Closeup/International Affairs

The Big Fix

Is détente just a Capitalist-Communist plot?

Walter Stewart August 21 1978
Closeup/International Affairs

The Big Fix

Is détente just a Capitalist-Communist plot?

Walter Stewart August 21 1978

The Big Fix

Closeup/International Affairs

Is détente just a Capitalist-Communist plot?

Walter Stewart

It would be nice to think that Charles Levinson was a fruitcake, that what he deserves is not an audience to follow his theories and buy his books, but someone to sit on his head until the wagon comes. If Levinson is loony, there is nothing to worry about, but if he is merely excited, then we have a problem.

Charles Levinson is secretary-general of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers’ Unions, a six-million-member labor body that embraces 140 unions in 75 nations. He is a Canadian, born in Ottawa in 1920, with his doctorate from the University of Paris. He could be called “Doctor”; he is in fact called “Chip.” Fie has been in the international trade union movement almost all his adult life, and now lives and works in Geneva. He and his American wife, Macha, an expert on disarmament, occupy a comfortable, three-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the Swiss city with their three charming daughters. Levinson works two blocks away, in a modern, nondescript building on Rue Moillebeau; it is from here that he fulfils his two main functions: running a union and manufacturing heresies.

It is in his second role that Levinson is a danger to the peace of mind of ordinary citizens. When he is not making life difficult for nervous stockholders and overbearing managers in the chemical, glass and energy industries, he writes books. In the past, he has written about multinational corporations and industrial democracy and the drug industry, always in critical and strident tones. This fall his fifth book, Vodka-Cola, will appear in Canadian bookstores (it has already appeared in French and German), and it should create a stir.

Its thesis, in brief, is that détente is a fraud, a hoax, a cover-up. What appears to be a gradual and sensible movement toward peace and plenty, Levinson claims, is in fact merely a horse-trader’s deal, through which multinational corporations from the West are assured a docile work force and Communist governments from the East are assured markets, hard dollars and employment. Western workers are

thrown out of their jobs and Eastern workers are exploited. The profits are enormous and the risks horrendous, and the system is supported by government-subsidized and guaranteed loans, the effect of which is to put Canadian taxpayers— among others—in the position of financing their own unemployment.

Strong stuff. There is, however, enough in what this soft-spoken radical says to prevent his dismissal as just a crackpot. He is not loved, but he is taken seriously. James Bury, Canada’s labor attaché in

London, a man with long experience and wide contacts in labor circles, calls him “one of the finest intellects in international unionism”; Christopher Tugendhat, former British Conservative MP, feature writer for the Financial Times and author of The Multinationals, is impressed by his toughness, his adventurous spirit and, most

of all, by the fact that he organized and ran the first successful strike against a multinational corporation.

Even his enemies do him the honor of treating him as a real threat. According to documents recently released in Berne, Switzerland, a number of multinational companies have mounted a campaign to silence Levinson by boycotting labor-management courses, industrial symposia and other clambakes where the obnoxious Canadian is likely to turn up to “spread his theories.” The same internal company documents show that a professor at the University of Basel, who is also deputy director of CibaGeigy corporation, has been detailed to “examine whether certain theories of Levinson could be challenged on scientific grounds.”

The man doesn’t look like a troublemaker. He is of medium height, slender and plain, with dark, receding hair, generous, generally downturned, mouth. He could be a shoe salesman with corns and a mother-in-law on the premises. Only his hands give him away; they are slim, expressive, well kept, and they dance, jump, thrust, point, clench and slash as if they were energy conductors, charged with removing all the excess tension that fizzes around his framework.

He sounds professorial—he says “conflictuality” for “conflict,” he says “within these parameters” and “optimizing the commercial and economic benefits”—except when he gets excited; then words and phrases come rushing out of him, helterskelter: “Everybody else, right, left and centre, up and down, just jumped on the détente bandwagon as being good for humanity, without asking whose bandwagon it was, who was driving the horses and who was fuelling the goddam stuff. They were being conned.”

