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.
Citizens in several countries have expressed their resistance to corporate-driven globalization in the voting booth. For example, in Mexico in 1997, opposition parties critical of the ruling party’s economic policies gained control of the lower house of Congress, and opposition leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was elected mayor of Mexico City. As the head of Mexico’s largest opposition party during the NAFTA debate, Cárdenas was a strong advocate for an alternative approach to globalization, stressing that trade “must be an instrument of development, not an end in itself.”
One consumer strategy has been to reward corporations employing “good” business practices by allowing such firms to identify their products with a label. The Rugmark campaign, for example, awards a special label to firms that insure that their employees are adults paid at least the local minimum wage. Manufacturers that join Rugmark consent to surprise visits by Rugmark inspectors and local human rights and child advocacy groups. Rugmark also works with US and European importers to provide funding for the education of former child workers in the rug industry. In the United States the campaign is coordinated by the Rugmark Foundation, housed at the International Labor Rights Fund.
On more than seventy-five campuses, students have been negotiating with their schools to ban the purchase of products bearing the school logo from factories that violate labor rights. At a number of these universities, students have built support for such a ban by staging fashion shows featuring clothes made in sweatshops. As the models parade down the runway, an announcer describes the conditions under which the clothes were made. The first school to adopt such a code was Duke University, which now forbids suppliers from using child labor and requires them to maintain a safe workplace, pay at least minimum wage, recognize the right to form a union and allow independent plant monitoring. Duke students are continuing to press for an expansion of the code to require suppliers to pay a living wage.
In 1994, the fiftieth anniversary of the World Bank and IMF, citizens’ groups from all over the world organized a “Fifty Years Is Enough” Campaign. In the United States, it has involved more than 200 environmental, development, faith-based, labor and policy organizations. Congress responded to their demands by restricting funding for the agencies until they improved disclosure, environment and resettlement policies, and by requiring that the United States use its voting power in the World Bank to promote internationally recognized workers’ rights.
Another mass movement is Jubilee 2000, a coalition of religious and secular groups that has demanded cancellation of much of the debt owed by the poorest countries. Jubilee draws its inspiration from the biblical book of Leviticus, which describes a Year of Jubilee every fifty years in which social inequalities are rectified, slaves are freed, land is returned to original owners and debts are canceled. Jubilee 2000 coalitions exist in dozens of countries.
In Mexico, a superhero named “Superbarrio” fights against injustice on behalf of the poor. Wearing red tights, gold wrestling trunks and a flowing gold cape, Superbarrio is a frequent star of political demonstrations. Under NAFTA, Superbarrio’s heroics have taken him on many crusades across the border. Once he swept into Los Angeles to take water samples for toxic testing in Mexican labs (the local environmental group did not trust the results they were getting from the US government). Cartoonists have lent their artistic skills to support educational efforts. A booklet by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras illustrates common workplace scenarios to help Mexican workers learn about their labor rights so they can more effectively defend themselves against abuses by the primarily US-owned corporations operating on the border.
Political theater has also proved an effective way of educating and mobilizing people around globalization issues. For example, Nepali villagers gather around boomboxes in tea shops to listen to an audiocassette of a play about hydroelectric power, featuring one of Nepal’s most famous comedians.