Labor Should Organize Globally

“If a worker in China or India can do the same work as one in the United States, then the laws of economics dictate that they will end up earning similar wages….  That’s good news for overall economic efficiency, for consumers, and for workers in developing countries – but not for workers in developed countries who now face low-cost competition.”

“New World Order:  Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy”; Erik      Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence; Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2014


Academics have described the world.  The point, however, is to change it.

The world the capitalists have created is irreversibly global.  As they scan the world for the cheapest qualified labor, a global workforce scours the planet for opportunity.  From the perspective of a global capitalist, U.S. workers differ from workers in other parts of the world mainly in their cost.  For manufacturing industries, this means sending the work where labor is cheapest.  For hotel and some other service workers, by contrast, wage competition is local. Hotels catering to the global wealthy can afford to pay above-average wages.  But competition for better-paid jobs will grow fiercer as other wages fall.  No industry or union can indefinitely escape the pressure of low global wages.  Over time, national differences will decline, and wages will tend to equalize in services as well as manufacturing.

Without global solidarity, they will not equalize up.

In my original union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union / ILGWU, for almost a century, organizers “followed the bundle,” as employers ran from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Pennsylvania and New England, and eventually to Los Angeles and Atlanta.  And early generations of internationally-minded, immigrant labor leaders like Sam Gompers, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and Jay Lovestone understood Europe as part of their territory.  They were comfortable meeting with unionists – and national Presidents — there.  But for their U.S.-born successors, foreign was foreign.  Organizing stopped at the water’s edge.

U.S. union “demands,” of course, are much less welcomed by most overseas governments than employer dollars.  But mostly, we have simply not imagined a better world, or considered that within the range of business unionism.  With the heroic exception of the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” we have not demanded that U.S. labor or human rights accompany U.S. job exports.

Today, we are overpowered, when not ignored, by worldly corporate honchos.  And we are in steady decline as nominally American corporations expand even in formerly communist nations like China or Vietnam.

I believe that Unions, like all organizations in our time, must globalize or die.  If global parity is destiny, as the authors quoted above assert, only global solidarity can equalize wages up.

Is global working class cooperation possible?

Most U.S. trade unionists dismiss this out of hand.  But I have seen global solidarity succeed among workers and governments — and it works.

Half a century ago, I was a Peace Corps community organizer in a Panama City squatter community.  My most savvy and committed fellow-organizer was communist (“Partido del Pueblo”) bus driver and union leader Carlos Zorita – “Camacho” to all who knew him.  He read books.  And he had balls.  I was his “Ugly American” friend.  On the massive front bumper of his bus were the words “Realidad Objetiva.”  He understood the sociology of his country and the world.  He was sympathetic to the left-oriented military dictator, Omar Torrijos, who took power eleven days after the election — for the third time in forty years — of pro-fascist coffee plantation owner Arnulfo Arias.  When now-President Torrijos came to our neighborhood to speak with the people, Camacho was the only resident with the nerve to stand next to the General and propose what our “Betterment Committee” had formulated:  residents wanted sewage lines, paved roads and, eventually, title to the land.  Torrijos’ wealthy successor, Ricardo de la Espriella (then in Torrijos’ cabinet) walked our muddy streets with our betterment committee.  Torrijos listened.    Over the next few years, all this was done.  U.S. A.I.D. provided a share of the funding.

It was a win-win for global cooperation, U.S. — and labor — values.

Also accomplished, over the next few years, on a larger playing field:  a shift in control over the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama, as negotiated by Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Despite predictions of catastrophe under Latino management, U.S. and global shipping are unharmed. The Canal has been successfully widened.  U.S.-Panama relations are good.

No harm, no foul – no loser.  The doubters were wrong.  All humans are created equal.

When I visited the old neighborhood two years ago, I did not hear complaints of Yankee imperialism.  With paved streets and modern water infrastructure, homeowners had improved the cinder-block houses they had once built and now legally owned.  They had become the struggling middle class, friendly to the U.S.A..

Would they, or other Panamanian workers, objecPuente de las Americast to joining a U.S.- based union, and building strength, with the understanding that a truly International union was the goal?  In my view, no.­­­  U.S. Labor’s isolation and decline reflect no defeat by global capitalism or global working-class anti-imperialism.  We have surrendered to our own fear and ignorance, without a fight.  Afraid to grow, we have begun to die. What is wrong with “workers of the world, unite!”?

For a union with global ambition and imagination, Panama, the crossroads of the world, is an obvious organizing opportunity.

Hotels and casinos could be perfect early targets.  Every U.S. hotel chain has one or several hotels in Panama.  U.S. President Donald Trump owns two hotels, and several other buildings.  Casinos catering to global travelers prosper.  Panama City could be a base for a UNITE HERE VP, on a par with San Francisco or Las Vegas.  And after success in Panama, a truly “International” union could look to Costa Rica Argentina, and Vietnam.  Why would they not?

Victory for UNITE HERE in Panama could mark a turning point for U.S. labor.  We might salvage our long-term future by going global like every other organization.

But UNITE HERE, like other U.S. unions, has no Panama affiliate.  We have not challenged global hotel chains on a global basis.  We are, as the story goes, more sensitive than capitalists to the patriotic sentiments of people in other countries.  But what if the people would actually prefer a U.S. standard of living?  How would we even know?

I believe the barrier to global unions is maintained by our parochial union leaders, each with his or her established (and shrinking) turf.  Most seem unmotivated or baffled by the thought of challenging capital on its limitless turf.

Does this matter?  I would say that if U.S. and Panamanian representatives could work together to turn a squatter neighborhood into a middle-class community, or an imperialist Canal Zone into a highly efficient point of pride for that nation; and if nominally “U.S.” corporations can manage much of Panama’s economy; then U.S. labor must not fear organizing Hyatt, or Trump, or Hilton wherever they roam.

