Captured by the Flag

Artist Mike Alewitz's Los Angeles mural highlights the continuing necessity of international worker solidarity. Graphic: Mike Alewitz, CC BY-SA 4.0, cropped from original.

It feels like the world is on fire again.

Strikers in Myanmar are on the front lines of a rebellion against a military coup. Corpses are floating down the river Ganges as the pandemic rages in India.

A general strike in Colombia has widened into an uprising for economic rights and against a violent police force; activists are assassinated daily. And Israel is once again bombing Palestinians to advance apartheid, as people resist in the streets.

In the face of all this, is the U.S. government helping? It’s mainly making things worse by hoarding vaccines and arming militaries.

A recent poll of 50,000 people in 53 countries found that 44 percent saw U.S. influence as a threat to democracy in their countries. That’s more than thought the same about China or Russia.

For all that Biden has broken from his predecessors in domestic policy, he’s staying the course on how the U.S. relates to workers abroad. His pitch to U.S. workers is fundamentally Trump’s: “America First,” which means “American Corporations First.”

In reality, in our economic interests and daily concerns, U.S. workers have more in common with our counterparts around the world than with bosses and politicians here. But do we act that way?

A NEW COLD WAR?

With China, Biden is carrying on Trump’s New Cold War.

According to the State Department, “the Biden-Harris administration is firmly committed to taking on [China’s] abusive, unfair, and illegal practices.”

Those exist in China—but have you met Wall Street? American businesses have spent decades attacking our contracts and unions, contracting out our work here and abroad, and pushing anti-worker legislation.

The nationality of our employers is not the problem; it’s that they all act like employers. And Chinese workers, fighting similar battles in their workplaces, are not our enemies.

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Meanwhile China’s government will deliver the same nationalist message to its workers, and use the tensions between governments to disallow labor rights and to justify attacking civil rights in Hong Kong and for Uighurs in Xinjiang.

NOT OUR INTERESTS

The “America First” bargain didn’t work in the interests of U.S. workers in the 20th century, and it won’t now.

As the official labor movement became a comfortable part of the mainstream after World War II, it also aligned with anti-worker foreign policy—essentially identifying with our bosses. When those bosses turned around and launched an all-out assault starting in the late 1970s, unions were unprepared.

U.S. jobs were lost to automation, speedup, subcontracting, and runaway shops. Wages fell till the average worker couldn’t get by on 40 hours. Entire industries and communities were destroyed.

But because the workforce had been led to embrace nationalism rather than solidarity, even today our efforts to organize across borders have weak roots and little power.

A BETTER WAY

Can we avoid repeating history’s mistakes?

Unions could organize across the world at shared employers, like the big automakers, which have factories worldwide. We could organize along international supply chains—bringing together retail workers at Nike, Apple, and Starbucks with the factory workers and farmworkers who produce what they sell.

We could develop a common agenda in parallel sectors, such as among food delivery workers organizing in the U.S., China, Mexico, Chile, and elsewhere.

Immediately, we could push the Biden administration to share vaccines and to stop the rhetoric that paints workers abroad as our enemies.

The starting place is to shift our mindset, so we choose our fellow workers over the flag.

Saurav Sarkar is an Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.saurav@labornotes.org