When we launched GLS nearly 3 years ago our goal was to contribute to building global labor solidarity through research, analysis, strategic thinking, and network building around labor and employment issues. It seemed to us then, as it still does today, that labor movements and their allies around the world are at a watershed moment. Capital mobility and global outsourcing have allowed footloose global corporations—the dominant players in the world’s economy—to effectively outflank national labor movements. Workers and communities around the world are increasingly being pitted against each other to attract or retain decent jobs. Unions, labor laws, and social benefits are under attack in the name of global competitiveness. The choice for unions and worker organizations everywhere is to adapt to global realities and build a global labor movement or decline into irrelevance.
While it would be a stretch to say that great progress has been made toward this end, over the past few years some real progress has been made. There is widespread—if not universal—recognition of the need to go global among labor activists the world over. New institutional links between global labor movements have been forged or strengthened. (Although it should be noted that a significant part of the US labor movement—unions that are now part of CtW—have been barred from joining the new International Trade Union Confederation.) But formidable obstacles remain to constructing a global labor movement that reaches beyond high level institutional contacts and inspiring rhetoric.
Economic nationalism continues to be a problem as unions seek to protect jobs, or poach jobs, by sometimes supporting counter-productive trade policies, tariffs, and subsidies to lure businesses. Unions sometimes make common cause with their employers to defend narrow sectoral interests rather than broader class and social interests. In the end these actions are generally unproductive and inhibit global solidarity.
Global diversity in union structures and industrial relations systems rooted in national histories and national laws makes cooperation difficult. Just look at the differences in the way unions bargain—and what they bargain about—in the US, Scandinavia, France, Brazil, and Japan and the difficulty in creating a common front against global corporations becomes apparent.
The lack of effective labor unions in many parts of the world—including China the former Soviet Union and East bloc countries—makes finding partners for building global alliances extremely difficult.
And, finally, the legacy of distrust from labor supported economic nationalism and cold war policies often puts an edge on efforts to work together.
But as difficult as these obstacles may be to surmount, we think there are many new opportunities for cooperation and a growing recognition in labor movements around the world that cooperation is needed.
There has been lots of discussion about how the race to the bottom harms poor countries, but there is an upsurge of general discontent with globalization and its consequences throughout the world. A recent poll shows people in the rich countries of the world overwhelmingly think that the current globalization process is having a negative effect on their lives. As the socially sanctioned representative of the interests of workers, organized labor has an opportunity to give voice to this discontent.
The technical obstacles to cooperation have been greatly reduced. Today, the internet, phone cards, and cheap transportation make communication across borders easy. Labor can use these advances in communication by exponentially increasing the flow of information among workers and their organizations at all levels over the web and through worker to worker exchanges. That alone would be a major advance in international cooperation.
Much more difficult is finding the issues and modalities to forge lasting links among workers and their organizations. Here in the States, where unions are much more focused on collective bargaining with specific companies than they are in many other countries, efforts to build international cooperation have generally revolved around support for contract or organizing campaigns. While necessary and important, such cooperation is not likely to build a global labor movement since it is episodic, touches only a small number of workers, and often is not about directly shared interests. In addition it runs into all of the obstacles that we list above. Instead, building real global cooperation will take collective action on critical issues that directly affect large numbers of workers and unions everywhere—regardless of their structures. There are many such issues. We at GLS have chosen to work on 3 which we think challenge workers and their organizations everywhere and which can only be effectively addressed through global cooperation: the emergence of China as a global powerhouse, the challenge of global warming, and creating worker friendly approaches to immigration.
China is the essential country in the fight for a fair globalization. Workers, communities, and countries throughout the world are confronting the challenges posed by the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse. About 25% of the global workforce is now Chinese. China increasingly sets the global norm for wages and working standards as it attracts jobs at both the high and low ends of the production chain. As a result, the hard-won gains of workers in the global North are being rapidly undermined while the aspirations of workers in other developing countries are being dashed as China becomes the wage setting country in many industries and attracts more capital. And within China workers are fighting to get their fair share, but lack effective unions or aggressive labor law enforcement. They need help in their struggle.
GLS proposes a new paradigm—one that we developed with activists inside and outside of China—that focuses on the role of multi-national corporations doing business in China as a strategy to find common ground among labor and their allies around the world. These companies wield enormous power yet they are potentially vulnerable to global public opinion in ways that the Chinese state is not. Foreign owned global corporations account for 60% of Chinese exports to the US. Indeed, if US retail giant Wal-Mart were a country it would be China’s 8th largest trading partner. The “Chinese threat” is less about trade with China than it is about trade with companies like Wal-Mart and GE.
This past year, GLS played an important role in exposing efforts by global companies to weaken China’s new Labor Contract Law in an effort to preserve the status quo in China’s labor markets. In the coming year we aim to expand our efforts by launching a China Corporate Observatory. It’s a project that we hope others will support or replicate.
Here’s how we think it can work. There is an acute need to know about what’s really going on in China’s economy and its workplaces, but it’s difficult to get accurate information. The recent consumer scares have made the need for transparency more pressing than ever.
It’s easy to blame the Chinese government for the information gap. But corporations in China—both foreign and domestic—are as much or more to blame. They generally do business through a labyrinth of suppliers and middle men which they control but do not own. The identity of the firms in most corporate supplier chains is generally considered “proprietary knowledge” and kept as a closely guarded secret. This is at odds with the transparency needed for the rule of law and social accountability. If labor laws, product safety standards, and environmental regulations are to be enforced, public access to a wide range of information is required.
