Vol. XI, Bulletin No. 3                                                     March 1, 2006

Cause and Consequence of AFL-CIO's Fracture

How Labor Can Overcome a Disaster

"A disaster of unprecedented scope."  That's how a veteran union leader, John T. Joyce, describes the drastic fracturing of the once-powerful labor union center, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of  Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), into two rival federations.  More than 35% of the AFL-CIO's members now belong to a new national center founded in mid-2005, the Change to Win.

A bricklayer by trade, a former president of the AFL-CIO Bricklayers Union by profession, and an intellectual by avocation, Joyce analyzes the disaster in a long and thoughtful article in the February 10 issue of Commonweal magazine.  In his view, the reasons for the crisis -- and the consequences -- reach far beyond the labor movement to the United States as a whole.

For starters, Joyce dismisses the basic reason that the dissident unions give for their departure -- that the AFL-CIO, under President John Sweeney, has failed to make the changes needed to address labor's problems, especially by not making organizing the unorganized the movement's top-most priority. 

Pin-Pointing The Real Problems Faced by the Union Movement

But, Joyce argues, "organizing is not labor's major problem."  Rather, he sees "two colossal impediments to union strength" standing out from among myriad and overlapping problems, namely:
Another major item on his problem list is "a rapidly changing culture in the work force, in union members, and in society generally."  It is to this cultural revolution that he devotes much of his article, using several approaches.  One is to hold up examples of "upside-down thinking" -- the huge contrasts between traditional values and the "distortion everywhere today...in which the order of things has been turned upside-down."

He cites the ideas promulgated by best-selling author Thomas F. Friedman, as exemplified in a June 3 New York Times column titled "A Race to the Top." " In it Friedman castigates Europe's blue-collar workers for failing to face the challenge of global competition and taunts French voters in particular for "trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day."

Living For Work, Work, Work: the Compulsive Life Style

A 35-hour work day!  "We live in an era of free-trade triumphalism," Joyce writes, "in which views and values once considered extreme have become routine."  Thus, for Joyce, Friedman's thinking contrasts with that of social philosopher Max Weber, who criticized modern society's demand that "one does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one's work."   And also contrasts with philosopher Joseph Pieper's criticism that "the world of work lays claim to the whole field of human existence."  

Joyce holds that such ideas are helping to reverse the centuries-old struggle for a more humane society.  Who will buck this trend?  Not the Congress or the White House and its large and powerful network of executive agencies. "They represent the economic interests of only one set of stakeholders in our society: the business community, and more recently the financial segment of that community."

Like Jacques Maritain in his 1958 book "Reflections on America," which he quotes, Joyce believes that society needs a powerful labor movement to keep the power of capitalism in check.  "Those outside the labor movement," he writes, "should pray that labor succeeds in the continuing effort to create a more humane society, since the stark reality is that nobody else can do it."

Joyce cautions that the challenge requires patience and perseverance in a long-term struggle. "Instead of thinking [just] in terms of this year or next, we should aim to bring about significant social change over a 40-year period -- just as the Right did in this country over a similar period."  But he also proposes a series of immediate steps. One innovative idea is to form Republican and Democratic subcommittees of labor's political action committees in order to accommodate the many union members who are Republicans and to aid them to influence their party.

Unions Called Complicit in Their Own Marginalization

At the end of his eight-page article, Joyce urges unions to bring "some harsh messages to the membership -- including scrutinizing labor's complicity in its own demoralization and marginalization."  The message is a harsh one for non-members too:

"We are all complicit in the mindset that holds that the competition between workers on the basis of labor costs is a natural phenomenon as inevitable as the rising sun....To break out of complicity in this sort of fatalism, we must first recognize with [German theologian Romano] Guardini that 'history does not run on its own; it is run.'  In this sense, history begins anew with each person, and we have both the God-given power to extricate ourselves from our predicaments and the God-given obligation to work to complete the task of his creation.'"

