Labor Visions

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Nancy Brigham
independent web designer and activist

Fifty years ago, there was little doubt that unions had dramatically raised living standards for workers. But while more than one in three American workers belonged to a union in the early 1950s, today scarcely one in ten workers do. As companies move jobs away from union workplaces, it’s no coincidence that fewer workers have health insurance and pay has stagnated. Non-union workers are only one fifth as likely to have reliable defined-benefit pensions.

In their heyday, American unions became somewhat complacent, confident that they were an accepted part of American life, and secure in their ability to bargain middle-class living standards for millions of workers. Many neglected to vigorously organize new members or reach out to the public.


New technology has helped businesses consolidate into huge multinationals that swiftly move work around the world to wherever it


When surveyed, most U.S. workers now say they’d like to join a union. But employers often keep that from happening by illegally threatening or firing union activists. More than 23,000 U.S. workers are dismissed or punished each year for exercising their legal rights to form or join a union.

Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT further weaken worker power. While they strongly protect corporate intellectual property and investment, they open up nations to unfettered competition when it comes to jobs and living standards. Even workers in high-tech fields like programming see their wages and job security battered by international outsourcing.

Unions have always helped workers overcome competition by uniting them to win across-the-board justice for the majority. In the 20th century they won equal pay and benefits across whole industries like auto and steel. The challenge today is to overcome international competition and unify to win good wages and conditions world-wide.

To say the least, it’s a daunting challenge. The AFL-CIO split in 2005 when several big unions formed a new federation that pledged to organize more vigorously. But this might also dilute the clout of labor to act coherently. Nonetheless, steps being taken today suggest ways we can move toward the vision of global worker justice and unionism, aided by fast, global internet communications. They include:

• Build broad support for workers and communities whether or not they have a union contract, and wherever they are, and make governments respond.

People can join AFL-CIO campaigns for better laws and worker rights at The Jobs for Justice coalition also rallies public support for worker-justice battles. The campaign against Wal-Mart, one of the most powerful economic forces on earth, is proof that the movement is can reach beyond members. Wal-Mart paved the way for retailers to aggressively demand lower costs from producers around the world. The union movement is using the Internet to tap into a broad lode of resentment to such tactics, including small businesses and towns devastated by Wal-Mart super-stores, states fed up with paying the health costs of Wal-Mart’s shortchanging of its own workers, and young people upset with the Wal-Mart-ization of culture and opportunities. Laws are being passed in Chicago and elsewhere to demand that big retailers pay good wages and benefits.

• Connect with immigrants and foreigners to build permanent support networks and put global pressure on companies and governments to respect workers.

Given the huge distances and differences in living standards, culture and language, plus interference from repressive governments, reaching across borders isn’t easy. To succeed, unions have to connect with other social movements and take maximum advantage of technology to communicate quickly and cheaply around the world.

• Organize globally against threats of corporations to play workers against each other.

The New-York-based National Labor Committee publicizes the appalling conditions in foreign sweatshops with creative media events that attract support from churches and the public. The Campaign for Labor Rights in the U.S., Britain’s LabourStart and the U.S.-based UE electrical workers union (which publishes a virtual newsletter on Mexican labor and is allied with a democratic Mexican union) also organize powerful email campaigns to support union struggles around the world, while groups like the Comité Fronterizo de Obreros organize on the ground across borders.

• Challenge the commercialization of culture and inspire a morality where people make some sacrifices – such as not buying products made in sweatshops – to press for gains that benefit all.

Students are organizing to support labor rights locally and globally. The first group of Mexican workers to organize at a maquila clothing factory (i.e. a factory producing for export under conditions favoring multinationals) was at the Korean-owned Mexmode factory in Puebla. A courageous strike by young women workers won a new union in 2001 through key support from the U.S.-based United Students against Sweatshops, which in turn is allied with labor and global anti-sweatshop groups. They quickly mobilized using the Internet.

• Share technical ideas, information and organizing experiences with activists and labor supporters worldwide.

Academics have been sharing information globally on labor organizing, as evidenced at the Global Unions conference sponsored by Cornell in 2006. And union supporters from several nations meet biannually at LaborTech conferences to showcase creative uses of modern communications.

• Push for trade agreements that protect not just corporate investments but workers’ rights, with trade penalties for mistreating workers. Insist on democratic input into world trade rules.

Several Latin American governments have rejected the neo-liberal basis of modern trade agreements and the anti-worker conditions imposed by lending institutions. In 2006, a popular French revolt against watering down job protections for young workers won a surprise victory. Recent rounds of trade talks have failed, and Mexican voters turned out en masse for Lopez Obrador, who wants to renegotiate NAFTA.

The labor movement cannot and will not die. Workers are struggling for union rights around the globe -- even against the greatest of odds. And the public is increasingly supportive.


After decades of losing ground, unions and advocates of worker justice strive to overcome the competition for jobs that pits worker against worker in a global “race to the bottom.” A vision of global progress, based on humane values, solidarity and local community, can motivate a union movement that transcends borders and involves all workers and allies.

The Wal-Mart campaign, the anti-sweatshop movement and international networking are evidence that unions, the public, foreign workers and academics are reaching out in new ways to form support networks to raise standards for all workers. And they are pressuring governments to reject the neo-liberal trade policies that disadvantage workers, and insist on trade rules that require justice for workers.

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