David Bacon Stories & Photographs
"Workers in a Lean World"
Book Review by David Bacon

This fall Italy's Party of the Democratic Left (PDS), which leads the country's new government of ex-Communists, fought it out with their former comrades in the Refounded (Rifondazione) Communist Party. The PDS proposed cutting social benefits, and resisted measures to reduce high unemployment. The party equates Italy's survival with membership in the new European economic order, and has few qualms at making the sacrifices demanded to gain entry. While the votes of Rifondazione deputies keep the government in power, they refuse to join it, condemning PDS efforts to get Italian workers to swallow the bitter medicine of austerity.

These glaring fractures in Italy's left reflect growing divisions throughout working-class movements in Europe and beyond. "There is no Communist movement internationally anymore," says Ramon Mantovani, Rifondazione's international affairs director. "There are two lefts in Europe now. One accepts globalization, and wants to direct it. The other wants to leave that system, by reform or other means."

This new division of the left is one of the most important distinguishing political characteristics of our time, and will grow deeper and more permanent.

Kim Moody's new "Workers in a Lean World," speaks directly to the way in which neoliberalism and globalization have contributed to this fracturing of the left. He analyzes and traces the roots of the current division, assesses its impact on workers, and, most important, sees the beginnings of new working-class movements in response.

Most books about globalization these days are pretty depressing, concentrating on the growing reach and integration of transnational corporations, and their ability to bend political and economic policy everywhere to the ends of greater profit. While many writers see clearly the cost in human lives, most don't really believe workers can do much about it. Socialism is dead, after all. Ameliorating the worst effects of capitalism gone mad is about the best we can hope for. Workers come off as victims, sometimes able to win small improvements, but powerless to challenge the nature of the system.

Moody is an optimist, but a realistic one. He spends the first half of his book analyzing the growth in productivity and power of transnational corporations, in particular the development of lean production systems. Not only are workers increasingly connected across borders by the international production lines on which they work, but they are subjected to the same management methods for boosting productivity and controlling the workplace. Team concept and total quality management are causing crises in unions around the world, as they coopt and weaken them.

But Moody believes that the basic problem of workers confronting the global economy is political, not economic. It's in second half of the book - its look at the politics of working-class internationalism - where Moody makes this basic point ignored by most progressive analysts. No real challenge to the power of the transnationals is possible, he says, without solving the political problems of workers' own movement.

In Moody's analysis, social democracy is failing workers, making its third historic retreat. Whether it is the British Labor Party declining to reverse the privatizations and anti-union legislation of Maggie Thatcher, or Bill Clinton's campaign for NAFTA's adoption where Republicans could never have succeeded, the political parties built by working-class votes are abandoning workers by the millions to the mercies of the free market.

Social democracy made its first strategic concession to capital in the pre-World War One era of Eduard Bernstein, the theoretician of Germany's powerful Social Democratic Party. Bernstein argued that socialism could be achieved through gradual reforms rather than revolution.

Social democracy's second concession came in the decades after World War Two, when it gave up on state ownership of industry as the basis for socialism. Moody quotes the late William ("Wimpy") Winpisinger, president of the U.S.' International Association of Machinists, who had the guts to call himself a socialist in the era of labor's cold war. But Winpisinger's socialism was more akin to humanizing capitalism - "I'm for the kind of socialism that makes capitalism work," he argued

Today, Moody argues, social democratic parties act "not so much as the radical dismantlers of previous state regulation, as do the right-of-center neoliberals, but as the leaders of a more gradual retreat..." The goal isn't just to make capitalism work, but to make it even more profitable, albeit at a more gradual pace.

These parties are increasingly uncommitted even to the defense of reforms workers achieved in the 1930s and post-World War Two period. They accept the argument that increasing corporate productivity, even at the cost of falling incomes and lost social benefits, is necessary for nations to compete globally.

Wimpy would be turning over in his grave.

The recent decision by Liverpool dockworkers to end their three-year strike, fighting the privatization of British ports and the destruction of its longshore unions, dramatizes social democracy's decline. While Tory John Major was in power, the dockers faced the opposition of a government whose policies they defied. But the election of Tony Blair, and the return of a Labour government for the first time in over two decades, didn't lead to government intervention on their behalf. The "new" Labour government is also committed to privatization and has no intention of reversing the anti-labor tide that destroyed British dock unions. Even the Trades Union Congress, the federation of British unions tied to the Labour Party, was unwilling to demand reinstatement of the Liverpool strikers and their union.

The dockers' situation illustrates Moody's conclusion that only a radicalized labor movement will be able to mount a militant struggle to defeat neoliberalism. "Social movement unionism," as he calls it, "is deeply democratic, as that is the best way to mobilize the strength of numbers in order to apply maximum economic leverage. It is militant in collective bargaining and in the belief that retreat anywhere only leads to more retreats-- an injury to one is an injury to all." This kind of unionism also engages in political action independent of liberal and social-democratic parties, in broad coalitions with other unions, community organizations and social movements.

Moody isn't just saying that labor needs to be more international, a point made by many other writers. Just establishing connections between conservative unions in different countries--a "global business unionism" as he puts it--will not effectively challenge the new global economy. Unions must be transformed. They must become more democratic and militant, and project a vision of some social alternative to the present order.

He finds such unions in South Africa (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), South Korea (the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) and Brazil (the Unitary Center of Workers). These are all democratic, left-wing unions based on the principles of militant struggle against employers and governments pursuing anti-worker policies and of rank-and-file control over union decisions. They are unions that are highly political and willing to pursue an independent course in politics. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, for instance, while strategically allied to Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), has nevertheless launched mass strikes against the ANC government to defend pro-worker legislation, and stop neoliberal development policies intended to encourage foreign investment at the cost of social benefits and workers' rights.

These three unions were all viewed as pro-communist and pro-leftist by past AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who tried mightily to destabilize them in U.S. intelligence-funded programs. Today, however, AFL-CIO International Department head Barbara Shailor speaks positively of building new relationships with these unions. It's still a long way from joint bargaining or strike action against multinational corporations by unions in many countries, but it's a genuine new direction.

Moody does have a blind spot - the dire situation facing workers in Russia and the other formerly socialist countries. A particularly savage form of capitalism refuses even to pay millions of workers their paychecks for months at a time, while destroying their former social benefits.

The effort to restore capitalism at any price is part of the global neoliberal agenda - depriving workers of any alternative, regardless of how flawed. Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky cautions that his country is being used as an object lesson, "Today the International Monetary Fund, Maastricht Europe and the American 'new world order' represent the reactionary answer of the old elites to the downfall of the revolutionary experiment," he says.

Nevertheless, Moody makes a great contribution by pointing to recent struggles in which workers have challenged the new order. He describes the 1994 general strike in Nigeria, led by oil workers whose leaders still languish in prison. He enthuses over France's 1995 general strike, which stopped the effort there to gut social benefits. And he sees the seeds of change in our own labor movement, in the organizing struggles of immigrant workers, and the grassroots solidarity movement along the U.S./Mexico border.

But his greatest contribution is raising the question of the alternative to capitalism. He goes beyond pointing out that people need a positive vision of a future of social justice and equality, not just an understanding of the evils of the present system. He connects the socialist vision to social movement unionism.

He quotes Sam Gindin of the Canadian Auto Workers: "Making alternatives possible requires a movement that is changing political culture (the assumptions we bring to how society should work), bringing more people into every-day struggles (collective engagement in shaping our lives), and deepening the understanding and organizational skills of activists along with their commitment to radical change (developing socialists).

Now there's a real prescription for a new direction.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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