Why U.S. Unions Must Organize Globally

by Carl Proper

Global_union-GUF_logo

“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.
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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.

Globally.

Carl

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 cproper2@gmail.com

What Trump Can and Cannot Do Regarding Immigration

WHAT TRUMP CAN AND CAN’T DO TO IMMIGRANTS
By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense | January/February 2017
http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2017/0117bacon.html

People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
—Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 1852

While the government officials developing and enforcing U.S. immigration policy will change on January 20, the economic system in which they make that policy will not. As fear sweeps through immigrant communities in the United States, understanding that system helps us anticipate what a Trump administration can and can’t do in regard to immigrants, and what immigrants themselves can do about it.

Over the terms of the last three presidents, the most visible and threatening aspect of immigration policy has been the drastic increase in enforcement. President Bill Clinton presented anti-immigrant bills as compromises, and presided over the first big increase in border enforcement. George W. Bush used soft rhetoric, but sent immigration agents in military-style uniforms, carrying AK-47s, into workplaces to arrest workers, while threatening to fire millions for not having papers. Under President Barack Obama, a new requirement mandated filling 34,000 beds in detention centers every night. The detention system mushroomed, and over 2 million people were deported.

Enforcement, however, doesn’t exist for its own sake. It plays a role in a larger system that serves capitalist economic interests by supplying a labor force employers require. High levels of enforcement also ensure the profits of companies that manage detention and enforcement, who lobby for deportations as hard as Boeing lobbies for the military budget.

Immigrant labor is more vital to many industries than it’s ever been before. Immigrants have always made up most of the country’s farm workers in the West and Southwest. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 57% of the country’s entire agricultural workforce is undocumented. But the list of other industries dependent on immigrant labor is long—meatpacking, some construction trades, building services, healthcare, restaurant and retail service, and more. Continue reading

Strangers Among Us

by Paul Garver

  • atkinsbookcoverimage

Some 200 million workers across the globe migrate across national borders searching for work.

At least 40 million migrants do not have documents allowing them to live or work in their host countries, while millions of others are “guest workers” bound to their employers and subject to expulsion if they are fired.

In the neoliberal global economic order, capital flows freely across the borders that constrain workers.   Whether “guest workers” or undocumented, migrants are among the most vulnerable and exploited people who do the indispensable tasks of feeding and caring for other people.

Like refugees, migrants are often blamed for a host of economic and social ills in the countries that depend on their agricultural, construction or domestic labor.  Politicians looking to score political points from their own xenophobic domestic constituencies find migrants and refugees tempting prey for vicious slanders. Donald Trump is a notorious perpetrator but is far from being the first chauvinist demagogue in the world.

Mexican native Diego Reyes, Sr. works the tobacco and vegetable fields in Sanford, NC.  He is a member of a relatively successful migrant worker organization, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee [FLOC].  As translated by his son Diego Reyes, Jr., a seminarian working for FLOC, he describes a reality all too often experienced by migrant workers in the USA and around the world.

It’s not only in Sanford [N.C.} but everywhere, all this propaganda against immigrants. People feel they’re stealing their jobs, that immigrants are bad people, drug mules, and criminals. It dehumanizes people. It’s not the stealing of jobs. The people came here because of the policies the U.S. implemented in the world.”

The Strangers Among Us: Tales from a Global Migrant Worker Movement documents the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers in Asia, Europe and North America.  Editor Joseph Atkins, a professor at the University of Mississippi, traveled with his wife to such far-flung locales as Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Buenos Aires, where he interviewed key activists supporting migrant worker organizing.  He also solicited contributing chapters from activists and scholars in the UK, Israel, China, Japan and India.  The result is a moving and kaleidoscopic survey of the social justice movements that are helping migrant workers organize throughout the world.

