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Meanwhile, labor activists in the international network were getting more and more impatient with the foot-dragging of established unions on the issue of trans-border campaigns, especially after the success of international Women's Dignity Day. Even local and national union officials – 90% of them men secure in their territorial fiefdoms – had trouble resisting the obvious logic: the only way of fighting transnational corporations is via transnational organizing. Under the pressure of their members from below they verbally accepted the principle of international cooperation, but mostly their hearts weren’t in it since their jobs depended on a narrow, business-union model of local and national collective bargaining. As transnational rank-and-file networks grew in strength, some union officials attempted to sideline their militancy by signing solidarity pacts with foreign union officials with whom they posed for pictures before jetting home, at dues payers’ expense, in order to do nothing.
On the other hand, the rank-and-file activist groups with longstanding global connections were pressing for concrete action. Their ranks were now swollen by women workers – the majority among the self-employed or in the sweatshops of the textile and electronics industries – who had at last found their voices and now became a force for militant internationalism. They understood that the dozens of sweaters they stitched for a dollar a day in Bangladesh sold for $1,800 each in New York and Paris. Employees of various multinational corporations formed Planetary Labor Councils ignoring all distinctions of nationality, branch of trade and local union affiliation. The first trans-national corporation to be targeted was Samsung, the Korean-based conglomerate with manufacturing and distribution centers in dozens of countries. The call came from the powerful and militant Korean labor federations, who at the end of the XXth Century had fought for political democracy and union recognition and won both. Now the Korean Samsung workers’ hard-won standard of living was declining as management cut labor costs by outsourcing jobs to South Asia and Eastern Europe.
The planetary strikers’ council also considered Samsung, largely based on South Korean capital, to be a softer target than comparable U.S.-based multinationals. Not only was Korean capital substantially weaker than American, the strikers foresaw that the U.S. interlocking network of corporate directors – the big investors who sit on each others boards of directors and largely control government policy – would back the management of the struck corporation with almost infinite capital reserves rather than allow a global strike to succeed. On the other hand, Samsung management had every reason to fear that in case of a prolonged strike, U.S. and Japanese rivals would revel in their discomfiture and move in like sharks to gobble up their subsidiaries and market-share.
Samsung management blustered that it would never negotiate or “give in to international terrorist blackmail and illegal pressure,” but the strike wore on, more or less effective in the various countries. The strike split the working class in the US and EU. where it conflicted with the interests local labor leaders. The power and prestige of these bureaucrats was based on official recognition by their national governments, on legal contracts negotiated with nationally-based employers, and on influence in national party politics. While endorsing the ‘goals’ of the planetary strike (which the union leaders ‘were prepared to take up with the appropriate authorities’) the bureaucrats warned the workers that ‘sympathy’ strikes, unauthorised ‘wildcat’ strikes and ‘secondary’ boycotts were all illegal – an argument that intimidated some older workers close to retirement. And indeed, wherever the leadership failed to reign in the strikers, the courts did fine the local unions and seize their bank accounts – much to the amusement of the rank and file dues-payers (who had never suspected they were so ‘rich’) and much to the chagrin of the bureaucrats (who saw their fat salaries and expense accounts go up in smoke).
On the other hand, in many countries community-based strike support campaigns were organized with the help of anti-globalists, ecologists, and women's dignity activists, whose several goals were endorsed by the Planetary Striker Council in their official strike demands. All around the world, the products of Samsung and its subsidiaries were boycotted. Workers at other multinationals contributed part of their salaries to a Samsung strikers’ fund – in anticipation of receiving support when it was their turn to strike. Food and clothing were collected for the strikers’ families. In Korea, management’s corruption was exposed as rebellious small stockholders called the directors out on the carpet. Rival companies positioned themselves to absorb Samsung’s market share. Samsung stock began to slide. The handwriting was on the wall. The words ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘bailout’ were in the air. A new management team took over . . .
Without actually recognising the Samsung Planetary Strike Council, the new Samsung management announced a Global Fair Labor Policy and offered to join Strike Council representatives in a non-binding in three-part arbitration under the auspices of the International Labor Organisation in Geneva. At this, the Samsung workers faced a delicate dilemma: If their strike actually succeeded in bankrupting the corporation – as seemed imminent – many of them would be out of a job or forced to work cut-rate for liquidator companies. In a much-debated decision which has remained controversial, they decided to call Samsung’s bluff, accept this symbolic victory and suspend the strike for a 30-day period. Naturally, Samsung did some backtracking once the pressure was off, and many activists were disappointed by the concessions on wages, conditions and environmental impact Samsung eventually granted – unilaterally. However in retrospect, and in the minds of millions around the globe, the first planetary strike was a resounding success, even if it ended in something of a draw, because it paved the way for other planetary anti-corporate movements.
Thus, barely a year later the Nestlé corporation was forced to stop using cocoa beans picked by child slave-labor in Africa. Moreover, the Swiss multinational pledged to buy their cocoa from peasant farmers at a fair price, provide increased healthcare and job security to its employees around the world, and use only biodegradable packaging. Soon the tactic was applied – with greater or lesser success – to other multinationals from Coca-Cola and Nike to Monsanto and Shell. Everywhere workers, small farmers, ecologists and fair-traders mobilized in international alliances. Everywhere they demanded livable salaries and working conditions, shop-floor representation, elimination of industrial pollution that first cripples workers on the job before spreading out to contaminate the environment.