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Archive for Monday, September 5, 2005

Consumers now overshadow workers

September 5, 2005


— Workers of the world have rarely seemed as disunited - or as marginalized - as they do in this celebratory period of two great triumphs by labor unions. The human tools of production are the forgotten factor in the rising tide of relative global prosperity.

It is not just that trade unions grow constantly weaker in the "industrialized" nations of the northern hemisphere as manufacturing shifts precipitously to China, Southeast Asia and other areas of low-cost labor. More remarkable is the contribution the unions themselves make to the lack of a broader solidarity.

They are less willing to reach out across borders to emphasize the once-proud international dimension of labor's battles. They focus instead on protecting national markets from foreign-produced goods. They concentrate on acquiring political influence in Washington to obtain trade barriers and institutional advantage.

Of course they do, you say? That's what unions do? Consider the result: America's celebration of Labor Day 2005 finds its largest unions suffering a deep identity crisis that has produced major schisms. By failing to renew the intimate relationship between the vitality of organized labor in the United States and its international engagement and activism, today's labor leaders help render their unions irrelevant to the challenges of globalization.

It was not always thus. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor helped create Labor Day as a holiday and should be remembered this week for that triumph. But also remember that Gompers helped create the International Labor Organization in 1919.

American labor's help for struggling West European unions in the early days of the Cold War followed in that global tradition. So did the determined, effective support given by the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland in the 1980s to the Solidarity movement in Poland.

In moving ceremonies last week in Warsaw and Gdansk, Solidarity celebrated the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the revolt that eventually brought down Poland's Communist government and the Soviet empire. But even this rare happy ending to a tumultuous series of chain reactions had its bittersweet moments when seen against today's global economic upheaval.

Lech Walesa's moustache is gray now, but the unemployed electrician who sparked the workers' uprising in the Gdansk shipyard and went on to become president of Poland seemed vigorous and optimistic in his well-received set of speeches.

Aleksander Kwasniewski - the former communist who is finishing his second five-year term as president - paid elegant tribute to Walesa by, in effect, apologizing for "not having been by your side 25 years ago."

But Wednesday's ceremony at the shipyard also underlined that Solidarity as a trade union, despite its historic political accomplishments, has been unable to protect the economic interests of its core membership. The shipyard has shrunk in a quarter-century from 17,000 workers to 3,000. It produces perhaps three ships a year now. Unemployment in liberated Poland stands at 17 percent.

That is not to say that Poland's economy has not greatly benefited from the demise of communism and its admission last year to the European Union, which provides politically motivated budget subsidies. Poland's current problems are the problems of success.

Often overlooked today is the fact that the workers' rebellion here was originally a reaction to the economic quagmire created by a "command" system in which, as one Solidarity activist explained to me in 1981, "work has lost all meaning, when the goods workers produce cannot be used, or cannot be sold for more than they cost to produce."

The ceremonies themselves implicitly stressed the present over the past, giving pride of place to the political over the economic. Presidents, prime ministers and other politicians spoke in the featured spots rather than union leaders or economic spokesmen. The small American labor delegation kept a relatively low profile and did little to recall the large role that U.S. and other foreign unions did to help Solidarity in its first crucial days.

Journalists ferret out microcosms where others see random events or nothing at all. But it is worth noting that the Solidarity anniversary was pushed inside Europe's newspapers last week by, among other events, a desperate effort by the European Union to retreat from import quotas that have blocked up to 80 million Chinese-manufactured clothing items in ports and customs warehouses.

Angry consumer groups and merchants have not yet seized the moral equivalent of a shipyard. But in an age when the values of consuming dominate over the values of producing and working in many countries - led by the United States - can a Buyers' Solidarity revolt be far away?

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


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