Here are a few examples of the innovative approaches taken by migrant workers and their supporters in various world regions illustrated in this compact and compelling book.
Continue reading

Dump the Racist Trump

Continue the Political Revolution Down Ballot: Build Multiracial Coalitions
DSA’s Electoral Position for 2016

DSADemocratic Socialists of America believes that the Left must balance two crucial tasks in the November 2016 elections. On the one hand, the progressive movement must roundly defeat Donald Trump’s racist, nativist, Islamophobic and misogynist presidential campaign, as well as isolate and delegitimize the far-right hate groups that his campaign has strengthened. On the other hand, the Left must sustain and expand the independent electoral and social movement capacity built by the insurgent Sanders campaign, while broadening it out in an explicitly antiracist and multiracial direction. Thus, through November, DSA will prioritize two goals:

Building an independent “Dump Trump” movement, primarily in swing states where we have the capacity to make an impact, and
Developing local multiracial coalitions and campaigns that can build independent socialist organizing capacity and challenge neoliberal, pro-corporate Democrats in November
As an organization primarily oriented towards social movement building, DSA does not normally endorse presidential candidates. We decided to encourage Bernie Sanders to run for President — and then proudly participated in his movement — because he offered a political program that genuinely advances the democratic socialist vision. Hillary Clinton’s politics are quite different, and therefore DSA will not offer her our endorsement. Continue reading

Why Unions Embraced Immigrants – And Why It Matters for Donald Trump

David Iaconangelo
Christian Science Monitor

After seeming to debut a more forgiving stance on immigration last week, Donald Trump arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday brandishing a resolutely hardline plan, warning of an undocumented criminal menace and promising deportations on an unprecedented scale.

“We will begin moving them out Day One. As soon as I take office. Day One. In joint operation with local, state, and federal law enforcement,” he said, according to transcripts.

As he has in the past, Mr. Trump tied his promise to carry out deportations to anti-globalist economic ideas. But he also drew a direct line between the fortunes of the country’s native-born laborers and the presence of undocumented immigrants – a connection he has rarely made in his remarks on the topic.

“While there are many illegal immigrants in our country who are good people, many, many, this doesn’t change the fact that most illegal immigrants are lower skilled workers with less education, who compete directly against vulnerable American workers, and that these illegal workers draw much more out from the system than they can ever possibly pay back,” he said.

“We will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers, the forgotten people. Workers. We’re going to take care of our workers.”

But the globalization that Trump denounces has also contributed to a decades-long reshaping of unions – a traditional voice for workers, and often vocal opponents of globalization – toward greater inclusion of immigrants, even those without legal status. And the reasons behind organized labor’s shifting stance on immigrant workers, now decades in the making, may undercut Trump’s narrative of foreigners arriving to America to crowd out the native-born. Continue reading

Korean Union Leader May be Sentenced to Eight years for Blocking Traffic

by Yi San

Han Sang Gyun

Last week South Korean prosecutors called for an eight-year jail term for Han Sang-gyun, leader of the country’s 800,000-strong independent union federation. The request is outlandish even in a country that was once moving toward democracy but is now rapidly eroding back to authoritarianism.

All eight charges against Han center on traffic and public-safety violations in connection with unauthorized rallies the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU) called between April and November 2015. The government was forced to use a technicality—traffic violations—to interfere with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.

Nevertheless, the prosecution is seeking a heavy jail term. It claims Han attempted to incite violence at a November 14 rally in central Seoul when he yelled, “Let’s advance towards the Presidential Palace.”

The rally indeed turned violent, not because of the tens of thousands of workers and citizens who were protesting two-tier-wage legislation and government austerity measures, but because riot police cordoned off the streets and water-cannoned the otherwise peaceful protesters.

A high-pressure streak of capsaicin solution from a water cannon felled Baek Nam-ki, a 69-year-old farmer activist. Baek remains comatose with irreversible brain damage.

After the rally Han, already wanted on an arrest warrant, took sanctuary at Jogye Buddhist temple, in central Seoul, where he stayed for 24 days before turning himself in to the police. The government summoned about 1,500 other rally participants for investigation.

Elected on a Pledge to Fight

In December 2014 Han was elected KCTU president in the first-ever non-delegate, direct vote in the federation’s 19-year history. He was also the first president elected on a pledge to organize a general strike. “They [the government and business owners] were aiming to annihilate the KCTU, and we had little option but to fight back,” Han said in court June 13, explaining why he had run.

Under Han’s leadership, the KCTU twice called for a general strike. But both calls ended in only symbolic stoppages, adding to a grim picture for South Korean labor.

The country’s unions, once one of the best organized and militant segments of the global labor movement, have suffered a series of setbacks since the late 1990s, when the government made it easier for employers to lay off workers and hire casuals. Fewer than one in 10 workers is now unionized, the country’s lowest level ever, including in the 1970-80s when Korea was under a harsh military dictatorship.

