The Necessity of Unions Understanding Labor History in Light of Globalization

Imagine a world in which a twelve to fourteen hour workday is common. Imagine a world where people are paid as little as one dollar a week for performing dangerous, unhealthy, or back-breaking labor. A world where young children are forced to work out of necessity just to help put food on the family dinner table. A world where the workplace is a sometimes very hostile and dangerous environment, so much so, that many people lose their lives.

This world did exist. The description above accurately depicts the United States and the rest of the industrialized world in the 19th century. Sadly, it also accurately depicts conditions in modern developing nations. It was only through the bravery, determination, and self-sacrifice of bold men and women that the American working class of the present has been spared the horrors of the past. These courageous individuals were the members and organizers of unions.

The men and women of the Lynn shoe strike in 1860 challenged the very social order in the United States at the time (implausible, 232). The workers of Homestead, Pennsylvania, whose strike in 1890 ended with forty workers being wounded and the cruel murder of nine others (Zinn, 277). Even the workers of Germany at the time had demands, which included, voting rights, a progressive income tax, the ability to associate with whoever they wanted, a shorter working day, a work-free Sunday, laws to improve the horrible workshop conditions, an end to child labor, and the control of prison labor (Robinson, 617-619).

Comparing the past working conditions in the world to those of the present, one might think that todays employees have a great life. The truth is that there have been improvements for many, however, much of the worlds working class still lives and works in unfit conditions. The truth is that an injustice against one of us is an injustice against us all. The truth is that workers in Liberia are being treated as slaves (Sieh, screen 2). The truth is that many of the clothes we wear are made in sweatshops like those in Jordan (Greenhouse, Barbaro, screen 9). The truth is that women working in the South American flower industry suffer from discrimination, sexual harassment, and health problems caused by dangerous chemicals pesticides (Mothers Day screen 1). The truth is that Argentine workers attempting to organize have disappeared (Cooper, screen 1), and that Iraqi union leaders have been arrested by the United States military (Bacon, screen 1).

These examples show that working conditions and human rights violations have escalated to such a state that the workers of the world must unite against the multinational corporation and their policies of corporate irresponsibility. Between 2000 and 2003 the Firestone corporation received $81,242,190 (Basic Facts, screen 1) from its Liberian slaves who live in housing built in the 1920s, whose children must work instead of go to school, who routinely carry a 140 pound load of latex for distances up to three miles (Basic Facts, screen 2). The government of Jordan celebrates its expanding economy and workforce (Darwazeh, screen 1-15), however many employers confiscate the visas and passports of their employees (Greenhouse, Barbaro, screen 3). As Karl Marx once wrote, As the exploitation of one individual by another is put to an end, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end (Marx, 51). Workers must unite, and fight for their common interests.

There are some people who would question the wisdom of allowing an international trade union to exist. These people would ask: How could an international union be controlled? or As much as the unions we have in America have helped the worker, haven’t they also caused some harm? These people might say that unions have only helped to keep people in positions they are unqualified for or that todays unions have lost focus.

I’m not sure what these critics mean by the word controlled. Unions are democratic institutions, they regularly hold elections. There may be union presidents and other figureheads who provide leadership, but unions are controlled by their members. For example, if an elected union official made a decision, such as giving a political candidate the unions endorsement in a campaign, a candidate that the majority of the union members did not support. Then that official would certainly not win reelection to his or her union office and it is possible that they may be removed before their term is completed.

When these critics wonder about what harm unions have caused the rest of us I would argue that, left unchecked, a far greater harm would be caused by companies seeking to maximize their profits and minimize their costs at the expense of the common man. History is ripe with examples of this type of corporate behavior. In the United States, federal troops and state militias have been routinely called upon to suppress workers who were doing anything necessary to cling to a standard of living which provided just barely enough to get by, and our own government has often been manipulated by companies to take away workers rights. The working class has been forced to endure the squalor of company towns, the concept of share-cropping, not to mention the enslavement of many Africans to work in the South.

To those who say that union members may be unfit or unqualified for the positions they hold, I say that they are most likely thinking of individual examples. They are remembering someone from their past, a machine operator or government employee, a worker who was only willing to perform to the minimum expectations, this worker is atypical. From personal experience I know that workers, union or not, may be terminated from a position if they are unwilling or unable to perform the duties of that position.