Joyce's last sentence capsulizes why it matters that a transformed American labor movement overcome the current disaster: "Unions have a vital role to play in the larger scheme of things," he insists, "and I hope that this role will emerge as labor addresses what clearly is within its realm -- helping to create an economic and political environment hospitable to the human spirit."

GDP = Grossly Distorted Picture

All together now: "The economy is booming.  The economy is booming."  So goes the slogan chanted by government officials, news reporters, bloggers, and others.  But that doesn't make it true. 

The jubilant chorus takes its cue from U.S. government data reflecting an increase in the country's Gross Domestic Product, a statistical abstraction that totals the prices of goods and services produced within an economy.  Last year, for example, the real GDP grew by 3.5%, according to the President's Council of Economic Advisers. 

In its annual report released last month, the Council called this economic growth "solid."  That's less lyrical than "booming," but it still raises the key question: What does GDP really tell us about the economy?

By coincidence, the Economist weekly of February 11 had an answer in an article well summarized by its title, "Grossly Distorted Picture," subtitled  "It's high time that economists looked at more than just GDP."

It's a 'Badly Flawed' Way To Evaluate a Country

As the Economist pointed out, the GDP calculation originated in World War II as a planning tool for wartime production, and has since acquired a more elevated status as "the most commonly used measure of a country's success" and thus a key  measure used by economists to track the pace of economic development.  But, the Economist wrote:  The full-page Economist article drew on a report, "Going for Growth," issued last month by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The Economist congratulated the OECD for "being the first mainstream organization to challenge the conventional GDP numbers" and urged it "to encourage governments to start producing more relevant statistics." 

The President's Council of Economic Advisers ought to follow that lead.

U.S. Firms Aid Repression: Harry Wu

Although President Bush has challenged the People's Republic of China to take steps toward freedom and democracy, U.S. technology multinationals are helping China's government reinforce its repression of the Chinese people, Harry Wu testified at a Congressional hearing on  February 15. 

Wu, executive director of Human Rights in China, cited Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and Motorola as among the foreign firms supplying technology and equipment to the "Golden Shield" project of the Ministry of Public Security.  "Golden Shield," he said, helps "prolong Communist rule by denying China's people the right to information," Wu said.

He pointed out that under U.S. law manufacturers of handcuffs may not sell their products to China's police, but that "Cisco and other companies are selling the Chinese authorities much more useful technologies," as well as training in their use.  Wu listed speech recognition, automated surveillance of telephone conversations, integration of biometric data, wireless Internet access to track individual users, and video surveillance data from remote cameras to a centralized surveillance point as among the technologies provided by Cisco Systems, under contract with the Public Security Bureau.

Amnesty Adds Details on Corporate Collusion with China

On February 1, at a briefing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Amnesty International released a 20-page written statement with exhaustive details on how U.S. technology companies collude with China in its repression.  Among other recommendations, Amnesty urges Congress to outlaw the participation of U.S. technology companies in government-ordered censorship wherever they operate.

At the same briefing, a representative of Google testified that his company supports treating censorship as a barrier to trade --  an idea that should be pursued in the administration's bilateral, regional, and multilateral trade negotiations.  Except that the dominant policy of the Bush administration, as well as its Democratic predecessors, is that globalization, in the form of "free" trade and investment, trumps all else, including human rights. 

Polls show that Americans strongly oppose free trade and investment policies that suppress freedom.  When will the government start to listen?

Google Lesson: Rights, No Responsibilities

"Google Now a Partner in China's Censorship" was the title of the lead article in February's Human Rights for Workers. Its subtitle was "Search-Engine Shows How Corporations Profit From Global Rights Without Responsibilities."  Here I  use the last half of that article as the framework to develop further the case against bestowing rights without corresponding responsibilities.

Google is not alone in knuckling under to Beijing.  Yahoo and Microsoft MSN already offer censored search results in China.