One in seven workers in effect takes home less than the legal minimum wage of about $5.15 an hour, because they are casual workers and thus not fully protected by law.

These defeats, coupled with the ongoing economic recession, have divided union leaders and demoralized members.

Much of the religious establishment, once shelter for political dissidents, has turned a blind eye to labor’s agony. Han initially planned to organize a general strike while in sanctuary at Jogye temple, home to the Buddhist sect that is the country’s largest.

But from day one of Han’s sanctuary, the leadership of the sect, implicated in a series of corruption scandals, quietly mobilized a group of loyalists to evict him. During his 24-day sanctuary, Han often scuffled with these henchmen who, on one occasion, stripped him almost naked.

Continue reading

20 Years of Cross Border Solidarity

A History in Photographs
By David Bacon
NACLA Report on the Americas, May 2016
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10714839.2016.1170301

TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 1993 - Workers vote in a union election outside the Tijuana maquiladora of Plasticos Bajacal.  Voting is public, and workers have to declare aloud whether they're voting for the company union or their own independent union.  Sr. Mandujano, head of the labor board in Tijuana and an ally of the companies and the company unions, points to a worker and demands that he say which union he's voting for.  Company  and company union officials look on, along with Carmen Valadez, representative of the independent union.  The election was called off halfway through.

TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO – 1993 – Workers vote in a union election outside the Tijuana maquiladora of Plasticos Bajacal. Voting is public, and workers have to declare aloud whether they’re voting for the company union or their own independent union. Sr. Mandujano, head of the labor board in Tijuana and an ally of the companies and the company unions, points to a worker and demands that he say which union he’s voting for. Company and company union officials look on, along with Carmen Valadez, representative of the independent union. The election was called off halfway through.

Unions and social movements face a basic question on both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border – can they win the battles they face today, especially political ones, without joining their efforts together? Fortunately, this is not an abstract question. Struggles have taken place in maquiladoras for two decades all along the border. Many centers and collectives of workers have come together over those years. Walkouts over unpaid wages, or indemnización, as well as terrible working conditions are still common.

What’s more, local activists still find ways to support these actions through groups like the Collective Ollin Calli in Tijuana and its network of allies across the border in Tijuana, the San Diego Maquiladora Workers Solidarity Network. Other forms of solidarity have been developed through groups the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras. And long-term relations have been created between unions like the United Electrical Workers and the Authentic Labor Front, and the United Steel Workers and the Mexican Mineros. More recently, binational support networks have formed for farm workers in Baja California, and workers are actively forming new networks of resistance and solidarity in the plantons outside factories in Ciudad Juárez.

Over the years, support from many U.S. unions and churches, and from unions and labor institutions in Mexico City, has often been critical in helping these collectives survive, especially during the pitched battles to win legal status for independent unions. At other moments, however, the worker groups in the maquiladoras and the cities of the border have had to survive on their own, or with extremely limited resources.

These photographs show both the conditions people on the border are trying to change, and some of the efforts they’ve made to change them, in cooperation with groups in the U.S. There have been many such efforts – this is just a look at some.

TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO - 1995 - Women workrers from the National O-Ring maquiladora demonstrate for women's rights during the May Day parade in Tijuana.  Their factory was closed, and the women laid off and blacklisted, after they filed charges of sexual harassment against their employer in courts in Tijuana and Los Angeles.Copyright David Bacon

TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO – 1995 – Women workrers from the National O-Ring maquiladora demonstrate for women’s rights during the May Day parade in Tijuana. Their factory was closed, and the women laid off and blacklisted, after they filed charges of sexual harassment against their employer in courts in Tijuana and Los Angeles.Copyright David Bacon

TIJUANA BAJA CALIFORNIA NORTE, MEXICO – 1995 – Women workers from the National O-Ring maquiladora demonstrate for women’s rights during the May Day parade in Tijuana. Their factory was closed, and the women were laid off and blacklisted, after they filed charges of sexual harassment against their employer. The plant manager had organized a “beauty contest” at a company picnic, and ordered women workers to parade in bikinis. Supported by the San Diego Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, women filed suit in a U.S. Federal court, which surprisingly accepted jurisdiction. The company then gave women severance pay for the loss of their jobs.
See the entire essay and the impressive photos. http://davidbaconrealitycheck.blogspot.com/2016/05/twenty-years-of-cross-border-solidarity.html