Freeing Labor from the Empire:

In the increasing “heat” of labor reform issues-which is not always the same as “light”-it has been discouraging to see how little attention has been paid to Labor’s foreign policy issues.  This is, in my opinion, the 500-pound gorilla that no one wants to touch.  Yet, I argue it is absolutely essential that Labor do so.

There has been intensifying interest in the fate of the AFL-CIO, and especially in the face of the all-but-certain departure of the SEIU from the federation.  Will they really pull-out and, if they do, who will they pull out with them?  What if they do will out:  what will be the ramifications and, most particularly, how will this affect labor as a whole?  And how will this affect Labor’s electoral mobilizing efforts, the one area in which its shown much efficacy?  Interesting questions, to say the least.

However, after having read a number of progressive discussions/reflections/ suggestions on how Labor should develop in the future, I have been dismayed on how little understanding there is about the overall global context in which Labor operates.  I believe David Bacon and USLAW are the only ones who has tried to address this at least in some way:  I’ve seen nothing by SEIU or the Sweeney camp that places Labor’s situation in a global perspective.  The assumption in almost all of the things I’ve read is that the US economy is independent from the rest of the world, and despite the limited discussion of “off-shoring” of jobs, about all I have seen is some recognition that we need to unite with workers overseas who work in the same corporations.

This simply is insufficient.  The US economy is not independent and Labor does, in fact, operate within a global context.  Our understanding must go far beyond what it is today.

The economic well-being of the United States has long been affected by this global context.  In fact, the economic basis for this country was primarily the product of the global slave trade.  Yet, more recently, whether searching overseas for natural resources to transform into manufactured goods, or seeking markets to sell our goods and services-and no profit can be made until the goods or services have been sold-or to controlling raw materials such as oil of allies and opponents, the US has been engaged globally since at least the end of the 19th Century.

After the second world war, in 1947, for example, the US alone produced approximately 48 percent of all the goods and services produced in the world!  This is even more amazing when it is remembered that the US population was only six percent of the world’s.  But it was this global economy that provided US capitalists the means to accept demands developed by the labor movement for higher wages, greater benefits, and more vacation time that fueled the development of the great American “middle class.”

Since 1973, though, this global economy has shifted from being benign if not positive to one of increasing competition.  Not only have foreign corporations been able to compete through imports, but investment in the United States has heightened the competition, placing more of a squeeze on domestic corporations.  The automobile industry is a classic example:  threatened first by imports, then by “transplant” factories, the “Big Three” of GM, Ford and Chrysler have closed factories and downsized production, sloughed off parts-making subsidiaries and driven costs down throughout their production chains, and invested in new technology, both at home and in their off-shore plants-and Chrysler even sold itself to Daimler Benz.  The result so far has been the destruction of hundreds of thousands of formerly well-paying, stabile, unionized manufacturing jobs.

Yet, auto is only one example-and is from a capital-intensive industry.  Less capital intensive-more labor intensive jobs as in electronic components, textiles and garments, and shoe production have shifted around the world.  Being less capital-intensive means it is even easier for these corporations to relocate in a short period of time.  Yet these corporations do not actually have to relocate:  they can keep their headquarters and high-end production in the US and can sub-contract their production chains across the world. 

As higher technology spreads around the world-regardless of the industry-there is no reason the high-end production has to remain in the US, either.

And without going into much detail, much of the high end of the service sector can be relocated as well.  Engineering can be done at the same level of quality and practically as fast for one-eighth of the wages, by using an engineer in Mumbai instead of Silicon Valley.

Tied in with all of these processes is the resulting tax cuts and reduced services provided by a public sector that is rapidly being privatized.  Even services that cannot be relocated can be downsized.

The long and short of it is that the US is enmeshed in the global economy, although because of past development, it is more able to determine its future economically than can more recently developing countries.  But the US advantage is greater than just a high level of economic development:  its leaders have consciously created the US-led global political-economic network as an Empire-with neo-colonial relations rather than colonial ones-and thus they have the political, military and cultural means, in addition to the economic, to facilitate future development on their own terms, while limiting those of others.

The problem workers in this country face is thus at hand:  since the US Empire is based on neo-colonial relations (when not talking about imperialist occupation, as in Iraq) that are, at their heart, built on the massive exploitation of human and natural resources, do we try to work to maintain the Empire?  Or do we try to build a new world based on mutual respect, minimal production impact on the earth and its peoples, consumption at levels that are both economically and environmentally sustainable even if implemented by every one on the planet, and one where the economic processes are least detrimental to workers and the ecology?

Unless we are blindly willing to work to maintain the Empire-which, of course, means seeing our sons and daughters subjected to service in the war machine, while having public services increasingly degraded and made unavailable because of the voracious fiscal appetite of that machine-we must distance ourselves at least somewhat from the US Government.  We have to be able to ascertain whether governmental policies and actions are desirable for our members or not.  And if these things are determined to be detrimental, that we must have the space to maneuver against and/or to disrupt.

That is why the Latin American Solidarity Coalition’s campaign against the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is so important (go to www.lasolidarity.org/index.shtml).  The US State created NED to further its foreign policy efforts, while having it appear to be “non-governmental.”  NED claims to promote democracy, when it really only works to advance free market economics and continued control by local elites.  The AFL-CIO’s foreign policy leaders were some of the founders of NED, and its American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS)-also known as the Solidarity Center-is one of four core “institutes,” along with operations of the international wings of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the Chamber of Commerce.  While ACILS, which gets approximately 90 percent of its funding from NED, has done some positive things, mostly it has served to undercut workers’ struggles in countries around the world-predominantly in Venezuela-while advancing US foreign policy interests. 

Not only has ACILS acted against workers around the world, but it has done so without transparency and without any democratic mandate from US unions or their members.  In fact, because of the lies and secrecy, ACILS has undermined democracy within the US labor movement as  well.   One important ramification is that our foreign policy leaders have tied Labor tightly to the US Government, whether it works for us or against us, and we are not even allowed to seriously question the relationship.

By supporting efforts to break the ties between NED and ACILS, not only do we quit screwing over workers around the world, but we fight to regain democracy in the US labor movement and, by initiating our distance from the Empire, we are better able to ascertain and advance our interests.  Wise politicians would be well advised to think this out.


Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union, and a long-time global labor activist in the US.  He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana.  He published “Labor Imperialism Redux?:  A Look at the AFL-CIO’s Foreign Policy Since 1995” in the May 2005 issue of Monthly Review, which is available on-line at www.monthlyreview.org/0505scipes.htm.  He can be contacted at kscipes@pnc.edu.

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