What's this Blog About?

Politics in Wisconsin as they roll up to every level... and some other thoughts that may cross my mind are explored here from my lefty point of view. My values shape my opinions. You'll always find them in here. Let's have some fun exploring why Liberal values are American values!

Your comments are both welcome and encouraged!
(The watercolor is called Magnolia Tree for Momma, by Audrey Crawford)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More on American Labor Unions and International Trade


As some of you may know, I went back to school last fall to finish my bachelor's degree.  Yes, you CAN do that later in life.  I only need a few classes to finish, but I decided that since some of them were staged I would be best served to get an International Certificate on my BBA-Finance at UW-Milwaukee.  I LOVE being back in school.  It can be really hard, I have to study a lot and can't write as much as I'd like to...  The upside is that I'm learning a LOT (it really does matter to finish those last few classes..)!  I should graduate by December of this year.

Below is an essay I wrote last semester in my course Concepts in Global Management (I got an A-, not bad after nearly a decade huh?).  The question the professor asked was (paraphrased):  If you could have gone, would you have protested in 1999 in Seattle at the WTO protests?  Why or why not?  My answer was long (my readers know brevity is not exactly my strength), but I thought with Wisconsin's labor wars, it might help to add to that "bigger picture" I mentioned in my blog earlier this week...  Remember this was written about 8 months ago, long before we knew what was going to happen in Wisconsin.  Rereading it for a class I'm in now, I was amazed at how it is relevant today.

