IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME

Last week, the New York Times reported on the move in China to better protect workers’ rights, and in so doing stem the tide of rising social inequality. And it discussed the instant blowback from American companies:

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law. The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce — which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike — against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party’s official union organization…One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

This episode is an object lesson in how corporate-driven globalization works. While orthodox world systems theorists debate when we will shift from an era of American dominance to one of Chinese dominance, and the globalization gurus estimate how long it will take for “open markets” to unleash a new era of liberalism and freedom, corporate-driven globalization is lived by millions as a cudgel wielded not by a national government but by an economic clique, and wielded in the service not of human freedom but of management power.

When workers have the freedom to organize without retaliation and bargain collectively for better futures, they win better working conditions for themselves and their families, and they make it harder to treat them as infinitely flexible and fully disposable resources. That increase in the freedom and democracy of the workplace breeds understandable resistance from people who would otherwise get to call all the shots. Without global standards, global markets ease a global race to the bottom.

This is easy to lose track of in the bipartisan haze of “competition” and the elite faith that if a given nation just does enough to keep its workers cheap and contingent, it can outdo another nation’s efforts at the same. That’s a competition most everybody loses.

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When it starts like this

I think I can explain what happened, but first I have to tell you about this wild typing race I recently had with an 8-year-old Indian girl at a village school.

…you know it’s Thomas Friedman. In this particular case, he’s spinning his wheels trying to reframe Indians’ overwhelming rejection of the neoliberal economics of the BJP as a request for more globalization. As a neoliberal evangelical, Friedman has no choice but to believe that the persistence and expansion of an underclass under globalization is a result of too much government interference in the economy (read: corruption), rather than too little (read: social welfare). Color me unconvinced. But maybe that’s just because I’ve never been to “India’s Silicon Valley” and had a typing contest.

Some thoughts on yesterday’s march:

It was gigantic. I’m not great at estimating crowds, but I’m confident saying there were significantly more folks there than the last rally I attended in DC, the anti-war one in January which drew several hundred thousand people. The organizers reported distributing over a million of the “count me in” stickers given to marchers when we signed forms identifying ourselves, which is a number I’m inclined to trust and a method which, based on personal experience, is much more likely to under-count than to over-count people. That, and just look at those photos. A truly enormous crowd (were I to use an even less scientific measure, the number of people I know whom I unexpectedly ran into at the march, I would reach a similar conclusion).

What impressed me most about this march, as I alluded to earlier, was the self-conscious manner in which it broke out of the mold of white, upper/middle-class feminist/ pro-choice activism which has too often marked the movement. The choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term was contextualized in terms of the various and urgent structures which regulate women’s fertility and impact their lives and those of their born children. Speakers and placards unapologetically tied the right to choose with the rights to a progressive welfare system, progressive immigration reform, and global sexual education. Too often, as some have observed, it’s left to the anti-choice movement to discuss the realities of urban poverty. Yesterday, the right to choose was proudly claimed as part of a comprehensive struggle for the liberation of women. Women of color, poor women, and disabled women were not only present but central on the podium and in the crowds. Cheri Hankala, of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, spoke right after Hillary Clinton.

About the big-name Democrats: There were a lot of them. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Poxer, Terry McAuliffe, Carol Mosely-Braun and Howard Dean all marched or spoke. It was somewhat heartening to see them there, insofar as it makes it more difficult for the party, or its candidate (several of whose relatives apparently were there) to Sister-Souljah the Pro-Choice movement over the next several months or once in office. And it demonstrates, God willing, a recognition that this is a constituency which will be vital to rebuilding the Democratic party.

There was, of course, a good deal of dissonance at times between the speakers, and between the narrowness of some of the more famous speakers’ messages and the agenda of the march. Hillary Clinton, proud booster as First Lady and now as Senator of a welfare reform which punishes women for having children, deteriorates their access to healthcare and childcare, and make it that much more difficult to find education and living wage work, appeared all too happy to divorce freedom of choice from liberation from poverty. Yesterday, not for the first time, Clinton seemed to get a free pass from much of the left on account of the venom directed at her from the right. I would have liked to see someone like Cheri Hankela call Clinton on the impact of her policies on women’s freedom to direct their lives. But, much like John Lewis’ planned critique of John Kennedy at the March on Washington, it didn’t happen.

There were lots of families there. There were large delegations from very “red” cities and states which in the conventional wisdom would have sent no one to a pro-choice march. I spoke to women on their first march and to others who had been to the capitol for the same cause a dozen years before. There were Doctors and medical students, some in appropriate dress, declaring their preparation to perform an operation for which others have been murdered. We Jews were very, very well-represented, particularly the Reform movement, which endorsed the March.

