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Labor Works for Global Push

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 1998


Most afternoons Ruben Rubio slowly treks back home across the gray, Mexico City outskirts that sprawl on the parched bed of Lake Texcoco.

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Lowering his head against a blast of dust, he winds his way past ditches, barking dogs, and piles of gravel until he reaches an alley and the steel gate of his two-room home.

Only when Mr. Rubio rejoins his family inside the bright yellow and turquoise walls of their shack can he shut out the colorless barrens behind him. His wife smiles and puts down a lump of corn-flour dough; his three-year old daughter drops a doll and runs to him. He swings her into his arms and checks on his sleeping infant son.

Rubio has yet to fulfill his bright dreams for his children beyond the cheerful walls of his home. He is one of millions of unskilled workers worldwide whose hopes for prosperity have been betrayed by "globalization" - the surge in worldwide flows of trade, investment, and technology.

Stock markets in Europe and the United States have streaked to record highs. The world is riper than ever for entrepreneurs. But from Seoul to Santiago, a new golden age of global capitalism has become a time of vulnerability for workers like Rubio.

Business holds the upper hand over labor for several reasons, analysts say:

* In many countries, a free-market credo reigns in ideology, trade diplomacy, and domestic politics.

* Unions have faltered as services rather than manufacturing increasingly dominate many advanced economies.

* Many less-skilled workers have lost their jobs to cheaper foreign labor or high technology because of growing trade and technology transfers.

Rubio confronted a harsh global marketplace soon after his marriage four years ago.

"I wanted children and a family and I badly needed a fixed wage and steady job," he says, describing ambitions that led him to work making brake pads at a subsidiary of Echlin Inc., a US auto parts company, in nearby Los Reyes.

But two years of handling asbestos for just 90 cents an hour undermined his expectations for a safe, stable livelihood.

So Rubio helped launch a campaign to organize 350 fellow factory workers. Echlin's subsidiary fired him last July and, in September, thwarted the union drive.

Shut out from the factory, Rubio's union, the Authentic Labor Front, decided to carry the fight elsewhere. The Front allied with US and Canadian unions early this year in what they claim is the first North American labor coalition aimed at deflecting the free-market threat to wages and job security.

By targeting Echlin, Rubio's union is tackling a global problem. Many countries have resisted efforts to give teeth to treaties that assert universal labor standards, says US Commerce Secretary William Daley.

Most pro-labor institutions remain divided along national lines, even as trade treaties have allowed businesses to move faster than ever across borders in search of cheap labor.

But the union coalition against Echlin is combatting the excesses of global capitalism by "going global" too, says Benedicto Martinez, the Front's national coordinator. Canadian and US unions reckon businesses will move fewer jobs from their countries to Mexico if Mexican labor standards and wages are higher.

Unions close ranks

"For the first time, unions worldwide are really working together," says Kate Bronfenbrenner at the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. "We see more and more unions reaching out and connecting with unions in other countries."

Still, Rubio and other labor activists confront a powerful bias toward laissez-faire ideology as governments meddle less in the marketplace and increasingly champion free commerce and finance.

Countries like Mexico often enforce their own labor laws loosely, as Rubio and his work mates at Echlin found out.

Falling pay

Moreover, as governments, officials seek to attract investment by offering low-cost labor, businesses have started a "race to the bottom" in pay. That is widening the gap between rich and poor in Mexico, the United States, and many other countries as the richest citizens have amassed more wealth while the middle and lower classes have seen their share stay flat or shrink.

Skill level is as vital as ever to workers' well-being. "Those who are well equipped to compete in the global economy are doing better and better, and those who are not so well equipped risk falling further and further behind," US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said recently.