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Why Taming the Exploitation in Supply Chains is Entirely Possible



I realize it’s 2016 and no one cares about issues. Instead, in our own lefty version of the 24-hour news cycle, we would rather have 1000 comment threads on the personality-based politics of the Democratic primary, even though given the structural reality of American politics, it barely matters who the nominee is. Meanwhile, any discussion of the actual issues that create inequality and oppression in American and global life are shunted to irrelevancy, or at the very least framed through the personality-based politics of the election year.

Nonetheless, I’m going to write another post about supply chains anyway.

On Tuesday, I laid about my statement of 10 principles to tame the exploitation of global supply chains. These I think are a very solid set of ideas that we can work toward making part of any progressive movement, assuming we actually care about policy goals and not just personalities.

Brian O’Neill wrote about my ideas and suggested, correctly, that I am not presenting some pie-in-the-sky scenario, but actually am creating actionable goals that could someday become law.

To me, these seem like a no-brainer, and I think the political arguments against them won’t hold much water. Let’s look at a few of those.

The “It’s More Than They Make Now” Argument. This is a common one, especially among otherwise sympathetic lefties. The idea is that if you are in a sweatshop in Dhaka, you are maybe making more than you would be in a village in the countryside. This is possibly true. It also ignores the violence, lack of social safety net, and breaking of traditional bonds that comes with it, of course. But the argument, the “race to the bottom” is that if make it less profitable for the multinational in Bangladesh, it’ll go somewhere else. That’s true if you work on a country-to-country basis, but not if you do so from the top down. If companies have to treat workers well in Mexico or Senegal or Vietnam, they won’t be able to go anywhere else. You can have the benefits of the global economy without worrying about making your entire country a hellhole for employees.

The “It’ll Never Get Passed” Argument. On the surface, this does seem to be a pie in the sky argument, but there’s really no reason for it to be so. I don’t see where the massive opposition will come from. After all, this isn’t going to cost Americans jobs- just the opposite. It staunches the flow by making it , if not more profitable to manufacture in America, at least not prohibitively expensive. There are no real economic arguments against it, except the “corporate profits will be less” one, but come on. That only works when you paint them as job creators. That won’t fly. It works politically when you can ramble about job-killing regulations, but we’re talking about adding more regulations to countries that have “taken our jobs.”

The “Why Should We Support Their Unions When Ours Are Getting Killed Here?” Argument. This is a fairly persuasive one, at least emotionally. After all, American labor standards have been ruined over the last generation. But that’s due in part to the globalized economy which incentivizes businesses to pull out, and incentivizes states (who didn’t really need it, in many cases) to strip away more worker’s rights in order to keep or attract businesses. This creates pliant workers, who are worried that if they don’t acquiesce to everything, they’ll be out of a job. But this stops the race to the bottom, and in doing so, I think, can reinvigorate the American union movement.

I don’t think it will be easy, nor do I think it will create an international brotherhood, and nor do I think that we’ll see the glory days of the labor movement come roaring back. But it is, in many ways, a simple fix to the deep cruelty of the global economy, both here and abroad. A very complicated and time-consuming one, and a long battle, but one that this nascent progressive coalition can fight, by rallying a large and diverse group of activists, from anti-globalization turtle-huggers (whom I love) to the bluest of the blue collar. It’s a winning issue.

Right. The arguments against these goals are morally bankrupt and impossible to defend. Who thinks 10 year old should be working! OK, some idiots do but really, not many people. Who can oppose people not dying on the job? Who thinks that there shouldn’t be accountability on these issues? Obviously the details are tricky and the legal framework to implement these principles is not passing the current or next Congress. But creating sets of principles and urging progressives to make them part of their worldview and political goals–especially given how forgotten foreign workers are even among the American left–is really important to moving the conversation forward. I hope I can do a little bit of that.

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