Why Labor Rights As Part Of The Global Supply Chain Can Work


Pictured: not actually needed for the global economy to work. Image from ctv.com

One strange thing about staunch free-market advocates– who in self-image are as clear-headed about the real world as they are stout-hearted– is the mystical attachment to the lack of human agency in a human endeavor. The mystery of the market, and the “invisible hand”, is essentially the Gaia to their cute girl at the co-op. When global labor problems, and the immiseration of the Third World, is brought up, you’ll find shrugged shoulders and mumbling incantations about market forces. It’s strange to think that an economy predicated on container ships nearly a quarter-mile long and capable of carrying tens of thousands of tons, that can be unloaded by robots in massive ports, is somehow beyond the reach of human intervention.

There’s a growing movement to change that. It’s really easy to be upset when a Bangladesh factory collapses, or when you hear about union organizers for a South American sweatshop being killed, or any other of the iniquities of the global economy, but it turns out there is actually something that can be done. The invisible hand, shockingly, in attached to our arms.

Just as we have passed laws in this country that stop child labor, allow for organizing, and create working conditions that, in theory, allow you to live, we can do so for other countries. Obviously not directly, but by enforcing supply chain standards for the American and other Western businesses that use overseas factories. Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Eric Loomis gives an outline of what this might look like (with a promise to delve deeper into it in the future).

1) All workers have the right to a union or workplace organization of their choice, free from harassment by employers or from corporations higher on the supply chain.

2) All workers have the right to a safe workplace.

3) All workers have the right to be free from physical, sexual, and verbal abuse.

4) All workers have the right to a livable wage based on local conditions.

5) All communities near global factories have the right to be protected from pollution

6) Western companies must take legal responsibility for the conditions in their supply chains. Western countries need to pass legislation ensuring this.

7) Western companies must agree to legally binding codes around pollution in their supply chains.

8) Corporations must take legal responsibility to eliminate all child labor, prison labor, and coerced labor in their supply chains.

9) Workers in supply chains must have legal recourse to violations of the basic principles listed above. If that cannot happen in the courts of their home nations, it must happen within the home courts of the western companies. That legal recourse should include access to corporate information and include the possibility for financial compensation for suffering.

10) These laws and regulations must travel with companies, so that they cannot escape national law in order to create a race to the bottom. Rather, the new legal regime follows the company wherever it operates.

To me, these seem like a no-brainer, and I think the political arguments against them won’t hold much water. Let’s look at a few of those.

  • The “It’s More Than They Make Now” Argument. This is a common one, especially amoing otherwise sympathetic lefties. The idea is that if you are in a sweatshop in Dhakar, you are maybe making more than you would be in a village in the countryside. This is possibly true. It also ignores the violence, lack of social safety net, and breaking of tradtional bonds that comes with it, of course. But the argument, the “race to the bottom” is that if make it less profitable for the multinational in Bangladesh, it’ll go somewhere else. That’s true if you work on a country-to-country basis, but not if you do so from the top down. If companies have to treat workers well in Mexico or Senegal or Vietnam, they won’t be able to go anywhere else. You can have the benefits of the global economy without worrying about making your entire country a hellhole for employees.
  • The “It’ll Never Get Passed” Argument. On the surface, this does seem to be a pie in the sky argument, but there’s really no reason for it to be so. I don’t see where the massive opposition will come from. After all, this isn’t going to cost Americans jobs- just the opposite. It staunches the flow by making it , if not more profitable to manufacture in America, at least not prohibitevly expensive. There are no real economic arguments against it, except the “corporate profits will be less” one, but come on. That only works when you paint them as job creators. That won’t fly. It works politically when you can ramble about job-killing regulations, but we’re talking about adding more regulations to countries that have “taken our jobs.”
  • The “Why Should We Support Their Unions When Ours Are Getting Killed Here?” Argument. This is a fairly persuasive one, at least emotionally.  After all, American labor standards have been ruined over the last generation. But that’s due in part to the globalized economy which incentivies businesses to pull out, and incentivizes states (who didn’t really need it, in many cases) to strip away more worker’s rights in order to keep or attract businesses. This creates pliant workers, who are worried that if they don’t acqueise to everything, they’ll be out of a job. But this stops the race to the bottom, and in doing so, I think, can reinvigorarate the American union movement.

I don’t think it will be easy, nor do I think it will create an international brotherhood, and nor do I think that we’ll see the glory days of the labor movement come roaring back. But it is, in many ways, a simple fix to the deep cruelty of the global economy, both here and abroad. A very comlicated and time-consuming one, and a long batle, but one that this nascent progressive coalition can fight, by rallying a large and diverse group of activists, from anti-globalization turtle-huggers (whom I love) to the bluest of the blue collar. It’s a winning issue.