Levinson was brought up in the Glebe district of central Ottawa, by Russian immigrant parents who lived in a few rooms over a grocery store. “My mother worked in a factory for 25 years and was a trade union member for 23 years. My father was a socialist all his life, probably one of the first socialists in Canada ... my trade

unionism is a congenital phenomenon.”

As an only—and Jewish—child, he was pushed to excel in school, and did so. He attended university in New York, took an MA at the University of Toronto and then completed a PhD, on wage controls, in Paris. Between degrees, he was a coastal command pilot in the RCAF, where “I was shot at twice by German planes that were flown by Nazis but manufactured by ITT (in the American firm’s Focke-Wulf plants in Germany). I never got over it.”

After his formal education, Levinson worked in Paris as a representative of the American Congress of Industrial Organizations, later became assistant secretarygeneral of the International Metalworkers Federations and in 1964 took up his present post in Geneva. He began to study the multinational corporations with their emergence as a dominant economic force in the early 1950s and wrote his first paper on what he considered to be their dangers in 1954. The “MNs,” as he calls them, and the banking trusts behind them, have been an obsession ever since.

For a trade unionist, the practical problem of multinationals is their ability to shift production from nation to nation, so that a strike in one country may be broken by importing the required products from another; or, indeed, the entire production system, with all its jobs, may be shifted out of countries that encourage trade unions and relocated in those that either discour-

age or outlaw them — such as Communist or Fascist lands. Levinson has spent much of the last three decades trying to construct an answer to this problem. In 1969, when negotiations on behalf of workers in the French-owned St. Gobain glass and manufacturing company stalled in five nations— France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the United States—at about the same time, Levinson brought in unionists from all 12 countries where the company had plants, to form a common front. The unions agreed to coordinate strike action wherever possible, to refuse overtime work that might allow the company to fulfil its orders from nonstruck plants, and to provide mutual financial aid. The result was an overwhelming success in every nation but France, where the Communist-led unions accepted a low wage settlement that partially undercut the federation. (Even higher on Levinson’s list of loathing than “MNs” are “CPs,” Communist party types: “Those bastards have no scruples.”) Since then, Levinson has run dozens of joint negotiations, conducted scores of strikes that cross national borders (“We must have 30 of those a year”), but has yet to meet a multinational corporation with a truly multinational union. He looks forward to the day when all the workers in say, Ford, or ITT, or IBM, belong to one union and negotiate, as the companies trade, on a worldwide basis.

Grappling with multinationals made Levinson, already a democratic socialist and

therefore inclined to the notion, into a confirmed disciple of industrial democracy—the process of workers sharing management responsibilities. “There is only one way we are going to get a fair deal, and that is through participation,” he insists. “We can’t go on hammering our heads against the wall like some of these old bulls who only know one word—strike, strike, strike. Control is what it’s all about.” The practice of some European countries that insist on worker membership on the boards of corporations has his full-throated approval. Naturally, he wrote a book about it {La Démocratie Industrielle, in 1976) and, putting the theory to the test, accepted a post this spring on the board of the Du Pont corporation in West Germany. Now he flies off regularly to fulfil his management duties in West Germany, though not to collect management fees—his earnings, “about $3,000 a session,” go to the West German union.

It was in 1973 that he brought out his first book, Capital, Inflation and the Multinationals, a stinging attack on the giant firms who dominate world trade. In three other volumes over the past five years, he has refined and sharpened the attack. His latest work, Vodka-Cola, is a massive (466 pages), bitter, sometimes faintly hysterical onslaught on the multinationals and all their works. Détente, in Levinson’s view is one of their works.

