Coming Next Thursday: A New Global Labor Movement?

Globalization has kept labor unions on the defensive for nearly forty years now. While workers are pretty much stuck where they live, corporations are able to move production around to find the lowest wages. But labor has gotten better over the years at exploiting a globalized world for its own aims, and we may see a big step forward on that front when fast-food workers stage their first-ever global strike on May 15 against multinational giants like McDonald's. 
 
It's true that globalization has put more cards in the hands of capital. But today's far more interconnected world is also creates ripe terrain for activists, too. Once upon a time, it cost a fortune to make international calls -- giving rich companies a huge upper hand in operating at a global level. Now you can convene a video meeting of organizers on Skype for free, and I hardly need to spell out the power of social media to spread a message in the wake of the Arab Spring. So when it comes to communications and information warfare, the playing field has been significantly leveled, giving civil society actors far more power than they've ever had before. That's already changed the dynamic around labor issues -- for example, with anti-sweatshop activists and unions working across borders, most recently after that building collapse in Bangladesh. And, of course, the global organizing successes of environmentalists and human rights activists are well known.
 
But something else has changed, too. Which is that economic globalization is not just about moving a factory from one country to another in search of lower wages. More and more, it's about corporations doing business globally with outlets all over the world that deal directly with consumers. And perhaps no sector has been more at the forefront of this than fast food restaurants, with top U.S. chains operating all over the world. 
 
That international reach has greatly boosted the profits of McDonald's, Yum! Brands, and other companies. But it's also a point of vulnerability as workers press for higher wages in the fast-food industry. Through worldwide action, labor can bring pressure on these companies in nations where unions are a lot stronger. 
 
And it all starts one week from today. 
 
That's when a federation comprised of 396 trade unions in 126 countries will launch the first global fast-food workers strike. The date of the strike, May 15, was not chosen randomly: It echoes the demand of U.S. workers for wages of $15 an hour. Workers from dozens of country on six continents are expected to hold protests at McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and other restaurants. 
 
This will be interesting. 
 
The dream of a worldwide labor movement has been around since the dawn of the 20th century, and animated one of the most radical labor groups of the progressive era, the International Workers of the World, or "Wobblies." But the rise of communism complicated everything and, more recently, globalization pitted workers against each other. 
 
But the situation has evolved, with many workers worldwide now doing the same job functions for the same giant companies: flipping burgers for McDonald's, selling iPhones for Apple, making caffe lattes for Starbucks. A new era of solidarity and joint labor actions should now be possible. 
 
We'll start to find out next Thursday. 
 

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