by Carl Proper
“If a worker in China or India can do the same work as one in the United States, then the laws of economics dictate that they will end up earning similar wages…. That’s good news for overall economic efficiency, for consumers, and for workers in developing countries – but not for workers in developed countries who now face low-cost competition.”
“New World Order: Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy”; Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence; Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2014
Academics have described the world. The point, however, is to change it.
The world the capitalists have created is irreversibly global. As they scan the world for the cheapest qualified labor, a global workforce scours the planet for opportunity. From the perspective of a global capitalist, U.S. workers differ from workers in other parts of the world mainly in their cost. For manufacturing industries, this means sending the work where labor is cheapest. For hotel and some other service workers, by contrast, wage competition is local. Hotels catering to the global wealthy can afford to pay above-average wages. But competition for better-paid jobs will grow fiercer as other wages fall. No industry or union can indefinitely escape the pressure of low global wages. Over time, national differences will decline, and wages will tend to equalize in services as well as manufacturing.
Without global solidarity, they will not equalize up.
In my original union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union / ILGWU, for almost a century, organizers “followed the bundle,” as employers ran from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Pennsylvania and New England, and eventually to Los Angeles and Atlanta. And early generations of internationally-minded, immigrant labor leaders like Sam Gompers, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and Jay Lovestone understood Europe as part of their territory. They were comfortable meeting with unionists – and national Presidents — there. But for their U.S.-born successors, foreign was foreign. Organizing stopped at the water’s edge.
U.S. union “demands,” of course, are much less welcomed by most overseas governments than employer dollars. But mostly, we have simply not imagined a better world, or considered that within the range of business unionism. With the heroic exception of the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” we have not demanded that U.S. labor or human rights accompany U.S. job exports.
Today, we are overpowered, when not ignored, by worldly corporate honchos. And we are in steady decline as nominally American corporations expand even in formerly communist nations like China or Vietnam.
I believe that Unions, like all organizations in our time, must globalize or die. If global parity is destiny, as the authors quoted above assert, only global solidarity can equalize wages up.
Is global working class cooperation possible?
Most U.S. trade unionists dismiss this out of hand. But I have seen global solidarity succeed among workers and governments — and it works.
Half a century ago, I was a Peace Corps community organizer in a Panama City squatter community. My most savvy and committed fellow-organizer was communist (“Partido del Pueblo”) bus driver and union leader Carlos Zorita – “Camacho” to all who knew him. He read books. And he had balls. I was his “Ugly American” friend. On the massive front bumper of his bus were the words “Realidad Objetiva.” He understood the sociology of his country and the world. He was sympathetic to the left-oriented military dictator, Omar Torrijos, who took power eleven days after the election — for the third time in forty years — of pro-fascist coffee plantation owner Arnulfo Arias. When now-President Torrijos came to our neighborhood to speak with the people, Camacho was the only resident with the nerve to stand next to the General and propose what our “Betterment Committee” had formulated: residents wanted sewage lines, paved roads and, eventually, title to the land. Torrijos’ wealthy successor, Ricardo de la Espriella (then in Torrijos’ cabinet) walked our muddy streets with our betterment committee. Torrijos listened. Over the next few years, all this was done. U.S. A.I.D. provided a share of the funding.
It was a win-win for global cooperation, U.S. — and labor — values.
Also accomplished, over the next few years, on a larger playing field: a shift in control over the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama, as negotiated by Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Despite predictions of catastrophe under Latino management, U.S. and global shipping are unharmed. The Canal has been successfully widened. U.S.-Panama relations are good.
No harm, no foul – no loser. The doubters were wrong. All humans are created equal.
When I visited the old neighborhood two years ago, I did not hear complaints of Yankee imperialism. With paved streets and modern water infrastructure, homeowners had improved the cinder-block houses they had once built and now legally owned. They had become the struggling middle class, friendly to the U.S.A..
Would they, or other Panamanian workers, object to joining a U.S.- based union, and building strength, with the understanding that a truly International union was the goal? In my view, no. U.S. Labor’s isolation and decline reflect no defeat by global capitalism or global working-class anti-imperialism. We have surrendered to our own fear and ignorance, without a fight. Afraid to grow, we have begun to die. What is wrong with “workers of the world, unite!”?
For a union with global ambition and imagination, Panama, the crossroads of the world, is an obvious organizing opportunity.
Hotels and casinos could be perfect early targets. Every U.S. hotel chain has one or several hotels in Panama. U.S. President Donald Trump owns two hotels, and several other buildings. Casinos catering to global travelers prosper. Panama City could be a base for a UNITE HERE VP, on a par with San Francisco or Las Vegas. And after success in Panama, a truly “International” union could look to Costa Rica Argentina, and Vietnam. Why would they not?
Victory for UNITE HERE in Panama could mark a turning point for U.S. labor. We might salvage our long-term future by going global like every other organization.
But UNITE HERE, like other U.S. unions, has no Panama affiliate. We have not challenged global hotel chains on a global basis. We are, as the story goes, more sensitive than capitalists to the patriotic sentiments of people in other countries. But what if the people would actually prefer a U.S. standard of living? How would we even know?
I believe the barrier to global unions is maintained by our parochial union leaders, each with his or her established (and shrinking) turf. Most seem unmotivated or baffled by the thought of challenging capital on its limitless turf.
Does this matter? I would say that if U.S. and Panamanian representatives could work together to turn a squatter neighborhood into a middle-class community, or an imperialist Canal Zone into a highly efficient point of pride for that nation; and if nominally “U.S.” corporations can manage much of Panama’s economy; then U.S. labor must not fear organizing Hyatt, or Trump, or Hilton wherever they roam.
Why should we not look forward to a Mexican President of the UAW, or a Hong Kong Vice President of SEIU? Are we really concerned about appearing “imperialist?” Or do we simply know so little about the world that we are afraid to put our toes in the global water?
If we cannot follow, we will not survive.
Is asking U.S. labor to go global like asking a hippopotamus to fly?
Ask any capitalist. You grow or die. There is a lot of evidence that today’s U.S. labor movement, after inheriting the fruits of a century of struggle, is dying for lack of respect and innovation. We must return to pursuing capital, as we did in our glory days, wherever it goes.
Carl Proper was a member and staff member for the ILGWU, UNITE and UNITE HERE for forty years. After leaving the Peace Corps, he took a job as a cloth spreader in a union factory, and was hired from there as an Organizer. He served at various times as Organizer, Educational Director and Business Agent for the New England Joint Board; and as Assistant and Executive Assistant to ILGWU and UNITE President Jay Mazur. He lives in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org