What most surprised me about the counter-protesters was their scarcity. They stood in a designated space along the sidewalk, maybe one every several feet, for a few blocks. Mostly they held signs holding pictures of aborted fetuses and comparing abortion to slavery and/or the Holocaust. I observed no physical confrontations between us and them.

I came away from yesterday’s march with something that many of us worked for but never saw completely coalesce in the same way within the anti-war movement (whose circumstances, of course, made such much more difficult) last year: a sense of hope and alternative positive vision. The March’s organizers, speakers, and participants effectively conveyed not only the tremendous threat posed by the Bush administration but also an incipient sense of the process of forging progressive alternatives. It was a small piece of a conversation about what it would mean to build a society which fully respected and fostered the autonomy of women and children and men over their bodies and their lives, and in so doing made possible the full flourishing of the human spirit.

Guess whose deficits the IMF is worried about now?

Doubt we’ll see the US forced into a “structural readjustment” plan by the IMF anytime soon. Although when it comes to “austerity measures” – privatization, union-busting, anti-environmentalism, and the like – the Bush administration seems to be doing just fine on its own.

Saturday’s rally was an incredible mobilization of support and solidarity, with – by police estimates – over 10,000 workers and students from all over the region and beyond coming together to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the movement for change. Yale students gathered in front of a banner towards the back; the front of the march was already at the Yale Medical school before we started moving. A dramatic presence of Yale undergrads was there to welcome huge students groups from Harvard, Swarthmore, and Columbia, as well as peers from just about everywhere else – including a few students from Florida and California. A significant number of the sixty-odd Internationals in the AFL-CIO were represented, including many more locals than I could count (Philly’s HERE Local 634, where I worked this summer, was out in full force). The strongest felt presences, besides AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, were the leaders of four of the “New Unity Partnership” unions which have been increasingly publicly working together to try to push the AFL to prioritize dramatic organizing for the labor movement’s survival – Andy Stern of SEIU, Bruce Raynor of UNITE, Doug McCarron of the Laborers, and Yale’s own John Wilhelm of HERE – all of whom, with Sweeney and over a hundred others, took arrests for civil disobedience at the close of the march.

Yale’s new PR line, faced with the infeasability, one figures, of telling the press that the rally was not disruptive, or that it didn’t really happen, or that Sweeney probably secretly thinks Yale’s offer is better, is to say that the University was simply a convenient staging ground for a “union recruitment drive” that had little to do with Yale specifically. This is perhaps marginally more convincing than Yale’s contention that Freshman Move-In Day went more smoothly than usual this time around and marginally less convincing than Yale’s recent contention that it had been planning for years to implement proposals to racially desegregate its workforce and unfortunately didn’t get a chance to tell the unions until the day after it was condemned for race-baiting by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Most of the organizing for this march happened over the course of about a week, and the thousands who gathered did so – as demonstrated by their speeches, by their signs, by their stickers – because they want to see justice for the thousands of men and women who make this University function, and for millions of working people in America as well. Like every vital and difficult labor fight, this one has vital broader implications – as did the 1984 strike, when newly organized clerical and technical workers wore buttons asserting that for women to make 59 cents on the dollar compared to men was unacceptable at Yale and everywhere else.

Yale University, and Yale – New Haven Hospital, are the industries – “eds and meds,” as Levin says – which will likely compose an even greater segment of the American workforce – itself increasingly a service economy – in this century. They possess, as my advisor Michael Denning argues, parallel structures, with low-wage service, maintenance, clerical, and technical workers at the bottom of a hierarchy with set-duration apprentice employees (graduate students, residents) in the middle and highly-trained “professionals” (Doctors, faculty) at the top. The prospects for decent contracts at these institutions are tied up in the prospects for economic justice for working people in this country.

The movement here in New Haven – an alliance of service and maintenance workers, clerical and technical workers, teaching and research assistants, students and faculty, and clergy and community, built around common interest and shared vision – represents a cross-section of the labor movement and a microcosm of the broad-based organizing strategies that have historically worked for the labor movement in the country, and that represent its potential to revolutionize this country in the future.

Yale’s relationship to New Haven is a dramatic microcosm of the yawning and deepening economc divide in this country. The United States is becoming a nation of prosperous Yales and struggling New Havens, and the labor movement has a central role to play in reconciling the two. Unlike many employers, Yale cannot feasibly claim that its contracts are restrained by competition from local alternatives or sweatshops, or by the difficulty of remaining financially solvent. And unlike other employers, Yale cannot easily escape or elude the deserved scrutiny it attracts – nationally and beyond – when it spouts the rhetoric of partnership while clinging to the vestiges of feudalism.

YaleInsider has a thorough breakdown of news coverage from the march, and of Yale’s public statements Saturday. Jacob Remes ’02, who came down to march with us, and who has been more skeptical of late of the prospects for victory at Yale, shares his experience of the march here.