Why should we not look forward to a Mexican President of the UAW, or a Hong Kong Vice President of SEIU?  Are we really concerned about appearing “imperialist?”   Or do we simply know so little about the world that we are afraid to put our toes in the global water?

If we cannot follow, we will not survive.

Is asking U.S. labor to go global like asking a hippopotamus to fly?

Ask any capitalist.  You grow or die.  There is a lot of evidence that today’s U.S. labor movement, after inheriting the fruits of a century of struggle, is dying for lack of respect and innovation.  We must return to pursuing capital, as we did in our glory days, wherever it goes.


Rainforest Indigenous Fight Ranchers, Loggers Over “Best Use” of Land

Panama:  Rainforest Indigenous Fight Ranchers, Loggers Over

“Best Use” of Land


July 17, 2013 At 4:00 a.m., indigenous dwellers in the Darién rainforest, Republic of Panama, barricaded the Inter-American Highway near the community of Arimae, about 100 miles east of Panama City.  Truckers and other travelers were unhappy.  Indigenous leaders demanded a meeting with a government Minister and enforcement of the policy against non-indigenous squatters occupying their land.  The next day, the Minister appeared.  Native control of the land was acknowledged, and the immediate crisis was resolved, but permanent legal recognition and indigenous communal ownership of the land is still pending.

Highway blockade - barrierPublic is inconveniencedBlockading the Highway.  No pasarán.

                                                        The public is inconvenienced

Wounaan Chief

Wounaan Chief

Wounaan indigenous leader, Osorio speaks to former Peace CorpsVolunteers visiting Darien province,June, 2013

According to Planting Empowerment, a business supporting sustainable forestry in the Darién, “from 1969 to 1981, the community lost 64,000 hectares of its reserve to loggers, migrant subsistence farmers from other provinces, and the Inter-American Highway expansion.  Today, Arimae communally manages just over 8,000 hectares of land.[i]

What century are we in?  What have we learned?  And has it made a difference?

As a study of descendants of Panama’s pre-Colombian population puts it:  “Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been losing their lands to outsiders and newcomers for many generations. It is a trend that continues to this day.”[ii]

But why should we care?  What basis could there be for solidarity between trade unionists in modern society and traditional peoples confronting  powerful agricultural interests in the jungles of Central America?

A shared commitment to communal, rather than merely individual rights, might be one point in common.  The desperate need for all progressive forces to stand together against predatory capital could be another.  A common interest in preserving a livable climate might be a third.

What first struck me, as I heard an indigenous leader speaking to a group of ex-Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama a few months ago, was the similarity in strategy and tactics between the sometime victims of capitalism in our two countries.  The combination of self-organization, alliance-building and legal, political and direct action that once worked for us – and which we must now re-invent – is also showing results in the forests of Panama.  Though our situations vary, history has shown that large numbers of people united behind a cause can defeat large amounts of money – but it takes purpose, solidarity and courage.

U.S. unionists should also consider some more specific common interests and responsibilities.  Panama could be a natural meeting point for global union-building north and south of the U.S. border.  The country was born when warships sent by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt “liberated” the Isthmus from the nation of Colombia to facilitate construction of the Panama Canal.  As Teddy put it, “I took Panama.”  If every U.S. hotel chain, two separate Trump towers, and regional offices for U.S. business of every kind now rule the Panama City skyline – what holds poor and working people in our two countries back from common endeavor?  After centuries of capitalists allying to extract land and wealth from the people of Panama and the world, is it not time now for us to support the struggle for communal space, common wealth and ecological sanity for our planet — and to build bridges to the progressive allies we badly need ourselves?

So who are the indigenous in Panama, and how do their lives touch us today?

For hundreds of years, the Wounaan and Emberá people, and members of other tribes, lived in the “undeveloped” jungles of the eastern[iii] Darién region and the eastern Chimán (Pacific) coast district by fishing, hunting with bows and arrows, and gathering.  They wore few clothes, spoke indigenous languages, and were largely undisturbed by modern society.  The Inter-American Highway, which otherwise stretches unbroken from Alaska to Patagonia, ended at the beginning of Darién province, not starting again until beyond the Colombian border.

But, beginning in the 1970’s, well-off cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers from Panama’s developed interior, after years of land disputes with each other, began pushing to open up the jungle.  The activist Omar Torrijos administration began extension of the Inter-American Highway into the Darién, while also establishing a number of reservations (“Comarcas”) for native residents.  As in the United States, however, indigenous who did not happen to live in the areas set aside for them, did not wish to move from their native land.  In eastern Darién province, where the Highway is still being built; and in the eastern Pacific coast area, separated from the Highway and the rest of Panama by a mountain range on one side and miles of mangrove swamps on the other, conflicts began between natives and “colono” (colonist) squatters.

The colonos themselves are divided between agribusiness loggers (some from Korea and other countries), large-scale cattle ranchers connected to Panama’s leading families, and subsistence farmers pushed out of depleted land in the western interior, who may combine farming and cattle-raising as they are able.  The loggers are primarily interested in the valuable native rosewood trees scattered throughout the forests.

Over time, the indigenous themselves have adapted increasingly to some aspects of the modern world as well, sending some children to Panama schools, and earning income from the sale of palm-frond baskets, rosewood carvings and other crafts to Panamanians and visitors from around the world.

But the indigenous and the interlopers deal very differently with the land.

The colonos generally engage in clear-cut farming, logging or ranching – clearing whole swathes of rainforest in order to pluck out one valuable rosewood tree from among many and various species; or turning forests to pastures that support one cow per hectare.  (The typical local measure equals about 2 ½ acres.)

