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Confronting the Capitalist International

When she was 17 years old, Ana Alvarado fled the civil war in El Salvador for Los Angeles. Before long she was working as a maid at the luxurious New Otani Hotel, part of a Japanese chain owned by the Kajima Corporation, a transnational conglomerate whose main interests are in the construction business. Alvarado stuck with the job for 16 years, rising to the level of floor supervisor. She was unhappy with the pay, but even more so with management’s response to workers’ grievances. “Any time we complained,” she says, “they showed us a bunch of applications. ‘If you don’t like it, walk out. We have more people who will work for less’”—mostly people like her, displaced by economic and political crisis in Mexico and Central America.

In 1995, Alvarado and a group of coworkers approached the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, but as their organizing campaign developed, Alvarado and 19 others were fired, clearly for their union activity. The union fought back. It mobilized Japanese community support in Los Angeles to block the award of a contract to build a new Japanese-American Museum to Kajima. It fought other Kajima projects, such as a bid to build a new high school, and it joined human rights advocates to promote bans on government contracts to businesses that operate in Burma, where Kajima has major interests.

The union also called for a boycott of the New Otani Hotel. Since most of the hotel’s clients were from Japan, it sent a delegation, including Ana Alvarado, to Tokyo last December to meet with Japanese unions, leaflet the Japanese Travel Bureau, present their case to Japanese tour companies, and link up with Japanese critics of Kajima’s brutal use of forced Chinese labor during World War II. The U.S. delegation received expressions of support, but made few concrete gains. Then in April, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney went to Japan to demand neutrality from New Otani managers in the organizing drive. This was an important symbolic breakthrough, the first time that the leader of the U.S. labor movement has taken a direct role in a global labor dispute.

Ana Alvarado may be exceptional, but her situation is not. In the new global economy, hundreds of millions of workers are being cut adrift from their moorings—peasants displaced from the country to overcrowded cities and migrant workers seeking work in wealthier lands. The collapse of communism, free trade, technological innovations, and tougher management styles—all elements of the global economy—have destabilized industries and displaced millions of workers. None of this is entirely new to capitalism, but for Americans accustomed to stability and generalized affluence, the sharp recent rise in such displacement comes as something of a shock.

In addition, even as world trade increases, the expansion of direct foreign investment rises even faster. The World Trade Organization estimates that annual sales of foreign subsidiaries of transnational corporations now exceed the volume of international trade. The result is that workers, even those who are not employed by multinational corporations, face an economy that is not only more global but more dominated than ever by capital. In response, unions themselves are becoming more transnational. Most worker conflicts with managers are still national or local, and that isn’t likely to change soon. But there are growing numbers of cases like that of Ana Alvarado’s, in which unions are employing new tactics and finding new allies on a global battlefield.

As long as American unions were zealously anti-communist, they found easy corporate allies.

Unfortunately unions are playing catch-up in a contest where they were once—a century ago—far ahead of business in developing an international consciousness. During the 19th century, unions helped not only to launch the various socialist internationals, but also to establish the organizations now known as international trade secretariats. International worker movements split over the Russian revolution, however, and then during the Cold War, American unions subordinated their international work to supporting U.S. foreign policy and fighting communism—and to fighting many leftist but non-communist unions that crossed their path. American unions’ hard-line devotion to Cold War politics, which ranged from supporting right-wing coups in Brazil to meddling in European union politics, definitely served to divide and weaken the international labor movement. But the Cold War had its upside for the labor movement: As long as American unions were zealously anti-communist, they found easy corporate allies, friends in the CIA, and ready funding from the federal government. Once Communism had collapsed, though, businesses suddenly lost interest in “workers’ rights” and government funding dried up.

Now unions everywhere must rebuild international ties from a position of relative weakness. New steps toward international solidarity are changing labor movements everywhere, perhaps most in the United States. But the tasks ahead are daunting. Not only must unions organize workers and take collective action on an unprecedented scale, they must also conceptualize the new problems that workers face.

For the past 25 years, growing trade deficits have been the main global-economic concern of most American unions. In the years after World War II, when the United States was the paramount industrial power, jobs were plentiful, and unions felt they were included in the circles of political power. Most unions supported free trade, but as the trade balance turned negative in the late 1960s, many begun to favor what they called “fair trade.” That meant opening closed markets, particularly in Japan, or erecting barriers against imports deemed “unfair” (by which was meant, ironically, products that benefited from industrial policies in other nations that unions could only wish for in the United States). But unlike the free market ideologues or the various corporations that denounced German industrial subsidies, unions were interested in promoting good jobs at home. They wanted to strengthen the international hand of corporate “national champions,” like General Motors, General Electric, or Boeing, which employed American workers. If those companies flourished, it seemed, so would American workers.

European unions, it then appeared, had succeeded with such a strategy, though their home markets were also better protected from cheap foreign imports. Until the Thatcher era, even the most conservative European governments participated in formal or informal tripartite regimes with labor and business. But in the United States, where there was never much meaningful political corporatism, the need to piece together a global anti-Communist coalition through open markets trumped economic nationalism until the late 1980s. Government policy encouraged overseas investment by U.S. corporations, and in turn the corporations increasingly detached themselves from the United States. By the late 1970s, when American unions had come around to the European corporatist model, it was nearly impossible to find corporate champions that were clearly national.

