By David Dyssegaard Kallick
What's your view of how to get a handle on globalization?
I think UNITE's experience and where we exist in this framework is emblematic in some ways.
Over a period of 25 years, we went from dealing with employers who are national entities to dealing with an industry and employers who are almost the epitome of globalization of the economy. Because of high labor input of the products in the industry, low capital costs for setup...these guys go anywhere at the drop of a hat.
[Howard takes a call from the Dominican Republic.] I'm on the phone at least once every day to people in other countries.
When the unions organized the industry in New York City, which was a heroic battle at the early part of this century, the industry moved to New Jersey, or to Boston.
But it didn't take [leaders] long to figure out that they needed to move the union. The unions realized that the political jurisdictions didn't correspond to the industrial structures, so they went beyond political jurisdictions and organized workers wherever they were working. They followed the industry.
There was also an understanding that you needed national standards that transcended the thinking at that time. That was the context of the New Deal, for example.
That structure of the union in the industry lasted from the '30s to the '70s. It was a period of stability and rising wages.
Then the industry moved beyond the northeast and other urban industrial centers - to the South, to the West, to Puerto Rico, and even began to make its first steps offshore. And it became more and more difficult to organize workers in the industry.
So in a way, what it sounds like is that the strong anti-union climate in other areas really changed the unions' ability to "follow the work" even before intensity of globalization in the 1980s?
Well, in the late '60s, early '70s, when production starts moving to other countries, it didn't seem feasible to pursue the strategy of following the work because the industry was going outside US borders. The strategy was instead to get restrictions on imports. Which was effective to some extent in slowing down loss of jobs.
It's obvious that the way to deal with concern about all this work flowing to Mexico is to deal with it is to raise Mexican wages. By doing that, you do two good things at once - you help people there live a little better, and you reduce the volatility that is so harmful to people here. However, it is a legitimate question whether, no matter how hard we try, we could have a significant impact on this.
Based on the strategic assumption that we could have an impact, we began a new program in 1994. Before the merger of ACTWU and the ILG, the two unions co-operated in a program in the Dominican Republic. We had a program to help train organizers and activists from a local Dominican union to organize in the free trade zones there. There are 200,000 workers [in this industry], most of them producing clothing for the US, in the Dominican Republic. When we went there, there was not a single collective bargaining agreement.
Some firms were subsidiaries of US companies, most were contractors.
Working very closely with the brand new Dominican union, about a year after we started they won their first collective bargaining agreement. They've got about 10 now. It's terribly slow, terribly painful, but that led to the international trade secretariat taking a greater interest in the region.
Over the last 10 or 15 years, a contiguous, unitary labor market has been created in which these political boundaries are irrelevant - but the economic problems are enormous.
I'm wondering about the New York City garment workers in the early part of this century as a model. Although the union succeeded in following the work and making the jobs decent jobs, didn't the New York City workers lose their jobs . . . and won't something similar happen to US workers in the context today?
The main reason the businesses were moving out of NY was to get away from the union. But if they realize they won't get away form the union, there's a lot less movement.
But in this model, the US will lose jobs, won't it?
We are probably going to lose more jobs in the US. I see no way that trend can be halted or reversed in the short term. Our job is to minimize the adverse affect on workers, and to do whatever we can to eliminate exploitation of workers.
This is a very unstable economy. We just don't know what's going to happen. But at some point, way down the road, there will be a point of equilibrium. Will it be a smaller domestic industry? Probably. Whoever's working in that industry, our job will be the same - to help whoever's working in the industry deal with what they've got to deal with.
Is there any effort to help companies to thrive in this context?
We have training centers, technology centers, we try to help firms that need help - they're trying to find a 'high road' strategy as well..but it seems to be struggling.
[Still,] we don't control the economy.
What do you think about the possibility of developing truly international unions?
[I think it's possible. But] besides the industrial and organizing opportunities, you do need to create the legal frameworks. We're really in a new period. The big thing for us is the WTO and the linkage of labor rights with trade. The employers and most governments don't want to hear about that. If you're going to give more than lip service to enforcing labor standards, there have to be sanctions when people don't do what they're supposed to do.
We go to them and say: We believe that you need to consider labor a part of trade. And they say, go talk to the ILO - which has no enforcement capacity.
So we need the international equivalent of a Wagner Act?
[Not just the act - we need the enforcement capacity.] We brought a General System of Preferences case (GSP) against the Dominican Republic aimed to support a campaign for what became the first collective bargaining agreement in the maquila sector in that country. The belief by the Dominican government that the US government may have been prepared to enforce this was a significant factor in being able to achieve this victory.
People don't know this: there's a lot of US trade law that's linked to labor rights - it's just not enforced. So there's some capacity to do this already. But clearly we need enforceable international labor standards.
And then an international union would make sense?
[There already is an international union:] The trade secretariat. [That's an] international union made up of affiliates from 100 different countries. We're an affiliate. [True,] it's a very weak structure, in which the center has weak authority.