Gone South

Samuel Gompers, the storied leader of the American Federation of Labor, worried about "globalization" almost 100 years ago. Concerned about how "free trade" created "slave labor" conditions in the colonial world, he helped create the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 in order to establish world labor standards. The ILO was conceived by "responsible labor leaders" as an antidote to revolutionary forces, and thus served to divide the workers' world on political grounds. In any case, the organization made no impact on U.S. workers.

A few homegrown radicals, notably those in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), did imagine a world where workers were united. But for the most part, unionists here could not imagine how their interests could be protected by allying with workers in faraway countries. They fought local battles for their jobs and communities, and remained loyal to local organizations with national ambitions.

As U.S. factory workers and their unions face the relentless expansion of the global assembly line, we might ask whether there is any hope for a revival of Gompers's idea of world labor standards or whether there is anything left of the IWW's global vision. Did international solidarity die with Joe Hill when he was killed by a Utah firing squad? Or will "what they forgot to kill," in the words of the old labor song, "go on to organize"?

In Mollie's Job free-lance journalist William Adler puts a human face on the recent history of capital's worldwide search for cheap labor. From Adler we learn about three women workers affected by globalization, each living worlds apart, unaware of their intertwined fortunes. In Capital Moves, Jefferson Cowie portrays the efforts of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to forestall union organizing by relocating factories from urban to rural areas. Both books tell stories that have been missing in much of the literature about deindustrialization and the impact of "free trade." These are the kind of accounts about everyday workers that have a hard time being told, and sold, in a celebrity-driven culture. And yet there is much to be learned from these books that will help humanize the debates about the global manufacturing economy.

Adler's idea, brilliantly executed, is to describe a job first held by an African-American woman named Mollie James at a manufacturing plant in Paterson, New Jersey, and then to trace that job as it moves to Mississippi to be performed by another black female and, finally, as it crosses the border to a maquiladora site in Matamoros, Mexico, just over the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. There, in a bizarre and terrifying world that Adler describes in Dantesque phrases, a young woman named Balbina Duque works Mollie's job. It's work in which James "once took great pride, the job that fostered and valued her loyalty, enabled her to rise above the humble beginnings, provide for her family." It becomes a job "that does not now pay Balbina Duque a wage sufficient to live on."

The author's sketch of Paterson is wonderfully revealing. Traditionally an entrepreneur's city, it became the site of an epic silk workers' strike in 1913, led by the IWW and dramatized by John Reed in a famous Madison Square Garden rally and re-enactment. It was also the home of an immigrant striker named Rose Sergy, whose son Archie would later start up a firm to manufacture ballasts for fluorescent lighting. Archie Sergy's hands-on style as a manufacturer made his grandly named firm, the Universal Manufacturing Company, a big success in an exploding post-World War II market. It also gave Mollie James a chance to earn a living in a unionized factory job and to make a better life for herself and her children in Paterson.

Though Adler is clearly sympathetic with the factory workers, he does not paint a picture of an evil owner and a heroic union. Indeed, the union at Universal was the notoriously corrupt "garbage local" of New Jersey Teamsters controlled by mobster Tony Provenzano and the Genovese crime family. The do-nothing posture of the union's officials was challenged by the International Union of Electrical Workers and by rank-and-file members like Mollie James. This created turmoil and tension, which led the owner to move jobs to Mississippi, a process Adler describes in fascinating detail.

Surprisingly, a craft union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers made a spirited effort to organize Universal's southern plant. In this right-to-work state, unionism was viciously attacked and portrayed as an agent of race mixing, despite the failure of unions to challenge most aspects of the racial status quo. Indeed, it was the Universal plant manager in Mississippi who became a leader for the first desegregation efforts in the local economy. As a result, Dorothy Carter and other rural blacks got a chance to work their way out of poverty at the Universal factory.

The final stop for Mollie's-job-that-became-Dorothy's-job is a maquiladora to which Universal relocates after being sold and then devoured by Bill Farley, a predatory disciple of Michael Milken, the high priest of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers. Adler's description of these "latter day robber barons" who believe that greed is "healthy" is the kind of writing that once made readers socialists.