There is some merit to the point that todays unions have lost focus. There is disagreement within and between various labor organizations with regards to whether either recruitment or political action should be their primary focus. However, the unions do agree that protecting the rights of the worker and maintaining workplace safety are their ultimate goals regardless of how they think they can best be achieved.

An international union would help to accomplish three key goals. First, it would ensure that basic rights are guaranteed for every worker in every nation. Second, an international union would expand the workers ability to protect themselves from exploitation by multinational corporations. Third, an international union would increase the standard of living for all workers.

If a multinational union existed, the workers of the world would be free from horrific workplace conditions like those that exist in Liberia, Jordan, Iraq, and South America which I mentioned earlier. Workers could guarantee their own rights. Companies that employ hundreds of thousands of workers would no longer be able to obfuscate their corporate cruelty with the fog of distance. An international union would be able to force people to realize that todays injustices abroad could easily happen at home tomorrow.

An international union would also give the workers of the world options. Too many times abuse is allowed to happen because a worker has no choice. It is not hard to imagine a garment worker, struggling to put food on the dinner table for his or her children. This worker is forced to tolerate grueling hours and horrific working conditions, like those I have described above, merely to bring home a wage which is almost certainly not enough to provide for a family. So in an attempt at mere survival the workers children leave school so that they too can work and hopefully make life more livable for the entire household. A union would give this family a voice, but, an international union would transform them into a force to be reckoned with. The company that employs this worker would be forced by the union to pay a living wage. The workers children then would be able to stay in school which would give them an opportunity for advancement. An international union would stabilize the worlds shrinking middle-class and provide a real opportunity for the working poor of every nation to rise up out of their poverty.

Once this worker is earning a living wage he or she has more than opportunity this worker becomes a provider at home and a contributor to society. The workers income can be spent to purchase a better home, better clothes, and better food. The worker will be able to afford quality health care for themselves and their family. This happier and healthier worker would most likely become a better employee, taking pride in the fruits of their labor. Additionally, the increase of a workers income means an increase in the amount of taxes paid by the worker. This would allow the workers government to provide more public services which would help those citizens who do not or can not help themselves. The workers government might also use the increase in tax revenue to lower business taxes for the region. This reduction of cost would enable the corporation to expand, and provide more jobs, or perhaps even lower the final sticker price of their product.

These goals are not unlike those which were accomplished by labor organizations when they struggled against robber-barons, government, and other monopolistic institutions to protect their homes, their families, and their lives. If every worker in every country stood together as a unified force no industry or corporation could keep them down. Each would protect the other, looking out for the interest of a far away brother or sister as if it were their own, for really it is. If industries and corporations are allowed to continue their abuse of workers around the globe it may not be long before it happens at home here in America. If the workers of the world stood united they could collectively fight for a living wage, for a safe workplace. By doing this they could potentially raise the standard of living for all of them. Certainly, the workers of the third-world would see a substantial increase in the quality of their lives. Workmen of all lands, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win! (Marx, 82).

Works Cited

Bacon, David. “U.S. Arrests Iraqi Union Leaders.” News and Press. 10 Dec. 2003. 19 June 2006 .

“Basic Facts on Firestone, Liberia.” Stop Firestone. 19 June 2006 .

Cooper, Claire. “Suit Accuses Daimler Chrysler in Killings of Argentine Workers.” News and Press. 15 Jan. 2004. 19 June 2006 .

Darwazeh, Rashed. Jordan. Jordan Economic and Commerce Bureau. Jordanian Garment Sector. 7 June 2006 .

Greenhouse, Steven, and Barbaro, Michael. “An Ugly Side of Free Trade: Sweatshops in Jordan.” News and Press. 3 May 2006. 19 June 2006 .

Marx, Karl. Communist Manifesto. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954.

“Mother’s Day Brings Extra Strain for Columbian and Ecuadorian Women Workers.” News and Press. 10 May 2006. 19 June 2006 .

Robinson, J.H. Readings in European History. Boston: Ginn, 1906. Hanover Historical Texts Project. 19 June 2006 .

Sieh, Rodney D. “Firestone Mirred in Slave Labor Charges in Liberia.” News and Press. 21 Nov. 2005. 19 June 2006 .

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.