Vol. V, Bulletin No. 3.                                                                     February 1, 2000 

Good News for Labor, But Not Good Enough

Year after year, news headlines in January told the same story: Union Membership Dwindling." Not this year. The headline in the January 20 New York Times was: "Growth in Unions' Membership in 1999 Was the Best in Two Decades."

According to the latest annual report of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers belonging to unions rose by 266,000 in 1999, bringing union membership up to 16.5 million. That total comprised 13.9% of all wage and salary workers both in 1998 and (because of an expanded labor force) in 1999.

"We've turned the corner, but we're not at our destination yet," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said at a press conference. Tom Woodruff, organizing director of the Service Employees International Union, added that although 150,000 workers joined his union, the "real story is the million of workers who were denied the right to choose a union because of employer intimidation."

Because private employers, under U.S. law and practice, have a great deal of leeway to oppose unions, the unionization rate in the private sector is only 9.4%, compared with 37.3% in the public sector. "We would not allow an employer to unduly influence an employee's political or religious choice," Woodruff said, "yet we allow employers to unduly influence his or her choice to join a union."

Despite public campaigns to encourage citizens to vote, only about 36% of the voting-age population did so in the 1998 federal elections. Imagine how much lower that percentage would be if there were campaigns against exercising the right to vote as vigorous as employer campaigns against exercising the right to join a union.

(Check the BLS Website, at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nws.htm, for its report on union membership trends. See http://www.aflcio.org/voiceatwork/morejoin.htm for the AFL-CIO's analysis.)

Clinton: 'Denial Is Not Just a River in Egypt'

Denial and indifference are counterproductive reactions to the fact that the benefits of globalization are not shared by countless working men and women in the world. That was a key message that President Clinton had for 1,000 top corporate executives and hundreds of senior public officials attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 29.

In his address, the first by a U.S. president to the prestigious group's annual assemblies, Clinton argued that global "economics must be blended with the other legitimate human concerns," or else the backlash from people left behind will undermine the support necessary to maintain an open international trading system.

"Developed and developing countries alike," he said, "must ensure that the benefits of trade flow widely to workers and families within our nations."
To advance that goal, he renewed his call for the World Trade Organization to establish a working group on worker rights. "The consequence of opening up a dialogue," he said, "will show that in the new economy, we can have more growth and more trade, with better treatment for people in the workplace."  But "the consequence of running away from an open dialogue on a profoundly important issue will be...more protection."

Here he quoted "the words of a slogan that people my daughter's age always use: denial is not just a river in Egypt," adding: "And the more we hunker down and refuse to devote time systematically to discussing these issues, the more we are going to fuel the fires of protectionism. We have to make some institutional accommodation to the fact that this is party of the debate surrounding globalization."

Improving labor standards, Clinton said, is a "win-win situation."  As an example, he cited a U.S.-supported program in Bangladesh to switch underage children from garment factories to class rooms. "The program got kids to learn, and actually boosted garment exports, and gave jobs to adults who would otherwise not have had them."

(For the full text of Clinton's speech check the USIA Website. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's comments at a panel discussion can be found on the AFL-CIO's Website. Check the Forum's Website for information on other happenings at Davos.)

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Footnote on Whether 'We' Hold the Monopoly on Decent Norms

Did Clinton's eloquence make much of an impression? Not on Horst Siebert, head of the Kiel Institute of the World Economy in Germany. His reaction, as quoted by the New York Times: "Nobody wants children in Bangladesh working in factories, but we should not be imposing our norms on them."

Here's some background on why Bangladesh's factories are making progress in eliminating child labor. It's happening because many of Bangladeshi's people--including government  leaders--share the norms against forcing little girls and boys into full-time employment. Assuming that only "we" in Germany or the United States hold such norms is a grievous (and arrogant) error.

Globalizing Social Justice, Now

In a post-mortem on the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, Robert Wright, a contributing editor of the New Republic, wrote in the magazine's January 17 issue:

"So, in coming years, expect workers in poor nations to link up with Western labor groups to pursue their common cause: higher wages. The groups won't see eye-to-eye on everything....Still, there will be enough common interest that, to some extent, workers of the world will unite--if not exactly in the context Marx envisioned."
Like most other observers, Wright missed an important fact dramatized at Seattle: that workers in poor nations are already linked up with Western labor groups in a common cause. Altogether, 125 million working men and women from 145 countries and territories--rich, poor, and in between--are united within the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

Although the ICFTU is already 50 years old, it's only in recent years that it has become a force on the world scene. Much of the credit goes to globalization. Markets thrive under globalization. So does international labor solidarity, in pursuit of a cause that goes far beyond higher wages.

At Seattle, that solidarity was demonstrated not just by protest marches but above all by the presence of worker representatives from every continent. Among them were trade unionists from Barbados, Brazil, Fiji, Ghana, Hong Kong, Ghana, Korea, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zambia. Gibson Sibanda, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, joined other leaders from the developing world in strongly urging the WTO to add a worker rights dimension to global trade policy.

"It is a question of fundamental human rights, and has nothing to do with protectionism," Sibanda said. "How can you say that fighting against child labor is protectionism when in my country, for example, more than 45% of adults are unemployed?"
The global struggle for worker rights will bring hundreds of union leaders together in Durban, South Africa, for the ICFTU world congress April 3 to 7. The congress' theme: Globalizing Social Justice: Trade Unions in the 21st Century. Please take note, Robert Wright.

(For news about the congress, monitor the ICFTU's Website at http://www.icftu.org.)

Diary: Temptation, Nostalgia, and Friendship

I was sorely tempted to attend the world labor congress in South Africa. I even checked out airline Websites for the cheapest round trip fares from Washington, D.C., to Durban, South Africa. The idea excited me. What a great opportunity to talk with some old friends of mine who will be there, men and women who have devoted their lives to advancing the cause of working men and women. They and the ICFTU have been a big part of my life.

As a labor officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, I served two tours in Brussels, Belgium, the ICFTU headquarters. I had the privilege of attending the ICFTU congress in Madrid in 1979, when the ICFTU represented only half of the workers that it does now. (I still have a tape of a remarkable speech that the AFL-CIO's Irving Brown gave on that occasion.) And many years earlier, as a free-lance writer also working for the Catholic Labor Alliance in Chicago, I covered the founding congress of the ICFTU regional organization in Mexico City. That was in 1951, well before I joined the Foreign Service, and before the AFL and CIO merged.

My scrapbook still holds a faded clipping about that eventful congress, a full-page story by Bob Senser headlined "Free Western Hemisphere Trade Unions Unite," printed in the January 22, 1951, issue of the CIO News. I wrote stories, on assignment, for the AFL Weekly News Service and the Labor Press Association too. The stipends I got from those three sources covered my train fare (coach) from Chicago to Mexico City and back.

So attending the Durban convention would have been a kind of reunion for me. Besides, of course, there would be the thrill of visiting South Africa, the scene of a historic struggle about which I have written much from afar.

My bout with the flu last month, however, dampened my enthusiasm for a long trip. Lucky I didn't buy a ticket, because since then my wife and I have made other travel plans for March and April. We and other members of the family will be in Dallas, Texas, for much of that time. Our daughter, Han, is expecting her second child, and we'll be there to help her and rejoice with her.

Naturally, I'll take along my laptop along. It'll help me keep up with what's happening in the world. Especially in Durban, South Africa.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-3, February 1, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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