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Globalization and the Rights of Man

Labor's New<br>Crown of Thorns
Montreal 24 February 2004

“What does labor want? More schools and less jails. More books and less arsenals. More learning and less vice. More leisure and less greed. More justice and less revenge. The labor of a human being is not a commodity. You can’t weigh the soul of man with a bar of pig iron.”-Samuel Gompers


As the new 20th century dawned, there was little to be happy about if you were a workingman. Owners grew rich by keeping their thumbs squarely on their workers. With an endless supply of new immigrants desperate for jobs, owners had little trouble finding people willing to work 10 to 12 hours a day for miserable pay.

In one industry towns most were forced to live in company-owned housing with imposed rents, paid in scrip rather than cash and left with no choice but to shop at company-owned stores where prices were artificially high — leaving them little more than slaves. For this, many died in the thousands, whether in the sweatshops in New York or the mines of West Virginia. Between 1870 and 1914, an estimated 50,000 miners alone lost their lives on the job in the United States, a death rate three times higher than that of industrial Europe.

When workers tried to organize for better conditions, they were fired, blacklisted, beaten and sometimes murdered. During strikes, compliant politicians ensured that state militias were unleashed to transport union leaders out and escort strikebreakers in.

To paraphrase the great union organizer Mary Harris, known as Mother Jones, "For a second more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing their children for a few extra minutes each day, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty — a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window — for this, working men and women had always to struggle.” She used to say that she wasn’t a humanitarian, just a hell-raiser.

Often, workers were demanding nothing more radical than the eight-hour day that was already the law in many jurisdictions. Violent conflict seemed always to be the tragic and necessary pivot in the breakthroughs industrial unions finally made over the decades. Governments acknowledged  the necessity of righting industrial wrongs only after incidents like the Ludlow Massacre, the Winnipeg General Strike, the vicious attacks on UAW strikers in Detroit and the confrontations by the CNTU with Johns-Manville in Lac Megantic and Thetford Mines.

Given these brutal conditions one can understand the rise of firebrands like Big Bill Haywood, a unionist so radical that his ashes were later buried in a wall for revolutionary heroes near the Kremlin. As union leaders deepened their commitment, radicalism increased, and an environment arose that made the successful union-organizing drives of the 1930s, 1940’s and 1950’s possible.

There are those today who think all this is a thing of the past and industrial trade unionism is redundant. There are people out there who think globalized markets are the panacea to everything. Their shriveled spirits and hostile hearts refuse to recognize the true sorry state of worldwide labor rights.

The reality is that the blessings of unprecedented choice many Canadians currently enjoy comes at a dear price in the savagely competitive world of global business. In China, Honduras, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cambodia or Guatemala, the pattern is the same: long hours, pay scales below any standards of decency, draconian health risks, intimidation and harassment for the legions who produce goods. Often they are migrant workers. Increasingly they are women. All of them cogs in a system that is largely beyond regulation or control.

Dominated by a few giants -- Wal-Mart is a name that comes up repeatedly -- the global manufacturing industry aims to turn on a dime to find the cheapest possible way of filling orders. Elementary rights such as the freedom to associate, reasonable hours and safe working conditions often go by the board. Even companies that have ethical production standards in the West, violate them in the Third World as suppliers cut under-the-table deals with subcontractors.

We must all, whether as businesspeople, consumers or investors, reject the notion of a "race to the bottom" in which the only objective is minimum price and maximum profit. To state this is not communism, or socialism or nihilism. It is decency for the global village we all inhabit. For in the final analysis, in this age of instant communication, and instant destruction, what affects one affects all. We are all mortal. We all cherish our future. And pain caused to the least amongst us should be viscerally felt by all, for that pain may one day rise up as a tidal wave and sweep down upon us until in the words of the Hebrew prophets “…justice shall fall like water and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

Charity balls and foundation gifts don’t cut it anymore. We must all walk the walk not just talk the talk. Globalization must fulfill the promise of each human being having a call on the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labor has so much contributed. If we limit the flow of well-being to these exploited workers, we will surely drown in the flood of their anger which will be of a scale incomparably more violent than the march of labor in the West ever was.

Most Canadians would feel very uncomfortable buying toys or children's clothes if they knew they were made by women whose hours were so long and benefits so meager that they were unable to care properly for their own kids. But like all decisions, consumer choice requires information to be effective. And reliable information isn't always on offer. Shoppers and investors can demand it. Conscientious manufacturers and retailers can supply it. But in our cutthroat environment it's unrealistic to expect everyone to do so voluntarily.

There is an important role for Government here. Labeling standards required for consumer goods sold in Canada should be strengthened. "Made in China" no longer suffices when components may come from half a dozen countries, all co-coordinated by a Hong Kong-based middleman. We need to move toward listing detailed information about the conditions under which goods are produced, including specific suppliers and plants.

Relying on companies to do this by themselves is a second rate solution. Canada has vast experience in tailoring regulations for consumer awareness as well as market flexibility. Governments, primarily Ottawa, need to take a stand. Some may argue that tightening labeling requirements to take into account working conditions and labor standards would be too cumbersome and intrusive. But this would be a disingenuous position.

We already insist on meticulous labeling. The list of ingredients on cereal boxes or frozen desserts would challenge an upper-year chemistry student. Detailed information about domestic-production chains allows government to guard Canadians' health, and it allows consumers and their watchdogs to look out for their interests.

We should be similarly concerned about the conditions others work under to produce the things that make our lives more enjoyable. In extreme cases of brutal despotism, there may be an argument for banning goods from certain countries.  Favored nation status must have some teeth and meaning. The Jackson-Vanik amendments in the 1970’s to America’s MFN agreements helped free millions enslaved under brutal tyranny.  At a minimum however consumers should have access to the facts. All participants should know the score. Get the information out there, and let everyone involved make their own decisions.

For the past twenty years Canada's international trade policy responded to one mantra "jobs, jobs, jobs." Canadians like to think of ourselves as global humanitarians. But we have not led at all in trying to formulate minimum international standards of labor laws, at least in those countries where our own businesspeople prosper. What we really need are minimum global labor standards accepted by international protocols of states with oversight done jointly by government bureaucrats and labor representatives. Sadly, however, we remain deaf to the growing evidence that globalization inhibits prosperity as often as it enhances it, and imposes poverty as often as it relieves it.

Canada has convincing moral authority in the world due greatly to our generous immigration policies. We must use that authority to make a difference to the billions crying out for fairness. The spirit of the legitimacy and authenticity of our experiment in civilized nation-building is dependant on it. If we don’t help show the way, and convince others to follow, the world may yet be confronted with the soul of the fiery embers from the hearts of the miners of a century ago leaping into a roaring blaze of global revolt.

Beryl P. Wajsman



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