By now most of you have heard about the recent Hershey incident in which foreign students, having paid for the privilege of participating in a “cultural exchange” visit to the United States, found themselves packaging the candy company’s chocolate for about $8 per hour (not counting the upfront fee for the program and before you subtract the living costs taken out of the students’ paychecks).
As Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale and I pointed out in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed last week, the implications of this incident go far beyond the advantage taken of the 400 students. It’s a case that demonstrates the irresistible urge of global corporations to fragment workers in their production chains so that the most vulnerable can be paid very low wages. Hershey, after all, has a stronger motivation than most corporations to resist this impulse: it’s in a capital-intensive industry, it has a cherished consumer brand placed at risk by the relentless pursuit of low wages, and the company is held in trust on behalf of a school for underprivileged children. The Hershey case demonstrates the need for constraints on companies’ freedom to pursue low-wage strategies.
Our suggestion in the Inquirer was a union that cuts across the entire company supply chain (within the U.S. for starters). This type of “network” unionism would generate long-term economic benefits for the U.S. because companies would be able to pursue productivity enhancing strategies with all their workers and also through cooperation among plants at different points in the production chain.
Since the legislative route to such multi-plant unionism could take a while, what about taking a tactic out of the students’ playbook — and out of the 1930s — a sitdown strike, this one including all workers in the entire Hershey production chain?
More than any other single step that I can think of, broad-based unionism that restores industrywide private-sector wage and benefit standards — in local service industries as well as within manufacturing — could fix the economic inequality threatening the United States and restore the middle class.