By contrast, the native forest dwellers, as one study has shown[iv], now “engage in a [much more] diverse mix of geographically intensive income-generating strategies, such as Fishing, Clamming, and Artisanship. Wounaan artisans rely on dozens of forest resources in their rosewood, tagua nut (“vegetable ivory”), and vegetable-dyed woven baskets, but their income comes from the high value they add to these resources through their skilled labor, not from the extensive input of land into their ‘production function.’[v]

To the extent they engage in clear-cut farming, “the Wounaan [eventually] allow the land used for agriculture to re-grow to secondary forest, [while] the Colonos convert their crop fields to cattle-pastures.  As a result, the Wounaan’s subsistence land use also results in less long-term deforestation than the Colonos’ subsistence land use.  [vi]

Unsurprisingly, the indigenous forest-dwellers differ from the colonists in that they act to preserve their forest homes.[vi]

More surprisingly, combining their hunter-gatherer skills, and their skill-intensive craft production, “the average Wounaan household earns annually US$ 5,365 from the sale of goods which compares to a value of US$ 2,545 for the Colonos.”

The argument for “best (economic) use” of the forest land may favor indigenous development.

Legal, Political and Physical Struggle

But the forty-year struggle for control of the rainforest land has been hard, and it continues.

Throughout the 1990’s and up to the present day, indigenous communities have made a series of requests to national government Ministries for protection of their land from what they perceive to be illegal colonization. In the mid-1990’s, seventeen Emberá / Wounaan communities formed a unified “Congreso,” and petitioned the National Assembly to pass legislation under which indigenous communities outside of the comarcas could establish legal title their land.

At times, the government has responded to indigenous petitions with promises, and at other times with simple neglect.

And neglect has sometimes led to violence.

On November 12, 2000, armed colonos appeared in the indigenous community of Río Hondo to menace the Wounaan with a show of force.  One year later, Wounaan indigenous in the Chiman district took matters into their own hands and burned the houses and storage sheds that had been built by colonos on Wounaan lands.  After a short respite, the colonos returned, and the government did not take action.

In 2004, the Wounaan brought several reporters into the Chiman community of Río Hondo to do a story on incursions into their lands. When the reporters and community members hiked up to the colonos’ settlements, they were attacked. “This led to a massive and bloody confrontation between the Wounaan and the colonos, with some two dozen participants injured.”[vii]

In 2012, a struggle in Chimán left one logger and the chief of the indigenous community of Platanares dead.  (See the trailer to a video in process on this tragedy at

Along the way, however, there has been progress, much of it in response to actions of the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2001, the Court of Human Rights found that the Nicaraguan government had violated international agreements by depriving the indigenous Nicaraguan community of Awas Tingni of rights to communal property and judicial protections.  Nicaragua was ordered to provide a mechanism for the indigenous to title their lands.  The precedent is relevant to the Panama situation.

In October of 2008, Panama was forced to defend itself as the Wounaan joined with other indigenous peoples to testify at a hearing before the Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C.  A few weeks later, the Panamanian Assembly approved “Law 72,” finally creating a legal process for titling communal land.

And in 2013, the first two indigenous communities in the Pacific coast area – Puerto Lara and Caño Blanco – received communal land titles. 

Consistent with past practice, however, twelve other indigenous communities in the Darién / Pacific coast area remain without title to their land, about 50,000 hectares of rainforest.  And on at least three occasions, in 2011 and 2013, indigenous Wounaan and Emberá in Arimae have resorted to blockading the Inter-American Highway, to get the government’s attention once again.

Two groups founded by former Peace Corps Panama volunteers – Planting Empowerment ( and Native Future ( are working today in their former communities with Panama indigenous.

Planting Empowerment is organized as a business, with funding from Kiva and other small lenders.  They own a small amount of land in the Darién, near the Arimae community, where they train both indigenous and colono small-holders in sustainable tropical forestry – selective, rather than clear-cutting, mixing native and existing “invasive” species in preference to monoculture, harvesting and replanting on a schedule that retains the forest, selling 25-year leases to keep small-holders from literally “cutting and running” to another forest site – and in marketing of their products.

Native Future’s provides education and legal training, finances legal cases, and supports community organizing aimed at gaining definite land tenure for the indigenous.

Both groups also coordinate with the Rainforest Foundation ( in their efforts to protect rainforests and their indigenous residents, and to promote ecological best practice.

European intervention in the Americas began in mistrust and conflict with native peoples, often including slaughter or enslavement, and moving on to the seizure of the continents’ land and resources, with reservations, raids and roundups for the indigenous.  Today, there is growing recognition that Euro-Americans have much to learn from the sustainable lifestyle they supplanted.  Organized and unorganized labor has no less to learn and contribute to a sustainable future than do our corporate adversaries.

In the “battle of Seattle,” in the year 2000, labor reached what now looks like a high point in our power to resist the global destruction of our rights, as labor and environmentalists (“Teamsters and turtles”) fought together for democratic participation in international trade agreements.  For a brief period of time, President Clinton was impressed, appearing to believe he would need our willing cooperation to achieve his own global ambitions.  We let that opportunity, and that cooperation, slip away.

In Panama, and in other parts of the Americas, indigenous people are now fighting in the way we have fought, to protect their rights – and also to protect natural resources we all rely on.

Which side are we on?

[i] Planting Empowerment, “75% of their forest is gone. Time for some new approaches.”

[ii] “Forest Dwellers with No Forest: the Economic and Ecological Consequences of Panama’s Land Tenure System for the Wounaan People,” Martin Philipp Heger, Zachary McNish (unpublished, c. 2010)

[iii] A traveler from North to South America through the S –shaped Republic of Panama actually moves mostly from west to east.

