Labor History right now

This is a review of a couple of books I just wrote for the ILWU’s The Dispatcher.

Low Pay High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor by Andrew Ross (2004, The New Press: New York)
Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 by Beverly J. Silver (2003, Cambridge University Press: UK)

Longshore workers have been at the fulcrum of global labor for as long as there has been world trade. When the ILWU negotiated the first Mechanization & Modernization agreement back in the late 1950s, no one imagined that container technology would underpin such a radical expansion of globalization, nor that the process of globalization would look an awful lot like the early stages of industrialization dating back to the early 1800s. And yet, entering the second half of the 21st century’s first decade, workers across the planet are confronted by a savage capitalism unleashed since the mid-1970s at least.

Andrew Ross’s book “Low Pay High Profile: The Global Push for Fair Labor” is an extremely engaging and wide-ranging book. Don’t let the horrible title discourage you. Capitalist ideologues have long used “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” as a bludgeon against workers seeking deeper changes in the set-up of society, so it’s dismaying to see it echoed in this book’s title. In fact, Ross helps us peer into the containers crisscrossing the oceans, not just to see the stuff in them, but also to learn about the people who are producing those commodities in far-off lands and the people who are schlepping and selling them closer to home” and to reveal a great deal about the conditions under which they are working.

If the book was merely an exposé of deplorable working conditions, it would fail to capture the dynamism of this historical moment. Ross begins this book with a detailed look at the “second anti-sweatshop movement” that is confronting the barbaric practices of the fashion industry all over the planet, in factories, malls and the media at home and at factory gates in Indonesia, Vietnam, and even China. Anti-globalization protests get occasional headlines but the everyday organizing of some of its participants is not so well known. United Students Against Sweatshops, Corpwatch, and of course UNITE HERE (AFL-CIO) are all working together and separately to combat the egregious re-emergence of brutal sweatshops, not just in Mexico and China, but in Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. and European cities too.

Andrew Ross is a capable analyst and he does not merely skim the story, highlighting bad corporate practices and well-meaning campaigns to combat them. He sees the anti-sweatshop movement as but one example of a larger historical dynamic underway at this time. The context of this battle in textiles is a decades-long process of market transformation and expansion. His second chapter goes to the small factories of Italy, where the famous brands such as Armani and Gucci arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s and ushered in a whole new market for “Made in Italy” ready-to-wear fashion, as well as design and furniture. This is the birthplace of a key transformation in modern capitalism, covered well in Naomi Klein’s “No Logo”” the rise of commodities dependent on an image of having high aesthetic or creative content. It turns out that this Italian success story too is built on outsourcing, homework and sweatshop labor, not just the mythical flexibility of small producers scattered around northern Italy. Now that China has become the global leader in cheap, quality textiles and clothing, even the famous Italian brands are turning to Chinese manufacturers to keep their much-promoted labels in business.

In fact, under the rules of China’s entrance to the WTO, barriers to Chinese textiles and ready-to-wear clothing are falling and predictably, containers stuffed with cheap Chinese imports are pouring into harbors in the U.S. and Europe, producing unprecedented trade deficits and pushing surviving local manufacturers into ever more drastic efforts to lower labor costs. Politicians are already starting the China-bashing and calling for protectionist tariffs and quotas, even though the global system they’ve helped usher in is the culprit, not any particular government or underpaid workers across the seas.

It’s probably easy to think of textiles and clothing as “other people’s” issues, but Ross has a really illuminating chapter called “Friedrich Engels Visits the Old Trafford Megastore”. In it he describes how sports and fashion have converged over the past decade (how many readers are wearing a sports jersey or cap right now?) to expand the marketing logic of branding in ways we could never imagine as kids in the latter part of the 20th century. The global marketing of such brands as “New York Yankees” or “Chicago Bulls” or “Manchester United” (which often accompanies the purchase of such franchises by global media giants like Murdoch’s News Corp.) follows closely behind the corporate purchase of star athletes as spokespeople (think Michael Jordan or David Beckham), all of which serves to inflate the price of such branded goods while obscuring the enormous profits derived from the exploitation of cheap, mostly female, labor across the planet.

There’s more though. The specific role of Britain and south Asia in this curious global relationship merits a closer look. Not only did the original colonization of India set the stage for Britain’s emergence as an empire, it also gave Britain control over a new global textile industry that had previously been very strong in the Bengal region of India. When Engels described the horrifying conditions in Manchester’s textiles mills in the mid-19th century, he could have never dreamed of what the beginning of the 21st century would bring.

“Manchester [England] and Dhaka [Bangladesh] had changed their roles. One can only imagine what Engels would have made of a visit to the Old Trafford megastore. In that most peculiar of emporiums, fans of a soccer club with origins as a factory-worker team pay exorbitant prices for cheaply produced goods that are sewn and glued in Asia by the same class of women and children who toiled in the original “workshop of the world.” Many of the goods are tagged with “Made in Bangladesh” and “Made in China,” the same countries that were once forced to import machine-made cottons and yarns from Manchester, after the decimation of the Bengali textile industry, and after the gunboat diplomacy that opened China’s treaty ports to British concessions in 1842. Economic history can boast few examples with a more profound or ruinous irony.” [p. 109]

Ross’s book goes on to a much broader look at global production, with chapters on China, silicon wafers, and mental labor. A later chapter brings the story back to the heart of empire with a look at the 1996, largely gay-inspired, UNITE union campaign at Barney’s in Manhattan. It links the creative struggle of retail clerks who help establish and sell high-end fashions to that of the anti-sweatshop crusaders who have also developed innovative ways to re-frame corporate practices to make gains for workers.

