Tag Archives: The Nation

Fairtrade Fracas Confusing Consumers and Producers

New Orleans   Fairtrade has a language problem that is quickly becoming a huge commercial and consumer problem.  There’s no copy write to the name “fairtrade,” so like it or not, anyone can use it, claim it, or con with it.  As a relatively new movement trying to build commercial strength and consumer identification, a “classic” understanding of what fairtrade is and means only dates back several decades, so full on assault and, more worrisome, corporatization, of the concept along with increased commercial usurpation could have the impact of knocking the socks off of what might still be fairly called the “fairtrade movement.”

As we prepare to have a large meeting at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in several weeks (Tuesday, September 18th at 7pm if you are in New Orleans!) to discuss “Fairtrade and the Port of New Orleans,” this is all very worrisome.  On one hand we are trying to get our community to embrace fairtrade and on the other large, powerful forces have significant economic investments in confusing consumers.   The Nation in a September 10th piece by Scott Sherman painfully entitled, “Brawl Over Fair Trade Coffee,” does a good job of putting the internal schism within the fairtrade movement and the external corporate predation before the readers.

Once again, here is the back story, friends.  There are internationally agreed upon fairtrade certification standards for coffee and similar products.  In the case of coffee, the requirements of production by close to 400 coffee growing producer cooperatives, largely in Latin America, which are regularly inspected, pay the fees, and then receive a premium for doing so that is roughly $0.50 above the quoted price on the New York commodities exchange.  FLO, the Fairtrade Licensing Organization from Bonn, Germany runs the certification operation and has for years with a number of country affiliates largely in Europe and North America.  In a small version of a Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes kind of divorce, Fair Trade USA, the American affiliate, pulled out of the international relationship to go on its own, bringing the whole mess front and center and displaying in full force the ideological and commercial disagreements within the fairtrade movement.

Once the name-calling is taken out of the dispute, the heart of the matter is that Paul Rice  and his USA Fair Trade operation want to be able to certify coffee plantations and single producers, rather than cooperatives.  There are no virgins here.  FLO, the international body, already certifies plantations in tea production for example.  The 800 pound gorilla of coffee, Starbucks, “certifies” its own coffee purchases and claims the “fairtrade” mantle in its advertisements, which is a little like Wal-Mart self-certifying its subcontractor work standards!  Among progressives there is also confusion such as Just Coffee direct trade certifications in protest to what they, probably correctly, view as lax certification standards for roasters.  Did I mention that this was a mess?

Sherman catches the heart of the beast well:

Fair trade coffee has been a valuable experiment, one that has brought concrete benefits to hundreds of thousands of farmers.  But it rests upon a fragile foundation, and the corporate embrace of the concept could undo decades of work by activists, consumers and farmers: democratically run, farmer-owned cooperatives may be unable to compete with corporate-sponsored plantations. “The fair trade model provided some protection from the unequal conditions of the open market,” says Nicki Lisa Cole, a sociologist at Pomona College who has studied fair trade. Welcoming large-scale plantations into the model “re-creates the problematic conditions for small producers that spurred creation of the model in the first place.”

Rice for his part argues opening the door to more commercialization and bigger producers is part of “innovation.”  He cites Apple as an example, but since all of us are so fresh from the Apple scandals with FoxConn and all of its offshore, largely Chinese subcontractors, it is hard to embrace this model as any other than exploitation, and certainly not innovation.

All of this leaves the US movement in a shambles.  The excellent Canadian fair trade organization is essentially managing all of North America now.  In working with a growers’ cooperative in Honduras that produces aloe vera, we have been bounced from the Canadian organization to the Swedish fairtrade affiliate in our negotiations with a cosmetic company that wants to go fairtrade and organic, because no one has time for anything much other than the American mess.

And, the consumers?  Anarchy will not produce more fairtrade purchases.  “Looking for the label” could mean asking a consumer to pick between Rain Forest Action certification, Catholic Relief Service certification, corporate self-certification and branding (Starbucks and friends), and not one but two competing outfits claiming to certify for United States consumers.

