Thursday, March 29, 2012

Open letter to the labor movement.

Brothers and Sisters,

I have noticed in the media recently that the argument for globalization is 'fait accompli', understood to benefit every country in the world. I was recently told that protectionism is a remnant of our xenophobic past. So I pose the question here, to you. Is globalization a good thing, helping spread human rights through increased trade and wealth, or is it as the occupy movement has suggested, simply a ploy for multinationals to dodge human rights, while enjoying the insanely marked up profits on their products?

We see the effects of globalization locally in our own culture every day. Plant closures, cheaper products being made overseas and shipped here, while we max ourselves out on credit, and our middle class disappears. We see that wages in North America have stagnated since 1979, but the profits of the corporations have grown exponentially since then. In 2010, of the wealth that was generated in our economy, a full 98% went to the top five percent of income earners. The rest of us got nothing.

Yet, there are rumblings from the countries where these products are produced. One New York Times report about factories in Shenzhen, China talked of worker conditions of those producing Foxconn chips for Apple products. Their findings included “evidence of a high number of suicides, overworked and underage  employees, and a pattern of safety lapses. One problem involved a repeated failure to control aluminum dust, which resulted in multiple explosions that killed or injured dozens of workers.”

This is just one example in which workers have no say in their hours of work, conditions of work, including safety from chemicals and hazards, nor in their rates of pay.

How long can we pretend that these people are the problem, and not part of the solution? These are not people who want to join existing unions, who own two cars, three televisions, and a duplex in the suburbs. They live in dormitories ten or fifteen workers to a room, with fifty people sharing one bathroom, with their days and nights ruled by the factory clock. During the genesis of Communism, Unions were among the first institutions to be banned, their supporters killed. Unions are not even a distant memory for most workers, average people in a situation they cannot palate, thinking of a way out. For many that way out is suicide. Does that sound like an enemy, or someone who needs a helping hand? We have to stop identifying them as the threat, and place the blame where it really lies.

Many of us in North America have forgotten the roots of our Unions. The men and women of my great grandfather’s generation did not have these rights we enjoy, and they put their lives on the line for them. In the Cripple Creek Miner's strike in Colorado of 1894, Pinkerton agents fired bullets into the tents where the families of the striking miners slept. The strikers were beaten, their families beaten, and many killed, and there was no protection. Still they fought on. This fight is not new, and it is far from over.

Yet I have hope that as we progress, the power of corporations over people is simply a trend. In a worst case scenario, even if we lose this in North America, and Unions are outright disbanded, let's say even globally, which is the ultimate aim of the Corporate world, there is still much hope. Why? Because the Unions are not in the legislation that protects them. They are not in the bricks and paperwork, nor in the Agreements they sign with companies. No, we are the Unions, not their executives, or the bylaws, or the constitutions. We are people who care about others. To completely get rid of Unions, governments would have to break the will of people to better their lives and the lives of their fellows.

It is human nature that people band together to fight for rights. We should take heart that there is a greater trend toward democratization, because the protection and chartering, and creation of Unions is, in essence, the democratization of that very basic genesis of workers banding together. Democracy is the wave that Unions ride. Someone else, in the future would take up this cause, just as is happening in other countries.

China is going to be the next battleground for labour rights. It already has a multi-billion dollar smartphone and tablet PC market, major industrial capacity, and the largest construction sector in the world. However, they are not alone. India is the fastest growing economy in the world, and with near one billion people, is struggling to institute its own universal health care system and to clean up its Parliament from its dictatorial past.

Because of globalization, what we do here, on our own little island, is not enough. We are part of a global economy that gives the multinationals many safe havens. In every country that has no Unions, and no Labour laws, they are free to do what they like, to pile up profits that they can then use as leverage to push 'right to work' legislation. Their pockets, lined with the money that is stolen from these workers in other nations, are deeper than you can imagine. The money that should be going to these workers is instead being used to buy off politicians worldwide. The profits will not dry up unless we are willing to break this cycle, and if we do not break this cycle, we will end up with corporations dictating our fate.

So to answer the first question, I don't believe globalization is in itself a bad thing. It is a trend, a natural progression. How can that be bad? It just is. No, the real question that should be asked about our future is this:
Will we let multinational corporations use globalization to their advantage, to dismantle our rights and regress us to another form of worldwide slavery, or will we make it work for us?

I challenge you to take this fight to them. If they think they can hide in Indonesia, let us then go to Indonesia to help our brothers and sisters there to improve their conditions. In China, let's break through the great firewall. Let us avoid no country. Where there is no Labour law allowing collective bargaining, let's help them lobby for one. Where there is no health and safety act, let's help them write one. Where there is no unity, let's help them unite.

We will need to identify countries who have Labour Laws, and Unions, to open the dialogue and share resources. We need to reach out to the countries where existing movements struggle, to allow them to see what we’ve accomplished in over a century in our own struggle. It will give them a roadmap, and a goal.

In countries where there are no Unions, we have to open a dialogue with those politicians who will listen to their workers about labour law. We have to contact the workers themselves, and the families of workers to educate them about the risks, to show them what is possible to achieve.

For us, it will remind us of our difficult roots, to see how others in less tolerant nations are under threat, not just their livelihoods, but sometimes for their lives. We are in this together, and nothing will get better for us here in North America until it gets better for everyone. We need this. If the global economy does not support the trend of Unionization, then we are spinning our wheels. The labor markets and efficiencies of sweatshops will only grow, and we, and our skills, will be left behind. We must take away the ability for corporations to ship jobs elsewhere, where rights don't matter. In doing so we may finally create a global environment where rights matter everywhere, and they will no longer be able to dismantle our social democracies for their profits.

If there is any time in history when we should be putting our resources to help our brothers and sisters in other countries, it is now. In doing so, we may end up saving the Union movement on our own continent.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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