John Buell

Trade and the Lessons of Verizon

Recent trade deals are controversial not only because of their economic fallout among vulnerable segments of the population but also because they represent a repudiation of democracy. Their enactment has depended on evasion of democratic norms and practices. They are negotiated in secret and submitted to legislative bodies for simple up or down votes and on limited time tables. When they fail to deliver the promises of their advocates, or they overturn domestic regulations, backlash — against trade deals and the experts who promise so much — is inevitable.

Trade promises to be a central issue — not only in the Presidential race but also in many House and Senate contests. Although many candidates have promised they will vote against the new Trans Pacific Partnership, few have offered a positive vision of international trade regulation. Some form of protectionism appears to be Donald Trump’s position, but protectionism is a non -starter. Economic self-sufficiency, even for such advanced economies as the US or Great Britain, is impossible. Supply chains are complex and international. Establishing high tariff barriers would drive up the price of most manufactured goods.

While the campaign has thus far done little to illuminate these issues, the recent Verizon strike may offer a preliminary model of alternatives to corporate globalization. An excellent article by Michelle Chen in the May 25 issue of The Nation raises some points that both better explain the fallacies of the corporate globalization model and suggest some contours of a grass roots and rank and file model of global trade and development.

Chen’s piece counters the contention that some particular skill or aptitude of the Philippine workers led to Verizon’s decision to outsource these call center jobs. Workers received $1.78 an hour. More importantly, the company counted on the willingness of the government ruthlessly to repress any effort to unionize in behalf of higher wages. Rather than seeking an optimal distribution of skills, company policy was to drive both wages and government enforcement mechanisms into a race to the bottom. Verizon management imposed the worst features of early twentieth century industrial supervision: “To match US customers’ time zones, the delegation learned, workers run on an eternal graveyard shift, regimented by strict call-time performance targets. “

Most heartening in Chen’s story is the role of Philippine workers in the successful strike. Forced to handle service calls from disgruntled Verizon customers, their already long hours were stretched whereas the overtime pay for those hours never arrived.

Philippine activists imagine a more ecological and egalitarian form of globalization. They envision “ the alternative as a more ethical trade structure, in which the Philippines would invest in sustainable modernization and internal industrialization. To the extent that outside investment is used to foster development, he adds, it should be accompanied by transnational organizing efforts in tandem with US unions. “If they have rights to unionize,” Concepcion argues, “we should have too.” Through these initial online contacts, Concepcion suggested a more durable organizing network could emerge, like “a call center workers of the world alliance … that could bring all those workers with similar jobs in the fight for better conditions.” Just as significantly, union activists are invoking larger community concerns, stressing how better worker training, compensation, and working hours can give workers the opportunity to become problem solvers rather than mindless automatons. Customers as well as workers become the beneficiaries.

Ultimately trade needs to become both more free and more local. By this I mean that not only tariff barriers but intellectual property barriers (copyrights and patents) need to come down. Ideas should be allowed to flow freely both within and across borders. Capital and natural resources are another matter. For ecological and environmental reasons, the real cost of transit needs to be included in the price of goods.

The communications revolution is something that can and has spread world- wide. The consequences of that spread remain yet to be determined. The very modes of communication that Verizon disseminates and employs to outsource its work can also aid grass roots collaboration to advance these goals. Absent practices and bodies to curb global capital and the relentless fall in global living standards, protectionism may be the least of our worries.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2016

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