On Workers in A Lean World

Kim Moody

IN HIS GENERALLY positive review of my Workers in a Lean World (ATC 78, January-February 1999), Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval accuses me of “too many broad generalizations,” of dismissing globalization as “nothing more than `globaloney’,” and arguing that all labor needs to address internationalized production is “rank-and-file democracy.”

What I have actually attempted in Workers in a Lean World is to remove globalization from the shrine in which so many have placed it and from which its allegedly unopposable powers emanate.  The book doesn’t deny the reality of deepening international economic integration, but rather places it in the context of capitalism’s expansionist nature, uneven development and, more recently, the process of regionalization.

Once globalization is dissected and understood in its concrete form, mainly three dominant economic regions in which the bulk of international economic activity takes place, grouped around each region’s central economic powers (United States, Japan, European Union), the question of union strategy becomes more manageable.

Corporations, may be worldwide, but production systems tend to be regional or even national.  It is also worth remembering that in most developed countries, imports of goods and services account for 10-15% of total output, and much of the growing service sector is scarcely affected by international competition.

In this context, the main problem I attempt to address is how workers within these regionalized, cross-border production systems, as well as nationally-based production systems, can confront the transnational corporations that dominate them. My major concern is with how the workers can organize themselves effectively to do this job as well as the task of fighting neoliberalism.

As Armbruster-Sandoval spells out, I point to a social movement unionism that embodies several dimensions of which democracy is a necessary, but not a sufficient one. Drawing on the experience of Brazil, South Africa and Korea as well as new developments in Europe, Latin America and Canada, I point to the importance of mass mobilizations, coalitions with community-based organizations, and international contacts and outlook.  I also argue for the transformation that will be required in most cases, because cross-border solidarity won’t help much if the unions involved are weak, conservative, or bound to the employers in “partnerships.”

Armbruster-Sandoval’s main problem with the book, however, seems to be that I have underestimated the importance of the International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) in building international solidarity.  He points to the Phillips-Van Heusen campaign as an example of their potential role.

I won’t repeat here what I say about the ITSs, their potential, and their limits.  Certainly, pressure campaigns like the PVH campaign of the 1990s and the Coca Cola campaign of the 1980s are one important tactic in cross-border work.

I would simply point out that one, two, three successful ITS-backed campaigns per decade is hardly sufficient.  Both of the two major examples of this type of campaign also underline the central role of independent organizations like US-GLEP at PVH and the Central America solidarity organizations of the 1980s at Coca Cola.

While these campaigns are important, they do not mobilize or link workers in different plants or across borders.  True, they do bring institutional pressure to bear on the employer, sometimes use the boycott as a weapon, or rely on exposure.

All these are fine tactics, but not ones in which workers in countries other than the home country of the plant in question, Guatemala in this case, play a very active role or make direct contact with one another in an on-going manner, if at all.

Nor are the unions involved, say UNITE!, in any way transformed or the largely passive role of the rank and file changed.

Mobilization and Change

To my mind the transformation of the unions in much of the developed world is a necessity for taking on transnational capital on a consistent basis; confronting power with power by mobilizing the workers who are themselves the potential source of this opposing power.

Pressure campaigns, even very good ones, don’t and can’t address this need because they inevitably rely on existing labor institutions and their leaders.

I’m not suggesting that those fighting to transform the unions should not work with existing leaders on worthy campaigns.  I am suggesting that this type of work can’t address the larger problems that underlie the weaknesses of organized labor today, and thus it too is weaker and less effective than it should be.

The unionized PVH factory in Guatemala was closed on December 11 in direct violation of the contract it took six years to win. The work has been sent to low-wage, nonunion contractors PVH already uses-not so much a case of capital mobility as a lateral pass along an existing production chain.

Hundreds of workers from the plant blockaded roads to the plant on two different days in January.  The Guatemalan union has gone to court to reverse the closure.  US-GLEP and allied organizations have leafleted PVH outlets and J.C. Penney stores in several cities in protest.

No doubt the unions and the ITSs involved will resume some sort of pressure in hopes of salvaging the situation.  What won’t even be contemplated, however, is the activation and participation of the thousands of UNITE! members in the United States, and the hundreds of thousands of members of garment unions in other countries, that are affiliated to the ITS in question.

Most things will be handled by the “labor professionals” in these unions who deal with the ITS’s “labor professionals.” The activism will be left to the local groups working with US-GLEP with, perhaps, token participation by UNITE! members and staffers.

None of this is meant to denigrate the dedicated work of these activists or the worthiness of the cause.  We want to involve as many people as possible in this kind of work. But unless there are big changes in the unions at the grassroots level, the people who won’t be involved are the tens of thousands of union members who could make the difference.

And unless these unions are changed, the ITSs that rest on them will remain restrained in what they can do by the bureaucratic inertia and deep distrust of the membership that characterizes most unions in the United States and many other developed nations.

ATC 80, May-June 1999