From the devastating factory fire in Bangladesh to substandard wages to a lack of worker freedom, the news in recent months has been replete with controversies about the overseas production practices of large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Apple.
These accounts brought me back nearly a quarter-century, to February 1989, when the AFL-CIO Executive Council was holding its winter meeting in Florida. New on the labor beat and interested in labor’s global activities, I approached Al Shanker, the fabled leader of the American Federation of Teachers, who also headed the AFL-CIO’s international-affairs committee.
In short order, I was raptly listening as he told me of U.S. labor’s hush-hush activities in Eastern Europe, including assistance the AFL-CIO and AFT were quietly providing to little-known “incipient independent labor movements” such as the Liga in Hungary and Podkrepa in Bulgaria.
At that point, the events that would unfold later that year, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall, were unimaginable. But on that February day, Shanker told me of the potential significance of these labor stirrings behind the Iron Curtain, and how they posed a greater threat to communist authority than the typical protests by students, artists or intellectuals. If the very workers in whose name these regimes allegedly ruled were rebelling, how would communist leaders justify their control over all aspects of state and society?
Given the delicate nature of what U.S. labor was doing, and the attendant risks to the upstart labor leaders being assisted, there was much I wasn’t at liberty to report at the time. But I wrote enough to prompt my editors to note that they had hired me to cover labor in St. Louis, and that I should kindly refrain from trying to cover Eastern Europe from Florida for Midwestern readers.
I dutifully obeyed. But later that year, while I was in Western Europe reporting on other matters, the same editor who had issued the cease-and-desist order urgently dispatched me to Hungary to cover what suddenly seemed like the impending dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Using contacts provided by Shanker, I quickly found myself in the apartment of a Liga leader, taking notes on what he termed the “imminent dissolution of the Marxist hold on Eastern Europe.”
When Shanker died in 1997, I wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal that called Shanker “a visionary when it came to workers’ struggles in communist countries, a no-excuses human rights advocate who understood earlier than most how labor’s concerns transcended national borders.” The piece was titled “A Unionist Cold Warriors Should Mourn.”
So here is my question to conservatives in 2013: In the discussion over the treatment of workers who help enrich U.S. corporations, why is the outrage largely limited to liberals and labor activists?
It’s one thing to laud free trade, praise globalization or defend the corporate right to maximize profits. But what happens when these economic concepts collide with the values conservatives also proclaim? Should not those who speak so convincingly in other contexts about individual rights and dignity and the worth of every human being be as concerned as any liberal about the safety and treatment of workers overseas?
When oppressed workers can’t stand up for their rights or form independent labor unions to challenge dangerous or degrading conditions, are such problems truly trumped by notions of corporate mobility or free markets (that in such cases aren’t, in fact, free)?
I know what Al Shanker, that impassioned advocate of American ideals, would be saying. Should today’s proponents of American values be saying anything less?
• Philip Dine, author of a newly updated edition of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” which covers labor’s current battles, is a Washington-based speaker and commentator on labor issues.