[iv] Heger and McNish, op cit

[v] ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

Return to Panama Viejo


(siguiente, vea “De Vuelto a Panama Viejo)

Carl Proper

PCV, community of Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama, 1968-1971

July 16, 2013

Leocadia was now 83 years old.  She had lost weight, and moved to a new neighborhood.  But she stood straight and remembered everything.  “Ay, que bueno verte, Carlos, después de tantos años!”  She showed me the picture on the wall of the small concrete block and plaster house in Arraijan:  one five-foot-four black woman standing between six tall, handsome and well-dressed “rabi-blancos”, with the then-President of the Republic to her left, a government Minister on her right.  She was representing the union of lottery-ticket sellers, on some occasion.

LeocadiaTorres - Pres. Republic - Lottery agreementForty-five years earlier, Leocadia was a sparkplug in the Comité Pro Mejoras de Panamá la Vieja.  Her neighborhood was organized before I arrived.  Panama Viejo (usually, the shorter version of the name prevailed) was a squatter community on the outskirts of the City, on the way to Tocumen airport.  Many residents had moved in from the countryside in an organized way, putting up their board and tin houses, helping to form a “barriada bruja” seemingly overnight – foundations, cinder block, plaster and second stories to come later.  Others had moved out from their apartments in Chorrillo or other crowded city neighborhoods, determined to own their homes, and eventually the land the house stood on as well.  Most lived on the inland side of the road to Tocumen, but others put up their shacks among the ruins of buildings burned by the pirate Henry Morgan centuries before, and defied authorities to move them out.

Their “felt need,” as the Peace Corps then described it, was for paved streets to replace the dirt roads where Obras Públicas would occasionally spread new layers, as long as the $50 bribe was paid to the truck driver; and for running water and sewage pipes to carry away the waste.

I was the second Volunteer assigned to the neighborhood.  The first, a woman whose name I have never learned, had left a year or two before I arrived.  But the Pro-Mejoras committee, I was told, had preceded her as well.

Because the election year of 1968 was one, as John Freivalds described , with five Presidents, I learned quickly to distinguish community leaders’ political leanings.  Community founder Marcial Barsallo, a Spanish speaker with an African-American look, was hoping to land a “botella” with candidate Samudio.  Lalo Gomez, who supported himself and a family including children from earlier relationships in different parts of the country, by taking in sewing and odd jobs from neighbors, was gung-ho for “el Doctor.”  (Arnulfo Arias, a surgeon and millionaire coffee plantation owner, who had been twice elected and twice deposed over a 28-year period, was the front-runner again.)  Carlos Zorita, “Camacho,” a dynamic, literate and foul-mouthed Marxist, was Treasurer of the bus drivers’ union of Panama Viejo, which was also a worker-owned company.  He was a member of the Partido del Pueblo, the communist party; “REALIDAD OBJETIVA” was written in large letters on the massive front bumper of his bus, warning pedestrians to stand clear.  Antonio Saldaña, a student activist (now a lawyer and employee of the National Assembly), was anti-gringo in principal, but ambitious.  Julio Moreno was an intelligent young worker with a family, and no politics.

Working through the Dirección General del Desarollo Comunal, and with U.S. A.I.D., our committee, and the organized neighborhood, pushed the government for action on community demands, but without a lot of hope.  Then, for about two weeks after the Torrijos military government predictably put Arias on the plane to Miami, Lalo and Camacho were both detained, and then released. Soon after, it became apparent that the “Revolutionary Government” would actually make changes.  Step 1 was an end to bribes for throwing more dirt on the roads.  Step 2 was better.  El General himself came out to meet with the neighborhood — a meeting from which I was rightly excluded as not Panamanian.  He was accompanied by a significant Guardia contingent. Only Camacho had the courage to stand next to the General, and describe what the people needed.  Torrijos listened, and the following week, Sr. Ricardo de la Espriella, head of the National Bank, and later a President himself, took a walk through the neighborhood with the Comité Pro Mejoras.

Deals take time, but shortly before the Peace Corps was ushered out of the country, the agreement for streets and sewers was tentatively set.  I never knew if the work was actually completed.

That was the good news, when I finally tracked Leocadia down, on my third trip to the neighborhood, taking a free cab ride with her son-in-law from Country Inn in the former Zone, to Arraijan.  The streets of Panama Viejo HAD been paved, and even named, as I had seen on my first visit, but the sewage lines and running water were installed as well, within about three years of my departure.   Still better, the community never stopped pushing.  Torrijos returned to the neighborhood for a second visit to begin distribution of land titles to all residents (except those unfortunates living among the historic ruins), at fifty cents a square meter — a steal.

Today, though new and half-empty apartment towers for the well-off loom virtually across the street, the people of Panama Viejo, squatters no more, have rights to protect.

Many ex-PCV’s have observed that the people we worked with gave far more to us than we could ever give to them.  To me, they gave a calling that became a forty-year labor movement career.  Even today, the memory from a different time and place stays with me, that justice does not always fail, that the rich are always with us, but the poor can also persist and rise.




Carl Proper

Bethesda, Maryland, 2014

Leocadia ya tenía 83 años.  Había perdido peso y se había trasladado a un barrio nuevo.  Pero se paró recta, y se recordaba de todo.  “Ay, que bueno verte, Carlos, después de tantos años!”  Me hizo ver el cuadro en la pared de la casa de bloques y yeso en Arraiján:  una mujer morena de uno cinco pies con cuatro pulgados, parada entre seis hombres altos, guapos y bien vestidos, con el Presidente de la República en su lado izquierdo, un Ministro del Gobiernos a la derecha.  Ella representaba el sindicato de vendedores de lotería, en algúna ceremonia.

