Labor Organizing in a Lean World: Workers of the World Unite?

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval

Workers in A Lean World. Unions in the International Economy by Kim Moody (Verso, 1997). Paperback $20.

THREE WOMEN MAQUILADORA workers and two representatives, one from the international garment workers’ secretariat and the other from the United States/Guatemala Labor Education Project (US/GLEP), sit on wooden crates behind an abandoned food stand and discuss organizing strategies.

The workers, members of the Phillips Van-Heusen Workers’ Union in Guatemala, are talking about Phillips Van-Heusen’s (PVH) decision to hire armed security guards. The union members are worried about the presence of these guards, given Guatemala’s long history of violence against labor unionists, and concerned because the union is in the midst of an eight-year campaign to negotiate a contract with PVH.

After the PVH union members and representatives from the international garment workers’ secretariat and US/ GLEP had finished their meeting, I asked one of the union members, “How will the guards affect the campaign—will the workers be intimidated by this decision?”

She replied, “The company says that the guards are there for our `protection,’ but we know that this is not true. The guards have upset some of the workers, but I think that most will stay in the union.”

Our discussion ended when the PVH workers came streaming out of the factory after their shift was over. Many of the workers greeted their union sisters and brothers across the street and organized a spontaneous demonstration despite the presence of the armed security guards.

I immediately thought that this daring action illustrated the organizer’s prescience, and demonstrated that worker mobilization and rank-and-file pressure were critical elements of cross-border labor organizing campaigns.

The company’s hiring of the armed guards came after the PVH Workers’ Union filed a petition to begin contract negotiations in September 1996.

The PVH campaign, which had actually begun in 1989, continued for several more months during which PVH and the Guatemalan government attempted to crush the union. However, US/GLEP in collaboration with the international garment workers’ secretariat and UNITE! (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) launched a consumer campaign against PVH and used trade pressure to end the impasse.

During this period, Human Rights Watch published a critical report that damaged PVH’s image and led the company to begin contract negotiations. Finally, in August 1997, the PVH workers negotiated and ratified the only contract that exists in the Guatemalan maquiladora industry—in fact, it is one of only a handful of contracts that exist in the entire Central American maquiladora industry.1

Workers in a Lean World

The PVH workers’ victory highlights some of the key issues that are discussed in Kim Moody’s book Workers in a Lean World. Moody discusses how corporations and nation-states have restructured the world economy, a process they initiated in the 1970s in response to a severe crisis.

Three strategies were adopted for restoring growth and profits. The first was that corporations began closing down factories, laying off hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, some also moved their factories to developing nations in Asia and Latin America—this process, of course, is generally known as “globalization.”

The second response of U.S.-based corporations was a “lean and mean” approach accompanied by labor-management “cooperation” policies. As Moody notes, lean production, which is supposedly based on improving efficiency, is a “catch-all” category for work teams, quality circles, multi-tasking, job rotation, outsourcing and greater flexibility.

“Greater flexibility” on the surface sounds rather harmless, but in practice means that corporations are downsizing “non-essential” workers and hiring more casual—part-time and temporary—workers. “Flexibility” also means that workers have been given additional responsibilities and are working longer hours, but have not yet seen their paychecks increase.

Indeed, as Workers in a Lean World and other studies mention, working and middle-class incomes have stagnated over the past twenty-five years, while Chief Executive Officers’ pay has rapidly increased. Thus contrary to what some management gurus have asserted, “job flexibility” and lean production have not empowered workers—they have actually created more stress, longer work shifts, and greater inequality.

The third response to the crisis, adopted in the 1980s by nation-states both in developed and developing nations, was neoliberal economic policy—deregulating national economies, lowering tariff barriers, cutting back social programs, privatizing publicly-owned enterprises and industries, and attacking labor unions.

In addition, developing nations with high levels of debt, particularly in Latin America, established “export processing zones,” and began providing transnational corporations with incentives and subsidies.

Such policies, along with regional trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), created a boom in foreign investment in countries like Mexico, where the maquiladora industry has rapidly expanded over the last fifteen years.

