Vol. X, Bulletin No. 8 July 28, 2005
Thomas Friedman Ignores A Crucial 'Identity': Our Conscience
Diagnosing the Flat World's 'Disorder'
I don't have just one identity, but many. So do you. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Thomas L. Friedman, reminds us of our multiple identities in a section his new book, The World Is Flat. (Translation: the world is globalized, which is hardly news.)
“In a flat world,” he writes, “the tensions among our identities as consumers, employees, citizens, taxpayers, and shareholders are going to come into sharper and sharper conflict.” These various roles, or “identities” as he calls them, cause us to have different and often conflicting views on issues facing us.
Friedman groups such tensions under a medical-sounding label, "multiple identity disorder." He illustrates this "disorder" by explaining how the tensions work out in our reactions to selected issues involving a corporate giant, Wal-Mart. Here is how he juxtaposes several different identities and conflicting attitudes:
- Consumer vs. shareholder. On the one hand, "the Wal-Mart shopper in all of us wants the lowest price possible….[But] the Wal-Mart shareholder in us wants Wal-Mart to be relentless” in (for example) keeping its employee compensation package low “in order to fatten the company’s profits.”
- Worker vs. citizen-taxpayer. Also, “the Wal-Mart worker in us hates the [substandard] benefits and pay packages that Wal-Mart offers its starting employees…[But] the Wal-Mart citizen in us knows that because Wal-Mart, the biggest company in America, doesn’t cover all its employees with health care, some of them will go to the emergency ward of the local hospital, and the taxpayers will end up picking the tab.”
Disorder Expected To Become 'The Most Common Disease of the Flat World'
Friedman devotes surprisingly few of his book's 488 pages to discussing this multiple identity disorder, even though he predicts that it will be "the most common disease of the flat world." His analysis, though brief, is worth examining for what it reveals about his overall approach, in this book and in his New York Times columns.
In his diagnosis, the "Wal-Mart citizen in us" is limited to just one economic element -- the objection to the employment costs that Wal-Mart avoids by passing them over to the government and to taxpayers. But for most concerned citizens, the real objections are much more fundamental: that Wal-Mart is unfair to its workers, not only to those in the United States but to the millions who work for Wal-Mart and its contractors in China and elsewhere overseas. The identity that causes the most "tension" here is not the citizen as a taxpayer but the citizen as a person with a conscience.
Putting it in other words, and in another "identity": Friedman ignores the role of conscience in us, whether as church members or not.
My own objections to Wal-Mart's policies spring from various "identities" of mine, but above all from my identity as a Catholic and consequently as a believer in Judeo-Christian values. In Friedman's worship of the free market, such values seldom come to the fore. But of course they often do among people out there in the flat world.
Who, pray tell, is really suffering from a disorder?
The World Is Round After All
The worldview of Thomas L. Friedman, best-selling author and New York Times columnist, closely parallels that of Karl Marx, the co-author of The Communist Manifesto. John Gray, a professor at the London School of Economics, develops this point at length in "The World Is Round," an article published in the August 11 New York Review of Books.
"Marx's view of globalization [as first expressed in 1848] lives on," Gray writes, "and nowhere more vigorously than in the writings of Thomas Friedman. Like Marx, Friedman believes that globalization is in the end compatible with only one economic system; and like Marx, he believes that this system enables humanity to leave war, tyranny, and poverty behind."
And in the world view of both, both nationalism and religion are negatives -- "grit in the workings of an unstoppable machine."
Friedman does not hide his belief in the inevitability of human progress through technology. "I am a technological determinist," Friedman himself says, with pride.
How Utopianism Has Migrated from Left to Right
In most of his article Gray cites the realities of history, including contemporary history, that contradict this utopian belief. Then, in his closing paragraphs, he aims a direct attack on the "utopian mind":
"In a curious twist, the utopian mind has migrated from left to right, and from the academy to the airport bookshop. In the 19th century it was the political activists and radical social theorists such as Marx who held out the promise that new technology was creating a new world. Today some business gurus have a similar message.
