There is nothing inevitable about the current direction of globalization. Yes, corporations have used their tremendous power to shape many of the rules of the road for globalization to meet their own narrow interests. In the nineties they have escalated their efforts with sweeping new rules at the local, national and global levels to enhance their mobility across borders.
And yet in the United States and elsewhere, this decade has also been one of growing resistance to global corporations. Even among the elite stalwarts of trade and investment liberalization, the longstanding free-market consensus appears to be unraveling. Except for the rigid IMF and US Treasury Department, two sets of pro-globalization academic and political leaders have broken away. One remains committed to liberalization of trade flows but, in light of the global financial crisis, calls for controls on short-term capital flows. The other calls for abolition of the IMF, arguing that it condones reckless lending by bailing out investors.
The challenge for the future will be to push alternative agendas through this crack in the consensus. Central to these efforts is the belief that trade and investment should not be ends in themselves but tools for promoting ideals such as equality, democracy, good jobs, a clean environment and healthy communities. The goal is to shift from an emphasis on exports based on the plunder of resources and the exploitation of workers to sustainable economic activity that roots capital locally and nationally.
Now is the time for the citizens’ backlash to become the “frontlash” for a new global economy. Unions, environmental groups and other citizens’ organizations are demanding a place at the negotiating table to craft new rules to guide globalization. And they are taking direct action to make their feelings known.
In the late nineties, a reinvigorated US labor movement has increased its efforts in international solidarity work. A prime example is the successful resolution of the 1997 Teamsters strike against the United Parcel Service, in reaction to UPS’s plans to shift from full-time to lower-paying, part-time and temporary jobs. While UPS dominates the US market for small-package delivery, the firm is more vulnerable in Europe, where it faces stiff competition. UPS workers in England, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France supported the US workers by carrying out sympathy strikes, leafleting and other actions. According to then-Teamster international representative Andy Banks, “Enlightened self-interest was the key. European UPS workers and their unions reasoned that if the 185,000 striking Teamsters could not stop the part-time, subcontracting mentality of the company, what could a few hundred or a few thousand workers hope to achieve in the smaller UPS European operations?” During the strike, unions also worked to block UPS deliveries in India, the Philippines and Spain.
Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an association of nearly 275 religious denominations, submitted 194 shareholder resolutions in one recent year to press for corporate accountability in the areas of the environment, treatment of workers and other subjects. For example, in 1995 the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas, filed a shareholder resolution with Alcoa requesting that the company pay its Mexican workers adequate wages. With support from ICCR and the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, two Alcoa workers confronted CEO Paul O’Neill at the company’s annual meeting. At first defensive, O’Neill later took steps to improve conditions and increase wages by 20 percent.