Book Review: Globalization and Cross-border Solidarity in the Americas

Posted: December 10, 2012 in Books, Consumer campaigns
Tags: , , ,
Mujeres saharuis en la maquila

Mujeres saharuis en la maquila (Photo credit: gaelx)

I’ve written a few times about Latin American workers (see links below). Here at last is a broad description of attempts to cross-border advocacy in Latin American apparel-producing countries and North American apparel-consuming countries.

The book uses four 1990s campaigns as case studies:

  • Guatemala: Phillips Van-Heusen
  • El Salvador: Gap supplier Mandarin International (Taiwanese-owned)
  • Honduras: Kimi (Korean-owned), supplier of retail store-label clothes
  • Nicaragua: Chentex (Taiwanese-owned), another supplier of retail store-label clothes

The picture is not a pretty one. These four campaigns attained the rare victory of union recognition but, after that, their companies invariably relocate. The wonders of Capital Mobility. It makes me think of trying to stop a vacuum cleaner by holding its nozzle; it can simply detach the nozzle and use another (I’m sure there are better metaphors … suggestions are welcome!) Even so, the author writes, capital is not omnipotent and with better co-ordinated campaigns could be held to account. The world is only so big and brands in this day and age should have nowhere to hide.

The author, Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, explains how pressure in each case was applied across borders, at both ends of the supply chain. He calls this the Keck-Sikkink or Boomerang Model (p. 22). Mis-coordinated boomerang campaigns, he argues, keep allowing the ball to be dropped after a short-term victory.

He sets out the history of overlapping pressure groups, something I’ve noticed before. Apparently the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) was set up in 1999 specifically by people unhappy about the compromise-solution of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which, among other things, does not insist on a minimum living wage (p. 12). The FLA are now famous as Apple/Foxconn’s inspectors (more on them next month). Likewise the IGLHR, formerly NCLC, was set up in 1981 by people unhappy with the AFL-CIO‘s pro-US foreign policy approach during the Cold War (p. 82). The AWU-APHEDA spat in Australia is another symptom of the same division. People have long memories.

Even allowing for these historical differences, there is a recurring difference in approach between groups that push the need for independent unions, and groups that push for independent monitoring (p. 13). I wish I’d learned this sooner. Throughout this blog I’ve looked at campaigns run by both camps and I’ve been somewhat biased towards the AFL-CIO approach. As a union official, it’s hard not to be. I just don’t see how you can have a successful campaign without involving the people who stand to benefit from it; you’ll end up with a result on paper that is not enforced.

In Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) model, domestic non-state actors establish ties with NGOs, creating transnational advocacy networks (TANs), who, in turn, put pressure on their respective states to bring about social change. This model […] is quite useful but it inadvertently places too much emphasis on TANs, making them seem like they are the “saviors” of the “poor, downtrodden masses” …

[T]heir model gives one the impression that domestic non-state actors cannot independently determine their own fates without “outside assistance”. (p. 103)

and again:

[W]omen maquiladora workers have often been framed as “victims” while U.S.-based consumers and activists are seen as “saviors”. (pp. 149-150)

However you need the consumer advocacy to open up the space for organising; it’s not often there as a given. Indeed weak labor regulation is usually one of the reasons production has been moved to these countries to begin with. It’s all very comforting to prefer organising over distant advocacy but it might not always be practicable. Consider the IGLHR report into the KYE Systems factory, maker of Microsoft peripherals (which I covered here). The only options for a local partner are the Chinese state union or unrecognised local NGOs whose leaders risk prison.

If it were ever used properly, the boomerang model would actually render the dilemma moot. Successful campaigns draw on moral and material leverage (p. 59). As one wit (@WithoutDoing) recently put it on Twitter:

For something to be changed it must be both pushed and pulled (12 Oct)

This is absolutely not a theoretical debate. The two camps need to have more than a passing regard for one another, they need to actively co-operate. Using the example of the Salvadoran maquila (garment) industry, the author notes:

Consensus between the NLC, AFL-CIO and UNITE existed, on the surface, during the Gap campaign. In reality, tensions ran high. It should be pointed out that all three groups did work together, but their strategic and historical differences generated unnecessary conflict. The NLC distrusted the [local peak groups’] involvement in the Gap campaign because of their previous ties with AIFLD [the pro-US foreign policy outfit which generally sought to undermine leftist regimes in Latin America]. AIFLD’s uncritical stance towards El Salvador’s human rights abuses generated dissent within the AFL-CIO, sparking the establishment of the NLC in 1981 […] The NLC rejects working with all “corrupt” centrist unions like the CTD, CTS and CNTS […]

The ACILS, AFL-CIO and UNITE also claimed that the NLC’s campaigns are too “media-driven” and that they leave workers defenseless after they are inevitably fired. These organisations suggest that the NLC should work towards empowering workers and making them (rather than consumers, students, or [NLC leader] Charles Kernaghan) the primary agents of change, on the ground, through unionization.

These perspectives highlight a crucial, though unstated point: officials from the NLC, UNITE, the AFL-CIO and ACILS generally mistrust each other (p. 82).


People need to focus on this bigger picture, an awful lot depends on it.

As to the issue of Capital Mobility, Armbruster-Sandoval suggests region-wide organizing as a means of limiting companies’ tendency to ‘cut and run’ (p. 133). It had not been launched at the time this book was published but the Asia Floor Wage campaign does exactly that.

Related posts:

  1. marksolock says:

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. […] I was thinking more about the “Boomerang” theory of activism, which relies on getting results through media embarassment (see earlier post). […]

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