"There are many books announcing a global economic transformation and suggesting that governments can be reengineered to adapt to it in much the same as corporations. The World Is Flat is an outstanding example of this genre."
* * *On China's Bid for Unocal: 'Let the Market Rule'
Should the U.S. government permit a Chinese government-controlled corporation buy a large private U.S. oil corporation? To this question, which he posed in his July 20 New York Times column, Friedman gave an answer characteristic of his world outlook. "My view," he wrote, "is very simple: let the market rule."
The Litmus Test for U.S. Economic Policy
In the last issue of Human Rights for Workers, I criticized the Chinese government's Unocal initiative in the lead article, "China's Goal: Nationalize U.S. Oil Firm." The controversy also led me to write the New Republic the following letter, which I titled "Another Litmus Test."
Events have a way of smoking out what matters most to people.
As Jonathan Chait wisely discerns in "Social Selection" (The New Republic, 7/23), the controversy over replacing Supreme Court Justice O'Connor has caused the Democratic Party's liberal elite "to boil all questions of ideology down to one's stance on abortion," to the exclusion of all other concerns. Similarly, the controversy over a Chinese multinational's plan to take over a leading U.S. oil corporation forces the elites, left, right, and center, to boil down their stance on U.S. international economic and security policy.
Here is the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), 70 percent owned by the government, whose parent is 100% owned by that Communist government, making a strong bid to buy Unocal. In another context, that would be denounced as an attempt at nationalization. But no, this move has the backing of Wall Street (complete with financial pledges) as well as the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. No matter that Fu Chengyu, CNOOC chairman, is also its Communist Party secretary.
What matters is that this transaction would be in accord with principles highly revered by the American elite and preached as doctrine for globalization -- the unfettered cross-border of movement of goods and services and, most especially, of capital. What would it contribute to the expansion of state socialism? To the balance of power in Asia? To China's growing military strength? To China's acquiring more of our technological secrets? To China's dictatorial hold on the Chinese people?
Silly questions to those who hold that the global integration of corporate economic power trumps all other interests and values.
Same Boss, Different Treatment: Why?
Taiwanese multinational corporations have factories in both the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but their Taiwanese managers do not treat workers in those factories the same: they treat their workers in China more harshly than those in Vietnam. "Whereas the Taiwanese investors tend to use a militaristic style of management in China, they draw back from doing so in Vietnam," two Asian researchers report in a recent issue of the quarterly journal, Pacific Affairs.
The two researcher, Anita Chan of the Australian National University and Wang Hongzen of the National Chi Nan University in Taiwan, quote the "complaint" of a Taiwanese factory owner with personal experience in both countries:
"You can't even touch the Vietnamese workers, let alone abuse them. In China, we've used a Taiwanese management style. When we began our operations in China, we frequentlhy resorted to punishment....including even hitting, like in the military."
China Leads In Requiring Excessive Overtime
A particularly valuable source for comparative evidence was the corps of mid-level supervisors whom Taiwanese-owned factories in Vietnam have imported from China (at salaries one-third of a Taiwanese employee). In interviews with 12 of them, they all agreed that working conditions are harsher in China, particularly as to excessive overtime. One who is quoted in the study said:
"In China we had to work much longer, sometimes until one or two a.m. Next morning, we still had to get up early at 6 a.m. to continue the work. In Vietnam, you cannot force workers to work after 10 p.m."
Why the difference in management behavior? For an answer, the authors drew on their personal interviews in both China and Vietnam with employers and employer associations, factory workers, government officials, Taiwanese investors, staffers of Western monitoring organizations, and Vietnamese trade union officials.
Comparing Two Governments' Fetters on Workers
As suggested by the title of their article, "The Impact of the State on Workers' Conditions -- Comparing Taiwanese Factories in China and Vietnam," the co-authors hold the labor policies of the two governments as primarily responsible for how their workers fare under Taiwanese management. Among the reasons:
Outside the scope of this study is the labor history of the two countries. Even as a colony of France, Vietnam had a union movement independent of the government in both the North and the South. In the South that movement remained vigorous until the fall of Saigon in 1975. As a Labor Attache in the American Embassy in Saigon during the war, I witnessed the strikes and other protests that Vietnamese workers carried out during the war. That feisty spirit of independence now lives on in a way that even a Communist government cannot suppress.
