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Occupy vs. the Global Race to the Bottom

Ever since the first tent was pitched in Zuccotti Park in September 2011, the Occupy protests have been giving life to a “99 percent movement.” Expect to hear a lot more from them: plans for a 99 percent spring—starting as early as April—are now in the making.

This still very young movement has focused attention on a well-reasoned explanation of the vast suffering in this country, an explanation that is resonating with the broader U.S. public. It is often posed this way: For thirty years, Wall Street firms have successfully lobbied the US government to give them freer reign, by removing regulations and lowering taxes. In the process, these firms became uprooted and detached from lending to Main Street businesses and instead became more like casinos making money for the one percent through risky instruments such as derivatives based in sub-prime mortgages. This casino Wall Street economy increased inequality, corrupted our politics and politicians, and provoked the economic crash in 2008—a crash that left tens of millions unemployed, homeless, mired in debt, and vulnerable.

This narrative is not only compelling and tragic, it is also correct. But the Occupy analysis is thus far primarily a US-centric one; it often leaves out the reality that all of us in this country are part of a corporate-driven global economy.

So here is a fuller picture:

In addition to Wall Street speculators, the other dominant forces of the U.S. economy over the past three decades have been global firms like General Electric, Exxon Mobil, and Apple. These firms spread their global assembly lines and resource extraction to countries like Mexico, China, and the Philippines where, in a quest for cheaper costs, they can more easily evade worker rights and environmental regulations. This global corporate economy pits U.S. workers and communities against poorly enforced Third World worker rights and environmental rules in a “race to the bottom” in terms of rights and standards. These global firms simply say to governments and workers: lower your wages and standards or we will move our operations elsewhere. They either get what they want or they move.

And, just as Wall Street speculators rewarded elected officials in the United States who passed local and national laws to remove regulations, so too did the global manufacturing firms reward members of Congress who passed trade and investment rules that gave corporations protections. Case in point: the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement which granted corporations powerful rights and protections while offering only weak social and environmental “clauses.”

The 1990s era of globalization accelerated the proliferation of global assembly lines with sweatshop conditions. United Students Against Sweatshops and others have exposed the horrors of garment assembly lines for decades. Today the exposès continue, most recently of Apple’s global assembly lines. As a January 2012 New York Times investigation revealed, hundreds of thousands of workers assembling Apple iPhones in China are denied basic rights, exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals, and live in squalor.

With this lens, one can better assess President Obama’s recent tour of industrial states where he proclaimed that manufacturing jobs are returning to the United States in part because wages and working conditions here are now “competitive.” “Competitive” masks the grim reality that real U.S. manufacturing wages have been stagnating or falling over this period and workers have accepted lower wages to prevent the real threat of corporations moving their jobs to China. This is hardly something we should applaud; we want good jobs – good for workers, good for the environment, good for community.

Adding this global component also reveals more about what needs to be part of our agenda for change. Until now, most of the 99 percent agenda has focused on reducing inequality by reining in Wall Street and cutting its influence on our corrupted politics. Many groups have advocated forfairer taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street, and various measures to prevent the one percent from purchasing elections and elected officials. These are critical starting points.

But to these important proposals, let us also add new mechanisms to enforce internationally recognized worker rights and environmental standards everywhere, including workers’ rights to organize independent unions, an end to child labor, and the right for communities to know of potential environmental dangers. Another way to support this “race to the top” is by ending trade agreements that provide corporations with investor rights to sue governments but do not provide workers or communities or the environment with stronger protections.

Likewise, let us also push proposals to shift the incentives away from global trade and investment and back toward revitalizing “Main Street”by encouraging more production and investment locally. Much of what is traded across borders, from food to clothing to electronic gadgets, can be produced—with less stress on the environment—much closer to home. Worker-owned co-ops in Cleveland, for example, are now producing food and linen for local hospitals and universities that used to come from far away.

This expansion of the Occupy story to address to challenges of corporate globalization is one logical next step in the Occupy trajectory. Indeed, many in the Occupy movements have already embraced Occupy protests and movements in other countries, from England to Nigeria to dozens of other countries around the world. Let us embrace the 99 percent everywhere with a global analysis and a global agenda.

Robin Broad is Professor of International Development at the School of International Service at American University.

John Cavanagh is a fellow in Global Economy at IPS. He is the co-author of 10 books and numerous articles on the global economy, including Development Redefined: How the Market Met Its Match (2008, Paradigm Publishers), written with Robin Broad.

This article originally appeared on IPS.

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