Monday, October 08, 2012

Workers of the World, Good Luck

Several months ago now I read the results of a survey of Harvard Business School alumni that continues to be relevant today, even as the unemployment rate ticks down and the presidential race comes to a head. According to the report, alumni see the U.S. economy as falling behind emerging economies like China, India and Brazil; meanwhile, a majority of companies contemplating relocation outside of the United States winds up doing just that. A paltry minority of those same companies (@10 percent) decides to stay; the rest are still mulling it over.

Respondents suggested that the United States could improve its reputation and retain these prodigal companies through high-level efforts like improving education and simplifying the tax code. Maybe it's a prejudice I have against giant corporations, but I have the sneaking suspicion that these companies are distracting us from the reality that, according to our measures of what constitutes a living wage, most of the world is mired in economic injustice. People vote with their feet, and so we should listen to what the feet have to say:

Among respondents who had decided to move operations out of the United States over the past year, 70 percent cited lower wages as the reason they chose a new location, pointing to what is widely seen as emerging markets' main advantage.
The world doesn't have a class problem; it increasingly has a caste problem, as emerging economies assert themselves on the strength of disenfranchised workers and as the underclass in the United States and other fading economies are being made permanent. All this while, from my limited vantage point, Western labor unions seem to concentrate on agitating not for decent wages and working conditions for all workers everywhere but for a bigger piece of the pie they've colluded with management to bake--bigger, less sustainable pensions and the like. Recent and highly publicized labor disputes have not focused on solidarity so much as singularity: This is what we, the union in question, want; and you, the management in question, will give it to us. Not to paint the entire labor movement with too broad a brush, but my sense is that it's grown myopic as it's become mainstreamed in the American economy. The mantra of the labor movement was, at one time, "Workers of the world, unite!" From where I sit, it seems to have become something closer to "Workers of the world, good luck!"

What do I know, though? I've never been part of a labor union (my field doesn't require it) and I rarely leave the country. Meanwhile, I'm sure that through my unconsidered consumer practices, I'm unconsciously but actively colluding with these prodigal businesses in the exploitation of workers the world over. My iPhone likely comes at a cost to factory workers overseas; my jeans may well have some poor Majority World child's sweat and blood on them. I'm not exactly sure what to do about that, but I would think that the labor movement could help me know what to do. We talk fairly regularly (and loudly) as a country about "buying American"; seems like we need just as loud (if not louder) a refrain borrowed from Martin Luther King: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," he wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

That doesn't fit on a sign or a bumper sticker or a tweet, though, and that's the extent of solidarity in action these days. So, workers of the world, good luck, I guess.

2 comments:

allan grady said...

You are on the money, David! Until labor unions have an international perspective, workers will not lead society out of this mess. Forty years ago, union auto workers destroyed and buried a Japanese car in Detroit out of frustration of the loss of "American jobs". Today, I read a report of Chinese workers destroying a Japanese car in China, out of the same frustrations and with the union leadership showing the same lack of understanding of who the real enemy is. How did that guy say it in 1848............yes, it was "workers of the world unite". Great column, David!

David Zimmerman said...

That makes me so happy, Al. Thanks for reading and commenting.