Global Labor Stands Up to Global Capital

They didn't start in Seattle. Protests against the impact and institutions of corporate globalization have been mounting around the world for some time. As global capital pokes its sticky fingers into one corner of the planet after another in search of profits, disrupting lives and communities, destroying jobs and the environment, spreading low-wage high-stress work, and subordinating entire nations to its goals, resistance has grown.

While opposition to the effects of globalization has taken many forms and activated many people--from "direct action" youth in Seattle to women market traders, farmers, and landless peasants in the Third World--many of the biggest recent actions have come from organized workers and their unions. These actions have been marked by a series of mass strikes in many countries.

At first glance, many of these strikes appear to be over local or national issues rather than the direct attacks on globalization's multilateral institutions like the WTO or IMF that characterized Seattle, Washington, and the June 4 demonstration at the Organization of American States meeting in Windsor, Ontario. But almost invariably the issues that spark them flow from decisions made by these institutions, applauded by corporate capital, and ratified by national governments.

OPPOSING HIGH FUEL PRICES

A good example is the recent general strike in Nigeria. This began with demonstrations against a government decision to raise fuel prices by 50 percent. "Protesting workers and students burning tires have blocked roads in the commercial capital, Lagos, and several southwestern towns forced businesses to shut," reported BBC News Online, June 6.

On June 8, the Nigerian Labor Congress turned this "direct action" into a general strike that crippled most of the southern part of the nation. Roads continued to be barricaded and most cities virtually closed. The next day, the strike spread further to include the nation's oil industry.

The immediate issue, raising fuel prices, appeared to be solely a decision of the national government. But it came as a result of IMF pressure on the Nigerian government to deregulate and end the $2 billion annual subsidy of fuel prices at a time when the international market price of oil was already soaring. In exchange, the IMF was offering a $1 billion standby loan.

Nigeria is an oil-producing nation with low production costs. Cheap local fuel prices have helped make daily life more affordable. Obviously, a fifty percent price increase would impact many prices from transportation to housing, cutting working class living standards drastically.

The Labor Congress rejected a government offer to cut price increases by half. By June 12, as the strike entered its fifth day and with most of the country at a standstill, the government proposed to resume talks.

STRIKING FOR JOBS

Mass political strikes in May in both South Africa and South Korea also took the form of strikes against job-destroying government policy. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) called a partial national strike on May 31 demanding that the government "amend the current statutory working hours to 40 hours a week, thus introducing a five day working week."

South Korea has some of the longest working hours of any nation. Cutting the work week to five days and 40 hours would save jobs in the face of the drastic industrial restructuring. This restructuring plan was imposed by the IMF, with the cooperation of the government and big corporations, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis a couple of years ago.

The KCTU also demanded coverage under the labor law for part-time, temporary, and other "atypical" workers.

Following the KCTU actions, the more conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions announced it was planning a general strike against the restructuring program on July 11.

In South Africa a much larger general strike on May 10, in which an estimated four million workers participated, was called in opposition to the loss of half a million jobs since the African National Congress government implemented its market-oriented austerity policies in the mid-1990s.

As in Korea, the policies were "suggested" by the IMF and implemented by the government to the applause of local and international capital alike. The turnout of four million for the strike was particularly significant since the strike's organizer, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has only 1.8 million members.

STRIKING AT THE IMF

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A May 11 general strike across India called by a coalition of unions and political parties brought out 20 million workers, paralyzing much of the country and all of its financial sector. Transportation was blocked in many areas as strikers sat down on roads and railroad tracks.

The strikers were joined by farmers and others affected by market reforms and the increased opening of India's economy to international capital.

"The strike was aimed against the surrender of the country's economic sovereignty before the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund," said one strike leader.

Similar mass strikes swept Uruguay and Argentina on June 8 and 9 respectively. Both crippled the capital cities and other parts of their countries as they confronted recently elected presidents, both of whom were attempting to impose new IMF-inspired austerity programs.

The PIT-CNT, Uruguay's labor federation, was protesting a 12 percent unemployment rate they blame in part on President Jorge Batlle's $163 million spending cuts.

In Argentina, two usually rival labor federations united to call a one-day strike against tax increases that would fall mostly on workers, salary cuts for public sector workers, and government spending cuts that many blamed for a persistent unemployment rate of 14 percent. In what was called the most effective general strike in years, as many as 12 million workers struck and hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Buenos Aires to oppose the measures that President Fernando De la Rua had imposed in exchange for an IMF standby loan of $7.4 billion.

This was Argentina's second general strike this year and, not coincidentally, the second time De la Rua has tightened the budget belt. Following the strike, the government expressed willingness to open "dialogue."

The mass strikes against globalization this spring and early summer follow scores of others over the last few years. Each by itself is seldom enough to stop the globalizing austerity steamroller, although some have forced concessions. They also illustrate that fact that while capital really is world-wide in its organization and functioning, labor and its allies still fight mainly on home territory.

Yet, workers and others suffering from or outraged by corporate globalization's race to the bottom have found common enemies in institutions like the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and the proliferating multilateral free trade agreements that so visibly do the dirty work of global capital.

ROLE OF THE U.S.

For most people in the world these institutions are "outsiders." To most of us in the U.S. they also appear as something "foreign." But, unknown to most Americans, the U.S. government plays a very active role in these globalizing organizations.

The U.S., for example, has the largest single number of votes in the IMF,17 percent, where votes are granted in accord with money paid. With its allies in the large industrial nations, it has almost half the votes. So, it is in fact the U.S. government and its closest allies who push these austerity policies on developing nations. This, in turn, makes them low-cost locations for investment by U.S. and other multinational corporations, with all that follows from that.

But the U.S. government also plays an activist role in many specific situations. For example, on June 12 as the Nigerian general strike was pushing the government into a compromise position, U.S. Treasury Secretary (and former World Bank official) Lawrence Summers visited Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to announce that the U.S. would support debt relief for that nation.

There was a catch. The relief was tied to acceptance of the very IMF austerity "reforms" Nigerian labor was striking against. In others words, Summers was acting as a strikebreaker. Fearful the strikers might notice this, he cut his visit short because of what the New York Times called "security concerns."

This might just bear the attention of those in charge of the AFL-CIO's new international solidarity campaign.