A Rejoinder

— Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval

I ENJOYED READING Kim Moody's reply and hope that other folks get involved in this crucial debate.  My own viewpoint is that "globalization" has dramatically undermined the leverage and bargaining position of workers and labor unions in developed and developing nations.  [See note 1]

This situation, however, does not mean social change is impossible.  Indeed, over the last several years some labor, solidarity, human rights, religious and student organizations have established cross-border linkages with each other and challenged transnational corporations and the "race to the bottom."

I mentioned, for example, in my review of Moody's Workers in a Lean World, the Phillips Van Heusen (PVH) workers' movement in Guatemala, which involved the international garment workers' secretariat (the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation [ITGLWF]), US-GLEP, UNITE! and a half dozen other solidarity organizations.

Another recent example of cross-border labor organizing involved Nicaraguan maquiladora workers, the National Committee (NLC), Witness for Peace, the Campaign for Labor Rights, and the international garment workers' secretariat.  [See note 2]

The workers, in both cases, overcame tremendous obstacles and negotiated collective bargaining agreements with their employers.  The PVH factory in Guatemala, however, shut down several months ago, but nonetheless, the union's members, along with solidarity organizations and the international garment workers' secretariat have resisted this action and pressured the company to reverse its decision.  [See note 3]

These two campaigns illustrate two key issues.  First, the outcome of these campaigns depended on rank-and-file activism, media and trade pressure, consumer leafleting, and the involvement of solidarity organizations and the international garment workers' secretariat.

The combination of these various factors produced two rather remarkable victories for garment workers in Guatemala and Nicaragua.  The second lesson from these two campaigns is that the international garment workers' secretariat played a key role in both cases.

This is an important point that should neither be uncritically celebrated nor condemned.  I concur with Moody that "one, two, or three successful ITS-backed campaigns in a decade is hardly sufficient." I couldn't agree more.

The real issue, as I see it, is that no organization has developed a coherent and sustainable set of strategies to effectively challenge globalization and the power of transnational corporations.

The PVH campaign demonstrates the dilemmas of cross-border labor organizing-how can workers organize in a lean and globalized world without the company shutting down and moving someplace else?  The international garment workers' secretariat, NLC, UNITE!, US-GLEP, Witness for Peace, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, the Support Committee for Maquiladora Workers, the Transnational Information Exchange, and a number of other groups are all searching for the answer(s) to that question.

I believe that academics and activists need to talk about this issue in a candid and open manner.  I think that the efforts of the international garment workers' secretariat and TIE, along with the other organizations mentioned above, have been remarkable.

Yet I also realize that, despite all the determination and desire of the workers and organizers involved in these organizations and campaigns, the majority of workers and people in the world are still living in poverty and misery.

How do we address this complex set of issues?  That's the big question that I know animates and motivates workers, students, activists, organizers and a wide variety of folks interested in social and economic justice.

I feel that the transformation of the U.S. labor movement is a necessary, but insufficient, step towards achieving that goal. There simply is no guarantee (and I know that Moody's reply did not explicitly give this impression) that a mass mobilization of garment workers would lead PVH to reopen its factory in Guatemala.

The fact of the matter, right now, is that transnational corporations have temporarily outflanked workers and labor unions.  I think that rank-and-file democracy within unions is crucial for confronting this situation, but feel that long-lasting social change will not come about unless workers, unions and solidarity organizations create mechanisms that mitigate capital mobility, whipsawing and the "race to the bottom."

The tasks ahead for workers, activists, organizers and unions are immense, but they can achieved.  I hope that this exchange sparks further discussion about globalization and cross-border labor organizing and I look forward to reading other perspectives and viewpoints about these issues.


Notes

  1. I agree, incidentally with Moody's criticism of the "globalization" thesis.  In certain sectors, such as the automobile industry, production systems are regionalized and concentrated in specific countries/blocs (e.g.  Canada-US-Mexico).  In contrast, the garment industry is more dispersed and globalized than the automobile industry.  These sectoral differences are critical for workers, labor unions, and solidarity organizations because they can positively or negatively affect the outcome of cross-border labor organizing campaigns.
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  2. See Working Together, 1998.  "Contract Victory at Nicaraguan Maquila," (September-October): 5.
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  3. For current information on the PVH campaign, check the website of the Campaign for Labor Rights.
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The author welcomes all comments, critiques, and suggestions.  Please send them to ralphmeg@aol.com

ATC 80, May-June 1999