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Globalization has become a buzzword in the boardrooms and on the barricades. It has brought about fundamental changes in the relationship between governments and corporations and corresponding changes in the living and working conditions of the world’s people.

In Canada, governments use the language of globalization to radically reform society for the benefit of a few. If you ask most Canadians to describe the changes in their families, workplaces and communities over the past few years you will hear stories of increased pressure, more work, less security, higher stress levels and deteriorating social conditions.

Corporations and the rich benefit from the dismantling of social programs, tax cuts and the war on debt and deficits. Meanwhile, the numbers of homeless grow, people are cut off social assistance, more families use food banks and unionized jobs are eliminated. As well, basic social programs are eroded or eliminated, and human rights are under attack.

For CUPE members, globalization means their workloads both change and increase. There is also the threat of their jobs, and public services, being privatized as multinational corporations strive to expand markets and increase profits.

There’s huge pressure, through trade negotiations and global business lobbying, to change investment rules to speed up privatization. Thus, ‘efficiencies’ are imposed on public services that cut jobs, speed up work and increase reliance on centralized and automated processes.

At the same time, the potential pool of workers is affected by globalization. With global companies linked by the Internet, competition for a data clerk’s job in a CUPE workplace in Canada could easily include a data clerk working in a private corporation in Seoul or Singapore.

What does it really mean?

Globalization is about reducing the role of government and the power of states, allowing corporations to move wealth, goods and services freely without regard for labour, health and safety, or environmental standards.

Globalization strips power from democratically elected governments and civil society and places it in the hands of corporations whose chief concern is to maximize profit and move transactions from the public to the private sphere.

As Jacques Attali put it in a 1997 Foreign Policy magazine article called “The Crash of Western Civilization: The Limits of the Market and Democracy”:

As legislatures and courts lose power to central banks and corporations, market elites will become stronger than democratic elites, further shrinking the reach and appeal of the public sphere…Eventually, democracy will fade away, having been replaced by market mechanisms and corruption.”

In the new global economy citizens have become consumers who vote with their purchasing power. Of concern to CUPE is the notion that public services become goods to be bought and sold and have value through their connection to the marketplace.

Freedom becomes identified as the freedom to choose between products. Food, health, environment, labour, education, art, and people themselves are seen as commodities.

As Dr. Elaine Bernard, Executive Director of the Harvard Trade Union Program, states:

In a democracy, the practice is ‘one person, one vote.’ The humblest and most distinguished citizen are equal, with each having only one vote. But in the marketplace, it’s ‘one dollar, one vote,’ which, despite an appearance of neutrality and equality, is an inherently unjust equation that privileges the rich at the expense of the poor.”

Globalization has been described as a global race to the bottom for workers and maximum profit and freedom for corporations. The few restrictions that remain to the free movement of goods, services and capital are on the table in a variety of international bodies, including the World Trade Organization.

Globalization creates competitive pressure to lower labour costs and weaken or dismantle social programs. Public sector workers face a “double whammy” as a result of employers striving to keep their costs down and cut jobs and services altogether.

Globalization is a key factor in the drive to privatize. The arguments to lower labour costs and turn over more of the public sector to private corporations is driven by the mantra of globalization and the need to compete globally.

The twin pressures of aggressive competition and the drive to privatize combine to increase workloads for public sector workers.

Who are the winners and losers in the globalization game?

For corporations and most media, globalization is an unquestioned good. So there is a reluctance to look critically at the facts and examine the consequences.

They equate globalization with open borders and free markets. It is therefore unacceptable to the promoters of globalization to hear stories of hardship, deprivation, disease, displacement, and turmoil.

If globalization isn’t working, they say, it must be because people aren’t working hard enough, aren’t accepting it into their hearts. So the victims of globalization – many of them CUPE members and the people who use public services – are blamed for its inadequacies rather than questioning the policy itself.

The winners in the globalization game amass even larger fortunes. Corporations and banks generate even higher profits. Financial and political elites enjoy an unprecedented accumulation of power, wealth and control.

Globalization is a blueprint for racism and sexism

There is no denying the underlying sexist and racist nature of globalization. Women are the first to be laid off. They also have to endure the brunt of extra household responsibilities due to SAPs and the flight of capital.

Societies the world over consign household and caring responsibilities to women. When economic policies constrict the role of the state to the provision of basic social and human needs women’s unpaid and underpaid work expands to meet the deficit.

These conditions are worse for women in countries of the South where basic subsistence is often in the hands of women and unpaid work to feed and clothe families take up every available hour in a day.

