Mick Rice argues workers have potential power in another arena under global corporate capitalism.
It has always galled me that unions do all in their power to organise in the workplace but then carelessly allow their members to go back home and spend their wages on products made by anti-union employers. General secretaries and other full-time officers that take pride in being issued the latest Apple iPhone particularly upset me! Of course, the Apple iPhone is a great piece of kit. A boycott campaign may be ethically appropriate but it is difficult to build successful campaigns on guilt-tripping the masses into accepting second best.
At the outset the workers’ movement took an interest in retail. In those days, employers in company towns would sometimes have ‘tally shops’ some of which sold adulterated goods. The development of the retail cooperative movement came about to exert worker and local community control over buying goods.
It is relatively easy to describe a world where human solidarity reigns supreme and we are all nice to one another. It is a little more difficult to work out what we should do when we get out of bed tomorrow morning to bring about this (aka world socialism)! We ought to also remember that within the interstices of the old feudal order, quasi-capitalist formations developed. Whilst production and retail cooperatives can be cited as precursors of a new world based on mutuality, the left needs to develop strategies for harnessing the power of the internet.
Some unions promote the sale of goods and services to their own members. Whilst, no union would want to promote products that are shoddy or overpriced – they are using ‘Honest Joe’ recommendations to get commission or price reductions. In some larger unions, this can amount to several millions of pounds per annum. This approach has been developed most fully in Australia where Union Shopper now provides online shopping deals for a large group of unions. The small relative size of Australian unions meant that they found it useful to merge some of their affinity activities on a multi-union basis. In some countries, there have been campaigns to promote products made by organised labour. The Union Label campaign in the USA is an example. However, this campaign is constrained by a nationalistic America First approach.
All of the constraints to international consumer solidarity in the workers’ movement are fast disappearing. The Internet gives the left, throughout the world, the opportunity to develop new strategies
In 2018, the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), involving former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufaki, and the Sanders Institute, founded by relatives of Bernie Sanders, issued a call for progressives throughout the world to unite. The Progressive International (PI) is the result. It also has supporters throughout the developing world as socialist academics and left-wing politicians have joined. The PI has national and continental federations. It has a head office in London. Individuals can join as members and union branches and political organisations can affiliate. The PI Council contains an impressive array of academics such as Noam Chomsky, Naoimi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis and Slavoj Žižek on its Council. It also contains left-wing politicians from around the globe including John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn.
It does most of its work via internet discussions on policy. DiEM25, for example, does weekly Zoom meetings and they are then published on YouTube (see https://progressive.international). The PI does not appear to have local branches at a town or city level – although it may well wish to see these develop. But if local branches are to be sustainable, they require ongoing programmes of work. Local branches will also need to address whether candidates should stand in elections.
The PI could adopt an International Union Label through promoting the sale of goods from organised workplaces from anywhere in the world. In turn, this means that we need to adopt a set of minimum labour conditions that are applicable everywhere. Strikes to obtain or enforce these minimum standards should be supported by a global solidarity fund.
International labour minimum standards commenced with the demand for the 8-hour day, initiated by American unions. In turn, this was the precursor to May Day as the 1 May was designated as the international strike day to obtain the 8-hour day by the founding conference of the Second International in 1889, after receiving a request from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This early focus on international action showed that workers understood that a gain in one country could not easily be sustained unless it was adopted in all industrialised countries.
So, the PI should set up a trading platform, bigger than Amazon. Where 1% of the value of all transactions will be paid into the aforementioned global solidarity fund. This will be used to support workers’ rights and against companies that chisel paying fair taxes. The fund will be under the control of the PI. In doing so, the idea of global ‘solidarity shopping’ can be promoted.
The PI can adopt its own international minimum labour standards. It is problematic to establish a pay minimum as currencies fluctuate so it will be easier to apply standards to working conditions. This could include hours of the working day and the working week, paid maternity and paternity leave as well annual holiday entitlement. All companies advertising goods on the Solidarity Shopping website must confirm that they support international minimum labour standards and agree to pay 1% of sale income from the site to the global solidarity fund. The PI can also promote international fair taxes.
Many of the current leading corporations that are internet-based, originated or were developed in the US. They often act as middlemen, link the purchaser with the supplier but often do not produce anything themselves. One can think of Booking.com, Uber, Amazon, Google, Facebook and so on.
At one time, I ran a small hotel and every October, booking.com would advise that – as we were now at the end of season – we could be placed higher up their rankings and get more bookings provided we agreed to pay 25% commission rather than 15%! Independent producer suppliers have been squeezed by Amazon which gives preferential exposure if they agree to pay the 12% sales commission for using its ‘market place’ sales portal. For the supplier, this commission covers advertising and promotional costs.
So, let us imagine that a representative of Solidarity Shopping arrives at the door and says that Solidarity Shopping will put your products on its website on the basis that 10% of the sale price is paid as commission. Of course, payment is only made on actual sales through a monthly retrospective direct debit. Then the local Solidarity Shopping group gets the 10% and pays a tenth, i.e., 1% of actual sale price), to the Global Solidarity Fund and another 5% (or whatever) for website costs. This then still leaves 4% for local campaign purposes to be used by the local PI branches.
Radical coders could set up a Solidarity Shopping website. Such a site would rival Amazon and help finance campaigns for worthy causes everywhere. People want ‘good deals’ but, as most people are reasonable, they are also prepared to pay a price that ensures union pay and conditions for those making the products. After all, they – or members of their families – will be working and producing goods and services as well! It sounds like a tall order for the left to set up an ethical international trading organisation to rival Amazon. But just as a march of 10,000 miles starts with the first step, so setting up a huge international trading conglomerate starts with a step-by-step plan. New York, San Francisco, London and Berlin could be chosen as trial locations where local PI groups approach local suppliers to secure the best price for goods and services to be marketed in their locality.
Mick Rice was a research officer for the AUEW engineering union. He is now the secretary of the UNITE Retired Members branch in Glasgow.