In a widely shared In These Times article from earlier this year, Marilyn Katz laments the news that Nabisco is closing down some of its production lines in Chicago and replacing them with new facilities in Mexico. Six hundred Chicago workers are losing their jobs as a result. Katz calls for a boycott of Oreos in protest of this “offshoring.”
This article went viral among progressives, with many declaring they would join the boycott. But progressives are not alone. In an interview not long after Katz’s article, Donald Trump also condemned Nabisco for moving manufacturing to Mexico and taking jobs away from Chicago workers. He, too, swears off of Oreos.
More recently, he has returned to this theme in stump speeches and in the GOP debates, promising, “We’re going to bring, frankly, jobs back from Mexico, where, as you probably saw, Nabisco is leaving Chicago with one of their biggest plants and they’re moving it to Mexico.”
Trump is, of course, approaching this issue with different values: He is a xenophobic monster, and throughout his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination he has delighted in attacking Mexicans and Mexico. Katz is a longtime progressive activist and communicator.
But Trump's reactionary premises lead him to share Katz's conclusion. That Donald Trump would join a protest of “offshoring” American jobs should suggest to us that perhaps such protests are not actually as progressive as they might seem.
Any progressive politics worthy of the name should, of course, seek to protect workers. But there is a problem with channeling progressive anger about job losses into an attack on “offshoring.” This introduces a kind of nationalism which distorts progressive politics by introducing a battle line not just between the working class and the bosses, but also between two groups of workers separated by a border. This isn’t the jingoistic nationalism of the reactionary Right, driven by xenophobia or racism. But it’s still a huge problem on the Left.
There are some ugly ideas implicit in this form of politics: that Mexican workers and U.S. workers can only ever be competitors, never comrades, and that we must take the side of U.S. workers against their much poorer Mexican counterparts. Taken to the extreme, this mentality leads even a staunch progressive like Bernie Sanders to demand that “corporate America start investing in this country rather than in countries all over the world.”
Sanders is thinking primarily of low-income countries. Implicitly this means: cut the poorest people in the world off from the capital of wealthy countries, and condemn them to perpetual poverty, malnutrition and disease.
Of course, no progressive would explicitly endorse such a position, since they contradict the core egalitarian principles which all progressives aspire to uphold. (Trump, on the other hand, has no such qualms.) Nationalists on the Left try to avoid this contradiction by portraying the working conditions in Mexico and other low-income countries as little better than slavery. And if their jobs are tantamount to slavery, then we aren't hurting them if we take those jobs away at all—we're actually liberating them!
But the situation is considerably more complex than that. While forced labor is still a very real problem, many workers in poor countries are also rising up and fighting for better wages, benefits, and working conditions—often striking in numbers that are rarely seen in the U.S. They are not passive victims but potential comrades. And while working conditions in low-income countries can be horrific and must be improved, the jobs which neoliberal globalization has provided to the world's poorest countries have drastically improved the standard of living for billions of people worldwide.
A form of politics which aims to cut off this lifeline is not progressive—it's cruel and immoral.
Of course, the neoliberal global economy is indeed intolerably unjust to workers both here in the U.S. and in low-income countries. The culprit is the intense competition that has taken place under neoliberalism, which pits workers against each other in a global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.
So what is to be done? We have to end the neoliberal race to the bottom by creating a floor under all workers. Instead of attempting to expel foreign workers from “our” labor market (as white workers in the US did to Chinese immigrant workers in the late 19th century), we should fight to improve standards for workers globally. This could include, for example, a regime of living wage standards across global supply chains.
A regime of global labor standards would of course greatly improve the wages and working conditions of workers in low-income countries. But it would also create a better future for U.S. workers (and do so better than any restrictions on “offshoring”). First, it would greatly reduce the intensity of labor market competition between U.S. workers and workers in other countries, increasing security and bargaining power for U.S. workers. Second, it would take huge numbers of people now marginalized in the world's sweatshops and slums and integrate them as full members of the global economy, creating new markets for goods made in the U.S. (including Oreos).