- Restrictions that flow from China's highly rigid household registration system. "Under the fetters of this pass system, Chinese migrant workers are much more vulnerable to factory managers than are Vietnamese migrant workers. Management only has to take away a few necessary documents from the workers, and they will have difficulty quitting their jobs, despite harsh working conditions."
- The position of the government-sponsored trade unions. "At the workplace level. in both Vietnam and China, the unions are likely to be in the pockets of management, or even to be part of management, but there is a difference in degree," especially above the workplace level. For example: "Generally, the Ho Chi Minh City municipal trade union [federation] is more aggressive than Chinese unions in protecting the rights of workers in Taiwanese-funded enterprises."
- Living arrangements. In China workers generally live in company dormitories; in Vietnam they do not. Whatever the reasons behind this difference, "the repercussions affect the factories' labor regimes," by giving management 24/7 control over factory workers' lives in China.
Profits Appear as Jobs Disappear
Rigging Elections Against Unions
You would be a surprised, wouldn't you, if in the weeks prior to U.S. congressional elections in November, the government ordered every voter to attend a showing of Fahrenheit 9-11 or some other anti-Republican documentary. Of course, that won't happen, and couldn't in the U.S. system of political elections.
But something similar could and often does happen prior to another kind of government-supervised election -- one in which you vote to decide whether a union will represent you at your workplace. In such a "union representation" election, the employer is free to force workers to watch anti-union films on company time. If you speak up to question the film's accuracy, or try to sneak out of the showing, you can be fired.
That is just one concrete example of how the whole process of union representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is stacked against unions and against workers exercising their right to form a union. A new report, "Free and Fair?", examines in detail how U.S. labor law violates the standards set for democratic elections.
'No Resemblance to Democratic Process of Elections"
The author of the report, political scientist Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon, applies seven standards of U.S. democracy to union representation procedures, and finds that the system "doesn't remotely resemble the democratic process we think of when we use the term 'election'."
Here is his summary of the contrast between democratic election standards and how they are applied in deciding on union representation:
"Federal law grants employers a series of extremely powerful one-sided privileges," Lafer charges. As a result, "the conduct of NLRB-supervised elections looks more like the discredited customs of rogue regimes than anything we would call American."
- Freedom of speech. While on the job, employees are not allowed to discuss the proposed union except in the break room. But management enjoys complete freedom of speech to warn against unionization, in one-on-one meetings with workers and in mandatory group sessions. Pro-union workers have no right to respond at the workplace.
- Equal access to voters. Management has greater access to voters on and off the job. For example, it can freely distribute a steady stream of anti-union correspondence through the mail. However, pro-union workers do not get access to employee address information until they can document that 30% of the workforce wants a union. Even then, management can legally provide lists with incomplete information, such as no zip codes or telephone numbers.
- Equal access to the media. Management can distribute anti-union information anywhere and at anytime; pro-union workers are restricted to distributing their material in the break area during break time or away from the workplace.
- No coercion of voters. Labor law prohibits explicit threats and bribery, but this leaves ample room for management to conduct activities to thwart union recognition, such as making "predictions" that choosing a union may lead the company to shut down or make job cutbacks or move to Mexico.
- Timely implementation of the voters' will. To learn election results, workers can wait a long time, sometimes years, thanks to management challenges during a drawn-out appeals process that, under National Labor Relations Board guidelines, favors management.
- Campaign finance regulation. Anti-union employers have access to financial and other resources that few unions can ever hope to match. Labor law provides no financial limitations and alarmingly little in the way of reporting requirements for expenditures during the course of a union recognition campaign.
The report, available online at www.americanrightsatwork.org/resources/studies.cfm, does not cover the full range of advantages that management has during union organizing campaigns. An important one outside the scope of this study is the widespread use of legal firms specializing in helping companies to be or become "union-free." For the facts on union busting and its specialists, see another report of American Rights at Work.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-8 July 28, 2005
Robert A. Senser, editor
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