Actually, the opportunity -- and the willingness -- of international business to sacrifice principle to profit extends well beyond the search-engine sector of industry.  It is a viral pattern that afflicts globalization and the businesses that flourish in it.  The reason is that, as now written and managed, the global economy's network of rules and regulations bestows on corporations a vast set of global rights and privileges without corresponding global responsibilities and accountability.

After World War II the governments of the United States and other large countries recognized that the laws and agencies of individual countries were inadequate for the emerging global economy, and so they gradually began setting up global rules and institutions on the international level to fill the gap.  But they did so only partially, in two senses of the word: partial as in incomplete and partial as in favoring one group over all others. They addressed the rights, interests, and privileges of one important group -- call it Wall Street, short for the banks, multinational business firms, and allied businesses headquartered in large industrial countries -- but they ignored other important groups that contribute to the global economy, labor in particular.

ILO Kept Frozen in pre-World War I Mode

This partiality could have been rectified in the past 40 years.  It hasn't been -- instead, the global power of Wall Street is stronger than ever. The UN International Labor Organization, founded just after World War I, could have been modernized to cover the cross-border interests of workers, but it wasn't. Government and employer leaders deliberately kept the ILO frozen in its 1918 mode, radically unfit to cope with the global economy.

The utter neglect of one "factor" of production -- a vital human element in the system -- leaves workers bereft of any protections to match the protections that intergovernmental agencies now guarantee to business in the international marketplace.  So in a "rational" pursuit of their interests, employers, traders, retailers, wholesalers, and other business people naturally take advantage of the opening.  They carry out Milton Friedman's dictum that they have no responsibility "other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible."   Check the financial pages of newspapers, and learn how many corporations have "maximizing shareholder value" as their overriding principle of operations.

Yes, generally the worst abuses of child labor, sexual harassment, repression of unions, and other gross violations of the human rights of workers have been -- and are -- committed by contractors and subcontractors.  But why, tell me, does that make the evils any less evil?  Especially since contractors and subcontractors now account for most of the international production of goods and services.

Global Economy's Latest Casualties: 54 Die in Garment Factory Fire

The latest tragic result of this international policy occurred on the evening of Thursday, February 23, in the port city of Chittagong, Bangladesh. There at least 54 workers died and 150 were seriously injured as they tried to escape from a fire that swept through a four-story factory that produced garments for customers in the United States and Europe.

Mourning the deaths of 300 garment workers (most of them young women) in a series of factory fires during the past 15 years, the Daily Star of Dhaka asked "Why are the law breakers never punished?"  In two editorials, the paper accused garment employers and the government of having an "exceedingly callous attitude to poor human lives as if these lives were freely expendable." 

But the blame goes well beyond Bangladesh.  The Bangladeshi export garment industry, with nearly 2,000,000 working men, women, and children, is caught up in a global competitive environment that protects business but treats workers as expendable.

Industrial democracies -- by law, union contracts, public pressure, and other checks and balances -- generally keep competition in check within their borders and thus prevent blatant labor exploitation at home. They are sinfully negligent, however, in trying to do so for the many multinationals headquartered in their lands and operating internationally in conformity with Friedman's dictum.

Google is only doing naturally what the present system not only permits but promotes.  In the absence of accountability and enforceable responsibility, greed usually prevails. 

Last month the American public became outraged by the administration's plan to turn over the operations of six major U.S. seaports to a company owned by a Middle Eastern oil sheikdom, the United Arab Emirates, rated by Freedom House as "not free."  Just the latest case of a policy in which a blind faith in free trade and investment trumps all other considerations.
*   *   *

Labor Standards for World Bank's Private Sector Loans

The International Finance Corporation, the arm of the World Bank that lends to the private sector, has had a learning experience.  Under persistent pressure from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and other groups in civil society, the IFC on February 21 adopted new social and environmental standards for the billions of dollars in financing it provides each year for development projects carried out by private businesses. 

