CAN WORKERS BEAT GLOBALIZATION?
By David Bacon
in Malaysia's big electronics plants -- a production workforce the size of
that in Silicon Valley. The bosses are all foreign high-tech giants.
Chips and circuit boards assembled on the line in Penang are shipped out of
Malaysia, overwhelmingly to the U.S., Japan and western Europe - the rich
countries with the markets.
workers have a very hard time organizing unions. In fact, the same number
of plants are unionized in both places: 0.
Malaysian assemblers organized one. They went to the government to
register, and were told they couldn't belong to a union that tried to
organize the whole industry -- only to a union limited to the one company.
Then, when they tried to get recognition for that union, RCA changed its
name to Harris Solid State, and claimed to be a different company. Over
the years since, the company has changed its name three times, each time
again denying recognition to the union. Workers in the plant still have no
secretary-general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress. "The law says
they can, but in practice they can't. Our government says thousands of
jobs are leaving Malaysia because our unions are too militant. The
governments of Asia seem to have been convinced by employers that workers
shouldn't have the right to organize and bargain. And U.S. companies are
among those most guilty of violating our rights."
WTO negotiations last year. His description of class battles at RCA would
be familiar to workers and unions in many developing countries, as they
confront one face of the global economy. Corporations build factories to
exploit low wages, producing goods for markets in developed countries where
the standard of living is much higher. Governments assist them by
restricting unions, and those social rights and benefits which might
discourage foreign investment.
workers confronting globalization's other face - the loss of jobs in
developed countries as companies relocate production in a race to lower
their labor costs to the bottom. Unions joined together with
environmentalists, youth and fair trade campaigners who realized they had a
common enemy - a corporate-dominated global economic system.
studios. Everett and the Hollywood Fair Trade Campaign accuse the studios
of sending movie production to Canada and Mexico, in the wake of NAFTA's
relaxation of restrictions on the movement of investment between the three
agreements designed to enhance corporate profits by shipping our jobs
offshore," Everett says. "In exchange for NAFTA-sanctioned subsidies from
Canada and elsewhere, the studios have turned their backs on their own
community and have engaged in the wholesale destruction of the Hollywood
demonstrations during a dinner hosted by the Motion Picture Association of
America at Sony Studios, honoring Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and his
"Free Trade Education Tour." Daley's dog-and-pony show seeks to make the
case that when the administration pushes free trade to help U.S.
corporations, the public benefits.
Twentieth-Century Fox made last year's most popular move, Titanic, in a
maquiladora in Rosarito, sixty miles south of the border. In a scenario
reminescent of the problems suffered by Malaysia's electronics workers, the
independent and militant Mexican union which represented workers there was
forced out by government support for a union more friendly to foreign
terms of job loss. across the Pacific, Korean unionists see it in terms of
the destruction of their country's film industry.
American global dominance - is destroying the fragile Korean film
industry," says a statement by the country's militant Korean Confederation
of Trade Unions. The KCTU criticizes the government of reformer Kim Dae
Jung for scrapping the quota on foreign-made films. Korean directors and
actors even shaved their heads in protest. The measure, demanded by the
International Monetary Fund in return for bailout loans, was made "to
appease American pressure," according to the KCTU.
operations. In fact, it was clear in Seattle that unions and workers
around the world believe that the global economy is attacking their
standards of living, their jobs, and their rights as workers. It is a
perception held in common, in countries on both sides of the world's great
economic divide between rich and poor.
nature of the ideology of globalization," saying it leads to "the
ever-widening gap in development and wealth between rich and poor
countries, and the rich and the rest [of the population] in individual
countries, despite all the rhetoric about the virtues of the free market
and liberalization championed by the institutions of global capitalism."
protest was designed to send a message "to all administrations around the
world, that the rules as they're written do not work for workers and
communities, and that they undermine environmental and health standards.
Something has to change."
Seattle that unions internationally don't agree on what should be done
such a way that they protect workers rights and the environment, much as
existing agreements protect corporate profits. The federation called on
the WTO to incorporate five international labor conventions into the text
of future treaties. These five agreements, adopted by the International
Labor Organization, would guarantee workers everywhere the right to
organize unions and to bargain collectively with employers, and would
restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor, and outlaw discrimination.
They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast
financial consequences against governments which violate existing trade
"is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even
Somavia, however, doesn't believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There's
no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits.
international affairs department, says that incorporating protections for
workers into trade agreements can protect their rights. She compares it to
the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to
enforce fair labor standards like the minimum wage and 8-hour day.
agreements in an enforceable fashion," she asserts. "That's the challenge
we face. If we didn't believe it was possible, I don't know why we'd be
doing all this mobilizing. As you know, there are rules for capital that
are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time
and the place to get them for labor."
by some unions in the developing world, but opposed by others. "Some of
our colleagues fear linking trade to labor standards, and fear that labor
standards will be used as a tool for protectionism," explains Rajasekaran.