Hace cuarenta y cinco años, Leocadia era una fuente de energía en el Comité Pro Mejoras de Panamá la Vieja.  El barrio se había organizado antes de yo llegar.  Panamá Viejo es una comunidad fundado por “invasores” de terreno en las afueras de la ciudad de Panamá, en la ruta hacía el aeropuerto Tocúmen.   Hace unos diez años, unos residentes se habían trasladados del campo en forma disciplinada, construyendo sus casitas de tablas y zinc, y formando una “barriada bruja” casi de noche al día – dejando los cimientos, bloques y piso de arriba para el futuro.  Otros habían salido de sus apartamentos en Chorrillo u otros barrios urbanos llenados a rebosar, decididos a ser dueños de casa, y quizás dueños del terreno también, algún día.  La mayoría ocupó el lado tierra adentro de la carretera Tocúmen, pero otros se hicieron sus chozas entre las ruinas históricas de edificios quemados por la pirata Henry Morgan hace cientos de años, y desafiaron a las autoridades expulsarlos.

La necesidad principal sentida por los residentes era pavimentar a las calles, reemplazando los senderos de tierra, en dónde los camioneros de Obras Públicas regaron tierra nueva de vez en cuando, en cambio por un “regalo” de $50 – y instalar tuberías para agua sucia.

Yo era el segundo Voluntario en el barrio.  La primera, una mujer desconocida por mí, había vuelto a los Estados Unidos el año anterior.  El Comité Pro-Mejoras fue fundado antes del Cuerpo de Paz.

Ya que el año 1968 fue un año de elecciones, golpes y cinco Presidentes, aprendí pronto distinguir las preferencias políticas de los dirigentes comunales.  El fundador Marcial Barsallo, un hombre de idioma Español y aparencia Afro-Americano, esperaba obtener una “botella” del candidato Samudio.  Lalo Gomez, hombre que mantenía su familia, inclusive unos hijos de relaciones anteriores en varios sitios, por coser y hacer changas por los vecinos, fue entusiasmado por “el Doctor” Arnulfo Arias, un cirujano y dueño millonario de cafetales.  Arias había sido elegido y tumbado dos veces anteriores, y fue candidato favorecido otra vez por la mayoría.   Carlos Zorita – “Camacho” – un Marxista enérgico, instruido y boquisucio, fue Tesorero del Sindicato de Choferes de Autobuses de Panamá Viejo, una sociedad cooperativa.  Fue miembro del Partido del Pueblo, el partido comunista de Panamá.  La “Realidad Objetiva” fue escrita in letras grandes en el parachoques de su bus, advirtiendo a los peatones cuidarse.  Antonio Saldaña, un activista estudiantil (actualmente un empleado de la Asamblea Nacional), fue anti-gringo en principio, pero ambicioso.  Julio Moreno fue un obrero joven e inteligente, con familia y sin política.

Trabajando conjunto con la Dirección General del Desarollo Comunal, y con la U.S.A.I.D., nuestro comité, y el barrio organizado, empujaron al gobierno a actuar de acuerdo con las demandas comunales, pero sin gran esperanza.  Dos semanas después de que el nuevo gobierno militar dirigido por Omar Torrijos mandó al ex-Presidente Arias por avión a Miami, Lalo y Camacho fueron encarcelados, y entonces saltados.

Dentro de poco, sin embargo, se hizo claro de que el “Gobierno Revolucionario” iba realizar unos cambios de verdad.  Como paso primero, se acabaron las “mordidas” para echar tierra nueva en las calles.  El paso segundo fue mejor.  El General mismo llegó a conversar con la comunidad – en una asamblea de la cual yo fui excluido, correctamente, por no ser Panameño.  Él llegó acompañado por un contingente numeroso de la Guardia Nacional.  Solo Camacho se atrevía pararse al lado del General y declarar las necesidades de la comunidad.  Y Torrijos escuchó!  La semana siguiente, el Sr. Ricardo de la Espriella, entonces jefe del Banco Nacional, y más tarde un Presidente de la República, caminó por las calles del barrio con el Comité Pro Mejoras, mandado para comenzar un proceso de mejoras.

Tales acuerdos cogen tiempo, pero poco antes de que el Cuerpo de Paz fue desinvitado del país, se acordó de forma tentativa mejorar las calles y desagües.  Yo nunca supe si se llevó a cabo el trabajo o no.

La contesta a mis dudas fue la buena noticia, cuando llegué a encontrar a Leocadia, después del tercer esfuerzo, por un viaje grátis de taxi manejado por su yerno.  Ella me contó que sí se había pavimentado y nombrado a las calles, y también instalado a líneas para agua potable y agua sucia, dentro de trés años de yo salir.  Aún mejor, la comunidad nunca dejó de empujar —  y el General Torrijos volvió a la comunidad por segunda vez para comenzar la distribución de títulos legales de terreno a todos los residentes (menos los desafortunados que se habían ubicado entre las ruinas históricas) – y a cincuenta centavos por metro cuadrado, una ganga.

Hoy, frente a unos torres nuevos y medio vacíos de apartamentos para la clase privilegiada, unos cien metros del barrio, los moradores de Panamá Viejo, no más invasores, tienen su propiedad a defender.

Muchos ex-Voluntarios han reconocido de que las personas con quiénes trabajamos nos dieron mucho más de lo que podríamos dar.  A mí, me dieron una vocación que llegó a ser una carrera de cuarenta años en el movimiento laboral de mi país.  Hasta al presente, las memorias de un tiempo y una cultura diferente me animan, recordándome de que los ricos quedan siempre con nosotros, pero también los pobres pueden persistir y subir.

Globalization and Union Power


Carl Proper

April, 2013

Capital is global today, and not only wealthy, but politically powerful.  Organized labor, like most democratic organizations, is local or national, and at a disadvantage.  While corporate globalization hits manufacturing workers first, the resulting shift in wealth and power eventually affects service and government workers, and their unions, as well.

Capital, despite many heroic efforts by workers and their unions, appears to be winning the class war.  Unions need to change.

