Transnational Labor Organizing
Transnational Labor Organizing
Transnational labor organizing is the act of organizing workers in two or more nations into the same labor union affiliation or activist network. Labor unions historically have provided skilled and unskilled workers with better working conditions and higher wages. Although union leadership, organizers, and members in the United States have generally exhibited racist and sexist attitudes over the years, unions have nevertheless been valuable for people of color by protecting and furthering their labor rights. However, globalization has challenged the power of unions in industrialized nations. People of color and women employed in manufacturing are particularly vulnerable to the loss of unionized jobs. Unionized manufacturing industries offer relatively high wages and generous benefit packages. Unfortunately, these industries have been experiencing most of the job losses due to globalization. When unskilled workers lose these jobs, they generally tend to find employment in the predominantly nonunion service sector, where wages are significantly lower and benefits, especially health care, are often minimal or nonexistent.
Modern technologies in transportation and telecommunications, coupled with an increase in free trade agreements (FTAs) and the activities of the World Trade Organization (WTO), have made it cost-effective for corporations to locate production in developing regions such as China. Two main reasons for such shifts are the extremely low labor costs and the authoritarian political systems found in these nations. For example, average labor costs in China are approximately 20 to 30 times lower than in the United States or Germany. In addition, the authoritarian governments and business culture of developing nations offer corporations a legal environment with little to no labor or environmental protections, which further reduces production costs. Such governments also often control and discipline their workforces through the use of police and military forces, in part to prevent autonomous worker organizing. Usually these developing nations establish what are commonly known as export processing zones (EPZs) to attract foreign companies. These are special industrial parks, such as the maquiladoras along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. The working conditions within EPZs have been documented by activist and labor groups, including the New York–based National Labor Committee (NLC), as sweatshop conditions lacking basic human rights. Child labor, sexual favors as a condition for continued employment, retaliation against union organizers, and violations of labor laws are common. All these factors artificially prohibit labor costs from rising to the levels predicted by free market economics.
Corporations in high-wage regions of the world have been transferring production to developing nations—a practice commonly referred to as “outsourcing”—to take advantage of lower labor costs. As a consequence, unions in developed nations experience job losses and reduced negotiating power. Another common trend is for corporations to threaten relocation in order to extract concessions from their employees in high-wage nations. This has resulted in stagnant real wages, benefit reductions, and a disciplined contingent labor force in the United States and other industrialized nations.
This corporate strategy is similar to that used by businesses in the United States from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. Specifically, employers would use race to divide worker solidarity and prevent the formation of stronger, racially integrated unions. For example, white workers would be disciplined with threats of losing their jobs to blacks, and vice versa, pitting worker against worker. Globalization still includes racial elements that pit workers in high-wage regions, typically whites, against those in low-wage regions, typically Latinos, Africans, and Asians.
Labor scholars and union leaders argue that all workers in an enterprise need to be organized, regardless of geographic locale. This requires union members of advanced nations to develop a class-consciousness inclusive of race, gender, religion, culture, and geographic location, which can lead to transnational labor organizing. Although states openly sanction what is commonly referred to by activists as “corporate globalization,” including FTAs, they do little to facilitate or encourage transnational labor organizing. A major reason for this is that governments of capitalist nations traditionally tend to be dominated by, and therefore express, upper-class and business interests. This also explains the historically hostile attitude of U.S. political and legal institutions toward organized labor. Consequently, workers have had to engage in transnational labor organizing largely on their own.
The logic behind transnational organizing is that by organizing all the workers of a corporation, regardless of locale, it becomes harder for the company to shift production from facilities experiencing labor actions, such as a strike, to others that are not. It also prohibits the company from pitting its unionized high-cost employees against its nonunionized low-cost workers, who are typically in poor nations and are often nonwhites and women. In addition, unionizing workers in poor nations has the effect of raising their wages and benefits and creating a better balance with those in richer nations. In the long run, this reduces the competitive advantage of outsourcing and pitting developed-nation workers against those in developing regions. It also has the positive effect of improving the quality of work life and the standard of living for employees in poor nations.
