Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class

Aviva Chomsky, Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

What is the connection between factory closures in the United States and paramilitary death squads in Colombia? Or how about the connection between Chiquita bananas in supermarkets and textile sweatshops anywhere in the world? Why didn’t immigration to the United States just stop after your grandparents or great-grandparents arrived? And what does that have to do with the price of things at Wal-Mart? And why in the world are people boycotting Coca Cola? And even, what in the world is the relation between eugenics and New England utopianism?

Ask Aviva Chomsky, or, if you don’t happen to know her, read her book Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class. If you have questions and doubts about what globalization is, and how it works, this book will answer a lot of them, and set you on the path to answering more. If you think you already know the ABCs of globalization, there are still a lot of important details in this book that you probably don’t know.

The author begins her story in New England, where the industrial revolution first spread to the United States in the form of the textile industry. She describes two now-forgotten textile industry strikes: the 1913 strike at Draper looms, a terrible defeat for workers; and the 1933 Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company strike, a landmark victory.

Choosing the New England textile industry as a model for the study of globalization naturally takes Chomsky to the issue of immigration from other countries: Canada, Italy, and most recently Colombia. Why? Historically immigrants have always formed the bulk of the labor force in New England textile mills. This connection may have been especially obvious to Chomsky, since New England is where she grew up and now lives. She is currently Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State College.1

In both textile strikes, management, the news media, most of local government, and AFL union leaders tried to pit more privileged workers from older waves of immigration against less privileged recent immigrants. Why? To lower wages, speed-up workers, increase labor efficiency, lay off “unneeded” workers” and maybe stave off plant closures. At least the last argument was the one used by the AFL leaders and local politicians. (The industrial engineers – aka “efficiency experts” – and accountants were more prone to the other arguments.) Especially in the Naumkeag strike, the threat of plant closure was used against the strikers.

The author then follows the thread of textile industry plant closures in New England, and plant openings: first in the racist, non-union US South East, and then overseas starting in the US colony of Puerto Rico, and finally on to Medellín, Colombia. Outsourcing and maquiladoras were born long before anyone in the United States ever heard the names. From the textile industry in Medellín, Chomsky explores threads of globalization to other parts of Colombia: the paramilitary-terrorized zones of Uraba (banana plantations) and La Guaijara (coal mining). Not surprisingly, she finds that the threads come right back to New England in the form of cheap bananas in supermarkets for poorly paid immigrant textile workers, and cheap coal to generate electricity for Salem, Massachusetts.

The “race to the bottom” – meaning the never-ending search for lower production costs which characterizes all capitalist production – is one of the key themes of this book. Cutting labor costs is always crucial to cutting production costs. Management has used a variety of techniques to achieve this end. Within any one company there is always pressure to add new labor saving-technology, implement speed-ups, and enforce wage cuts. On the bigger scale, companies in imperialist countries – with the assistance of governments – can recruit immigrant workers who, used to lower standards of living, normally accept lower wages and poorer working conditions and benefits than “native” workers.

The next logical step is to move whole factories to sites of cheap labor. These are often places where workers’ self-organization is attacked by state and paramilitary terror, where workers have few legal rights, and where there are teeming hordes of dispossessed peasants with literally nothing to sell but their labor. It gets even better for “investors” when a lot of these workers already know how to run the machines, having been previously trained to run them by the “national” bourgeoisie. This was the case for the Medellín textile industry, where US textile companies entered into joint partnerships with the local textile barons.

Ironically, the use of Draper Looms in Medellín, by the very large Colombian textile manufacturers, led to the flow of Colombian immigrants into the dying New England textile industry in the second half of the 20th century. By then nobody in New England knew how to fix the old machines, but the Colombian mechanics were experts. Their recruitment opened the doors to the wave of Colombian migrants to New England – a wave which then filled the remaining textile mills and spread into service industries, construction, etc.

One of the key questions Aviva Chomsky addresses is why workers in “lesser developed countries” are used to working for lower wages and under poorer conditions than those in the USA. Here is part of her answer.

Region has a relationship to inequality, but it is not an obvious or direct one. As a result of the modern colonial system which can be conveniently dated, perhaps, to 1492, the world appears to be divided into wealthy areas, the former colonizers who amassed wealth by extracting it from their colonies, and poor areas, the former colonies who became impoverished through the extraction of their resources by the metropolises. The poverty of Latin America, Asia, and Africa today is in large part a result of a massive five-hundred-year resource shift out of these areas into Europe and the United States.

The impact of this resource-shift is brought out in Chomsky’s matter-of-fact yet horrifying chapters on the neoliberal experiment in the Uruba region of Colombia, and the relationships of US multinationals Chiquita Brands (formerly United Fruit Company), Drummond Company, and Coca Cola with the Colombian military and paramilitary death squads.

Plan Colombia, although justified at first by the “war against drugs” and later by the “war against terrorism,” was in fact a war against organized workers. Although much of the world saw both the paramilitary organizations and the left-wing guerrillas as terrorists, the Colombian government attributed terrorism only to the left, and perhaps especially the unarmed left in the trade unions and electoral parties.

Just to be even-handed, Chomsky includes a speech given by General Rito Alejo, military commander in Uraba during a period of barbaric massacres, to a delegation from the Colombian support network which went there on a fact-finding mission in 1997. But her description of the grisly events during Alejo’s tour in the region puts the lie to his speech and to subsequent government statements.2

Chomsky also examines the internal politics of labor in the US, Puerto Rico and Colombia, and shows some of the conflicts among workers and within unions over speed-ups, anti-immigrant policies, factory closures, and US sponsorship of repression against workers in other countries. The sad truth is that the “mainstream” of the US labor movement has through most of its history embraced a white racist position which excluded black workers, and often supported harsh anti-immigrant policies. Chomsky details how this played into the anti-union policies of America Firsters, and led the AFL-CIO through AIFLD (the American Institute for Free Labor Development) to support union-busting in other countries.

But Chomsky is hopeful, for there has always been a countertrend inspired by the principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” This trend was represented in the 1913 Draper Loom strike by the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party, and, in the 1933 strike, by Communist Party union organizer Ann Burlak. Today Chomsky sees some hope in recent changes in the AFL-CIO: “Since the 1980s, the link between US policy and the repression of labor abroad, and the implication for workers in the United States have become part of the consciousness of the mainstream labor movement. The dismantling of AIFLD in the 1990s and its replacement with Solidarity Center is symbolic of this recognition” (286).

Linked Labor Histories is an informative, thought-provoking explanation of how workers’ struggles within the imperialist centers are linked to those in countries dominated by imperialism.

Reviewed by Ted Zuur
Bogotá, Colombia
tedzuur@yahoo.com

Notes

1. For an interesting interview with Aviva Chomsky, see
http://odeo.com/episodes/15284163-Aviva-Chomsky-Interview.

2. Alejo was subsequently arrested on a charge of murder. For an account from Colombia’s mainstream press, see
www.semana.com/noticias-print-edition/no-escaping-the-past/115807.aspx.

This entry was posted in 49, Volume 23, No. 1. Bookmark the permalink.