I believe that organized labor, like political democracy, will need to coordinate much better globally to contribute at a significant level, and the sooner, the better.  To be taken seriously, we must challenge the heart of corporate power – unchecked control over who works, who doesn’t, and on what terms.  Globalization is much harder for organizations like labor unions that rely on communication from the bottom up, than for top-down corporate command structures, but workers of the world, unite! is still the path to justice.

One reason global capital is winning is that our former political allies – liberals, the educated middle class – are also global in their travels, education and world view.  Where once liberals leaned politically toward labor as a force for justice, and for a better future, now they are on the sidelines as we fight and too often lose.  They see unions as well-meaning, but as resisting global progress and not representing the poorest.  (Of course, the pocket-book interests of upper middle class consumers also affect their world-view.  They are well served by low-cost imported goods and undocumented services.)

More fundamentally, the great economic and political power capital has gained through global operations means that general political opinion in particular countries – liberal, conservative, labor — is not terribly important.  This is because democracies speak mostly for particular populations, but everyone wants the jobs that global corporations control.

In the early stages of globalization, many manufacturing workers in developing countries were made redundant.  As their incomes fell, retail bottom-feeders like Walmart rose, and resentment rose as well, not only against the rich, but against more fortunate workers. Tax revenues declined, harming public employees.

Meanwhile, the vast corporate wealth derived from buying labor from the lowest-wage countries, and selling products to the most advanced, buys political influence wherever it goes.

In a 1981 article on bargaining, authors Samuel Bachrach and Edward Lawler[i]  defined power in a way that is useful for understanding our current situation.  Power in ongoing relationships, they argue, is a function of need.  Party A’s power depends entirely on Party B’s need for A or something A controls.  If B needs nothing from A, A has no power over B, regardless of any intrinsic strength.  If B needs A – or something A controls — more than A needs B, A dominates.  In general, the side that needs the other side less in a relationship has more power (whether for good or ill).

Let’s consider how this has played out in reality for one global corporation.

IntelChinaIn 2010, Paul Otellini, CEO of the nominally American microchip manufacturer, Intel, described to New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Thomas Friedman why he was locating his newest factory, and hundreds of jobs, in China, instead of the U.S. [ii] :

“The things that are not conducive to investments [in the U.S.] are [corporate] taxes and capital equipment credits,” he said. “A new semiconductor factory at world scale built from scratch is about $4.5 billion — in the United States. If I build that factory in almost any other country in the world… I could save $1 billion, because of all the tax breaks these governments throw in.”

 Otellini complains as well about lack of U.S. investment in technical higher education.

“Intel can thrive today — not just survive, but thrive,” Friedman notes, “and never hire another American.”

Asked if his company was being held back by weak science and math education in America’s K-12 schools, Otellini explained:

“As a citizen, I hate it. As a global employer, I have the luxury of hiring the best engineers anywhere on earth. If I can’t get them out of M.I.T., I’ll get them out of Tsing Hua” — Beijing’s M.I.T.


The irony of pleading for lower U.S. taxes while calling for increased investment in education escapes Otellini, and Friedman.  Yet increasing corporate tax immunity is a primary factor in layoffs and wage reductions for state employees and deficit spending at the Federal level.

In the months following opening of the plant in China, Intel spokespersons, through the media — and no doubt in conversations with public officials — consistently made the pitch for lower taxes.

And in fact, after the China plant went online, Intel in 2011 announced its next new plant, a $5 billion investment at an existing Intel “campus” in Chandler, Arizona.  The announcement followed a tour of the facilities by President Obama.[iii]  What were the terms for the new investment?

“To be honest, when we changed the sales-tax factor . . . that’s when Intel was making the decision to either divest from Arizona or stay in Arizona,” said Barry Broome, president/CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council…This $5 billion, Intel is not going to pay taxes on that investment,” he said. “It is in a foreign-trade zone. The taxes are abated.”

Evidently, Arizona’s need for jobs was greater than Intel’s need for Arizona’s workers.  That is, Intel had more power (but still some need).  Arizona felt it had to be extra creative, if not extra-legal, in providing tax-free “foreign trade zone” status to a U.S. company in America.

It is important to understand that workers in all states and countries face the same dilemma.  I recall, for example, a conversation I had in the 1980s with a trade unionist from the Philippines.  An “American” company (really global) had just closed one of its two large unionized plants in his country, relocating them to China.  “Those were OUR jobs,” my friend said.  “How could they just take them away?”

Net results of the ability of corporations to locate, move or terminate jobs virtually at will around the globe include lower taxes and greater power for corporations, vis-à-vis workers, governments and citizens.  The shift of power from public to private interests over the past fifty or so years has led to growing class inequality in the U.S. and globally, and to the shrinking ability of many governments to provide public services.

How did this radical power shift come about?  One entertaining history of the early days of global outsourcing – and corporate empowering – is the 2009 HBO film “Schmatta:  Rags to Riches to Rags.”[iv]  This film depicts the New York heyday of the garment industry, where, as one garment executive notes, “everybody was union.”  Then follows the stunning discovery by employers, in the latter 1900s, that they were now free to lay off their American employees at will and contract assembly work to nations where wages were so low as to disappear as cost factors – and neither the union nor the government could stand in their way or follow.  As Russ Togs executive Irving Rousso puts it, describing an early pants subcontracting venture, with materials purchased in Italy and assembled in Johannesburg, South Africa:  “the work came in nice, and…forget it, at a price that you cannot believe!”

American readers of a certain age may recall being told by government and media spokespersons in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that, of course, only “low-skill” jobs like garment assembly would be allowed to leave the country.  “Higher” skilled jobs like auto assembly – and certainly computers — would remain in America.  You may also remember Walmart metastasizing continuously in the same years, owing in part to its “Made in USA” image (soon jettisoned for all-third-world production); or patriotic Intel CEO Andy Grove, an immigrant, committed in his day to domestic employment.