Gus Ryder, ICFTU general secretary, praised the action as a step forward.  "Thousands of workers in IFC-financed projects stand to benefit from this decision," Ryder said.  He added that it should also be adopted by World Bank branches that lend to the public sector.

Businesses working on IFC-financed projects will be required to respect the core labor standards laid down by the International Labor Organizations, which among other things prohibit child labor, forced labor, and discrimination.  In addition, the new standards will oblige IFC clients to protect contract workers and observe good health and safety practices.

The Impact of Local Living Wage Laws

Since 1994, when Baltimore passed a living wage ordinance covering employees working on city contracts, more than 120 local communities have adopted some form of minimum wage requirement, sometimes setting pay floors more than twice the $5.15 per hour federal minimum. What impact have these initiatives had on local economies?

Well, the horrors that opponents predicted have not come true. The Economic Policy Institute, after compiling and analyzing empirical studies of living wage programs in Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many smaller communities, has just issued a report, "The Economic Impact of Local Living Wages," by two economists, Jeff Thompson and Jeff Chapman.  They conclude that the local programs:
The full text of "The Economic Impact of Local Living Wages" is available on the EPI Website.  Also see "A Moral Issue: Raise the Minimum Wage" in the February issue of Human Rights for Workers.

Backstory: Activism Got My Father Fired

My father bore the marks of his trade on his front teeth.  Hunched over a shoe last as he hammered soles and heels into place, he would hold nails with his teeth for quick retrieval.  Eventually, he abandoned that habit, thanks to mechanical stitching and other modern equipment, but by that time he had worn off enough enamel from the tips of six or seven teeth to create a noticeable gap between his uppers and lowers. 

Dad was following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a real shoemaker in the Old Country (as we called Europe), where he really made shoes.  My father just repaired them.  Still, even before he set up his own shop, my father enjoyed his work. In the small shops where he worked, he could get to know customers and banter with them when they dropped off shoes and picked them up, all shiny.

My parents didn't encourage me (or my two sisters) to go to college. One reason in my case, I suspect, is they thought I would follow in my father's  footsteps, starting with an apprenticeship under him. Instead, I chose an occupation strange to them, writing.  Ironically, it was a crisis in my dad's own career that helped nudge me down that path.

One afternoon, when my father was supposed to be working in a downtown shoe repairshop, he suddenly appeared at home, rushing past me on the back porch, saying only "I got fired."  Getting fired wasn't a new experience for him.  Many years earlier, amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, he had lost his job when a shoe repair concession in the Pullman Car Works in South Chicago shut down.  But this time, it was different, I soon learned: a union official got him fired.

During the next few months, as my father gradually shared the details, I got angrier and angrier.  I vented my feelings by writing an article. I described how my father, an active union member and vice president of his local, had joined other members in signing a petition calling on the national union to investigate the finances of their local.  The full-time official of the local got his hands on the petition, tore it up, and soon persuaded the shop manager to fire my father.

The first-person article that I drafted focused on my father's unjust discharge.  But its opening paragraphs quoted a series of dramatic comments indicting unions in general.  Such as:
"Remarks like these," I wrote, "can be heard wherever working men gather."  Hmmm. As my father's ghost writer, I myself didn't hear those criticisms of course.  And now, decades later, I wonder whether even my father heard them.  I don't rule out that my own teen-age affinity for hyperbole jazzed up  those quotes.  However, I did balance them with this comment toward the article's end:

"I know, from the [Papal] social encyclicals, that the idea of unions is sound. As a result, I don't condemn unions; I condemn the way they're administered."

"Appeal of a Catholic Workman," by Anonymous, covered two and a half pages of the February 2, 1940, issue of The Commonweal.  Publication of that article, just 65 years ago last month, put an end to any thought that I was meant to repair shoes for a living..

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. XI-3    March 1, 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2006
(Send e-mail)

Back to Home Page