Moody discusses these shifts in the world economy and their impact on workers and labor unions. For example, Moody reports that union density rates have fallen in the United States, France, and Spain, and in several other developed countries. Moody also shows that work-place injury and illness rates in the United States rose in “major industry groups between the mid-1980s and 1994” (91).

Finally, Moody cites a United Nations report on the distribution of world income, which found that, “between 1960 and 1991 the share of the richest 20% rose from 70% of global income to 85% while that of the poorest declined from 2.3% to 1.4%” (54).

Social Movement Unionism

For all the bad news about globalization, neoliberalism and lean production, there is cause for optimism. In fact, Moody’s main contribution is to convincingly demonstrate that working-class activism and militancy are alive and well.

For example, Moody writes, between “1994-1997 there were general strikes in Nigeria, South Korea, Taiwan, Paraguay, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela, Italy, Canada, Haiti, Colombia, Bolivia, Greece, Argentina, Ecuador, and Belgium” (21). In addition, in the United States there were the battles at Staley, Caterpillar, Detroit Newspapers and General Motors.

In many of these cases workers were not only resisting low wages, work speedup and poor working conditions, but as Moody illustrates, they were also challenging their very own unions that had accepted the basic premises of neoliberalism and made concessions to transnational corporations.

Many of them also began developing a new “orientation,” known as “social movement unionism,” a term that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a series of books and articles by Rob Lambert, Eddie Webster, Kim Scipes, Peter Waterman, Gay Seidman and Paul Johnston.2 Unfortunately, Moody only cites Seidman’s work on social movement unionism and overlooks the contributions of the other folks mentioned above.

Moody has nonetheless identified a key point: that some workers in developing and developed nations are in the process of creating a new model of unionism. Moody argues that this new model emerged in Brazil and South Africa and that:

Central to this view of social-movement unionism are union democracy and leadership accountability, membership activation and involvement, a commitment to union growth and recruitment, and a vision and practice that reach beyond even an expanding union membership to other sectors and organizations of the working class. This view sees unions taking an active and leading role against international and domestic capital and their neoliberal economic allies. (290)

Moody also contends that this orientation includes establishing international ties to labor unions and workers in other countries and that the Brazilian-based Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have developed “extensive links with other new Third World unions” in response to globalization and the “race to the bottom.”

Cross-Border Labor Organizing

Moody discusses some of these cross-border labor organizing campaigns in two chapters. In one, titled “Official Labor Internationalism,” Moody criticizes the bureaucratic and hierarchial structure of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Trade Secretariats (ITSs).

Moody claims that the ICFTU and ITSs are too far removed from the everyday realities of workers on the shop floor and he suggests that U.S. and Japanese labor unions dominate most ITSs.

Moody also mentions that the end of the Cold War, the globalization of production, and the passage of NAFTA led the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to reassess its international labor policies. For instance, in 1997, the AFL-CIO closed down its controversial foreign affiliates in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, and opened up the new American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS).

Moody contends that ACILS “represents a significant change” in the international labor policy of the AFL-CIO. In addition, Moody discusses the ties between the AFL-CIO and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM), a trinational organization of ninety-five different groups.

Moody also mentions the linkages that have been established between the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Mexican- based Authentic Workers Front (FAT), and he briefly discusses other cross-border alliances between U.S. and Mexican unions.

In his second chapter on cross-border organizing, “Rank and File Internationalism,” Moody examines different phases of the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE), a “transnational workers’ network” that seeks to link workers from different nations and industries. Moody discusses TIE’s evolution, from doing mostly research and publications in the early 1980s to its current work centered around creating transnational networks of labor activists in the telecommunications and automobile industries.

For example, TIE organized a trinational auto parts workers conference in Ciudad Juarez in 1993 and a trinational conference for telecommunication workers in Tijuana in 1996. TIE has also developed close links with the newsletter Labor Notes.

TIE’s claim is that production has not globalized, but rather become more concentrated in regional blocs and commodity chains (e.g. Mexico-U.S.-Canada).

Reality of Globalization

My overall assessment is that Workers in a Lean World is an excellent book. I agree with Moody on a number of issues, but differ with him on two major issues. First, Moody, like Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, contends that the “globalization thesis” is nothing more than “globaloney.”

