I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy. -Sarah Grimke, 1837 (famously quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
This week, we’re lighting candles for a speedy recovery since Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fall and fractured ribs on November 7, 2018. RBG’s reputation as a brilliant jurist, women’s rights advocate, and overall spicy human is widely appreciated. Just admit it: you wish you were RBG. You’re even jealous of her work out.
But here’s another reason to love RBG: she presented a unifying theory of social change that applies across issues, that upholds human dignity at all costs, and shows us how to avoid the pitfalls of human rights activism, just as she learned from the pitfalls of early white feminism.
In corporate accountability work, we often struggle with the line between “doing favors” and removing the feet of a perpetrator from the necks of an affected community. I have struggled with this throughout my career, and continue to ask myself these questions at CAL. Around 2008, I was sent by my previous employer to a town called La Ceja, outside of Medellin, Colombia, to investigate death threats against a small, nascent flower worker union. It was not my custom to arrive at a person’s home in an armored car, with armed bodyguards, but the region was “hot” as they say, I wasn’t given a choice when I got off the plane in Medellin.
I didn’t know much about this little union, except that they had formed on a flower plantation, growing cut flowers for export. They seemed to have come out of nowhere, with various powerful actors in the Colombian labor movement vying for affiliation. And their president, let’s call her Gloria, was a breastfeeding mother, chosen both for her leadership ability and the special protections afforded breastfeeding women by Colombian labor law.
When I arrived at her small, low-ceilinged cinder block home, I found it crowded with workers, crouching in every corner, waiting patiently for me. My bodyguards stood awkwardly outside the door, bearing their weapons next to their shiny SUV on the dirt road, destroying any hope of subtlety I could have had.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the content of the meeting. My most vivid memory was of being given an empanada, which I had to eat while the rest of the room sat in silence, and wondering how on earth I could be equipped to make any positive change in this situation.
I often think of that moment, eating that empanada with all those eyes on me, glancing excitedly, expectantly at one another, silently. How different my life had been from theirs. My own life was not idyllic; I was not raised in a suburban bubble or pampered. But nor did I work 12 hours a day on a flower plantation starting in my teens, and I was not facing death threats from the Aguilas Negras for trying to stand up for my basic rights, and I was not staring at a foreign white woman in a dark living room hoping my impossible situation could be salvaged.
And the truth is, we didn’t salvage it. The death threats kept coming, the union was destroyed. We lost touch with the workers, some of whom fled for their lives. The workers’ bravery was not rewarded, and life on the plantation almost certainly returned to the status quo.
The truth is, there wasn’t much we could do to help these workers. We couldn’t organize for them, or choose what their demands should be, or convince their bosses to listen to them. We couldn’t build them a school, or make their justice system work for them, or provide seedlings for them to start their own flower farms. Those were all things they had to do for themselves.
But significantly, in that moment when they were looking at me expectantly, that is not what they were asking. All they wanted was for us, my people, my Global North consumers and our super corporations, to get our feet off of their necks.
Their predicament was certainly worsened by local conditions--a civil war that had supposedly ended but felt far from over where they sat. But they were also playing a role in a global drama in which the over-consumption habits of the wealthy countries drive conditions for the global poor. US, European, and increasingly Chinese and Middle Eastern companies are the directors, designing supply chains that rely on devastating poverty to cater to their target audience: us. You, and me, and our families and friends and everyone we know. We all play a role, wittingly or not, and we have no more choice in the matter than that little union in La Ceja.
The most important piece of this story is that the workers were growing flowers for export, and when their employers saw they were organizing, they brought in paramilitary death squads to scare them into silence. Because that is was the global economy demands. The price must be low. The quality must be high. The production must be fast, efficient, and better than the farm next door.
And if it isn’t, well, your cut flowers won’t wind up on grocery store shelves in the US. And if your cut flowers don’t get sold in the US, your business fails to be viable. Because you aren’t producing for local consumers--the consumers who know that your workers are deserving of human dignity. You are producing for a far away consumer who makes decisions based on a price tag, without knowledge of the many hands that brought the product to the shelf.
I would love to say that there is an easy action you can take. Shop local. Buy fair trade. Reduce, reuse, recycle. That’s all fine. Do those things. But they won’t solve this problem. They won’t change the fact the companies are beholden to their shareholders, not their workers.
As I see it, there is only one way out of that. We have to make it too expensive for companies to continue these practices. The main vehicles by which external costs are forced back onto corporate balance sheets are through government regulation, civil liability, and real consumer pressure. I say “real” because a few posts on a company’s Facebook page or even a small boycott is insufficient.
The question is how to make it too expensive for companies to abuse people. At CAL, we think about how much companies save right now by abusing workers, contaminating the environment, and displacing communities. We think about the economic incentives that drive these abuses, and then develop targeted legal strategies to raise the cost of unethical business. And we work with affected communities to shape the behavior of transnational companies to better uphold their political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.
So, can we follow RBG’s advice, examine the systems of oppression from which we benefit, and try to get our feet off of the necks of our brothers and sisters producing the goods we consume? If we can, and if Gloria can stand upright, we might find that life will still be hard for her. She may or may not thrive. But her life will be hers to lead, and ours will be ours to lead. And that simple reality would be a revolution.
Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and Legal Director for Corporate Accountability Lab.