In recent weeks, major American unions in heavy industry — like auto, steel, communications, etc. — have been behaving in a nontraditional fashion. Instead of demanding wage increases, they are accepting wage freezes. Instead of insisting that plant closings by mammoth corporations be a no-no, they have agreed to such closings although that has meant the loss of thousands of jobs by union members.
What gives here? Are the union leaders being bought out (bribed) by corporations to betray their members? Hardly. The leaders of the unions involved are people of integrity and dedication.
What has happened is that Ananke has stepped into American labor relations. Ananke is one of the ancient Greek gods who enjoys eternal life. He is the god of necessity. Although Ananke has never enjoyed the fame of Zeus or Poseidon, the ancient story says that when he stepped into a room, all the Gods bowed down before him.
American unions in manufacturing are being driven not by desire and not by ascending aspirations but by necessity. They know that they must comply — or die.
Faced with the movement of auto manufacture from the United States to countries where wages are a tiny fraction of what they are here, American automakers are simply unable to provide the jobs they once boasted, and the corporations are closing plants that are a drain on their resources. The unions know it, and they are adjusting to the rotten realities. They are bowing before Ananke.
Ananke is powerful, but he is also limited in his vision. He knows what must be done to survive, but he does not know how to change circumstances. And that can bring on a killer crisis in the days ahead.
Wage freezes and plant closings mean that millions of workers in manufacture will lose billions of dollars each year. In our market economy, their loss of buying power will mean a loss of buying power by workers in both the manufacturing and service sectors.
So is there anything that can be done to reverse this downward spiral into despair? Yes, there is. But it cannot be carried out locally; it must be handled globally. There is a great potential market out there: the billions of people in the Third World who work for pennies per hour to produce goods sold in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. They sell to us, but they do not have the means to buy from us. But there is something we can do about that.
There is an arm of the United Nations known as the International Labor Organization. For years, the ILO has been working on codes of fair employment for people everywhere — minimum wages, maximum hours, free labor, no child labor, the right to join unions, the right to strike. The ILO has the program, but it lacks the power.
If the code of the ILO were made an essential part of every trade agreement under the World Trade Organization, the people of the Third World would not only live better but would also provide a market for the United States and Europe. Could this come to pass? Yes, if we (Uncle Sam) pursue a policy of working with the European Union for a common cause.