In the increasing “heat” of labor reform issues — which is not always the same as “light” — it has been discouraging to see how little attention has been paid to labor’s foreign policy issues. This is, in my opinion, the 500-pound gorilla that no one wants to touch. Yet, I argue it is absolutely essential that labor do so.
There has been intensifying interest in the fate of the AFL-CIO, especially in the face of the all-but-certain departure of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from the Federation. Will they pull out and, if they do, whom will they pull out with them? What if they do pull out? What will be the ramifications? How will this affect labor as a whole? And how will this affect labor’s electoral mobilizing efforts, the one area in which it has shown some efficacy? All interesting questions, to say the least.
However, after having read a number of progressive discussions/reflections/suggestions on how labor should develop in the future, I have been dismayed by the paucity of discussion of the overall global context in which labor operates. I believe labor journalist David Bacon and U.S. Labor Against the War are the only ones who have tried to address this at least in some way. I’ve seen nothing by SEIU or the Sweeney camp that places labor’s situation in a global perspective. The assumption in almost everything I’ve read is that the U.S. economy is independent of the rest of the world, and despite the limited discussion of “off-shoring” of jobs, about all I have seen is some recognition that we need to unite with workers overseas who work in the same corporations.
This simply is insufficient. The U.S. economy is not independent, and labor does, in fact, operate within a global context. Our understanding must go far beyond what it is today.
The economic well-being of the United States has long been affected by this global context. In fact, the historic economic foundation of this country was to a considerable extent the global slave trade. More recently, whether searching overseas for natural resources to transform into manufactured goods, seeking markets to sell our goods and services, or attempting to control such strategically crucial materials as oil, the United States has been engaged globally since at least the end of the nineteenth century.
After the Second World War came the zenith of U.S. economic dominance. In 1947, for example, the United States alone produced approximately forty-eight percent of all the goods and services produced in the world! This is even more amazing when it is remembered that the U.S. population was only six percent of the world’s population. But it was this global economy that provided U.S. capitalists with the means to accept the U.S. labor movement’s demands for higher wages, greater benefits, and more vacation time, fueling the development of the great American “middle class.”
Since 1973, though, this global economy has ceased being benign or beneficial for workers in the United States. Not only have foreign corporations been able to compete through trade, but investment in the United States has heightened competition, placing more of a squeeze on domestic corporations. The automobile industry is a classic example: threatened first by imports, then by “transplant” factories, the “Big Three” of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have closed factories and downsized production, sloughing off parts-making subsidiaries, driving costs down throughout their production chains, and investing in new technology, both at home and in their off-shore plants. Chrysler even sold itself to Daimler-Benz. The result so far has been the destruction of hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paying, stable, unionized manufacturing jobs.
Yet, auto is only one example — and it is from a capital-intensive industry. Less capital intensive industries such as electronics, textile, garments, and shoe manufacturing have been even more footloose, as they have lower sunk costs. Moreover, corporations do not actually have to relocate plants: they can keep their headquarters and high-end production and service in the United States while subcontracing their production across the world.
As a matter of fact, as higher technology spreads around the world — across industries — there is no reason why high-end production and service, much of which can be relocated as well, has to remain in the United States either. For one-eighth of the wage of an engineer in Silicon Valley, an engineer in Mumbai can do the same job as well as he can — and practically as fast.
Among the consequences of transnational production are tax cuts (made in the name of luring investments) and reduced services provided by a revenue-starved public sector that is being rapidly privatized.
The long and short of it is that the United States is enmeshed in the global economy. Because of past development, the United States is more able to determine its future economically than can developing countries. But the U.S advantage is greater than just a high level of economic development: its leaders have consciously created a U.S-led global political-economic network — an Empire without colonies — and thus they have the political, military, and cultural means, in addition to the economic, to facilitate future development on their own terms, while limiting those of others.
The U.S. Empire is based on neocolonial relations (or outright colonial relations in the case of Iraq) that are, at their heart, founded on the massive exploitation of human and natural resources. Therefore, the choice workers in this country face is this: try to defend our narrow interests within the Empire or build a new world based on mutual respect and the system of production least detrimental to workers and the environment?
Unless we are willing to work blindly to maintain the Empire — which, of course, means seeing our sons and daughters subjected to service in the war machine, whose voracious fiscal appetite eats up funds for public services — we must critically evaluate the U.S. government’s actions. And, if they prove detrimental, then we must have the space to maneuver against and/or disrupt them.
That is why the Latin American Solidarity Coalition‘s campaign against the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is so important. Washington created the NED to further its foreign policy, while having it appear to be “non-governmental.” The NED claims to promote democracy, when it really only works to advance free market economics and continued control by local and global elites. The AFL-CIO’s foreign policy leaders were some of the founders of the NED, and the Federation’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) — also known as the Solidarity Center — is one of the NED’s four core “institutes,” along with the international wings of the Democratic and Republican parties and the Chamber of Commerce. While the ACILS, which gets approximately 90 percent of its funding from the NED, has done some positive things, mostly it has served to undercut workers’ struggles in countries around the world — predominantly in Venezuela — while advancing U.S. foreign policy interests.
Not only has the ACILS acted against workers around the world, but it has done so without transparency and without any democratic mandate from U.S. unions or their members.
By supporting efforts to break the ties between the NED and the ACILS, not only do we quit screwing over workers of the world, but we fight to regain democracy in the U.S. labor movement; and, by declaring our independence from the Empire, we are better able to ascertain and advance our interests. What better place to begin to do so than in the debate on the fate of the AFL-CIO itself?
Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union, and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. He published “Labor Imperialism Redux?: A Look at the AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995” in the May 2005 issue of Monthly Review. He can be contacted at <email@example.com>.