Labor Works for Global Push

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

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.

Making matters worse for workers, Mexico and others have slashed public aid in their drive for austerity.

The decline of job and wage security will probably provoke a backlash, some analysts say.

"If the end result of globalization and the ascendancy of capitalism is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, then the process will not be sustainable over the long haul," says Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley & Co. He predicts a "worker backlash" if there is not "a greater sense of equality to the distribution of the returns of capitalism."

Already, harsh market forces have provoked unrest by shaking up the opaque, poorly regulated financial systems of Indonesia and South Korea. In coming months, unrest could flare in Europe over the fiscal austerity required by European monetary union, and a rising trade deficit could rekindle protectionism in the United States, say analysts.

"The challenge is ... how to make the global economy work for the many and not just for the few," says John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, which supports the coalition against Echlin.

Many Mexican workers in recent months have embraced independent unions like the Front because of anger over officially sanctioned unions and a recent severe recession.

Indeed, government-endorsed unions carry a reputation of corruption and often exclude the rank and file from decisions.

Rubio and other workers at the Echlin subsidiary, ITAPSA, sought help from a union affiliated with the Front in 1996 because of heavy workloads and hazards posed by asbestos, industrial chemicals, and faulty machinery.

The battle at Echlin

By the time of a scheduled union election last September, about 80 percent of the workers supported the Front's affiliate, despite heavy-handed harassment, claims Rubio, now a Front organizer. Prior to the vote, Echlin's subsidiary fired some 50 workers it believed supported the front, Rubio says.

The election was marred by threats of firing, violence, and other forms of intimidation, according to the Front. Dozens of men carrying sticks and pipes occupied company grounds and threatened workers walking to the voting room.

Echlin acknowledges in a written statement that some 40 "supporters" of the government-sanctioned union active at the plant carried pipes and sticks. But it denies there was any intimidation and asserts the plant is safe. Echlin denied the Monitor's request for a factory visit and did not reply to requests for more details.

The National Administrative Office, an agency under the US Labor Department, plans to report July 31 on a complaint by the union alliance against Echlin.

The Echlin workers rallied in part because of dashed expectations. The organizing drive gained force after Echlin early last year denied workers an annual bonus equal to a month's pay, says Rubio.

The dispute spotlights a big pitfall in the world's helter-skelter rush to a free market: Incomes of workers like Rubio lag behind their hopes of prosperity.

The morale of millions of workers has been battered by a crash in the peso's value and a three-year recession. Indeed, Mexico epitomizes the strains a country endures by embracing "globalization."

Rubio lost his job at a bicycle-repair shop just before the recession. Desperately seeking a firm financial footing, he accepted a job offer at Echlin, only to join the growing ranks of discontented workers soon thereafter.

Some analysts say international union coalitions like Rubio's will fracture for the same reasons that have thwarted similar efforts for decades: differences in language and national identity, as well as conflicting union interests.

"There is no possibility you can form a union on an international basis that would have enough clout to prevent, thwart, or delay the continuing expansion of the free market," says Leo Troy, economist at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.

But for Rubio and his wife, Annel, the union remains their only hope. Mrs. Rubio hopes to return to work at a supermarket in a year when her son is older. And the family still hopes to send their children to private school.

"Children help you you feel hopeful about the future," says Mrs. Rubio, hugging her daughter. "But in the future, workers can't claim their rights without first joining together."

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