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A Progressive’s Progress

Daniel Tortorice raises some valid points in his article [“The Real Progress of the Progressive Movement,” August 22] about progressives seeming short-sighted with regard to the plight of developing countries, but his plausible-sounding abstract arguments do not square with reality. For anyone interested in examining the facts, I highly recommend No Logo by Naomi Klein. She outlines the deep changes in many Western multinationals during the 1990s, such as globalization, and actually visited and talked to workers in the Third World.

The first “myth” Tortorice defends is that minimum wage and other labor laws will drive up the prices of goods manufactured in developing nations. However, wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing from developed countries to third world “export processing zones” has immensely reduced labor costs -- and increased corporate profits and marketing budgets. Increasing third world wages will have a very small effect on corporate bottom lines, and would mainly decrease profits and marketing expenditures. Even in the United States, minimum-wage hikes are barely noticeable in terms of employment or inflation.

Another “myth” he maintains is that “free trade” is indeed beneficial for third-world workers: it provides them a new option, and why would they choose it if they didn’t want it? There is much truth in this logic, but too often this degenerates into a mindless defense of the status quo. Remember that people can be coerced; they can be lied to; they can be desperate and take any job that comes along for fear of starvation; they can be forced out of school and sent to a sweatshop by their family.

Let us dare to ask the 16-year-old Filipino girls who manufacture our Nikes, rather than blithely declaring that all is right with the world. Klein did this, and was met with outrage when she suggested the rural migrant factory workers preferred this life to farming. They explained to her how many of their families were forced off their land (which they were never allowed to own) by “development” (such as golf courses, export processing zones), and therefore had to go wherever work was available. They described the lies about high wages they were told by recruiters from the factories -- much like the promises made about Manila’s sex trade.

These workers want some other small things, such as democracy, unions, the right to strike, enforcement of labor and environment standards. Such denials of what we now consider basic rights, rather than people’s free choice, are largely responsible for the miserable conditions much of the third world faces. In order to benefit from industrialization, American and European workers had to struggle and not meekly accept their lot. Change finally occurred through unions, government action, strikes, journalistic muckraking, public outrage, boycotts and other progressive action -- precisely the tools workers in the Third World are trying to wield.

We should never rely on soothing platitudes to explain complex and painful human situations. We should open our eyes to the facts of globalization., and our ears to what people of developing countries are trying to say. We should hear echoes of our own history in the emerging struggles of third world workers for a better life; and as then, we should act.

David Strozzi G