The countries of the North are responsible, through globalization, for worsening work, domestic and environmental conditions in the countries of the South. The impact on women has been devastating:

Jeanne Vickers, writing in the book Women and the World Economic Crisis, says:

When we speak of the ‘poorest of the poor’, we are almost always speaking about women. Poor men in the developing world have even poorer wives and children. And there is no doubt that recession, the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies have placed the heaviest burden on poor women, who earn less, own less, and control less.”

Over 1.3 billion people worldwide now live on less than one dollar per day and 70 per cent of them are women and children. Meanwhile, the number of billionaires continues to climb. In 1987 there were 98 billionaires in the world and in 1993 there were 233. The 1997 UNDP Human Development Report states, “…to provide universal access to basic social services and transfers to alleviate income poverty would cost roughly $80 billion - less than the combined net worth of the seven richest men in the world.”

Human rights are under fire around the world as globalization gains momentum. The need to ensure protection for women, workers of colour, Aboriginal workers, workers with disabilities, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered workers is sacrificed for the sake of global competitiveness. The growing scapegoating of already marginalized people is part of the agenda of global corporate restructuring for dominance in the marketplace.

What does it cost us?

The disparities between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, have never been starker. And the gap is widening.

In 1960, the income gap between the richest and poorest fifths of the world’s population was 30 to 1. In 1997, it was 74 to 1.

In the developing countries of the South, globalization is advanced through structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Countries with large debts are coerced into these programs as a condition for renegotiation and extension of loans. SAPs invariably involve:

  • cuts in government spending;
  • privatization of public enterprises;
  • strong promotion of exports;
  • currency devaluations;
  • high interest rates;
  • strict control of credit and money supply;
  • removal of controls on trade and exchange;
  • deregulation of wages and prices;
  • belief that labour markets need to be more “flexible” and social programs cut to deal with international competition; and
  • Advocacy of “free trade” in goods and services, free circulation of capital, and freedom of investment.

In the industrialized countries of the North, many of these same criteria are used to justify transforming the economy to benefit corporate financial elites.

Although Canadians are showered with news of stock markets and investment indexes, only 10 per cent of Canadians own 70 per cent of private financial wealth such as stocks, bonds, securities and mutual funds.

Canada’s political and corporate leaders have spoken with one voice in encouraging Canadians to fight debt and deficits, cut social program spending, liberalize trade, promote exports, privatize public services and reduce the role of government.

But who pays the price? It is public sector workers and public service users.

Resistance is growing

Globally, the tide has begun to turn. Work being done in coalition with social partners has begun to bear fruit. Government and corporate leaders meeting to advance the cause of globalization have been met with massive resistance. The action of security forces to silence protesters have been exposed in case after case.

In Canada, security actions at the APEC meetings in Vancouver and at the meetings of the World Petroleum Conference in Calgary have brought the merging of state and corporate interests into the limelight.

Protests at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle represent a watershed in the resistance to the liberalized trade agenda. Opponents of globalization have focused efforts on building links to movements in other parts of the world. They are developing alliances and coalitions that can effectively counter the major global corporate actors.

Some have referred to the unprecedented mobilization and coordination in Seattle as a form of ‘globalization from below.’ The connection between organized groups of people working to expose the negative effects of free market globalization policies on the majority of the world’s people was powerful. Governments, the media and corporate leaders were taken aback with the strength, passion and coherence of the protesters.

The World March of Women 2000 provided another opportunity for women to voice their collective opposition to the forces of corporate globalization and expose its injustices and exploitation.

In activities around the globe, women reaffirmed their understanding that the dominance of the market economy and the rise in conservatism have had a devastating effect on women’s economic and social security.

Many CUPE members participated in the world march, calling attention to needed improvements in women’s economic and social conditions. CUPE launched a national campaign to raise women’s wages as part of our support for the goals of the march.

There are campaigns that highlight the production process and ask consumers to question the hidden working conditions. Groups, such as the Labour Behind the Labour campaign, ask consumers to pressure companies about wages, benefits, safe working conditions and the right to organize.

Unions and social movements have been working together across borders to build regional and sectoral alliances. CUPE has been working with the Canadian Labour Congress, the Council of Canadians and others to strengthen our common front against the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Efforts are directed at stopping the Canadian government from expanding the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The expansion of GATS would turn the Canadian public into a huge, international marketplace.

CUPE has undertaken many international initiatives to link with unions in other countries to learn about the effects of globalization and the struggles to stop its corrosive impact. Its Union Aid fund generates money from CUPE members to support direct linkages and promote solidarity.

Conclusion

Globalization has direct and indirect links to the CUPE workplace. As governments cave in to corporate demands, CUPE workers feel the impact through increased workload arising from cuts, downloading and privatization.

When a country in the South feels the impact of a structural adjustment program, CUPE workers feel it too.