Goin’ Strikin’, and Hopin’

If three decades ago you’d told me I’d be a union member, much less one who would go on strike, I would have deemed you fit for the funny farm. Of course that was a result of parental brainwashing and the bad reputation unions had gotten in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Not only had some become mafia infiltrated, but, they were no longer the true children of the progressive movemen’s that sired them and they then in turn nurtured. At least in the US, a devil’s bargain had been struck in the post-WWII era, where workers got much of what they deserved, but union leadership became, increasingly over time, management’s and government’s lap dog. They also became cores of exclusion, often passing jobs on father to son, rather than continuing their militant efforts to include more industries and people arriving in newer waves of immigration. It didn’t help that in the alleged bastions of socialism/communism, unions had become nothing more than extensions of dictatorial governmen’s. Their ideological and intellectual support naturally steered clear of such tainted territory. They languished and have since declined from their peak of representing over a third of workers, to something like an eighth today. However, this is not solely a result of union leadership’s ideological and ethical bankruptcy. Starting with the trouncing of Barry Goldwater, the right wing of the United States’ polity got the message. They got organized. They dumped money into think tanks and training new cadres. They effectively co-opted the media, most often by outright buying it! Otherwise, how could morons such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr. have gotten elected? How else could the right wing have overturned 40 years of Democratic dominance of both houses of Congress? Today, and over the last decade, there has been something of a rebirth among unions. The first boost may have come, ironically, from the government. By ridding the leadership of major unions of criminal influences and elemen’s, it allowed those who were serious about unionism to reappear within the organizations. The union-busting policies of government and corporate management have gotten people to a point were they HAVE NO CHOICE but to fight back. Whether it’s because of wage stagnation or lack of health care or increased hours of work required of even white collar employees, people in the US today have the greatest level of anxiety regarding their economic well-being in a quarter of a century. But the biggest impact is likely to be the effects of so called "free trade" agreemen’s. These nominally economy-boosting arrangemen’s are nothing more than a means of trapping people worldwide in a race to the bottom. They allow capital to move freely around the world. They eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade. They subject local, provincial, and even countrys’ governmen’s to the dictates of un-elected, money-interest dominated panels that determine what is allowed and what is not under the terms of these trade pacts. But, they are silent, or speak powerlessly therefore irrelevantly about the environmental, health, labor, and other human needs of the people of the countries involved. I’ll coin the term "preventive internationalization" to describe this phenomenon. Thus, if some indigenous community in a South American country decides a certain area is sacred and therefore barred from oil development; or if a state in the US decides that products manufactured at below-subsistence-level wages will be taxed to protect its citizens’ jobs; or an Asian country decides to give some sector of its economy a boost through government intercession; or something as large as the European Union decides to protect its citizens’ health by banning genetically modified foods; all of these could be ruled "unfair" trade practices and the offending countries government would be obliged to change the "offending" regulation or law, otherwise it could face huge fines or lawsuits by money-grubbing corporations. This kind of vicious spiral downwards is most evident in the realm of agriculture and migrant labor. The developed countries all provide subsidies to their agricultural sector. These came in to play for a variety of reasons. But with the international trade regimes being foisted on the people of the world, they have become contentious, and very damaging. Many of these subsidies have either unintentionally, or deviously, ended going to huge corporate interests, particularly in the US The outfits have turned something as essential to life as land into a massive factory. Who cares what happens to the land, just dump in chemicalsfertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, move it around with huge machines, harvest crops with even bigger combines, and sell the insipid yet attractive, some would even say toxic crops of fruits, vegetables, and meats at ridiculously low prices to unsuspecting populations worldwide. Along the way, peasants, indigenous peoples, and family farmers who cannot compete with these huge economies of scale can no longer grow food and are driven from the land. Not only does this enlarge the realm of the huge agro-interests, but it creates a pool of labor which now seeks jobs. Often these jobs are to be found in other countries, hence the flow of migrant neighbor north to south in the Americas, the best known example being Mexico/US While this is happening, borders are "opened" to trade in non-agricultural goods as well. But who produces these goods? It’s the destitute, economically dislocated people of the above paragraph who work at incredibly cheap pay rates driving others out of work, including small manufacturers. Now the pool of labor is enlarged and the money interests have more leverage. Add to this the cheap labor similarly dislocated within countries, and you can see how the desperation for gainful employment can drive wages down worldwide while huge corporations make fabulous profits moving the fruits of desperate people’s labor around the world and selling it through outfits such as Walmart. It’s only a matter of time before this process affects the family businesses which constitute a significant portion of the Armenian