Moody notes that most direct foreign investment (DFI) does not occur in developing countries; most DFI occurs between developed nations (e.g. Japan investing in the United States). I agree with Moody on this point—yet this does not mean globalization is a myth.

The situation today is that transnational corporations, especially in the highly mobile garment industry, can move production facilities and factories very quickly. Not all corporations are equally mobile, of course, and there are limits to capital mobility. Threats of relocation are a reality, however, and I would argue that it is important to recognize the extent to which “globalization” has undermined labor’s leverage and bargaining position all over the world.

A False Dichotomy

Certainly, capital mobility and globalization have not eliminated the possibility of social change. In fact, as Moody points out, workers and labor unions from all over the world are fighting back and they are forming cross-border ties with each other.

Moody criticizes some of these efforts, however, as “official” labor internationalism, while he lauds TIE as “rank and file” labor internationalism. I believe that this categorization of cross-border labor organizing efforts is simplistic, and constitutes the fundamental weakness of Workers in a Lean World.

Moody’s basic argument is that rank and file democracy and activism are crucial for successful cross-border labor organizing campaigns. However, rank and file democracy is not a magic bullet. Moody overlooks other forces—capital mobility, state repression, corporatist labor unions (e.g. the Confederation of Mexican Workers [CTM]), and internal divisions within labor unions—that can negatively affect cross-border labor organizing.

To Moody, inasmuch as globalization is “globaloney,” the dispersed nature of production apparently has nothing to do with the possibility of cross-border labor organizing. Moody argues that rank-and-file democracy is all that is needed, but it should be noted that capital mobility can limit the effectiveness of democratic, as well as bureaucratic, unions.

In reality, cross-border labor organizing is a complex process that is not easily accomplished. The PVH campaign demonstrated that rank-and-file activism and mobilization were critical elements—but so were consumer activism and leafletting, trade pressure, attacks on the company’s image, and the involvement of US/GLEP, UNITE, and the international garment workers’ secretariat.

It was the combination of all these factors that produced a stunning victory for the PVH workers. Moody simply does not adequately address these multiple factors.

Moody also dismisses “official” international labor organizations, like the international trade secretariats. However, the international garment workers’ secretariat, which is known as the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), and several other ITSs have played a positive role in other cross-border labor organizing campaigns (e.g. the Coca-Cola case in Guatemala in the mid-1980s).

Moody mentions, in fact, two other ITSs, the telecommunication and chemical workers’ secretariats, which have been involved in other campaigns, but he still criticizes the ITSs because they are not “rank and file” oriented.

Thus ITSs pose a dilemma for Moody—are they positive or negative? Moody’s critical stance is contradicted by the PVH case and several other campaigns that indicate that ITSs can be a useful tool to challenge transnational corporations.

From my perspective, then, Workers in a Lean World includes too many broad generalizations. The PVH case has many important lessons for activists and academics; one of the most crucial ones, I believe, is that there are no simple answers.

The PVH workers struggled for eight years, but they finally won. I believe that academics and activists need to carefully examine successful and unsuccessful cases of cross-border labor organizing, and I maintain that this process could spark discussion about the future of the labor movement in a globalized and lean world.

Workers in a Lean World moves us in that direction and I hope that this review and other new studies contribute to this crucial debate.


  1. For more information on the PVH campaign, see Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, 1999. “Cross-Border Labor Organizing in the Guatemalan Maquiladora Industry: The Struggle and Victory of Women Garment Workers at Phillips Van-Heusen,” Latin American Perspectives (forthcoming); and David Moberg, 1998. “Lessons from the Victory at Phillips Van-Heusen,” Working USA (May-June): 39-50.

  2. See Rob Lambert and Eddie Webster, 1988. “The Reemergence of Political Unionism in South Africa?” in Popular Struggles in South Africa, edited by William Corbett and Robin Cohen (London: James Currey). Kim Scipes, 1992. “New Labor Movements in the Third World,” Critical Sociology 19(2): 82-101. Peter Waterman, 1993. “Social Movement Unionism: A New Model for a New World?” Review 16(3): 245-268. Paul Johnston, 1994. Success While Others Fail: Social Movement Unionism in the Public Workplace (Cornell: ILR Press).

ATC 78, January-February 1999