Should Labor Fight to Revive U.S. Manufacturing?

September 22nd, 2011

by Rebuilding American Industry – Published on Global, by Shamus Cooke, Sept. 21, 2011.

Every social movement faces countless obstacles by those in power.  Although brute force is used to stifle movements when they become especially effective, more subtle methods are typically employed. Diverting movements to adopt ineffective strategies and “safe” ideas is the normal way people in power keep others powerless.  

When applied to the barely-moving labor movement, these methods are becoming increasingly important, as workers strive to defend themselves against attacks on their wages, benefits and social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Before working people can become powerfully independent, they must first shake off the shackles of bad ideas and fake solutions.

What are these misleading ideas and who benefits from them? In response to the non-functioning economy, an idea becoming popular in the mainstream media — and echoed among some labor leaders — is for the U.S. government to adopt strategies that will re-vitalize domestic manufacturing. At first sight such an idea appears “progressive,” since industrial manufacturing was the basis for the U.S. labor movement. But times have changed. The policies being proposed that would breathe new life into U.S. manufacturing would suck the life from the labor movement … //

… One myth about trade is that all corporations are pro-free-trade. In fact, only the most successful multi-national corporations are for free trade, so that they can ship and sell their products with ease around the globe.  There are many U.S. corporations that are anti-free trade — less competitive companies — none of which deserve working people’s support. Both free-trade and protectionist corporations are anti-worker, meaning that their profits depend, in large part, on low wages and weak benefits.

The best example of how being anti-free trade is not “progressive” is that the political far-right — including self-proclaimed fascists — eagerly advocate protectionist policies. These groups view the world through corporate-colored lenses; their trade policy is not a “progressive” exception to an otherwise reactionary worldview. They blame foreign countries and immigrants — and unions — for U.S. economic problems, but never the corporations inside their countries who dominate the economy and politics.

Why are trade policies incapable of resurrecting both manufactures and higher wages like the post World War II era? After World War II the U.S. had near-monopoly status over many industries, since their competitors had been obliterated by warfare. Now, numerous big multinationals in various countries have equal levels of capital and technology, creating a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle on the world marketplace, with low wages being the trump card for a successful manufacturing sector.

The recession has heightened the competitive tension between corporate-dominated nations in their quest to dominate foreign markets, a goal that can be achieved through free-trade agreements, military intervention, and lower domestic wages (the U.S. uses all three tactics at once).  Currency manipulation — done by the U.S. and China — is becoming the new trend in this fight for markets, signaling a desperateness that comes from exhausted options. It’s possible that, during this struggle for markets, U.S. corporations may switch to protectionist policies in order to monopolize the U.S. market if they feel uncompetitive on the world market. Such a move will not be “progressive.” Whatever the trade policy, working people cannot support “their” nation’s corporations over foreign ones, since working people do not own corporations, but suffer under them.

This is the worst part about the labor movement advocating protectionist trade policies. It assumes that working people have a stake in the corporate battle for global markets. This assumption disarms the labor movement from having an independent strategy, funneling working-class energy into supporting domestic corporations against foreign competition.

If free trade and protectionism are both bad, what is the alternative? This question automatically triggers a greater questioning of capitalism itself, since both free trade and protectionism are based on the assumption that giant corporations will continue to dominate the economy, and consequently politics. As long as corporations own the economy, workers cannot overly concern themselves with how these corporate products are bought and sold. The best way for workers to challenge corporate power is not through lobbying politicians to restrict free trade, but by waging battles at the work sites and in the streets for demands that resonate with all workers. And in the final analysis, workers of each country must come to the realization that workers in other countries are their real allies, not the corporations in their own country. Until workers realize this, they will be caught in the web of the corporate agenda that has workers of each country competing against workers in other countries by accepting increasingly lower wages. But when workers in one country go on strike in support of workers in another country who are demanding higher wages, then all workers will benefit. The race to the bottom will be replaced by the race to the top.

The issue of the day for U.S. workers is how to fight for jobs, better wages, benefits, and how to save their social programs. If workers fight for these demands and ignore diversions such as trade, a powerful movement can erupt that could actually unite the majority of working people, including on an international level, and thus render the corporations powerless. (full text).

(Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist and writer for Workers Action).

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