Even when labor scored some “fair trade” victories for its brand of nationalism, they were incomplete or even backfired. In the case of the auto industry, the United Auto Workers won “voluntary” quotas on Japanese cars starting in the 1970s, whereupon Japanese manufacturers shifted to producing more profitable, bigger, and more upscale cars, cutting into what had been safe markets for the Big Three. The Japanese also built more plants in the United States, as the UAW had demanded, but it turned out that Japanese automakers were extremely anti-union and even brought their anti-union auto parts partners with them, both of which seriously weakened the UAW. Then Japanese success spurred the Big Three to shift more of their production overseas and to Mexico as well as to accelerate their subcontracting of union jobs to lower-wage, non-union plants. Without quotas, union autoworkers would undoubtedly have been worse off, but quotas alone proved inadequate tools to protect their interests.

Then came NAFTA and the renegotiation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that created the World Trade Organization in 1994. Both of these made it clear that despite the rhetoric of free trade, regional and global agreements were mainly intended to liberate capital from certain government regulations and to enact other regulations to protect capital’s rights on a global basis. Workers who had found it hard to make business socially accountable in their own countries were now faced with a global regime where they had almost no influence. But while most industrial union leaders knew they didn’t like NAFTA from the start, the movement against NAFTA really grew from the grass roots, with the AFL-CIO only joining in popular mobilization late in the game. After NAFTA, the labor movement internationally is placed in the difficult position of asking what kinds of regulation—if any—can be imposed on investment, and by whom.

In recent years, American unions have shifted their efforts from economic nationalism to protecting international labor rights and promoting international solidarity. Even in the NAFTA fight, the labor movement officially was not opposed to a regional pact in principle: Integration with Mexico was happening regardless, and unions simply insisted on a treaty that would protect Mexican workers’ rights and raise their standards of living. Even unions that were once strongly protectionist, such as those in the garment and textile industry, had begun by the late 1980s to emphasize helping unions in Central America and the Caribbean organize workers in the sweatshop mini-states known as Export Processing Zones, places where unions are zealously suppressed.

Unions in the United States had long been accustomed to working with—though more often interfering with—unions in other countries, especially those that were poor and underdeveloped. But since the early 1980s, American unions have also come to see unions in other countries as crucial help in their own campaigns against corporations.

This has been part of a broader shift in American labor’s foreign policy outlook. During the campaign against NAFTA, for example, U.S. unions found themselves at odds with their longtime ally in Mexico, a corrupt and undemocratic arm of the ruling party. Back in the 1980s, the union-backed National Labor Committee broke with Lane Kirkland’s AFL-CIO and criticized the Reagan administration’s Central American policies. That committee evolved into a group that now exposes Central American sweatshops that produce clothing for big U.S. retailers, such as Wal-Mart’s Kathie Lee Gifford.

International solidarity has become an increasingly important tactic.

In the wake of NAFTA, a few U.S. unions have begun helping independent unions in Mexico to organize, especially when plants have closed and work has been moved to Mexico. Teamsters have sought Mexican allies to block the NAFTA trucking accord. In preparation for its big campaign to organize strawberry pickers this year in California, the United Farm Workers first sent organizers to Mexico in the winter to build support among workers who might be heading north in the following months. At the same time, unions such as the United Electrical Workers, UNITE, and the Laborers have brought in organizers from Mexico, Guatemala and even Bangladesh to help out in drives among immigrants at shops in the United States and Canada (playing a crucial role in a big organizing victory in Milwaukee, for example).

International solidarity has also become a new, though infrequently used, weapon in battles with transnational corporations doing business in the United States. In 1984, the United Mine Workers were forced into a long strike against A.T. Massey Coal, a company that was half-owned by Shell. Shell, of course, was a major pillar of the apartheid regime in South Africa and imported South African coal into the United States, facts which the UMW was able to turn against the multinational giant. The South African black miners’ union also approached the UMW about support in its own battle against Shell, which arose from an incident in which mineworkers at a Shell operation had been forced back to work at gunpoint. The UMW decided to launch a boycott of Shell and recruited supporters from labor, anti-apartheid, and other movements in the United States and Europe. It also managed to get South African coal banned from the United States for five years.

International solidarity has become an increasingly important tactic in all manner of less visible conflicts as well. When the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation locked out steelworkers in Pennsylvania in 1990, European unions and one of the international trade secretariats helped the AFL-CIO track down financial fugitive Marc Rich, the ultimate power behind the company, who had holed up in Switzerland. The unions—including fledgling unions in Romania and Czechoslovakia—proceeded to protest and raise legal objections to new Rich ventures in their countries, eventually leading to a victory back in Pennsylvania. In 1995 and 1996 the Steelworkers developed an international campaign against Bridgestone/Firestone, the Japanese tire giant, which had brought in permanent replacements when U.S. workers had gone on strike. Though favorable National Labor Relations Board rulings allowed the union to extricate itself from a bad situation, Steelworkers President George Becker believes that the global labor actions—including high-level union delegations to managers, boycotts, and a couple of short strikes in other countries—convinced Bridgestone to settle. Likewise, when Paperworkers were locked out of a Danville, Illinois, factory in 1995 by owners that were part of a large Indonesian family empire, they linked up with East Timor human rights activists and Australian unionists, eventually forcing the company to bargain a reasonable contract.

Some international labor groups have begun to plan strategically on a global level, devising strategies to deal with particular companies or industries across national boundaries. In Europe, unions have long had to coordinate their efforts in such a manner, for example, to negotiate new mechanisms for consultation with workers that the European Union mandated for all transnational employers as part of the Maastricht agreement. Earlier this year, European and American union leaders met to discuss how they might extend those European Union mechanisms to the rest of the global operations of corporations affected by the European mandate.

Labor unions are a long way from being able to bargain on a global basis or even to think of conducting an international strike. It is often tough to coordinate efforts or get workers to support each other in one country, like the United States, or across all of Europe. It is harder yet for a worker in Italy to risk her job for another in Indonesia (or vice versa). Despite common basic interests—protecting the right to organize or raising living standards—workers in different countries do not always have identical short-term interests (such as where a new plant should be built). Even when international coordination could help them immensely—as in the disastrous struggle of Caterpillar workers earlier this decade in the United States—unions are often slow to recognize the need for global action.

Free-fall into a laissez-faire market inferno is not as inevitable as it sometimes seems.

Unions are also pursuing two other strategies to control transnationals. One aims to strengthen enforcement of basic labor rights—the right to organize and freedom from forced labor, child labor, and discrimination—by linking those rights to all global economic arrangements, from the World Trade Organization to the World Bank to regional trade deals. As business pushes for new international rules on investment in the coming years, labor will insist that recognition of its rights be attached. Of course, many would like to ask for more—like a formula for raising minimum wages in countries as they develop—but most union strategists figure that even winning recognition of core labor rights will be difficult. To win anything in the international arena, though, labor must go beyond lobbying to mobilizing members globally for common political goals.

Second, since the point of the global economy is to permit corporations to evade regulation of any kind, whether by unions or by governments, unions are demanding that the rules of the new economy directly hold corporations—not just national governments—accountable for their social policies. One way of doing this is to transform existing voluntary codes of corporate conduct—now mainly a defensive public relations ploy—into a political arena in which business can be held accountable and workers can be permitted to bargain collectively. Another is to point out the contradiction between the hip, socially aware image of big apparel and shoe transnationals, like Nike or Donna Karan, and the fact that their products are usually made by sweatshop subcontractors.

The closest approach yet to a global collective bargaining agreement came after an international campaign in 1996 against child labor in soccer ball manufacturing. This campaign used both strategies and secured an agreement between the needle trades international trade secretariat and FIFA, the world soccer federation. That code of conduct, if implemented, will not only prohibit child labor but also establish independent monitors, whose presence would in turn help protect the rights of adult workers to organize unions.

As countries respond to the global economy in different ways, free-fall into a laissez-faire market inferno is not as inevitable as it sometimes seems. For example, social-democratic traditions in continental Europe have dragged post-Thatcherite Britain toward greater accountability for business, which is one reason why British labor unions became more supportive of the European Union.

But even if workers around the world begin to see what they have in common with each other, they all live in distinct local environments with different needs. They have a stake in both local and national welfare, and any global regulation has to recognize those differences among nations and localities, as well as the common interest in rising standards of living, ecologically sustainable growth, greater social equality, and meaningful democracy. The rise of labor internationalism will not rule out the value or legitimacy of nationalist or localist sentiments, nor will it eliminate the potential disruption of international solidarity these sentiments can cause, as the European labor and social-democratic movements discovered in World War I. But internationalism will continue to temper and change national strategies of labor movements.

From local unions seeking alliances across borders to the AFL-CIO, where Sweeney’s new leadership is clearing out the Cold War cobwebs and giving global solidarity new emphasis, the U.S. labor movement is groping toward new ways to deal with a global economy. So far, the successes have been few, but far too little has even been tried. Labor has learned that to win national labor struggles, it has to contest corporate rule at all levels, from shop floor to boardroom, from picket line to ballot box, and from local community to the mass media. It is even more necessary to do so when confronting global capital. The ability to disrupt the economy or a business is still critical for workers’ power, but it is not the only source of strength.

Whatever the strategy, the clout of organized labor, even on a global scale, relies in the long run on deeply rooted, democratic organization and education of workers about the possibilities of a world in which money is the servant and not the master of their working lives. Now labor is in the very early stages of creating a new working-class culture of international awareness and solidarity. That change of outlook is not only critical for other strategies to work but is itself a source of power, just as the now-vanishing tradition of respect for picket lines once gave workers strength. If labor unions and their allies hope to overcome the threats to workers’ well-being in the new global economy, they will have to advance their own vision of a unified world.