"India, for example, has lots of child labor, and they fear that sanctions
will be applied to them because of it."
Trade Unions, recognizes that "there is a controversy in the developing
South about labor standards. Workers are worried about the loss of jobs,
and suspect these proposals are a disguise for protectionism by unions in
federations, the idea is worth a try. "These standards are really nothing
new - they've been around for decades," he points out. "The real reason
for much of the protest is that everyone knows that the ILO has no
enforcement mechanism. Many countries know they're guilty of violating the
conventions, but that the ILO can't take the matter forward. And the lack
of enforcement has itself become a means of attracting investment."
WTO this responsibility. But that doesn't mean that we should drop trade
union rights from the overall trade system. It's a struggle."
President Clinton endorsed the idea before the WTO meeting. He trumpeted
U.S. passage of an ILO convention on child labor, calling on other
governments to do likewise. Clinton neglected to point out, however, that
the convention only banned child prostitution and the most extreme forms of
child exploitation. ILO Convention 138, which takes a much stronger
prohibition against the labor of children under 14 remains unratified.
has double standards," Vavi says. "It hasn't ratified most ILO conventions
itself, while shouting about enforcing them everywhere else."
developing countries is more basic than just suspicion over hypocrisy.
Bill Jordan, head of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions,
told the Seattle forum that "unless the WTO takes on the call made by the
President of the United States, for a social dimension to globalization,
then globalization will fail.."
form, is exactly what many progressive unionists would like to see. That
is because the current trade structure, which the WTO has come to
symbolize, enforces conditions on developing countries designed to make
their economies more open and attractive to foreign investors.
difference between rich and poor is wider than ever," according to Nair
Goulart of Forza Sindical. "Unemployment is over 9.5%, and workers buying
power is 27% of what it was in the 1980s. The UN Development Program says
the goal of investment and trade liberalization is to improve the quality
of life. Yet we are competing to sell our natural resources and our
workforce for the lowest possible price."
bigger. The difference in standard of living between the U.S. and Mexico,
which was about 3:1 in the 1950s, is about 16:1 today, according to Mexican
economist Alejandro Alvarez Bejar. That difference impoverishes Mexican
workers, and is the cause of the loss of U.S. jobs as corporations relocate
struggle going on, over who controls the economies of developing countries,
and what development program they can follow.
for foreign investment, including low wages and weak unions. National
development programs are its antithesis - encouraging the formation of an
internal market based on the rising income of workers and farmers,
protecting national industries, including by nationalization, and
guaranteeing workers the right to organize, bargain and exercise political
countries, national development policies are crucial to winning control
over the economies of their own countries. They represent "the principle
of a balanced growth strategy, sustainable development, and the right of
people to pursue an alternative path, not dictated by some nebulous force,
but determined by their political and social aspirations through the
government, from the WTO to the IMF, do everything in their power to keep
developing countries from exploring independent national development.
Governments that pursue this alternative become pariahs in the
international trade system, labeled rogue nations and subject to sanctions.
are a zero sum game, that improving workers' lives slows development," Vavi
says. "This is a scare tactic. In the pursuit of profit, they are told to
remove worker protections, and then use that as an inducement for
investment. This policy always leaves humankind and the environment as
and the living conditions of the people. An approach which seeks to erode
workers' rights and wages undermines development. Development can't exist
with mass unemployment and poverty. Labor rights is a development issue."
possible to make the WTO enforce workers' rights. "It's like asking the
fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He calls Shailor's position
"an honorable thing to do," but says "it's not good enough. Nor will it
answer the exploitation of workers. There has to be another mechanism
outside the WTO to police workers' rights worldwide."
international trade, but also inherits a tradition of working-class
internationalism from its radical past. It was one of the leftwing unions
which left the CIO in the late 1940s at the beginning of the coldwar in
labor, and over the following decades used its power on the docks to defend
unions and workers in Central America, Chile, Korea and South Africa.
