protesting, there were other actions that were organized in Grand Rapids:

  • In late January the Institute for Global Education organized a Teach-In on the Gulf War, which provided sessions on a history of US foreign policy in that region and workshops on civil disobedience.
  • At a GVSU hosted MLK Day (downtown GR campus) there was a workshop done on US militarism and racism, with an emphasis on what is referred to as an economic draft. An economic draft, means that a disproportionate amount of black and latino/latinx youth were joining the US military because of the lack of work and education opportunities.
  • There were also workshops being done in Grand Rapids with college and high schools students about how to become a conscientious objector or war resister if a draft was re-instated and to provide people with more information on being a CO or war resister.

However, since the US military portion of the war ended so quickly, it made it difficult to build a mass movement in Grand Rapids to oppose the war. In Part II we will look at actions that were taken by activists as a direct result of the US war in the Gulf, even though these actions were taken later in the year.

 

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Anti-Contra Aid action from 1986 in Grand Rapids

As we have mentioned in numerous postings before, there was an active Central American Solidarity Movement in the 1980s, resisting the US wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and the US funding of the Contra War in Nicaragua.

US aid to the Contras continued for most of the 1980s, even if that aid was so-called humanitarian. US Congressman Paul Henry, who represented the 3rd Congressional District) continued to vote for aid to the Contras, which resulted in a series of actions taking place at this office in the federal building or outside the federal building.

The article below, which is from the Grand Rapids Press (June 26, 1986) involved several members of the Koinonia House, who placed crosses in the law of the federal building, with names of Nicaraguan civilians, as a way to draw attention to the US-back Contra War in that Central American Country.

During the placement of the crosses, the federal building security people turned the sprinklers on those protesting, thinking that would deter them from taking action. It did not have the effect that the Federal Building security guards thought it would.

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Print honors the legacy of Cole Dorsey and West MI for Animals

Nearly three years ago we interviewed Cole Dorsey, one of the activist and organizers with the 1990s group known as West Michigan for Animals. 

This new print, from GVSU student Mackenzie Fox, both celebrates and honors the legacy of Cole and those involved with West Michigan for Animals.

Cole was only 13 when he joined the animal rights movement, but his age did not limit his ability to take a stand and use direct action as a means to achieve justice for animals. At some point, Dorsey even out grew the awareness building focus of West Michigan for Animals and began to move in the direction of animal liberation.

As Cole stated in the 2015 interview:

There was also direct action going on at that time that was not sanctioned by WMFA or undertaken by any “organized” group.  I know that roadkill was delivered to the steps of fur stores and that fur coats were damaged on the racks of their stores. I know that “blood” was splashed on their windows and windows were broken. I also know that more than one fur coat got splashed with “blood” while being worn in public in Grand Rapids. I believe all these actions collectively, coupled with society’s changing attitude towards fur, had a major impact on the fur industry in GR. Today I think Leigh’s in East Grand Rapids is the only store selling furs these days.

The print from Fox not only captures the spirit of the kind of activism that Dorsey was involved in, it provides a brief narrative about the animal liberation activist.

 

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Print Celebrates 1960s Freedom Rider from Grand Rapids, Walter Bergman

Over two years ago, we posted an article about Walter Bergman, a university professor from Michigan, who was badly beaten while participating in the Freedom Rides in 1960.

In that article we honored the commitment and sacrifice that Dr. Bergman made to support and defend the civil rights of African Americans. We continue to honor the sacrifice and commitment of Dr. Bergman, with this new print from GVSU student Nathan Knoth.

The print beautifully depicts the 1961 Freedom Riders in both text and image, using one of the most well know images of the Freedom Riders, where a bus was set on fire by White Supremacists while the bus was in Alabama.

This is an important legacy in the struggle for Civil Rights and we all should celebrate those from West Michigan who chose to fight institutionalized racism by participating in the Freedom Rides.

 

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