Thinking of Labor's Future: May 29, 2012

How Do We Educate Future Americans
To Adjust to Life in a Global Economy?

“Thinking about Labor’s Future”

(The sixth in a Series of articles)

By Harry Kelber

We used to think that by knowing how to read, speak and write the English language, that we could establish our authority and influence in any part of the world. That is no longer true.

For example, take Afghanistan. Our soldiers are put at a disadvantage because only a tiny fraction know the Afghan language, culture and history. A U.S. soldier could be shot dead by a polite, smiling Afghan, who appears friendly and trustworthy. The same goes for our troops in Iraq and elsewhere.

It is hard for Americans to get used to the idea that we live in a global economy, and that the United States is only one of at least a dozen countries that are subject to the rules governing world trade. Problems about mass unemployment, austerity and economic growth plague virtually every developed nation, with no agreement on which solutions are best.

Meanwhile, giant multinational corporations are roaming the world, seizing whatever profitable properties they can add to their possessions. They can command substantial subsidies and special favors from their home government to help them compete against their rivals.

Educating U.S. Unions in the Global Economy

If other countries prefer to talk to us in their own language, as well as ours, how do we communicate serious issues with the Chinese, Portuguese, Saudis, Swedes, Germans, Russians, Bolivians and those from dozens of other countries? It is well-known that in Europe, people can speak and write in at least two languages, sometimes more. In the U.S., most adults rely on English for all of their communication needs. This puts the U.S. at a great disadvantage in dealing with foreign countries on trade and other economic issues.

The average American must therefore rely on our government and its diplomats for what is happening in the global economy. And the government may make private deals that we may not have a chance to vote on or even be aware of.

What is distinctive about the global economy is that millions of unemployed are leaving their homelands in search of a steady job in other countries. For example, more than two million Burmese are working in Thailand; Polish workers rushed to the U.K. to find work; in Kuwait, there are twice as many foreign domestic workers than the country’s citizens.

Inevitably, wages, benefits and conditions of employment are deteriorating as workers compete for the available global jobs. How can American workers avoid being trapped in the “race to the bottom”? At the very least, we should join with the global unions for a united campaign against multinational corporations, especially where the U.S. and foreign unions are confronting the same employer.

The unions of tomorrow should establish an Education Department that regularly provides global labor news and explains complex international economic issues to members. They should consider creating a division within the Education Department, responsible for training a corps of members in at least some of the major spoken and written languages.

An important goal of future unions will be to give American workers the jobs and security they need in a world still dominated by multinational corporations.

That’s a goal worth fighting for. And it can be won!

The seventh in our series on “Thinking about Labor’s Future” will be posted here on Tuesday, June 5, 2012, and on our two web sites: and on