Diaspora’s economic prowess. The vicious spiral to the bottom doesn’t end in just the economic and social realmsdislocation, wage depression, dismembered families, increased health/epidemic risks, and the psychological problems that accrue to all these but insidiously, it winds into the very heart of politics and democracy. People become so numbed, so hopeless, so disillusioned, that they stop believing they can make a difference in their own societies. Participation in public lifevolunteer organizations or the electoral arenadeclines. Those who remain engaged are the well off, the ones profiting from this recreated (from the worst old days of laissez-faire capitalism) regime. Naturally, this skews policy even more in the same, bad, direction. After all, it’s only to be expected that in a representative government, electeds will represent the interests of their constituents, those who put them in office. In Armenia, much of this doesn’t exist yet. One hears nothing of labor unions or the needs/interests of labor in general. High unemployment and the lack of an established comfort with the rule of law both conspire and mitigate against labor. Policy and reality there seem to be at a stage that if such organizing began, I suspect the darker forces in society, the so-called "mafia", would intervene brutally. Also, if the Turkish border is opened, the flood of cheap goods (the same stuff so many of us shamelessly purchase and consume in the Diaspora) would have the same ruinous effects on Armenia’s blooming food products industry, and probably other less visible ones too. But the time to organize labor in Armenia is coming. People will only tolerate the chasm between the new haves and have-nots for so long. As the economic and security conditions of the country ameliorate, I suspect we’ll see more movement toward economic justice through labor organizing. Who knows, maybe the first steps in this direction will be taken in the upcoming parliamentary and subsequent presidential elections. Let’s hope some of the political parties functioning there take up this banner. Similarly, our Middle Eastern communities reside in countries where there’s no labor movement to speak of. How could there be? There are so many conflicts, authoritarian leaders, and foreign destabilizing influences that no social movement, much less labor, has much of a chance to get people’s attention, except, obviously, extremist religion as a means of toppling the very same tyrants that make life miserable. Fortunately, there is hope worldwide. After three decades of right wing, conservative, and even reactionary trending election results, Europe and the Americas are experiencing a return of people oriented, left-liberal-socialist governmen’s. These allow more space for labor to thrive. The mad rush towards more "free trade" agreemen’s has been thwarted a few times in the US in the last few years. South American countries who would have been the next victims of such trade regimes are recoiling, or at least taking a slower approach, not least because elections there have brought people-oriented governmen’s to power. In the US, you’ll remember a decade ago the UPS strike brought that company’s workers to success. A handful of years ago, striking janitors won well deserved raises and benefits in the Los Angeles area. The hotel industry’s workers are making gains slowly across the country. In most cases, government employees are also able to hold their own. Unfortunately, Southern California’s supermarket workers got screwed despite going on strike. You’ll notice that these successes have come in what I’ll call "landlocked" industries. Cleaners are need where the buildings are. Deliveries have to be made where people are. Government services are provided in place. Unlike steel, cars, or televisions that can be produced anywhere, service oriented industries are tied to a place. These will serve as the basis of a rejuvenated labor movement. As labor, health, and environmental concerns get woven into the fabric of international trade, then we can have a virtuous spiral of improving standards of living worldwide instead of the current mess. As a small part of that, I’m hoping the City of Los Angeles will finally give those of its employees represented by the Engineers and Architects Association (some 7400 people) a decent, cost-of-living based, pay increase. That’s what we’ve been striking for. It’s encouraging to see other Armenia’s on the picket lines too. Perhaps this experience can later be transferred to labor organizing in Armenia, and even locally where I’ve heard whispers, unconfirmed as yet, of exploitation of recently arrived immigrants by the jewelry industry. For Next Year While I’m wishing for good things to come to worldwide labor next year, here are a few more year-end thoughts and hopes. On a negative note, good riddance to the likes of Augusto Pinchet, Ahmet Ertegun, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Bulent Ecevit, and Slobodan Milosevic who all died in 2006. Each in their own way had made the planet a worse place. Let’s hope Armenia’s strong economic growth persists and broadens to benefit more of our compatriots rather than just a narrow sliver of the population. Enough pushing might get the Congress to force the Bush administration to pull out of Iraq, admit the error of its ways there (it would be too much to hope for the same on the internal policy front), and commence the healing process to terminate the daily bloodletting that is life in Iraq today. May more people get involved in more of the organizations serving the Armenian communities of the Diaspora and homeland. Why is it that US foreign policy has become so odious that when the US is pitted against some of the vilest regimes in the world, people now feel a twinge of doubt as to whether the Saddam Huseins, Recep Tayyip Erdogans, or warlords in Sudan are in the wrong. Kind of a sad commentary on the state of affairs of what used to be the beacon of human rights and decency in the world, don’t you think? Here’s one last hoping-against-hope wish: that our old friends, the EI’s (electoral idiots) don’t make a massive comeback in the upcoming Glendale municipal elections!

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