Bruce Raynor ’72, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), spoke at the College of Industrial and Labor Relations late last week about the effects of globalization and the increase in service sector jobs on the American worker.
Particularly in the automobile and textile industries, workers in the United States for the past three decades have seen their factories close and their work move south to nations where it may be much easier for employers to pay poverty rates due to almost no union presence, Raynor said. But even in Latin America, where employees “make fifty cents an hour,” according to Raynor, jobs are being displaced to Asian nations where labor can be obtained at an even cheaper rate.
Typically progressive employers like Levi-Strauss, which Raynor has negotiated successfully with in the past for U.S. contracts, are also closing their American factories. According to Raynor, workers are displaced not because companies cannot afford to keep them open but because it is simply cheaper to employ overseas laborers.
When Raynor graduated from Cornell, the largest single employer in the United States was General Motors with a total employment of about 750,000 workers. The auto industry had strong unionization at the time despite declines in the proportion of total workers unionized in the U.S. GM workers had good benefits and lived a relatively comfortable lower middle class existence, according to Raynor. The single largest employer in 2003 is Wal-Mart, where many workers according to Raynor are paid so little that they live in poverty.
Wal-Mart is not just bad on the wage front for American workers, but also for foreign workers. According to Raynor, the general Wal-Mart tactic when a new supercenter is opened in an area is to set their prices so low that competing business are forced to close shop. Wal-Mart is able to keep prices low because they buy their goods, particularly clothing, from overseas factories that pay miniscule wages, Raynor said.
On a purely intellectual level, Raynor is able to accept that Wal-Mart drives production out of the U.S. because they make no false pretenses. Employers like Nike, according to Raynor, claim to have inspectors in foreign factories to ensure adequate working standards, yet exploitation in Nike factories continues.
UNITE was formed in 1995 as a merger between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The union represents 250,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada and primarily attempts to organize industrial laundry firms and the distribution and retail industries. Recently, they were successful in organizing laundry workers in Washington, D.C. “In Washington, D.C., where decisions are made to spend billions of dollars in Iraq, there was not one organized laundry worker,” Raynor said.
According to Raynor, UNITE was able to secure “wage increases, pensions and two sick days each year” for laundry workers at Sterling Laundry, the largest laundry firm in Washington, D.C., through a variety of hardline tactics. UNITE makes it clear in its campaigns that it will combat aggressively anti-union firms with unfair labor practice charges, lawsuits and if necessary, strikes. “The only way to combat globalization in America is to use whatever tools necessary,” Raynor said.
Corina Fitzpatrick ’05 respected Raynor’s viewpoints, but disagreed with the blatantly anti-employer message UNITE sends in its campaigns. “I think what he was saying was true — a lot needs to be done to help the stimulation of U.S. workers. But what turned me off the most were the tactics he uses,” Fitzpatrick said.
Annie Kim ’05 learned from Raynor’s speech the intrinsic connection between Wal-Mart and increased globalization and felt that “[the idea] made sense. I feel like he was passionate about workers and the benefits they should be getting.”
UNITE is also active on the Cornell campus through the Cornell Organization for Labor Action. As part of a campaign with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to organize the laundry company Cintas, which according to Raynor pays “80 percent of its 17,000 workers poverty wages,” UNITE has enlisted help from students on campuses across the nation. At Cornell, Cintas is the laundry and uniform provider for the Statler Hotel and COLA is asking that the Statler management reconsider its contract with Cintas.
Archived article by Clark Merrefield