During the WTO demonstrations, it shut down every west coast U.S. port on
November 30. While unions which oppose the WTO process are often called
protectionist, McWilliams retorts that "we're not against fair trade, we're
against free trade."
standards should be broadened to include those which would impact the U.S.,
including the prohibition of strikebreaking, the right to free health care,
living wages, and protections for the rights of immigrants. As long as the
gap in living standards between developed and developing countries exists,
he says, jobs will leave high wage countries, with our without WTO
agreements. Therefore, U.S. unions should "take a critical position toward
U.S. economic and military policy that plays a role in enforcing that
living standards gap," McWilliams emphasizes.
and the trade structure fundamentally flawed. "There's nothing in it for
working people. Nothing. That law exists to support multinationals. It's
not for workers. There's no way that you can put a comma here or change a
word there to make it compatible. It's not our law. Scrap it."
agreement has already demonstrated that worker protections are
unenforceable. When NAFTA was negotiated in 1994, it included a
side-agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, which
was supposed to protect workers' rights in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. In
the last five years, however, over 15 cases have been filed alleging that
the U.S. and Mexican governments especially have not enforced labor laws,
and that workers have been fired and unions broken as a consequence.
Young factory in Tijuana to organize an independent union and conduct a
legal strike. Judicial authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico have agreed
that their right to do so was illegally denied by the Mexican government,
but the NAFTA process failed completely to make any meaningful change.
labor solidarity is a better answer, pointing to his union's long support
of the Han Young workers. "The kind of trading regime represented by NAFTA
and the WTO is not meant to improve the quality of life," he argues. "This
trade simply benefits the employers. It represents an extension of
exploitation rather than a diminishing of it."
for enforcement, a problem it says can be corrected by having the WTO
enforce labor protections, just as it enforces those which protect
corporations. McWilliams is doubtful, pointing out that the U.S.
government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is
unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't
itself recognize. "We have one of the worst records of subscribing to
international labor union rights of any industrial nation anywhere," he
the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations,
endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks. Sweeney sits on the
committee with heads of major corporations, who also signed it. The letter
supports administration action to gain greater access for U.S. corporations
and investors abroad.
would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO
statement calls the commitment "a sharp departure from the business
community's previous position that workers' rights are in no way the domain
of the WTO," and calls for a hard fight "to make the WTO a more democratic
and accountable institution."
AFL-CIO approach. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and
environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a
'social clause' or environmental rules," a CLC statement declared. "We're
determined to change the entire trade regime."
Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair of the
AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. "I'm as cynical
as I can be about putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards,"
he said in Seattle. "I don't think the WTO is going to do anything. It's
and the federal workers union all refused to vote for Al Gore's
presidential endorsement at the AFL-CIO convention in October. Gore's
unwavering support for administration trade policy was the big stumbling
minimum wage jobs in the U.S.," Yokich explained. "NAFTA failed completely
to protect labor rights in Mexico. The administration just hasn't been
right on trade. We now have a $300 billion trade deficit this year - that
represents the loss of a lot of jobs. Ultimately, the administration has
left us high and dry - that's why we're here."
from a big battle with the Clinton administration over trade policy. While
it went all-out to mobilize union members to Seattle, the federation faces
an uphill battle to get those same members to vote for the very politicians
who support free trade, especially Gore.
"Hollywood workers will not roll over for policies that export our jobs,"
he announced. "We won't give endorsements, we won't walk precincts, we
won't give money, and we won't vote for any politicians of any party who
support trade agreements that export our jobs."
of the California Labor Federation in January, where he tried to block
labor support for seven Democratic Congress members, all of whom voted for
NAFTA. While he didn't make much headway in opposing six of them, anger
over Democratic support for free trade was nevertheless palpable. When a
seventh Congressman, Monterey's Sam Farr, failed as well to support
striking Teamsters last year, that anger boiled over and was enough to
block his endorsement.
relationship between U.S. union members and the Democratic Party. Free
trade has been the bedrock policy of every U.S. administration since World
War Two, Democrat or Republican. Throughout the cold war decades, labor's
anticommunist support for free trade led U.S. unions to line up behind
neoliberal economics and foreign intervention, from the Marshall Plan to
the Vietnam War.
unquestioning support. And greater political independence is a necessity
if U.S. unions are to challenge free trade and the global economy.
looks at the working class in the rest of the world. While there are still
sharp differences of opinion, for the first time since the 1940s, millions
of U.S. union members see their fate intimately tied to workers in
virtually every other country. Forging that realization into a real
program of solidarity is the biggest challenge U.S. unions confront.
unions are motivated by self-interest in seeking to enforce international
labor standards. But there is also a growing global awareness that no
national union federation can avoid being whipsawed by the global economy
if it cannot find links to a larger world movement.
actions in far-flung corners of the world are no longer disparate and
isolated. They're creating a global movement with a new spirit of
international solidarity, recognizing the integrity of all struggle, while
debunking the attitude of established movements and organizations."
david bacon - labornet email david bacon
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