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Reviewed by:
  • Can Labor Standards Improve Under Globalization?, and: Labour and Globalisation: Results and Prospects
  • Erik Peterson
Can Labor Standards Improve Under Globalization? By Kimberly Ann Elliot and Richard B. Freeman. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics. 2003. 179 pp. $25 paper.
Labour and Globalisation: Results and Prospects. Edited by Ronaldo Munck. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2004. 254 pp. $75 hardback, $35 paper.

Can Labor Standards Improve Under Globalization? begins by posing several critical questions. Should labor standards be part of global trade agreements and, if so, can they improve the lives of workers? Who should administer and enforce these standards and how? How effective are corporate "codes of conduct" and what role do consumers, activists, unions, and others play in improving working conditions and empowering workers in poor countries?

Elliott and Freeman reject globalization's dichotomization of proponents of free trade and their opponents who argue for strong labor standards to stop the free-trader's "race to the bottom." Using the image of Siamese twins, they argue that both proponents of liberalized trade and proponents of higher labor standards share vital common interests, just as Siamese twins oftentimes share vital organs. One side may be stronger than the other, but neither can survive or advance without the other.

They debunk many of the neo-liberal homilies, such as that globalization and liberalized trade make labor standards unnecessary and that increased labor standards will strip less developed countries of their comparative advantage. But neither do Elliott and Freeman spare the sacred canon of neo-liberalism's opponents. They argue strenuously against protectionism and counter that liberalized trade is not simply a downward spiral of working conditions and standards of living.

This book's strength is its refusal to present a simplistic program. Elliot and Freeman argue that only through multiple market and political strategies will liberalized global trade be a positive force for improving the lives of workers. Consumers have a role in creating a market for products produced under favorable labor practices, and human rights activists must continue to campaign for effective corporate codes of conduct and for certification processes that ensure consumers can make educated choices. The authors argue for an expanded role for the ILO, and they promote specific ways core labor standards could be incorporated into trade agreements themselves.

As a whole, this book offers an inspiring and positive alternative framework for any global trade activist frustrated with the limited (and ultimately self-defeating) critique of "Hey, hey, ho, ho, globalization has got to go."

Labour and Globalisation aspires to be a collection of essays read "by trade union activists themselves as well as by academics and researchers." [End Page 99] Unfortunately, the introduction's multiple quotations and poststructuralist deconstruction of the "globalization narrative" will deter many rank and file trade unionists (and not a few academics and researchers).

This is unfortunate since the collection's key premise is a sound one —globalization is neither monolithic nor are its outcomes pre-determined. Munck sees that organized labor has a critical role in shaping this global economy, but that it faces serious challenges with declining membership and employer anti-union activities. To be relevant, he asserts, the labor movement must re-establish itself as a social movement within the global economy.

From this simple starting point, the collection's essays go every which way and ultimately do not add up to a satisfying whole. Most of the essays do well identifying the challenges unions face under globalization, and U.S. readers will see striking familiarities with the assault on labor unions by transnational corporations in Great Britain and elsewhere. But as a whole they do a rather poor job of posing concrete examples for new directions.

A notable exception is Richard Hyman's opening essay, "An Emerging Agenda for Trade Unions." According to Hyman, trade unions have historically acted both as "sword of justice" and as "vested interest." He suggests that labor can reclaim relevancy by again acting as a "sword of justice" and winning the battle for the "hearts and minds of people." He identifies five values appropriated by the neo-liberals and argues that unions can win this battle over ideas only by offering...


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pp. 99-101
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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