The producers will be hurt by this chaos, if not permanently crippled.  Purveyors like Fair Grinds will end up continuing to pay market premiums for our beans with customers drinking “great coffee for a change” out of trust more than understanding.

This is no way to run a railroad or a social movement.


Power and Paradox of Cloward & Piven “Breaking the Bank” Strategy

Toronto Fran Piven is a brilliant scholar and political theorist, still vitally engaged

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

Glenn Beck crazy about Fran Piven

at the cutting edges of her work while still affiliated with CUNY’s Graduate Center, and someone I count as colleague and friend over our 40 years.  We spoke months ago.  She called for advice about how to handle the sudden interest in her work by Glenn Beck and sneak artist video bloggers who had tricked their way into her home pretending to be students engaged in the same pursuit of truth and justice.

My advice:  water off a duck’s back – ignore it.  The old Huey Long axiom, as quoted by the great LSU historian, T. Harry Williams:  “there is no adequate defense for a public attack.”  In essence let it go.

Fine advice that was!  It now develops some of the whacks have been threatening enough to require Professor Piven to report them to the FBI, which knowing Fran, she would not have done lightly. My rule of thumb for the Beck crowd had been “delete” and “ignore.”  God knows where to draw the line these days.

The irony of all of this is that we are dealing with the power of an article that Fran wrote with her partner Dick Cloward in The Nation in the 1960’s which argued famously for a so-called “break the bank” strategy to achieve what I now call “maximum eligible participation” and in this case that mean the very basic achievement of the full benefits in the welfare system of the time that eligible families were entitled to receive.  “Breaking the bank” was a rhetorical flourish essentially arguing within both a kinder liberalism of that time, hard as it may be to believe now, and a more palpable fear, particularly of race and riots in the urban core, that government policy makers would inevitably be forced to attempt to calm and co-opt the poor and therefore raise the grossly inadequate benefits to something more humane.  Is that radical?  Hardly!  It was a fine piece of strategic thinking coupled with the kind of phrasing that attempted to force policy change and organizers into action.   Fran should be proud of the power of that piece, no matter how mangled and misunderstood by Glenn Beck and his followers.

The irony obviously is that at the time Fran and Dick were both fierce and patient advocates of such a strategy in the face of their disappointment that in fact the leadership and organizers of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) under Dr. George Wiley though sympathetic to the aims and paying lip service to the advice would neither adopt nor implement the strategy.  This led to long, fascinating, and bitter debates.  As a young organizer with NWRO being a part of these late night discussions at places like Bucky’s Town, Maryland and elsewhere was exciting and dramatic as organizers picked sides and struggled with the issues and devastating arguments that Fran would make or the passionate positions that Dick would take.  In the end of the day they were critical of both NWRO and organizers in general in many of their subsequent works for having been “distracted” into building organization, rather than following the arc of movement and protest to the maximum levels of pressure for change.

So now paradoxically, Beck is essentially blaming Fran Piven for a strategy that was brilliantly articulated, yet left her sometimes seemingly bitter because it was a strategy that was  effectively discarded.  Fran has written that in fact NWRO and its organizers were less useful in increasing welfare rolls than the waves of VISTA volunteers assigned to Community Action Programs around the country who signed up many eligible families for welfare not for any political or policy reasons, but simply because it was what they thought they were supposed to do in the War on Poverty.   There is a clear record of this in Fran’s lectures, remarks, and writings for decades, such that many of us as organizers have often chafed at the arguments and been equally passionate in the rebuttal that we were not simply chasing members and dues rather than creating change and power, as she and Dick sometimes seems to argue.  Being interviewed by a conservative writer for a piece published last year, he was astounded to find that Cloward and Piven were not the St. James version of the Bible that guided us in the work at that time.

All of this would require Beck and the right wing zealots to actually read more of Cloward and Piven than an article in The Nation. It is probably easier to ask for civility as many are doing now in the wake of these threats to Fran Piven than to actually ask people to read her work and face reality both then and now.

Of course conservatives should be very careful what they are asking by once again raising Fran’s ideas and advocacy to the forefront of discussion in these times.  This time around it might be different.  Organizers might take a hard look and debate anew some of these old arguments and find there are some blueprints worth adopting and finally putting into practice.