Times changed.  Power shifted.  What was unthinkable in 1955 was unquestionable 50 years later.  U.S. workers needed jobs, but U.S. owners needed U.S. workers less and less.

Failure to follow

The response of my union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then UNITE (later UNITE HERE) to this crisis was similar to that of most other unions:  we represented particular workers, and tried to defend their interests.  We demanded regulation and limitation of imports.  Our theme song, “Look for the Union Label” was a hit.  But the import tide was undeterred.

Though we had been fairly successful at following corporate runaways a5780PB40F19CP400G.union Labelnd contractors domestically – we were even able, domestically, to hold manufacturers financially responsible for their U.S. contractors’ employees[v] — we never found the way to follow when they contracted across national borders.[vi]  National cultures and national laws were different.  Nationalism and “us vs. them” were and are deeply embedded.

Other unions and industries followed the same pattern.  The shared power, the checks and balances formerly applied by non-corporate domestic stakeholders disappeared into history.  As GM spokesman Greg Martin told a Congressional committee in 2007, “We’re a global car company that happens to be based in the United States.”[vii]  In other words, the services of US industrial workers were helpful, but no longer needed.

Capital had found the magic key that freed them of responsibility to labor and to their country’s laws.  As for the consequent shift in wealth and power, still proceeding in our day: “forget it! You cannot believe!”

By the time Koch-funded Republican Scott Walker made his move against collective bargaining rights of public employees in 2011, the demolition by global outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and unions had been under way for five decades.  Corporate wealth and power had multiplied, while the solidarity – and disposable income — of a 93% non-union private sector was diminished.

“What happens if America loses its unions?”[viii] Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson asked, and the question cannot be dismissed.

What can be done?  Contributors to this blog have made excellent proposals. To inspire great struggles, all agree, we need great dreams.

We need a revival of strikes that actually shut down production.  But shutting down production today may mean coordinating with the new global centers of production.

Racism and anti-communism, were used to divide the working class and block organizing in the South and Southwest in the 1930s and 1940s, and were key to reversing labor progress in the mid-20th century.  But authoritarian socialism, as applied by Stalin, Mao – and Castro – failed to deliver workers a better world, and should not now divide us again.

A national campaign to demand “just cause” for firings in ALL workplaces would help build a class movement, not just an interest group.

But one big dream that is already ON the agenda of workers and activists in many parts of the world is global democracy and global democratic unionism.

If not globally, how else can labor seriously address issues with Apple, Wal-Mart, Intel, Hyatt, Exxon, the World Trade Organization – or world health, world peace, the rights of women, the needs of the environment?  The challenges that stopped the unions from following capital as it took over the globe in the late 20th century still apply, to be sure, but at a less crippling level.  Nationalism, tribalism, vastly different political and labor structures and traditions will no doubt be with us in some form when the 22nd century arrives.  But as capital moves to consolidate its global monopoly, and as workers cross every border to find employment – worker organizing cannot freeze in a 20th century national template.

The Steelworkers, U.E., CWA and other unions, in fact, ARE already seriously building global capability. US LEAP has been incredibly courageous in taking on the assassins of Latin American trade unionists.  International Labor Rights Forum has served us all by identifying sweatshop violations and working toward global contracts for humane sourcing.

Many other farsighted workers, activists and organizations, operating both inside and outside organized labor, are taking the challenge on.  The late Tim Costello, the Teamster intellectual and modest revolutionary and Shanghai law Professor Liu Cheng who worked together to rewrite China’s labor legislation, are examples.  Many other Americans have coordinated with activists in China and elsewhere.

A global fight for democracy and unionism could broaden labor’s base – and also put working people and their organizations back in alliance with the liberal critics and victims of unrestrained capitalism in all countries — those who should be our allies, and can create majorities.  The fight against Coca-Cola capitalism and Exxon excess is our fight, but not ONLY our fight.

The brief collaboration a few months ago between east coast dockworkers, Bangladeshi labor activists and Walmart’s retail employees demonstrated the potential for change.  When a factory burned in Bangladesh last December, killing more than 100 garment workers, dock workers on the U.S. east coast briefly refused to unload the ship carrying goods from that factory to Walmart.[ix]  The Bangladeshi tragedy occurred at the same time as nationwide actions by Walmart’s retail employees here. This blog ran the photo on this page last December, showing Bangladeshi trade unionists holding a banner expressing solidarity with exploited U.S. Walmart employees

Global coordination of this kind needs to be a straw in the wind of global change. Workers’ communication networks are global, and actions can be.

Labor needs today to take many different steps to demonstrate to capital that we can organize on so large a scale that THEY NEED US once again.  They need to know they can run, but they can’t hide.

[i] Samuel B. Bacharach and Edward J. Lawler, in  “Bargaining:  Power, Tactics and Outcomes,” printed in “Bargaining,” Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1981.  My summary is a simplification of their theory.

[ii] “A Word From the Wise”, New York Times, March 3, 2010, Thomas L. Friedman

[iii] “New $5 billion Intel facility planned for Chandler,” The Arizona Republic, Feb. 19, 2011, Ryan Randazzo, Edythe Jensen and Mary Jo Pitzl

[iv] HBO Documentary Films, ©Home Box Office, Inc.

[v] Thanks in part to an exemption from Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin bans on secondary boycott.

[vi] Jefferson Cowie tells a similar story about another industry in “Capital Moves:  RCA’s 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor,” Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1999

[vii] Of course, two years later, GM sang a different song, as U.S. and Canadian taxpayers bailed them out.  The game is not over.