It’s Different Now: What Buzzfeed Gets About 2016

Ullrich has strong feelings about the way Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians just at the moment when the Nazis were at last losing strength. It didn’t have to happen. He constantly reminds his readers that Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. ‘We engaged him for our ends,’ said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck.

Neal Ascherson, London Review of BooksJune 2nd 2016

“What protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions,” McConnell told CBS News last month. “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country. You don’t get to do anything you want to.”

via Talking Points Memo

Neal Ascherson, the Scottish travel writer, wrote The Black Sea, which is my favorite kind of history book. It shows the long scope, how areas change slowly (and then very quickly) through migration, demographics, and the slow glacial push of cultural shifts becoming norms, and of violent revolutions mutating slowly into evolutions. It’s the long view of history, the kind that understands there aren’t black lines dividing epochs and periods, much in the same way that Masters of Empire explores how native culture didn’t hit a quick reboot when the Europeans arrived, and that understands (as we’ve argued) that the misery of Syria is part of the long night of Ottoman dissolution.

We tend, in this country at least, to see history as buried, and something that doesn’t impact us. It’s sort of the national myth, and it relies heavily on cognitive dissonance, since it is clear that our major issues still spring from the legacy of slavery and the historical memory and political divide of the Civil War. But we admire amnesia, and always look forward. This was accelerated by the 24-hr news cycle, and made manifest in the 24-second news cycle. When discussing yesterday’s tweets marks bloggers such as this one as hopelessly behind the times, understanding how we got to this point is an exercise in futility.

This isn’t just a little rant either; a lack of historical knowledge of American political trends has helped lead to the rise of the first openly white nationalist campaign we’ve seen in modern times. The elite media, and most of the non-elite, failed to understand how 40 years of Reaganite nonsense, 60 years of conservative takeover, and 150 years of post-Civil War resentment could factor into today’s election, and help facilitate the rise of Donald Trump. We live in the immediate present, which is where a man as completely removed from the truth as Trump thrives, and why he has, until the last week, managed to get away with whatever he wanted. It’s in this eternal present that it was believed that a man like Donald Trump couldn’t win simply because he was a man like Donald Trump. This is an ahistoric tautology, in the literal sense, because it ignores the factors that enabled his victory. It was obvious in August that he was appealing to the most violent lizard part of a broken party, one torn apart by geographic and demographic pressures. But he was still treated like a joke.

Now, as he shatters all norms, threatening to “look into” judges and to jail his likely opponent should he win (a statement that should be breathtaking, but barely makes noise), we wonder how we got here, and how we should react. It’s why it is interesting that Buzzfeed, who has generally symbolized the memory-free nonsense of the internet, has broken ties with the RNC over Trump’s nomination. (It should be noted that over the last 5 years BuzzFeed has created some excellent journalism, but its reputation is still that of the constant present, a man seeing the sunrise every morning and wondering what he could possibly be seeing.)

BuzzFeed, which accepts ads from GOP and Democratic candidates, had a $1.3 million ad deal with the RNC, but cancelled it, because Trump is beyond the pale. In a statement, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said:

The tone and substance of his campaign are unique in the history of modern US politics. Trump advocates banning Muslims from traveling to the United States, he’s threatened to limit the free press, and made offensive statements toward women, immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and foreign nationals.


We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers. And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.

We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company. However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.

This is a big deal. This is exactly how the media should be covering Trump. We’ve never had anything like this in our modern history, and he shouldn’t be treated as just another nominee, albeit a flamboyant one. We’re at a hinge in our country’s history. It could go either way.

I began this piece with a few quotes, one from a book review about how Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by old-guard politicians who assumed they could let him ride popular anger into office but then control him for their ends, and one by Mitch McConnell, who represents Republicans who think the same thing about Trump. The thrust of the TPM article is that the old guard’s main pledge is that sure, Trump might be an authoritarian monster, but once he’s in office we’ll be able to control him.

This isn’t to say that Trump is Hitler. This isn’t Germany in 1933. It’s the United States in 2016, a country that isn’t sure of itself, feels like its best days are behind, and is sliding along a weird trail of economic dislocation and historical amnesia. That’s bad enough, and it can get much worse. That we have even gotten to this point shows how much worse it can get. Not understanding how we got here, and ignoring everything except tomorrow’s news, creates the possibility to slip past the point of no return.