Can the new global economy be made to work for working people? Only if working people can come together, across national, ethnic, religious boundaries, and enforce the right to organize and bargain collectively. This week, the AFL-CIO, the U.S. union federation, hosts more than 200 trade union leaders from 63 countries in an historic conference on the international crisis in workers' rights to figure out how to move forward.
The gathering comes at a critical time. Across the world, corporations have used globalization as a weapon in a war on unions, driving down wages and benefits. At the height of the Bush economy in the United States, corporate profits were up, CEO salaries were soaring, worker productivity was up – but wages were stagnant, health benefits and pensions under assault.
This is a direct result of the successful offensive that corporations have waged against unions and the basic right to organize. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he broke the air controllers strike with replacement workers – scabs – and declared open war on unions. Corporations learned that they could routinely trample labor laws, intimidate workers, fire organizers, and get away with it. Unions in this country now are down to about 8 percent of the private economy. And wages, health care, pensions, and basic worker rights have suffered accordingly.
Unions make the difference. Europe and Canada have faced the same transformation of technology and globalization. But unions have sustained their share of the workforce – about 30 percent in Canada – and so those countries do not witness the extremes of inequality, stagnant wages and plummeting benefits that we see in this country.
Now, however, with the advent of China and India and the former Soviet Republics essentially doubling the global workforce, workers and unions across the world are under siege. The Chinese model – dictatorship that outlaws independent organizing puts pressure on the low end — and the US model – corporate war on unions – puts pressure on the top. Either workers learn how to counter both, or we will witness a race to the bottom that will erode wages and conditions across the world.
As a first step this week, global labor leaders will testify to Congress on the need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Leaders from Africa, from Latin America, from Southeast Asia understand that if labor rights are trampled here, they will be threatened everywhere.
Can unions come back? They gave us the weekend, the 40 hour week, the eight hour day, the American dream and the broad middle class that is America's triumph. Their strength was critical in support of the civil rights movement, investment in education and housing, a rising minimum wage that once helped the "least of these." Now they are at a stark crossroads. Workers must find a way to organize in a global economy – with coordinated strategies across nations, with political reforms like the Employee Free Choice Act, with new strategies like pension fund and corporate campaigns.
The historic gathering convened by the AFL-CIO in Washington demonstrates that union leaders across the world understand what Dr. King taught: that the victims must make the change; the victimizers won't do it. Workers must find a way to come together, or employers will continue to build an economy that works only for the few. The press won't pay much attention to the strategy sessions occurring at the Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. But don't be misled. We all have a stake in its success.
Jesse Jackson is a longtime civil rights activist and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition.