Working Men of all Countries, Unite!

These words, the concluding salvo of the Communist Manifesto were published in February 1848 at the beginning of that great year of revolutions across Europe.  2012 began with the decision by Apple to monitor labor conditions at its Chinese suppliers more transparently.  Today’s New York Times carries the story of the murder of a labor organizer in Bangladesh.  Tommy Hilfiger and Walmart have pledged their commitment to improving labor conditions in that country.  H&M did not respond to a request for comment.

Is there a contagion of issues in today’s instantly connected world similar to, if more compressed than, 1848?  We believe that there is, that the Arab spring demonstrated this and that protest crackdowns in Western China suggest the Chinese government believes this, too.  We have no evidence that the Foxconn story inspired Bangladeshi labor activists or that there is a connection with the murders of six Guetemalan union organizers last year.  We do believe, however, that corporations need to be freshly alert not just to issues that affect their industry or only in the regions in which they operate.  They must be alive to what we’ll call “issues contiguity,” the ability of seemingly unrelated concerns to jump the firebreak.  We may see vast disparities between economic conditions in Bangladesh, Turkey or Chile but Karl Marx knew a meme when he saw one — “The price of a commodity, and therefore also of labor, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.” Is it so far fetched to think that we will soon, once again, be talking about the “ownership of the means of production?”  Who knows, but it is certainly not too soon to be paying attention to the way this global meme shapes issues, independently of industry, subject matter or country. 

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