[viii] “What happens if America loses its unions”, Harold Meyerson, June 12, 2012, Washington post, and this blog

[ix] While it not generally known, the U.S. garment industry exemption from the Taft-Hartley ban on secondary boycotts (allowing the union to strike a garment contractor to organize the manufacturer, or vice versa) is still in effect and probably valid globally — if there was a strong union to use it, according to lawyers who have dealt with the issue.  If a fatal factory is not a striking issue, what is?

Same Employer, Same Fight

Same Employer, Same Fight U.S., Bangladeshi Workers Suffer and Stand Up to Walmart

Posted on December 1, 2012 by dsalaborblogmoderator

by Carl Proper

“What do you do [to] make a really big difference for these women, and save lives?” CNN commentator Erin Burnett asked her viewers. “Unions. Yes, unions.”

Remarkably, this mainstream newsperson called on air for unionizing an industry – in this case, the Bangladeshi garment industry, where one hundred mostly female workers perished in last weekend’s fire at a factory producing apparel for Walmart and other U.S. retailers and manufacturers.

To buttress her case, Burnett referred to the similar tragedy 101 years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist company in New York City , in which 146 garment workers perished in a factory fire lacking every available fire safety protection. She noted that:

“The New York City fire helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers. And we have every hope that the very sad events of this weekend can do the same for Bangladesh… What do you do? Unions. Yes, unions…They could make a really big difference for these women, and save lives.”

Of course, Burnett was right. If workers do not organize to defend their own interests, and if better-placed people of good will – like Burnett — do not support workers’ causes at a political level, there is no answer. The early members of the ILGWU, and many other unions, fought that fight long ago, and won against employers who no doubt looked as powerful as any today.

How did they do it? What were the common elements between the industry of that day, and in our day; and in the struggle of “wealth creators” of all generations — who too often die of powerlessness — to gain a degree of control over their lives?

A fundamental commonality in the garment industry is the division into a relatively few and powerful corporations who design and sell the products, and set the working conditions; and the thousands of small, relatively powerless production contractors who directly employ the workers making the clothes.

As early as 1900, labor historian and economist John R. Commons described for the U.S. Industrial Commission the circumstances that plague millions of workers in 2012, in the U.S. and abroad, just as they affected employees in a variety of industries at the turn of the 20th century:

“When work comes to the contractor from the manufacturer and is offered to his employees for a smaller price than has been previously paid, the help will remonstrate and ask to be paid the full price. Then the contractor tells them, “I have nothing to do with the price. The price is made for me by the manufacturer.” That is, he cuts himself completely loose from any responsibility to his employees as to how much they should get for their labor . . . . The help do not know the manufacturer . . . . However much the price for labor goes down there is no one responsible.”i

Substitute for “the manufacturer” in this quotation the words “Walmart”, “Tommy Hilfiger”, or the like, and the story is the same – but with one key difference. In the U.S. garment industry in the early 20th century, both the controlling businesses – the manufacturers — and the contractors were concentrated in New York and a few other Eastern cities. Today, the two sides of the business, and the employees of each, are separated by borders and oceans.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the ILGWU won massive strikes and key support from liberal allies like future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, future Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and New York Governor, then President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1930s, they ended the practice of union manufacturers denying responsibility for the contractor employees who made their clothes. They negotiated collective bargaining agreements with BOTH sides of the business. They required union manufacturers to use only union contractors, and union contractors to work only for union jobbers – and organized the majority of workers on both sides. The success of this mutual responsibility system in pushing sweatshops to the outer margins of the industry was so obvious that even conservative Republicans — including Senators from Robert Taft to Barry Goldwater, and then-junior Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — eventually endorsed and enforced the union’s exceptional “secondary boycott” protection. It worked, as nothing else could.

Could it also work today, and in other industries as well? Could U.S. workers pressure Walmart, for example, to guarantee fair wages and conditions for workers at its overseas contractors? Could Walmart’s indirect employees in Bangladesh or elsewhere coordinate with U.S. unions, and political allies in both countries, to assure enforcement of fair labor standards? What role could Walmart’s direct employees in China’s many Walmart stores, play? Certainly, these are conversations that should take place (and perhaps they are).

Over the same long weekend as the Bangladesh fire, and the nationwide demonstrations there, U.S. workers in hundreds of locations, also acted in nationwide concert to challenge the Walmart dictatorship. It was a courageous and key step toward a fairer world. But as these U.S. workers well understand, they need all the solidarity they can get – just as the garment employees around the time of the Triangle fire needed solidarity in their day.

By standing up where they are, Walmart’s militant indirect employees in Bangladesh, and other countries around the world, also strengthen American workers’ hand in dealing with the same employer. U.S. workers’ actions similarly open up paths to cooperation against the common adversary.

Each union, and workers in each country, will have to work out its own path to solidarity and victory, but to stand on equal footing with our employers, unions must cross geographic barriers employers crossed long ago.

And as workers seek new paths today, who better to learn from than garment workers of an earlier day? Those immigrant women and men, speaking numerous different languages, broke through a previously impregnable barrier to hold the real powers in the industry — the manufacturers (since then updated to include retailer-jobbers like Walmart) — responsible, by contract and under law, for the employment conditions they fostered. Through massive strikes and struggle, they established a principle of manufacturer responsibility for decent conditions for ALL employees, direct or indirect. That principle was once widely implemented and accepted, but the ILGWU’s power was lost when we failed to follow the work across national borders. The principle largely disappeared with the union, though unions like UNITE HERE are working to rebuild it today.

The confluence of events over the past weekend must be recognized, and consciously continued as a step toward global worker power.

i Report by the U.S. Industrial Commission,” Volume XV, 1901; as cited in “Out of the Sweatshop,” by Leon Stein, New York Times Book

Carl Proper was a working member, then staff member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then UNITE, then UNITE HERE from 1972-2011.  He is now retired.