Friday, February 13, 2015

Workers' Internationalism and public ownership

Cambodian workers block roads demanding the release of arrested union leaders after January 2014 strikes. The quicker we think of these brothers and sisters as "our" people, the better off we will be. 

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

When I was still at work and active in my union, I had the occasion to visit a very prominent labor official here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted an endorsement for a meeting my local was sponsoring on the need for a Labor Party in the US, an Independent worker’s party as an alternative to us having to choose between one of the two big business parties. The former official from OCAW Tony Mazzochi was the main speaker. An endorsement from this official’s local was important.

In the course of the discussion in his office I pointed out that a major employer whose employees his union represented had pulled out of this area and moved south of the border where workers come cheaper.  He was not happy about that obviously.  I used it to point out that with a party of our own, based on the unions and workers’ and community organizations, an avenue would be opened that could prevent that.  Some worker in a party branch would move that our own elected officials introduce legislation to prevent the move, take the company over or either of the above.  One doesn’t need a PhD in economics to draw this conclusion; just needing a job and having mouths to feed and rent to pay will do it.

He did what they always do, agreed with me then explained why it won’t work and how this country is different etc. The real reason the labor leadership avoid that road is not because it won’t work but because it can.  But that is another issue.

The main point is that workers from all walks of life, whether union or not, have to face this question of who owns the jobs and the workplaces; the major industries in society. Does an individual, a family or a group of private investors have the right to own the company?  Do they have the right to move it and lay people off and decimate a community because greater profits are to be found elsewhere?  We can never progress unless and until we challenge the capitalist class, the 1% whatever name we want to give them, for the ownership of these vital human resources.  As long as they have the right to own them, and to move them, or to shut them down and shift investment to whatever sphere brings the highest return, they will do that. The owners of capital do not invest in production to make useful things that we need. They invest to make money, profit, that is their goal.

Some folks may remember January last year when Cambodian garment workers went on strike for a minimum wage and the police responded by killing five workers. This caused the huge multi-national corporations and their investors that buy the garments to act, as they are somewhat susceptible to boycott campaigns by non-profits and pressure from liberal politicians who face embarrassment when the brutal working conditions and low wages their suppliers pay are brought in to the open.  Bad press like this might hurt their profit margins. Note: It's interesting in reporting those events and when workers called further strikes Business Week reported that by doing so the workers were:
".....increasing the likelihood of further violence.".  Business Week seems to have a point of view, that the workers are the cause of the violence directed at them by the bosses' and the state.  I would say, a "class perspective". Michael Bloomberg, the owner of the magazine being worth $30 billion could have something to do with it.
So in the aftermath of the murder of the strikers, many of the multi-nationals sent a letter to Cambodia’s Prime Minister demanding a “judicial investigation in to the Killings” according to Bloomberg.  That was their contribution to the Cambodian workers health and wellbeing. More on that struggle here.

Nevertheless, as is always the case after the ultimate sacrifice and depravation, Cambodian workers won a small victory.  Since the January 2014 massacres, garment workers wages have risen from $80 a month to $128.  But for every cause there is an effect or the threat of one. Just as Boeing threatened the workers in the Seattle plants that if they didn’t accept concessions they would move down to the non-union South, the huge retailers have added a little economic terrorism of their own.  Starting the month after the workers won wage increases, orders for Cambodian apparel and footwear began to drop rapidly amounting to a mere 1% increase by the end of 2014, way below the decade long 20% annual growth rate, says the Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Association. “Rapid wage hikes, frequent strikes, political instability, and negative media coverage have damaged the competitiveness of Cambodian factories.”, Ken Loo, head of the association tells Bloomberg.

What the wage increases have done and what Loo means by competitiveness is that Cambodia’s workers are now more expensive than workers in Bangladesh who earn $68 a month. And the new wage rates equal the high end of the factory workers in Vietnam.
Loo says that the new wage rates are “pricing” Cambodia out of business. How many times have we been told that here? Ask any older trade union activist and they won’t be able to count the times.  The auto workers priced themselves out of business, the Boeing workers are pricing themselves out of business, the meatpackers priced themselves out of business, our pensions cost too much our wages are too high we aren’t competitive enough and so on and so on. Loo, the head of the garment manufacturers makes it clear when he tells BW that the garment industry, “migrates from one country to another, it moves around seeking out the country with the lowest labor cost.”

You see brothers and sisters, capital has no borders, it is truly international. If cheaper labor power exists, capital will find it. The owners of the giant multi-nationals have this option and are taking it no matter the consequences for working people.  Those corporations that shift production abroad do not do so to raise the wages of workers in their new home. The protests to the Cambodian Prime Minister and demands for an inquiry in to the 2014 murder of strikers from the huge retailers are all phony.

The unemployed are a useful tool for keeping wages low also by applying downward pressure on the wages of those working and keeping us on our toes, willing to make sacrifices in order to not join their ranks. Capitalism is not a friendly system of production.

The American and European companies are taking a “wait and see” attitude and holding back new orders in case Cambodian wages continue to rise as it will force them to  “source elsewhere”, writes Business Week.  In other words, these conditions are brought about by the mechanics of the system we call capitalism.  As long as these industries, like all of them, are privately owned and production takes place for profit not for human need or to produce objects that are useful to us, this frantic search for the cheapest human being, for the right of capital to go where it wants when it wants unencumbered by unions or any form of regulation, will continue. 

Another issue is instability. One spokesperson for the Swedish Retailer H&M which has 800 or so factories producing its clothing lines tells Business Week that, “We are dependent on stable markets in which people are treated with respect.”   That’s an oxymoron. What she means by stable is a climate where profit taking is undisturbed.  But their profits are dependent on the super exploitation of the workers involved. How can that situation remain stable except by force and coercion? At some point the conditions of existence become so unbearable workers are forced to fight back, the state and the corporations respond with violence and the owners of capital take their capital elsewhere. This is a social phenomenon not a personal issue. It’s not because humans are simply greedy.

Here in the US we have become a low waged nation in many cases as wages have been driven lower and unions weakened with the cooperation of the labor hierarchy making a modern economy with a relatively well-educated workforce more attractive to capital investment. A most recent example is the Caterpillar factory in London Ontario that shut down to avoid paying Canadian wages and moved to the US Midwest where wages are 50% lower and the union leadership more business friendly.

The Team Concept, workers offering concessions to their individual employers in order to help them steal market share from their competitors whether in a domestic setting or in the competition between capitalists of different nations offers no way out and this has been the position of the heads of organized labor in the US for years. It places workers in competition with each other and makes the solidarity needed to improve conditions for all of us all the more difficult. Unions were built to protect us from the competition of the market not facilitate it.

This is why international working class solidarity and the building of an international working class movement is crucial if we want to avoid the conditions we see in places like Cambodia becoming the norm. But even that movement cannot stop the continued degradation of workers’ rights even here in the US where we have suffered such severe setbacks over the last 30 years. 

Building this international movement can only work if its goal is taking these huge productive ventures out of private hands and in to public ownership under workers control and management as producers and as consumers.  There is no other way.

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