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View Diary: The Future of the American Labor Movement (Part 2) (5 comments)

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  •  from my diary series on history of corporations (1+ / 0-)
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    A discussion of the labor movement and its failures:

    The Labor-Union/Corporate Partnership

    The tiny remnant of the American labor union movement that still remains has, of course, been staunchly protectionist since the late 1970’s, when they joined with the steel and auto corporations in “Buy American” campaigns that targeted Japanese corporations. That effort failed spectacularly—the American corporations used the threat of “foreign workers” to extract wage and benefit concessions in exchange for not moving the factories overseas, and then moved most of them anyway.

    Despite that utter failure, however, the remaining remnants of the American labor movement still maintain their alliance with their employers, still put all their faith in protectionism and “Buy American” strategies, and, unlike the environmentalist and social justice groups who view the overseas victims of multinational corporations as their natural allies, still treat “foreign workers” as enemies and opponents. In effect, the American labor movement is now nothing more than a junior partner to a handful of declining corporations who preach patriotism and nationalism in a desperate effort to maintain their own narrow economic interests.

    The Labor Movement’s Failed Strategies

    The AFL-CIO has attempted to argue in favor of several different protectionist strategies to shield itself from cheaper foreign labor and to help defend American companies from foreign corporations. Some of these strategies have also been advocated or used by other progressives and anti-corporate activists to try and curb corporate power. All of them, alas, have been failures.

    Flag-Waving

    Nearly all of the protectionist “solutions” offered by the labor movement appeal, in one way or another, to someone’s patriotism, whether it’s asking employers to voluntarily pay higher wages to American workers and patriotically refuse to relocate their jobs to low-wage havens like China, or asking American consumers to voluntarily pay higher prices for American-manufactured products than for cheaper imports. As President Obama summed up the argument, “Look, people don’t want a cheaper T-shirt if they’re losing a job in the process. They would rather have the job and pay a little bit more for a T-shirt. And I think that’s something that all Americans could agree to.” Reality, however, demonstrates conclusively that Obama is wrong—people do indeed want the cheaper T-shirt. Any time that either employers or consumers have been asked to choose between their wallet and their patriotism, the wallet always wins.

    There are many reasons why “Buy American” campaigns that appeal to patriotic nationalism have failed every time they have been attempted.

    In the United States, real wages have declined steadily for the past 30 years, the wealth held by the lowest 80% of the population has decreased drastically, and unemployment levels are at their highest in many decades. Under those conditions, consumers are forced to stretch as much value as they can out of every scarce dollar—and asking them to patriotically (and voluntarily) pay higher prices to protect someone else’s job, is unrealistic at best.

    Any attempt to appeal to the “patriotism” of the multinational corporations is also unrealistic. They have no patriotism; they belong to no country.

    It was, after all, American-owned corporations who began the global rush to relocate their plants to Mexico and China, and the reason for that is simple—the corporations will always go where the costs are lowest. It was not the Chinese or Mexican or American governments who forced all those corporations to move their plants or outsource their jobs—the American business owners did that all by themselves, for their own selfish motives. The corporate owners don’t care about patriotism or national interest—all they care about is their bank account, and their bank account likes being able to pay workers in Mexico one-tenth as much as workers in the US. American corporations don’t mind putting thousands of workers out of work by moving their jobs overseas; they don’t even mind relocating their factories inside a single-party Communist police state like China, as long as they can make a ton of money doing it.

    And of course there is the simple fact that there is no “American” to buy anymore.  It is no longer the 1970’s, when Hondas were all made in Japan and Fords were all made in Detroit. All of the large corporations are now global, and none of them have any loyalty whatsoever to any national government anywhere. General Motors is no more or less “American” than BP or Toyota. Which is the “American” car?—the GM (which is partially foreign-owned) that is made in Canada, or the Toyota (which is partially American-owned) that is made in Tennessee? What happens when you have an electronics device that is made from material mined in South Africa and plastic from Germany, using semiconductors from Ireland that were designed in Costa Rica, whose parts were shipped here on a Swedish ship that's financed by an Icelandic bank, then assembled in Mexico and sold in an electronics chain store in Boston that is owned by the Japanese?

    In one surreal scene, US Steel and the Steelworkers Union jointly organized a “Rally to Restore American Manufacturing” in Illinois to protest the use of “foreign steel” to build a Canadian-American oil pipeline—while at the very same time US Steel itself owned manufacturing plants in England, China, Mexico, Canada, Slovakia, Brazil and Serbia. Even as US corporations were busily outsourcing American jobs all over the globe, unions were appealing to the patriotism of those same corporate bosses: at a meeting to discuss AT&T’s outsourcing of jobs to India, one American union official declared, “In this time of high unemployment, the company could be a leader and bring these jobs back here and be patriotic.” The steel company Nucor helped form the Domestic Manufacturing Group, which, in partnership with the Steelworkers Union, lobbies for trade sanctions and tariffs against China to “protect American jobs”—while at the same time Nucor itself negotiated a deal with the Chinese Shougang steel company to build a joint operation in Australia.

    That is why “Buy American” campaigns always fail. There is simply no way to force business owners to continue to pay workers in America higher wages when they can easily move the entire plant somewhere else and make lots more money—and any attempt to entice the boss to voluntarily keep his factory in places where wages are higher, out of pure benevolent patriotism, is the height of idiocy.

    And yet that is precisely the strategy that most labor unions practice, because they have fallen into the trap of believing that the employers and employees are partners with similar interests, and that one of the goals of the corporation is to give us all good-paying jobs.  It’s not. The corporations aren’t in business to give us jobs. They’re in business to make as much money as possible—for themselves, not for us.

    That is why, despite all the noise we make in the US about opposing sweatshops and supporting human rights and democracy, not a single multinational corporation in China has ever pressured the Chinese government to pass minimum wage laws or workplace safety laws or consumer protection laws or child labor laws. The simple fact is that the corporations don’t want any of those things. That’s why they all moved to China in the first place.

    Indeed, the very idea of a “national economy”, or even a    “nation-state”, is now dead; the supra-national corporations have killed it. Economically, there is no longer any sovereign nation anywhere on earth.  Economic decision-making power is no longer exercised by national governments--it is exercised by supra-national corporations who owe loyalty to no national government, and by the international bodies (like the WTO and IMF) that those corporations have set up. No nation, not even the “only remaining superpower”, holds its economic destiny in its own hands anymore. Indeed, the WTO and the rest of the multinational economic structure was set up specifically so that no “nation” can stand against the corporations.

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