Difference between revisions of "Linked Labor Histories"

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Revision as of 14:43, 22 October 2018


Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class  
Cover
Author(s) Aviva Chomsky
Publisher Duke University Press
Publication date 2008-04-01
Pages 416
ISBN 9780822341901

Textile workers in Massachusetts decided to cooperate with their employers in union negotiations, but their jobs still shifted to South America. (48-55) Loom mechanics in Medellin, fleeing violent Colombia to repair old machines in Massachusetts, faced the same anti-immigrant, low wage environment resisted by the immigrant laborers who built the original looms exported to Colombian textile factories decades prior. (168) Clean coal requirements in US energy generation plants displaced Alabama miners; In turn they were replaced by indigenous miners previously removed from their land to then toil in low sulfur Cerrejon Zona Norte operations in coastal Colombia; operations owned by and producing quite profitably for Exxon. (267-291) Drummond Company miners in Colombia seeking union protection faced violence condoned by government officials, eerily like the chaotic strikes in northern US factories in the 1910s and 1920s (277-278), while multinational corporations with large defense contracts with the United States and Colombian governments supplied materials in general support. Colombian union activists visited laborers in Massachusetts seeking solidarity (290-292), in the same region where Nicola Sacco a century earlier had joined with the International Workers of the World to fight similar conditions. (44-46)

Were these developments simply anecdotes supporting the ‘invisible hand’ concept behind capitalism? Or is there a broader and more developed coordination between business and government which leads to an inevitable ‘race to the bottom’ (11,211-212,268), that pits worker against worker and eventually places the working class globally in the same bucket? Is there an avenue for this developing global working class to pursue countermeasures to achieve humane results in the age of globalization? (303)

Aviva Chomsky takes on these questions in a well written and provocative fashion in Linked Labor Histories.

This book is a study into the impact of Globalization on two regions of the world, New England and Colombia, in the 20th century. The overall theme of her work is the linkage between the laborers in each region and how, despite their seemingly disparate interests, they became pawns in a complicated process that over time reduced each side to a single, global working class. Chomsky weaves a pattern of coordination among industry, US government domestic and foreign policy, finance and immigration. The AFL-CIO union evolved into a policy supporting ‘Americanism’, which inevitably led to labor-management collaboration while softening the fighting spirit of unions. (22-30, 123-126) This pattern rewarded multinational corporations, allied governments and US consumers. Chomsky provides a convincing tale regarding the long and predictable ‘race to the bottom’ which characterized the 20th century relationship for the working class in these two regions. She reaches significant conclusions regarding the causes of the de-industrialization of the United States, the United States support for military and para-military units in Colombia, the coal extraction bonanza for Exxon and the supplying of major defense provider contracts. She caps her study with the question of whether labor should accommodate or fight.

Chomsky approaches her subject from two paradigms; the first connects the themes of migration, labor-management collaboration and global economic restructuring, while the second applies case studies to detail events reflecting these themes. (6-12) She begins her work by closely examining the textile industry in New England in the early to middle 20th century, through the ramp up and subsequent de-industrialization stories of the Draper and Naumkeag Steam Cotton Companies.These two are used to exemplify not only the loom and textile industries, but other sectors where the themes of migration, collaboration and restructuring can be applied.

The Draper Company’s products were looms for turning cotton and other fibers into fabrics and materials for clothing and industrial applications, and the introduction of the Northrop Loom after 1910 led to significant productivity increases for the textile industry, and dramatic sales increases for Draper. In addition to supplying looms to textile mills in New England, the company was also supporting a growing textile industry in the southern United States as well as exporting their looms to growing textile sites in South America. Naumkeag, like many other textile organizations based in New England, expanded aggressively to the southern United States, and then to Puerto Rico and finally Colombia. This expansion was against a backdrop of cost challenges caused by government regulations, increased competition from European based textile companies and the resultant price erosion, and labor strife. Draper’s Northrop loom manufacturing processes reflected the ongoing results of ‘efficiency studies' and scientific management enhancements designed to continually increase productivity. (37-40) To gain the most out of their new looms, the textile firms encouraged ‘speed-up and stretch-out’ processes to gain more output with fewer workers. (56-57,64) Manufacturing and textile producing companies of New England, as exemplified by Draper and Naumkeag, had employee pools initially of north European/American stock that had evolved to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe after the turn of the century. Both firms exemplified the manufacturing and textile industry of the region by pitting recent immigrants against their employees, using replacement workers during strikes, which were common and often violent, with International Workers of the World engagement and radicalization present.

Over time, Draper built plants in South Carolina and Georgia, moving most manufacturing and related jobs out of New England. By the late 1960s, Draper was absorbed by Rockwell Standard Company, the predecessor to today’s defense contractor Rockwell Automation (43). Naumkeag eventually faded away after being sold off to a division spun off from Textron Corporation, a multinational which had scooped up numerous textile firms but had since oriented its activities to defense contracting. (104-106). The fading away of Draper and Naumkeag and others similar, and their absorption of these into defense contractors, was a confirmation of a trend described by Chomsky. Also, their demise reflects the actions of American unions, believing in protecting American companies as part of their patriotic duty. This labor-management collaboration, coupled with the migration of both people and plants and the ongoing global economic restructuring of businesses, confirms the trend identified by Chomsky. Left in the lurch were the workers, in both New England and Colombia.

Chomsky continues the case study approach with laborers in Colombia, highlighting the Uraba zone in the northern part of the country where bananas were produced and where the United Fruit Company’s Banadex division was present. (193) violent means to suppress organizing or striking, Banadex employed the services of para-military forces unofficially linked to the Colombian government and backed by US arms sales. (194-196) Countering the para-military were guerilla fighters of FARC, adding to the chaos in Uraba and supporting the banana field laborers. (195, 206) Only on the sporadic occasions when peace was reached did a semblance of security for the workers exist; only through collaboration with management by surrendering to the threat from UFCO of taking production elsewhere did labor survive. Whenever possible, the working class sought emigration opportunities.

Chomsky concludes by seeking to erase inequity among the global working class on local, national and international levels. While not prescribing specific solutions, Chomsky spells out with fervor the need to prevent the powerful companies, unions and governments which drive globalization from profiting from this condition. (302-303) The first step in this direction is to understand what has occurred, and this book offers an excellent starting point in this endeavor.