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Organized Labor in Retreat


So who is surprised construction workers are treated worse than dogs in the United Arab Emirates?

Who is surprised to find migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh building skyscrapers for just 10% of the average UAE wage of $2,106 per month?

Who is surprised to read a Human Rights Watch(HRW) report showing employers’ illegally holding back wages for months, withholding passports as “security” so workers can’t quit, and allowing recruiters charge shyster fees?

Who is surprised a 1980 UAE minimum wage law has never been enforced?

Who is surprised HRW found “there is no public record of a single case where it (the government) has penalized an employer with fines or imprisonment for failing to pay wages, or any other breaches of the labor law?”

Who is surprised the bodies of 880 construction workers from the Indian sub-continent nations cited above were shipped home in caskets in 2004 alone? (That’s a death rate comparable to annual U.S. troop losses in Iraq.)

Absent labor laws with teeth, their “accidental” deaths might as well be deliberate.

And halfway around the world, in Colombia, the deaths are deliberate. In 2001, some 170 union workers were assassinated. The President of Colombia’s Food and Beverage Union, who picketed a Coca-Cola shareholder meeting in New York, said workers were murdered so they could be replaced with temps.

Everywhere you turn, organized labor is in retreat. Trade union membership during the 1990s plunged. In a 1997 statement, the International Labor Organization(ILO) found:

* “Union membership in the U.S. declined by 21.1% during the last decade, giving the US one of the lowest levels of unionization among industrialized countries.” (U.S. AFL-CIO membership is down to just 9-million today.)

* Union membership dropped 25% in the United Kingdom, 30% in Australia, 55% in New Zealand, and 76% in Israel.

* South Africa, Spain, Chile made gains but ILO said, “in all but about 20 (of 92 countries surveyed), membership levels declined during the last decade.”

Of 1.3-billion workers in the survey, only 164-million were union members, ILO said.

Of the total 2.8-billion employed, half of Earth’s toilers are wage-slaves earning less than $2 a day, 27-million are actual slaves, and 186-million more are jobless.

Globally, the race to the bottom is gathering momentum. U.S. corporations export jobs to Mexico to cash in on cheap labor. In no time at all, though, tens of thousands of Mexicans lose their jobs to Asians who will sweat for less.

Everywhere you look, the divide between “haves” and “have nots” widens. From 1980-88, the ratio of “Fortune 500” CEO to employee pay rose from 42 to one to 419 to one.

Writing in the “Observer,” the publication of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, John Evans pointed out, “A growing number of the young unemployed in OECD countries are concentrated in households where no one works — they are detached from the labour market and excluded from society.”

In sum, there are hundreds of millions of workers, such as the migrants who lost their lives building the skyscrapers in the UAE, such as the temps stepping into the boots of the murdered trade unionists in Colombia, who are desperate for a job.

For management lacking social conscience and vision, it’s a dream come true.

That’s why labor unions are needed more than ever. In the academic vernacular of OECD’s Evans, “Unions are institutions which counterbalance the centrifugal forces created by globalization and technological change. They can play a crucial role both in redressing imbalances of power in the process of change and in ensuring that productivity increases are used to raise living standards in an equitable way.”

Put another way, much of management hasn’t yet learned by increasing the wages of employees it not only increases corporate productivity but boost employee purchasing power. As workers spend their paychecks, they drive demand upwards. And profits.

Americans alarmed by illegal immigration haven’t learned it’s cheaper to export union organizers’ to Mexico to drive up wages than to build a new Great Wall along the southern border to keep out the desperate migrants who would stay home if only they could find a job that paid.

Without the spread of strong unions in an age of globalization you can forget about societal stability, decent living conditions, overcoming poverty and disease, and world peace. There won’t be any.

SHERWOOD ROSS is a reporter and publicist. Reach him at



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