Irreversible Globalization; or, Workers of the World Unite (no, really, these titles do relate)

It’s been refreshing recently to see the presidential election debates turn towards the economy. I can’t say that I appreciate James Carville (longtime Clinton {both of them} strategist) on many issues, but his insistence that “it’s the economy, stupid!” that drives public opinion in elections is dead on. On the heels of the sub-prime lending crisis and the looming housing inferno, coupled with everyone from the American left to that Randian sage Alan Greenspan saying we’re on the verge of a recession, the economy has taken center stage in American political discourse.

People complain about Iowa getting too much play in the early election, but it’s beneficial to American industry that their issues come to the forefront. Why? Because Iowa exemplifies what made America great in the past (aside from our great diversity): agriculture, manufacturing, and community. Iowans care about all three things, which can be seen in their economy (which is adaptive to their location, but also applicable to much of the rest of the country as well, especially the Midwest and Southeast) and their social lives. After all, is there any better sense of solidarity and community than coming together with neighbors from church, unions, and the local Rotarians or chapter of NOW to stand up and be counted on behalf of your chosen candidate in a community center, all while the worst snowstorms in the continental US attempt to blow down the door and strand you far from home for the night (believe me, I spent a winter in Iowa a few years back, 4 feet of snow in 12 hours is not fun). All of this aside, the claims that Iowa is not representative enough of the US to play such a role is largely bogus. Of course, the fact that I was born and raised in the rural South probably makes me more likely to believe this (I type this as I listen to Lynard Skynard’s “Tuesday’s Gone”), but without the Iowas of the nation producing agriculture and manufacturing, the US economy would be an afterthought in the world and we’d have never had a middle class, and many of us would have never been able to escape the working class to get the educations that have brought us to the point where we can critique the American system and attempt to make it more egalitarian and devoid of sexist, racist, and bigoted content, but I digress.

As the campaign centers over Iowa, the issues that have been front and center in the media, like the war, national security, and the right wing bugaboo of immigration, take a back seat to the economy, especially trade and globalization. If you’re gonna stump in Iowa, be ready to explain why you do or do not support NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, and other policies of their ilk. If you’re a Democrat, and you’re stumping at the local Steelworkers or Machinists union hall, you better have opposed these free trade agreements, or be ready with a damn good explanation why gutting the job market of their neck of the woods was worth it for free trade. Sure, working class people want to hear that you’re on their side on future trade issues, but what of free trade now? Is it realistic to merely cancel these agreements and expect the jobs to come back? Unless you’re delusional enough to believe that Dennis Kucinich has a shot (godspeed, Dennis), you’ll probably admit that, yes, under our current political and electoral system, these examples of globalization are largely irreversible. Thankfully, we still have the capacity to invest in reviving communities and workers with retraining for good, union jobs in the service sector. We also have the ability to invest in new manufacturing jobs, especially in the rising green manufacturing area (and yes, union workers do make solar panels already, I checked). However, change is hard on those who lose their jobs, and thus here we are, at primary time, and jobs are front and center again. Globalization might benefit in the long run by lowering prices for your goods, but that’s hard to explain in Flint or Buffalo or Iowa City to people who lost their jobs, communities, and ability to buy these goods.

We’ve all read about the alternative to free trade. Under fair trade agreements, trading partners agree to labor standards which will hopefully allow for a more equal exchange of goods. The ideal arrangement would be that workers in the US would be able to afford products made in Mexico, and workers in Mexico would be paid enough to be able to afford American-made goods. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. We know how free trade made this work. We can buy Mexican-made cars, but the Mexican workers who make them have wages so low that they come here for work, and Mexican communities never escape poverty. We must demand living wages not only for our citizens, but for all citizens of the world. Workers in Mexico must be assured a living wage, just as everyone should.

This is where the American union movement should come into play.

Unions in the United States, especially the larger, more powerful congresses like the AFL-CIO, need to be at the forefront of the movement for a living wage and good labor standards here in the US. It’s time that they did they same for all workers, especially in a seemingly inevitably globalizing economy. They should be uniting with their Latin American or Asian union counterparts, many of which don’t have nearly the pull that their American counterparts can have (due to a number of factors), to oppose free trade agreements, promote fair trade, and fight for better standards for all the workers of the world.

An example of this has already appeared in the recent debate over the US-South Korea trade agreement. The United Auto Workers and the Korean Metal Worker’s Union have joined forces to oppose this agreement and its unequal trade provisions ( Transnational solidarity like this should become commonplace in a global economy. This past summer, when President Bush signed an executive order to carry out one of the final provisions of NAFTA, allowing Mexican truck companies access to the entire US, the Teamsters, instead of protesting at the border (along with bigoted immigration opponents), should have been uniting with Mexican truckers to fight for equal safety and wage standards and attempting to bring these Mexican workers under collective bargaining agreements, either with Mexican ally unions, or under an international Teamsters union. Locals in Burlington, Iowa and Spring Hill, Tennessee should be in contact with their counterparts in Hermosillo and Ciudad Juarez, trading organizing resources and standing with them in solidarity, demanding better treatment for Ford and GM workers in Mexico as well as in the United States, not simply imploring everyone to buy American.

The surest way to continue the fight for working people the world over isn’t protectionism as has become the battle cry for proponents of American manufacturing, from Kucinich to everyone’s favorite bigot, Lou Dobbs, it’s international solidarity which aims to better living standards and protect jobs in communities all over the world instead of simply allowing jobs to race to the bottom without doing anything to lift up workers out of poverty, or keeping them from sliding towards it. Within YDS or DSA, we need to be in the forefront of international cooperation. We have the Socialist International for a reason, and it’s time we used it on issues such as these. With the communication technology we enjoy today, we should be in contact with activists in the PRD of Mexico and other allied groups, many of which have the ears of the governing parties. Never before has the need for workers of the world to unite been more imperative, and the fact that we as members of the international Left have failed so far at recognizing this means that now, more than ever, “the (global) economy, stupid” as the major political issue for workers in America and all over the world should be at the center of our activism.

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