In order to win global labor standards, labor organizing must become as global as the labor market already is.
This is not a new idea. To varying degrees, some unions like the United Electrical Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers have explored cross-border organizing from the beginning of the age of neoliberal free trade under NAFTA to now. Admittedly, for decades the results have been mixed. But times have changed. Today, neoliberalism is in a state of global crisis, leading to waves of labor unrest and antiestablishment populism, and also unprecedented soul-searching among the global elite.
In this historical context, we see signs of new organizing opportunities at the transnational level. In response to horrific disasters at garment factories in Bangladesh in recent years, labor activists and civil society groups from around the world have come together with Bangladeshi workers to form the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which aims to hold global clothing brands accountable for safety standards. Meanwhile, clothing giant H&M has responded to worker “riots” in Bangladesh and Cambodia by introducing a “fair wage” plan for its factory workers across Asia. More than any time since the early 20th century, there is the potential for a global labor movement to win transformational concessions from capitalists at the global level.
But this is no easy task. A global labor movement requires an increased sense of solidarity and shared self-interest between workers in different countries. Political education among workers is necessary, but it is at least as important to build worker-to-worker relationships across borders. Advances in communications technology have the potential to make this easier than ever. In addition, immigrant workers in American unions can provide a link to workers in other countries.
There are many ways for workers and their unions to act in solidarity with their counterparts in other countries. Trade negotiations, such as around the Trans-Pacific Partnership, provide one opportunity for developing and organizing around a transnational working-class agenda.
But the gold standard would be cross-border collective bargaining. For example, Nabisco workers and their unions in Mexico and the U.S. could organize together to force their shared employer to meet a shared set of demands around wages, working conditions and job security—in other words, a cross-border labor contract.
In Mexico, labor organizing faces serious obstacles, sometimes escalating to state-sanctioned violence. But this has not stopped Mexican workers from courageously organizing and striking. Recent examples (which also feature varying levels of international solidarity) include the historic wave of labor protests in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juarez, the recent Driscoll strikes, and a narrowly defeated unionization campaign among Honda workers. Mexican workers have proven that they are worthy allies for U.S. workers, and workers in both countries would benefit from increased cooperation.
Building a global labor movement is, of course, a long-term project. In the meantime, it is reasonable to want to protect workers from job losses, as Katz wants to do—for example, by disincentivizing companies from moving production around without regard for the well-being of their workers. But any such measures have to be non-nationalistic, applying equally to the factory moved to another country or just another city.
We should also fight for improved welfare programs for unemployed workers and pursue progressive job creation programs. It is a neoliberal myth that corporations like Nabisco are the only job creators. Currently one of the best progressive ways to create jobs is through the public sector. Public sector employment, which is especially important to women and minorities, has been under attack since the 2008 crash, and reversing that trend is one of the best things we can do for US workers in the short term.
The best traditions of the Left emphasize worker solidarity regardless of race, gender or creed—or nationality. Today, the future for workers in the U.S. (including the past and present Nabisco workers) lies in a globalized labor movement and renewed government investment in the public sector. Progressives must decisively reject nationalistic ideas and strategies. Otherwise, as the neoliberal crisis drags on, we may find ourselves drawn into a zero-sum game in which groups of workers in different countries compete with each other over increasingly scarce resources, struggling against each other rather than against their shared bosses.
Katz doesn’t have to fret about losing her favorite chocolate indulgence. Rather than boycotting Oreos, we should figure out how workers in the U.S. can join with newly employed cookie workers in Mexico to advance an agenda that will benefit both.
Toby Chow is chair of The People’s Lobby, an independent political organization based in Chicago, and co-author of "The Movement We Need," a pamphlet on analysis and strategy for the progressive movement. He has been involved in faith-based community organizing on the South Side of Chicago since 2009, and is a leader in the “Moral Mondays Illinois” campaign against state budget cuts. He is an MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.