The China Corporate Observatory will promote transparency by conducting research and analysis inside and outside of China. The Observatory will enlist Chinese and non-Chinese activists and scholars to research the Chinese press, corporate and government documents, academic and business journals, and other rarely accessed data. Information gathered will be made widely available to people inside and outside China through reports, web posting, and other means and will, we think, help build links between them.
The need to confront global warming offers another potential for building global labor cooperation. Both global warming and the effort to combat it will directly affect workers and unions. Global warming, if not halted, will lead to massive economic disruption and job loss. Some anti-warming measures will lead to job losses in particular sectors and this presents a challenge to the unions that represent those workers as well as to traditional notions of labor solidarity. At the same time, there are huge opportunities for job growth presented by many anti-warming measures.
Corporations are already launching well publicized “business friendly” approaches to global warming. Now, labor must develop a coherent response that meets the specific needs of its members at the bargaining table and the general needs of its members as human beings confronting a potentially catastrophic event. Labor must stake out a position if it is to remain a vital social and political force. Tackling the tension between the specific sectoral interests of unions and their more general class and social interest is the essential first step in that process.
Now that even energy corporations are admitting the reality of global warming, a serious “climate debate” is finally underway throughout the world. Labor is one of the few organized forces that can represent the interests of ordinary people in that debate. A constructive labor involvement is essential both for establishing the measures needed to counter global warming, and for ensuring a “just transition” in which workers and the poor are not forced to bear the burden while corporations and the wealthy further enrich themselves. The search for constructive involvement offers an important way for unions and worker friendly organizations from around the world to work together. GLS has produced a discussion paper on labor and global warming. In the coming year will expand on some of the ideas and actions outlined in that report.
The UN estimates that there are some 200 million migrants in the world. Most are on the move in search of work. Fierce debates are underway in the US, Europe, and elsewhere on how to handle this flow of people. Right-wing forces in the rich countries are using the immigration issue to promote a nativist agenda among working and middle class people worried about globalization and its consequences. As organizations that represent all workers—immigrant and non immigrant alike—unions can play a critical role in this debate. And in many countries they are doing so.
Yet, up to now the debates on immigration have been generally a series of national debates that treat the problems of sending and receiving countries as if they were unconnected. But the global movement of people is taking place in the context of a global deficit of decent jobs. That creates pressures for migration in the sending countries and it generates tension with established workers in the receiving countries. Just immigration policies will need to protect the interests of both established workers and newcomers. Effective policies must also address the decent jobs deficit in both the rich and poorer countries.
We have written in many posts over the last year or more of the need for a hemispheric approach to US immigration reform. US labor—with its relationships throughout the hemisphere and its diverse membership—should help convene such a hemispheric dialog. But international migration is not just an issue for the Americans Europe faces a major migration crisis. We need a global dialog in which to learn from each other and find common solutions.
Over the next year GLS will continue to focus on immigration reform in the US through our writings and through workshops with workers. We think there are approaches that can reconcile the rights and the needs of immigrants with those established workers that are often over-looked or dismissed as reactionary or racist. In an effort to expand the debate we are also planning look at how the immigration debate is played out in countries and labor movements around the world as a way to contribute to the search for global solutions to a global problem.
If trade unions are to survive as vibrant institutions they will have to move beyond representing just the national and sectoral interest of workers to representing broader global interests of all workers. We at GLS have selected 3 issues to work on—China, global warming, and immigration—that can help build global solidarity.
The GLS Team
In Memoriam: Tim Costello has over 40 years of work and union experience in the area. He helped organize and served (until July 2005) as Coordinator of the Boston based North American Alliance for Fair Employment a network of 65 unions and community based organizations in the US and Canada. Costello was a truck driver and workplace activist for many years; following that, he worked on the staff of SEIU. He has extensive collective bargaining experience in a number of industries.
Brendan Smith is a legal expert (J.D. Cornell University Law School) specializing in national and international labor law and policy. He is currently co-director of the UCLA Law School Globalization and Labor Standards Project. He has worked previously as a senior legislative aide for Congressman Bernie Sanders and staffed the Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy, where he organized a series of hearings and legislative efforts on the Asian and Russian financial crisis. Smith has also consulted for the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, International Labor Rights Fund and Service Employees International Union, as well worked extensively throughout Asia, including China. He has also been a lead organizer on global campaigns targeting NIKE, child labor abuse, and solidarity fights to free imprisoned trade unionists. He has published two books and his commentary has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Baltimore Sun, CBS.com, Yahoo.com, New Labor Forum, the Nation and Advertising Age.
Jeremy Brecher is a leading labor historian, writer, and documentary script writer best known for the labor history Strike!. For more than two decades Brecher and Costello have studied and written about labor and globalization, writing such well-known books as Building Bridges: The emerging Grassroots Coalition of Labor and Community and Global Village or Global Pillage. For the past 8 years they have been joined by Brendan Smith, who collaborated with them on the book Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity. Their Emmy-nominated documentary Global Village or Global Pillage? has been used by unions and other groups in the US and throughout the world to present an international grassroots response to globalization.
Claudia Torrelli lives and works in Montevideo, Uruguay. Torrelli handles GLS’s Latin American networking. She is an activist the in labor—community based Hemispheric Social Alliance, and in other social movement organizations in Latin America. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese, and English.