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Global Economies, Global Worker Solutions

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A point I have made repeatedly is that while companies have escaped national laws and created international frameworks, workers and citizens are still bound by national laws and cannot access international frameworks. This was the fundamental problem with the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts and at the core of opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We don’t talk much about this anymore because Trump’s opposition to the TPP and his half-baked nationalism on trade has led to a reflexive defense of globalism on the left and, because the left hasn’t really taken the details of the global economy or any other part of foreign policy seriously enough, there aren’t a lot of concrete counter proposals to offer. I have proposed my ideas around the left pushing for the Corporate Accountability Act that would open American courts to people overseas who are working for American companies or in their supply chains and who are exploited on the job or subject to grotesque pollution. I think this idea has a lot of potential. Of course, it’s not going to be instituted tomorrow or next year but until the left articulates concrete policy proposals, we cede the field on global trade to corporations and their politician allies. That’s unacceptable.

There are many facets to these problems and I have no illusion that I have come up with the best solution and certainly not the only solution. That’s why I was heartened to read Todd Tucker’s report for Roosevelt Institute on international standards to build worker power, modeling it on the Paris climate agreement. And while Tucker and anyone else would admit that the climate agreement isn’t perfect, it is a start. The whole thing is very much worth your time and I hope labor activists take it seriously. Here are his 7 principles:

Privileging firms that cooperate well with unions;
Making labor law enforcement more favorable toward labor;
Extending union contracts to non-union workers;
Structurally incorporating unions into the policymaking process;
Allowing unions to manage public benefits; and
Making union membership the default status for workers.

Obviously the full report goes into much more detail. Sarah Jones also has a nice write-up.

In a paper released Tuesday, the Roosevelt Institute calls for “a fundamental re-visioning of the role of government in rebuilding worker power. Instead of resignation, despair, modest legal changes, or waiting for unions to save themselves, we recommend ambitious and linked strategies at the international and domestic level to strengthen labor institutions.” To that end, it proposes the Workers Power Agreement, “a new international labor rights framework modeled on the Paris climate deal. Unlike the Paris deal, where countries set targets for reducing carbon, countries in a new Workers Power Agreement would adopt targets for increasing union density in nations. Like the Paris deal, countries would retain sovereignty over how they achieved these targets.”

As a proposal, WPA presupposes a problem—that U.S. workers have few rights, and need more protections—and then places that American problem within a global context. A country’s inequalities have consequences beyond its borders. As Roosevelt’s proposal notes, domestic inequality destabilizes nations, which influences currency valuations, immigration policies, and trade relationships. Relatedly, right-wing governments promise voters a strong economy, but rather than pass economic policies that build up worker power and raise wages, they direct voter hostility at foreign workers. “This is not good for countries like Canada or Denmark, which have more successfully adapted their domestic labor markets to globalization’s challenges,” the report concludes.

The WPA would bind participating nations in a commitment to strengthen worker power, though it would leave the means by which a nation can honor its agreements up to its elected officials. Nations would commit to certain benchmarks, like increasing union density, and those benchmarks would vary depending on the existing health of a nation’s trade union movement. Nations who fail to meet those benchmarks would be penalized, though Roosevelt believes those penalties should “be advisory and not carry a specific sanction beyond public humiliation and reputational costs.” “One thing [Paris] did really well is it balanced the ends of policy with the national means of achieving that policy,” said Todd Tucker, the political scientist who authored the Roosevelt Institute paper. (Some nations already have the proposed reforms in places, and others do not. But just as the U.S. is among the top countries in greenhouse gas emissions, it also distinguishes itself in most measures of economic inequality and union strength.)

According to Tucker, the WPA provides one possible framework to address a real and pressing problem. “It does give us a few things,” Tucker said of the WPA model. “One is that it establishes that there is now a growing body of academic research that documents a link between the demise of the labor unions, and declining unionization ratios, and increasing inequality.” The result, in theory, would establish a pattern of globalization that distributes its economic gains to workers, and not just elites in developed and developing states. U.S. workers might experience an especially pronounced increase to the rights they’re able to wield at work, but that’s simply because the U.S. lags so far behind other developed states in this regard.

The WPA isn’t without flaws. Even if the concept became reality, it wouldn’t be a permanent safeguard. Nations can leave such agreements, as Trump is demonstrating. The same flaw would probably present a real danger to a WPA, since it, like the Paris agreement, would engender deep antipathy from the political right in its member states. The WPA’s very existence would challenge one of the central tenets of laissez-faire economic doctrine—that the sort of market regulation that would inevitably follow from increased union density would negatively impact a nation’s economic health. And if the U.S. or another major nation pulled out of the WPA, the consequences for workers could be severe.

Again, these are difficult issues. But until we get serious on the left about finding ways to solve these problems, nothing will ever get better for working people. So at least try to pull yourself away from the Kavanaugh stuff for a few minutes to think hard about the global economy and how we can make it more equitable for global workers and for American workers at the same time.

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