Liana Foxvog, National Organizer, SweatFree Communities
As the financial and employment crisis deepens, it is crucial that we respond by addressing the causal roots of the mess. Multinational corporations have undermined local economies with the help of lax government regulations and trade agreements that favor capital over people. In the search for cheap labor, multinationals have moved millions of jobs that supported U.S. working families overseas and now exploit other workers the world over, moving from country to country, wherever labor is cheapest and workers' movements are weakest. Of the jobs remaining in the U.S., many have been eroded: employment is increasingly part-time, short-term, contracted-out with limited benefits, if any. Solutions to this global problem must be global in nature, involving cross-border union organizing, solidarity activism bringing added people power to back up workers' demands, and cultural change that builds unity for structural change.
The "Buy American" movement that has accompanied the push for economic stimulus has created space for discussing fundamental changes to the rules that have gutted local economies. At its best, this movement is inspired by a sense of solidarity with American workers, caring for our neighbors, and a genuine desire to revitalize local economies. At its best, the movement's message does not stop at "Buy American," which right now could include underground factories in Los Angeles or New York City where U.S. companies profit off the backs of hard-working immigrant workers earning less than the minimum wage. As a first step, we should put "Buy Union" back in "Buy American." Changing business as usual cannot mean replacing overseas sweatshops with U.S. sweatshops.
The sweatfree movement has succeeded in promoting a popular understanding that when labor standards improve in export-driven countries abroad, the playing field becomes more level for U.S. workers – particularly U.S. union workers. Our fates are inextricably linked – to save U.S. jobs so that we can "Buy American" requires supporting worker organizing and improved standards overseas. We need to make the U.S. an enticing place to manufacture goods not by degrading labor standards at home, but by helping to improve conditions everywhere. And there's a bonus: Good jobs stimulate the economy much better than bad jobs. And that includes good jobs overseas that put money in the pockets of workers who can buy U.S. exports. Now, more than ever, we should – and can – support better labor standards and worker organizing both in the U.S. and around the world.
The sweatfree movement is one strategy within a broader vision of change. As we connect with other movements, we can encourage the "Buy American" message to expand to build demand for decent jobs with a living wage and benefits, with freedom to unionize, provided by locally-owned ethical businesses.
In addition to injecting "Buy Union" into "Buy American," let's make sure that no public spending – and especially not those new stimulus dollars that we will eventually need to repay China – support sweatshop jobs in China or anywhere else. Let's make sure that all government purchasing is "sweatfree" so that we can harness governments' economic relationships with both domestic and overseas suppliers to support workers' human and labor rights everywhere.