Seattle

In simple terms and knowing myself, yes, in fact, I was bummed to have missed it. More practically though, I was pregnant at the time and had two other children, so going would not have been an option for me.  I think the bigger question you're asking is why would I have gone?  And the lesser questions are once the violence broke out, would I have stayed and what would I have done?  Contributed to the violence?  Tried to help calm things?  The answers to these questions are complex, so I'll start with the simple parts. The answers are maybe, I'm a peaceful protester, I was not angry enough to participate in violence and if I decided to stay, I would have probably tried in vain to both help calm things and take notes on how the violence was developing and who was participating.  I would have left when the tear gas came out.  I hate tear gas.
I love a good just protest.  I was raised in the civil rights movement in the 1970's, marched for justice for Earnest Lacy in the early 1980's, built shanty towns for divestment in South Africa the 1980's at Cornell University and was a major player in the Win Without War peace movement in Milwaukee in the first half of this decade and my job now partially involves organizing to ensure protesters are not inhibited by government interference.  I was also very informed about the global economic justice movements in the 1990's, so I had an informed opinion at the time that the WTO, IMF and World Back were behaving as a perfect trilogy of disaster.
This does not mean that I am in anyway against globalization.  I believe that both coercion and hegemony are critical to getting bad players in the world to behave on behalf of their populations.  What I am against is unfair trade policies that specifically are designed to both destroy labor movements globally, the power of the people to organize for fair labor practices, and take money out of the developing nations' government's ability to care for the basic infrastructures that bring a developing nation into the developed world.  That's what the trilogy of disaster was doing in the 1990's especially after NAFTA was passed and what they are still doing today.
Baqwhati's piece was very difficult for me to read mostly because his writing style was arrogant, demeaning and sarcastic to the point where I didn't like him at all.  That said, he makes some good points about the benefits of globalization, such as the benefits of cross cultural advancements when two cultures collide, but then ignores the negative effects making his argument very biased.  For example, he discusses (in a very obnoxious way) the spread of the women's rights movement as US Corporations move around the world with female managers, etc ignoring the setbacks of women and their children being forced into slave labor and the sex slave trade as a result of mass migrations from rural areas to large cities to find limited employment and unfair labor practices such as long work days, no right to grievances, unsafe working conditions that lead to work ending injuries, etc...
Social justice movements serve a purpose, but cannot be effective in a vacuum.  Millions of people can march in the streets to not go into Iraq prior to the war for example, but if the political leadership is determined to fight that war for oil, well, we see the results, there’s not much even the people of the United States can do in a short period of time.  With more time though, say about 5-8 years, we can organize and change the leaders in America, in most developing nations, though that requires a revolution.  The social justice movement is really a slow movement for change.  The WTO promotes trade policies that take tax revenue out of developing government’s coffers and forces developing nations to abandon fair labor and environmental standards in a race to the bottom as to who has the will to be the worst actor in order to get the factory in their country.
A divide exists in this world between the very wealthy and the rest of us.  One of the great equalizers in that divide has always been the labor union.  EJ Dionne wrote a great piece on this in the Washington Post this week for Labor Day.  None of those poor working conditions are new to the labor environment.  In fact, what’s new is workers organizing for example, the eight hour workday, the five day work week, OSHA standards and the end of child labor in America.  Dionne argues that America became a world leader because of its labor movement not in spite of it.  A strong educated and happy middle class sparks innovation and entrepreneurship which strengthens the entire economy.  Henry Ford once said, “I pay my workers enough so they can buy my cars.”  Working American’s pay taxes instead of living off public safety nets leaving more money for important infrastructure improvements such as educating the entire population, healthcare, transportation, law enforcement, and housing/food security  That’s a piece of business economics that is lost in today’s corporate environment and at the core of the problem with American’s economy.  It’s also the problem globally though.
As a union organizer in Madison, WI in 2004-2005, I met several chefs, white male, with lower middle class incomes completely unable or unwilling to comprehend the need to unionize and terrified of losing their jobs even if they did, an oxymoron since unions and Federal laws they passed protect workers from unfair firing practices.  However, when I spoke with a man from Honduras who cleaned bedrooms in the same nursing home about the union though, he laughed in my face and said, “So you mean all I have to do is show up and vote yes and we get a union?  And the worst that can happen to me is I lose my job, but the union will help me get a new one or fight the company through the Department of Labor?  Ha!  When I was union organizing for in company in Honduras a few years ago, three men came into my home with semi-machine guns, put my family on the floor and the guns barrels to the backs of our necks and told me that if I continued organizing, they’d come back and shoot them all first and me last so I could watch.  I kept organizing and we got our union.  Where do I sign up?”
That was an American company he worked for behaving like that around the time of the WTO protests in Seattle.  The American people in general have a strange type of amnesia for those days here at home, and often take our worker protections for granted or even disdain thinking the problem is that we ask too much of corporations here at home driving them away from us.  What we could offer the world though an actor such as the perfect trilogy is to skip a step in the economic nation building process.  We could through well thought out and imposed standards utilize the power of organizations such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank to force multinational corporations to behave better.    By imposing rules for example on trade policies or on loans that nations must protect their workers with similar environmental, social, labor and economic laws as exist in developing nations, it would not necessarily level the playing field between the developed and the undeveloped world, but it would give the undeveloped world the opportunity to advance faster, stabilizing economies and therefore, political movements and the people in those countries would find themselves in essentially a 1950’s economic mode in just a few years.  Once they can afford to buy cars, they begin to buy more and a whole new market opens up raising the living standards of all the markets that feed into it.
In Jamaica, the free trade is tourism.  The WTO report from 1998 discusses tourism as its largest trade, but does not actually discuss the true problem with Jamaica and its tourism industry.  In fact, finding information on the true issue is not an easy task.  Even though billions of dollars come physically into Jamaica from tourists all over the globe, the Jamaican dollar is essentially worthless and the nation is dirt poor.  How can this be? It’s actually quite simple:  “Duty free” shopping.  Tourists love to go to other nations and shop in the duty free shops to avoid paying local and national taxes on the goods to the nation.  Something about getting a good without having to pay taxes on that good is too good to pass up for the average tourist.  Most have no idea the devastating affect that has on the local economy. 
In Jamaica, when I was there in 1996, the locals explained to me that the duty free shops sit on international land such as beaches and waterways.  They are owned by foreign investors and the cruise ships actually warn tourists not to shop in local stores, not to change their money to local currency, and only to buy from the duty free shops when they land on the ports by the millions each year.  The duty free shops accept the Euro, US Dollar, Yen, etc.  They do not hire local workers, but instead import workers for these shops in to the country to work in the stores.  It gets worse though.  The workers they import have a gated community where they have their own stores, homes, electrical system, etc and all money they make is deposited not in Jamaican banks, but in banks in their home economy which is much more stable.  Not one Jamaican is hired, not one Jamaican dollar spent, not one Jamaican dollar deposited into their banks, not one dollar spent in Jamaica is available for the government to reinvest in its people and their great potential.  Essentially, from the moment that dollar spent by a tourist hits the Jamaican shore until it leaves, it does not once touch the local economy of Jamaica.  Billions of dollars go in and out of the country like this annually with not a dime left behind to prop up the Jamaican government.  These arrangements were banned by European nations decades ago because of the unfairness of the trade.  This type of trade needs to be reformed in major ways to ensure that a nation such as Jamaica that has the natural resources to be a wealthy nation and the industry to support it, but is trapped in unfair trade policies ignored by the WTO and further aggravated by NAFTA trade agreements that give advantage to Mexican bananas for example over Jamaican ones in a race to the bottom.  The only industry left for the people is the illegal drug trade which operates out in the open and scares tourists right back to the duty free areas of the port.  This drives down the value of their currency, increases the unemployed workforce, and creates the ongoing social and political unrest that led to the wonderful protest music of Bob Marley, “How long shall dey kill our profits while we stand aside and look?”, Redemption Song and so many others great musicians. 
My main issue with the WTO and the rest of the trilogy, is it’s complete and utter lack of acknowledgement of problems such as these, the fact that it’s leadership and decision makers operate in a vacuum to the needs of the majority on this planet in deference to the greed of the few, with no oversight at all and that’s where Seattle came into the picture.    
I believe the Seattle protests at their core were about these concepts or they would have been for me, and so yes, I would have been there.  Not to end all globalization, that would be a foolish endeavor to attempt even for the hard core, protectionists, but using the trilogy to skip the violent, oppressive and brutal methods that do little good but enormous harm to an entire nation and the individuals that make up its population and ultimately the entire world.

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