The owners of capital have had a great run over the past few decades. They've made a killing by exploiting an open global trading system, an abundance of cheap labor, and technological advances. Times have been so good that Forbes lists a record 1,645 billionaires worldwide, including 268 new ones in just the past year.
Yet nothing lasts forever, and systems that favor the few over the many are especially vulnerable to disruption. It's always hard to say when the shift will come, or what will mark a turning point. For instance, who would have thought that the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia would set the whole Middle East ablaze? But it did.
And it's not beyond imagination that we could look back on May 15, 2014, as a key turning point. Today, U.S. fast-workers are staging a protest for higher wages in 150 cities -- and protests are also happening in 80 cities in more than 30 countries. This is a big deal for a bunch of reasons, including a fact I discussed last week
: Which is that as restaurant and retail chains have gone global, a new basis of international labor solidarity has emerged, with workers in different countries doing the same jobs for the same employers -- and for the same lousy low wages.
That's different than the heretofore more typical face of globalization: Which that some guy in China is doing a job that some guy in Cleveland used to do. Labor solidarity is a tough sell when workers in the Global South and North are directly competing against each other. It's another story when the guy in Beijing is making caffe lattes for Starbucks, and the guy in Cleveland has the exact same job.
But apart from that, there are reasons to think the moment is ripe for a new and powerful global labor movement. As the Arab Spring showed, we live in very dynamic -- indeed, volatile -- times, where social media has greatly empowered ordinary citizens who want change, and where mass media feeds people's appetites for better lives. When you have rising empowerment coupled with rising expectations, watch out.
Record levels of inequality everywhere are a big driver, too. One thing about all those new billionaires -- who can now be found in practically every last corner of the earth -- is that they incite envy and questions about fairness. So even as globalization succeeds in pulling millions out of poverty and helps build a new middle class, legions still work for abysmal pay. These people want more, and for good reason: they deserve a better return on their labor.
So whether today is a turning point or just another step forward, one thing is for certain: the battle between capital and labor is entering a new phase.