U.S. Labor in a Shifting Economic Landscape

December 18, 2007

The U.S. labor movement is not dead. It is just fumbling for a new role for itself in a changing society.

Thanks to the increasingly transparent housing bubble, the U.S. economy is on the verge of collapse.

Markets are expanding overseas; factories are gravitating towards countries with the cheapest labor pools (i.e. non-union).

Laws like Taft-Hartley have rolled back the rights of union members, including the semi-sacred (in my book at least) right to strike.

The list goes on. The point is that things are changing, and not in the favor of working people in the United States. In order to survive and thrive, unions must react to this shifting current.

Some more cynical unions, like SEIU, are attempting to join forces with the companies whose members they represent, championing those once derided “labor-management partnerships” that exchange management cooperation for a practically ineffectual union. The logical conclusion of this is is Andy Stern standing next to Lee Scott, Walmart CEO at a press conference, both of them shaking hands and grinning widely.

Some unions like the United Auto Workers, are trying to fight this shifting tide, in a futile attempt to preserve well-paying manufacturing jobs for U.S. workers. While the UAW strike was awe-inspiring, it ended with a disappointing thud, leaving everyone wondering what really can be done in the face of seemingly unstoppable economic forces.

Many unions are simply focusing on sectors that cannot be exported overseas, scrambling to represent nurses, janitors, and hotel workers. Some unions make the connection between the sectors they represent and the social issues they invoke, taking up the causes of immigrant rights and healthcare and education reform.

None of these tactics, in and of themselves, is enough. In order to truly fight for their members, labor unions must fight for all working people and the issues that affect them. This means fighting to change the economic tide, rather than simply adapt to its shifting currents.

As long as there are poor countries with cheap labor pools, capitalist manufacturers will export U.S. jobs, leaving workers in the states increasingly vulnerable to the failing economy. As long as corporate interests continue to erode workers’ rights at home and abroad, union power will be diminished. As long as capitalist actors are allowed to move through the world unhindered, wreaking havoc in the name of free trade and economic development, no worker anywhere will prosper. As long as economic actors build an economy based on cheap labor and expensive speculation, no worker anywhere will be safe.

In an increasingly global world, workers everywhere find their fates intertwined. Capitalist manufacturers will always gravitate towards the lowest common denominator of labor standards. Conditions in the U.S. and abroad will continue to sink until labor unions start to seriously engage in transnational organizing and build the power necessary to keep transnational corporations at bay.

The U.S. labor movement is not dead. It is merely floundering in the face of a changing society and a budding opportunity – to build a global labor movement that confronts the beast of global capitalism head on.

It is a daunting task. It is labor’s only hope.

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