Although efforts to engage in transnational labor organizing are still rare, there are some prominent examples. One is the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which is based in Brussels and has more than 300 affiliates representing more than 160 million workers in more than 150 nations. The ITUC was formed in 2006 from the merger of the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and the Argentine Workers’ Center (CTA). Older and more radical examples include the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies.” Formed in Chicago 1905 by anarchists and socialists, the IWW was suppressed by employers and the government alike, and its membership dropped dramatically from its 1923 highpoint of 100,000 members to about 2,000 members at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In addition to the work of traditional labor unions, there are also examples of transborder organizing performed by indigenous people and activists. One example is Via Campesina, a transnational movement of small- to medium-scale farmers, landless peasants, indigenous communities, and rural women. Formed in 1992, Via Campesina operates in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Its goals include providing access to land for local people, instead of basing land acquisition on free market forces as provided by the WTO and FTAs. Another goal includes food sovereignty, the ability to be self-reliant for food production rather than depending on international trade for food access. Finally, the movement also supports sustainable methods of agriculture based on local traditions and farming techniques.
Another example of activist transnational organizing is the Transnationals Information Exchange (TIE), formed in 1978. TIE is a decentralized nonprofit network that practices social movement unionism. Its goals include promoting social rights for women, immigrant workers, and people of color, as well as the development of democratic institutions where they do not exist. It also seeks to link economic rights with political rights, especially the freedom of association and the freedom to form a union in nations where such freedoms are still suppressed. The network opposes corporate globalization centered on FTAs that represent neoliberal policies, lean production, and casual employment, which are seen as privileging capital at the expense of labor, indigenous people, and local communities. The network includes workers that are both organized and unorganized in the informal, agricultural, and industrial sectors. The TIE especially targets industries dominated by transnational corporations (TNCs) in export-oriented sectors such as textiles. It encourages self-organizing and a variety of other activist strategies ranging from the local to the international level. Finally, the network attempts to promote solidarity between workers of developed and developing nations. It operates in most parts of the world, including Asia, the Americas, and Europe.
There are a number of formidable obstacles to transnational labor organizing. For one, most labor legislation is nationally based. Given national sovereignty, corporations operating in different countries often have to comply with local labor laws, which tend to be much weaker than those of developed nations. In addition, many developing nations prohibit the very existence of independent labor unions. For example, many Mexican and Chinese labor unions are government controlled, often to the detriment of the workers. In fact, there are many cases where corporations have colluded with host developing nations to prevent the formation of unions. This is typically the case in EPZs. National labor laws are often suspended in these special zones in an effort to attract foreign investment. There are, however, examples of successful organizing in EPZs, such as in the Dominican Republic.
Another obstacle to transnational labor organizing is that even if a collective agreement is signed with workers in developing nations, corporations can easily relocate production to other EPZs around the world to evade higher labor costs. In such a case, the corporation effectively pits a national labor force in one developing country against that of another, and the workers willing to accept the least in terms of wages and benefits will win out. This also relates to the problem of divergent national interests. For example, workers in a poor nation may wish to focus on human rights issues, whereas those in developed nations may want to focus on improved benefit packages.
Finally, a major obstacle to transnational labor organizing is the existence of free trade institutions themselves. Specifically, most free trade rules mandate that participating nations conform to legal standards at the lowest common denominator. This significantly reduces the power of labor overall. However, there have been cases where labor organizers have used free trade rules to the advantage of workers—on the grounds of human rights, for example.
Globalization based on neoliberal principles presents a significant challenge to labor and political rights throughout the world. Nationally based organizing has been ineffective at addressing these issues, leading to the need for transnationally based organizing, particularly in light of the evolution of the globalized production process. In order to be effective, organizers are focusing on the importance of new ideologies that challenge the dominant ideology, which they believe privileges capital over labor and citizen rights. This includes developing transnational solidarity inclusive of geography, race, ethnicity, and gender. Evidence indicates that such an approach to worker rights is promising. However, globalization is a significant and ongoing process that is unlikely to reverse course. For this reason, the reaction from labor is also ongoing and solidifying into transnational alliances between unions, independent workers movements, activists, and many other groups.
Interestingly, the same telecommunication technologies that have made globalization possible are also enabling transnational organizing. For example, the Internet has proven to be an important tool for uniting diverse groups worldwide, helping them spread their message and coordinate their efforts. Groups such as the indigenous Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, have used the Internet to recruit supporters and disseminate their message internationally. TIE is another example of activism based on Internet communications.
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