“Low Pay High Profile” is a well-documented and revealing examination of the restructuring of work and markets across the planet. But this book is even better when put together with the remarkable work of Beverly Silver in “Forces of Labor.” She bases her study on data developed by the World Labor Group, of which she is a member. They have gone through back issues of the NY Times and London Times to find mentions of “labor unrest” since 1870, arguing that the two papers are the voices of their respective imperial centers and though they certainly do not record all instances of labor unrest, by charting the ebb and flow of such mentions, one derives a picture of global historical periods that appears remarkably accurate. Silver constructs a fascinating analysis of the complicated, nuanced, layered dynamics of labor unrest and capitalist perpetuation.

“The insight that labor and labor movements are continually made and remade provides an important antidote to the common tendency to be overly rigid in specifying who the working class is (be it the nineteenth-century craftworkers or the twentieth-century mass production workers). Thus, rather than seeing an “historically superseded” movement or a “residual endangered species”, our eyes are open to the early signs of new working class formation as well as “backlash” resistance from those working classes being “unmade.” A key task becomes the identification of emerging responses from below to both the creative and destructive sides of capitalist development.”

She makes good use of a double paradigm for understanding labor insurgencies” “Karl Polanyi-types” are ones characterized by “the backlash resistances to the spread of a global self-regulating market,” where workers or others are resisting the uprooting of traditional ways of doing things, or the destruction of their livelihoods, or the loss of their jobs. “Karl Marx-types” are those where “newly-emerging working classes” are fighting as they are fully subjected to market discipline and their collective power is strengthened as “an unintended outcome of the development of historical capitalism.” Silver sees world capitalism as swinging back and forth between a crisis of profitability and a crisis of legitimacy.

Against this overarching set of contradictory dynamics, she also smartly identifies “a continual struggle not only over defining the content of working-class “rights” but also over the types and numbers of access to those rights. How” and how quickly” a new crisis of legitimacy/profitability is reached is determined in large part by “spatial strategies”” efforts to draw “boundaries” delineating who will be “cut in” and who will be “left out.” This boundary drawing process is a key to understanding capitalist counterattacks against strengthening workers, but importantly it is also a key to understanding the way workers create identities (based on nation, race, gender, etc.) that distance them from self-identification as workers.

In a basic way, every trade union contract represents a stark example of this process of cutting some workers in and others out. To return briefly to the landmark M&M agreement, whatever arguments one may have about its effect on the internal politics and hierarchies within the ILWU, clearly the agreement’s success for longshoremen was inadvertently at the expense of the new global working class. Containerization has been the crucial technological means to make it worthwhile to forcibly integrate new populations into capitalist production, i.e. pulling/throwing them off the land and into factories (a.k.a. primitive accumulation).

“Forces of Labor” also breaks down different ways capital alters the terrain of contestation” product fix, technological fix, spatial/geographic fix, financial fix. A detailed discussion of the leading industry of the 19th century, textiles, is juxtaposed to a similar treatment of the 20th century’s lead industry, automobiles. Ultimately Silver attacks the premise of a “race to the bottom,” arguing that class struggles have been displaced by the aforementioned fixes, never eliminated and never put to rest. Here her argument nicely fits with Ross’s coverage of the ways that the textile industry, and by extension silicon wafers and even the new “voluntary army of low-wage professionals” exemplify the process of shifting struggles and labor market transformations.

She applies her theory to the present and future, trying to guess which industry might play a “leading’ role in the 21st century, and while unsure, she points to education (producing workers), and transportation (moving everything around) as likely candidates. She’s also unabashed in predicting that the next wave of “Marx-style” labor unrest will appear in China.

Here we must return to Andrew Ross for a more nuanced look at the dynamics of education. Clearly the crisis in education is directly related to the changing labor needs of capital. Ross covers the rise of new unions on campuses but goes a lot further than that. The demise of tenure-track teaching positions and the replacement of the traditional university professor by adjunct (temp) lecturers and technology (distance learning) goes together with deeper changes in what people are learning in the university. Ross develops an argument that describes

“”¦the structural eventuality of being trained in the habit of embracing nonmonetary rewards” job gratification is self-actualizing” as compensation”¦ fundamentally characteristic features of the academic work style, like those of artists”¦ conform to the demands of a contingent labor profile”¦ As part of its ceaseless search for ways to induct workers in their own self-exploitation, capital, it might be said, has found the makings of a self-justifying, low-wage workforce, at the very heart of the knowledge industries so crucial to its growth and development.”The education system (both at the high school and collegiate levels) is overdeveloped in relation to the needs of an economy that will only provide so many meaningful jobs that pay a living wage”¦ [A]t a time (quite distinct from the Fordist era) when creative gratification is more and more touted as an obligatory feature of the realm of no-collar work, the collective educational capital that once stimulated and supported consumption and leisure time is more and more invested in gray areas of unwaged work that the new cultural economy is creating”¦ All in all, the creation of the World Wide Web has been the most massive, uncoordinated effort in the history of unwaged work. Education is not, then, wasted, as it appears at first sight. Rather, it is being unsystematically converted into un- or undercompensated labor in ways that remain to be adequately charted (just as the hidden costs of unwaged domestic labor of women have sustained the economy for so much longer).”

The old paradigms and platitudes about workers, unions and organizing need to be revisited. Institutional power based on traditional economic roles is steadily eroding. But working class power is never vanquished. It moves and reinvents itself with remarkable resiliency. These two books advance our understanding of the times we live in and our potential for wresting control over our collective futures.

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