Adler lets his witnesses interpret the story, but by the time we have followed Mollie James's job to Mexico, it is easy to draw the same conclusions he announces in his introduction. Details of these ordinary workers' lives become compelling essentials to the larger story he tells about "the demise of unions and the middle class and the concurrent rise of the plutocracy (an old populist term that could use reviving); about the disposability of workers and the portability of work; about how government and Wall Street reward U.S.-based companies for closing domestic plants and scouring the globe for the lowest wages in places where human rights and labor rights are ignored; and about the ways in which free trade harms democracy, undermines stable businesses and communities, exploits workers on both sides of the border, both ends of the global assembly line."

Writing from a similar perspective, Cowie, a labor historian at Cornell University, offers in Capital Moves a thought-provoking analysis of another New Jersey corporation that takes on important political and moral questions raised in Mollie's Job. Cowie expertly and concisely narrates a history of RCA, which, when it was based in Camden, New Jersey, faced the challenge of CIO industrial unionism in the 1930s.

As soon as the left-led United Electrical Workers (UEW) won a violent struggle with RCA and its chief, Brigadier General David Sarnoff, the corporation began to move work out of the city--first to Bloomington, Indiana, and then to Memphis, Tennessee, in what Cowie describes as a precursor to the movement of assembly jobs from centers of innovation to developing nations. The later export of jobs to foreign shores (for RCA it was to the maquiladora in Juárez, Mexico) seems not much different, in Cowie's view, from the domestic process of moving capital and plant from union cities to rural sites in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather than seeing the dilemma of U.S. factory workers as a new one created by foreign competition and free trade, Cowie demonstrates that this phenomenon began quite a while before the new global economy emerged.

Cowie enlivens his study with vivid accounts of people and places. But the scholar also demonstrates a new range that labor historians have gained in their approach to the problems of workers. Indeed, Cowie seeks to write transnational labor history, and in this attempt he interrogates the most important category adopted by recent historians of the working class--the idea of community, which in legions of studies is seen as the locus of worker resistance to the demands of industrial capitalism. This natural point of identity is, however, what makes it difficult for workers and their unions to mount an effective campaign against capital when it threatens to move, or when it actually does move. In short, the deck seems stacked against the working-class communities that produce corporate wealth, resist the regime of industrial capital, and then are left to face a future of urban decay and dispiriting poverty.

Cowie, though, is not about to surrender to postmodern pessimism about the powerlessness of local people in a global world. Indeed, he argues that local power has played a pivotal role in global economic transformation, so much so that capital can no longer afford to risk staying for long in one location, at least after workers begin to respond to the demands placed upon them. The resistance RCA faced from worker communities in the United States has been mounting in Mexico, and women are taking the lead. In fact, as Cowie shows, women are increasingly essential to the global assembly line.

Cowie suggests that global reinvestment may not necessarily lead to the virtual elimination of workers' organized power. Rather, from an international perspective, "deindustrialization" is seen as the transfer of power from one segment of the world's workers to another. In this scenario, Cowie says, some of Karl Marx's predictions may become relevant in the next century. He also notes that Marx failed to understand, as have some of his disciples, the way in which tenacious local and national identities have prevented first world workers from seeing any commonality with third world workers.

Cowie's history leaves the reader with a discouraging picture of unions' potential for transnational politics. In his account, unions were too rooted in defending local interests, and their U.S. members were too locked in a racialized world view. Still, if U.S. industrial workers have translated their local concerns into an imagined national community that protects their interests (through federal labor laws), they might well imagine an international community of workers with shared interests. For added encouragement, Cowie might have invoked the spirit of the IWW and its dream of an international workers' movement. He does come close, suggesting that "transnational acts of faith" will be needed to begin to create a "global working-class politics." Cowie finds hope in the work of unions such as the UEW, who have organized worker-to-worker visits and linked up dissident Mexican trade unionists. And he sees in the AFL-CIO's fight against NAFTA the emergence of a movement for cross-border labor regulation that might slow down the race to the bottom until workers can organize across national lines.

The most hopeful aspect of this grim picture is the centrality of women in the story: Their power was evident in the first IWW strikes but has been ignored or denied by most unions until recently. Indeed, the most effective resistance to RCA and other U.S. corporations in Juárez seems to have come not from the official unions but from the consciousness-raising efforts of women workers in a health and education center. Both of these books show that the shop floor experience of assembly-line workers is similar on each side of the border, and that women's consciousness of that experience is not bounded by culture. They also reaffirm what AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney has said--that women are the future of the labor movement not just here, but everywhere. ¤