His argument goes like this: During the


Cold War, it became clear that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could afford all-out nuclear hostilities. However, it was the hysteria of that time that permitted the huge arms buildups on which so many multinational firms came to depend. What Anthony Sampson has called The Arms Bazaar became the world’s growth industry, providing jobs, fuelling economies and underpinning international trade. For every corpse in a brush-fire war, another coupon to clip for the boys in the boardroom. However, as the arms industry became more swollen, a trap appeared; if there was to be peace, or even the threat of peace, economic chaos loomed. Yet there could be no war. What was required was a system that included both a bogeyman, to stimulate the need for defence spending, and a pacifier, to prevent Armageddon.

The answer, dimly felt decades ago but only recently spelled out, was détente. It is the permanent state of near-war, in which peace is grappled for but never won. The key point about the multinationals, Levinson says, is that they will work for any government. “Regimes may come and go, they change from dictatorships, royalties, democratic republics, you name it, but the companies go on forever. Fiat was Mussolini’s arms supplier; suddenly it’s a big, democratic institution, a major supplier to NATO. ITT built warplanes for Nazi Germany, then it turned up as the nemesis of

communism in Chile, but at the same time, it was making deals for production facilities in all over Eastern Europe.”

Détente, in Levinson’s book, doesn’t mean Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev sitting down to talk about strategic arms; it means Ford and GM and Fiat building factories in Communist countries with funds supplied by Western banks and underwritten by Western taxpayers. When a Western company sets up a factory in Romania, it is assured of a docile labor force, moderate productivity and no strikes. But Romanian workers can’t afford to buy the product, so it is shipped to the West, where it makes fat profits and displaces Western workers.

At present, there are more than 3,000 East-West co-production deals, with companies from the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan and France producing in Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Nobody knows how many dollars are involved in these deals. Levinson writes: “In 1973, industrial co-operation between East and West was estimated at between 1.5 and two per cent of commerce. In 1975, it was up to five per cent, and by extrapolation, it will probably hit nine to 10 per cent in 1979.”

Sir Frederick Catherwood, chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, dismisses Levinson’s entire thesis with a snort, because “You’re talking about a tiny percentage of our business, no more.” But then Levinson responds, “That’s like saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve only got a little bit of cancer.’ ”

He is alarmed not only by the rapid

growth of these deals, but by the implication that morality, human rights and civil liberties should be sacrificed to them. “To make the process work, you have to accept our factories in the heartland of the enemy; and for that, you have to make a deal.”U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s campaign for human rights died aborning, Levinson argues, because it interfered with this handsoff understanding.

The process of mutual co-operation reached its zany zenith when the contending powers began to supply each other with strategic materials. “I got a question asked on the floor of the (British) House of Commons. Had the ministry of defence

been importing cannon parts from the Soviet Union? The answer was yes! Why? Guaranteed delivery dates. They aren’t going to be bothered with strikes. They’re buying goddam titanium from the Soviet Union for NATO airplanes! How silly can you get?”

Vodka-Cola lists examples of defence deals made across the East-West line— Rolls-Royce selling motors for Chinese pursuit aircraft, Rockwell International selling strategic goods to Russia. “First there is the sabre-rattling, to scare up the billions of dollars for the arms race, then there is the talk of détente to persuade us to allow these huge investments inside the

Eastern Bloc. The multinationals get it both ways.” So the Ford Motor Company, with the approval and assistance of a government whose leaders daily decry the savagery of Communist regimes, has factories in Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. A deal is a deal.

Corporations have always behaved this way, Levinson says. General Motors built Junkers for the Nazis; now it is working on a deal to build heavy trucks in Russia. Elements of what is now Exxon Corporation worked cheerfully with I.G. Farben, the Nazi chemical firm; now it works just as cheerfully, and profitably, in Communist lands.

Defenders of this system hold, among other things, that mutual trade arrangements will lead to “convergence” of the two systems, a notion that brings a bitter smile to Levinson’s lips. “The theory is that you will somehow soften communism by putting in Western corporations. If this is true, why has it never been so in history? Why didn’t the big corporations soften Hitler? What was their effect in Fascist Spain? Why haven’t they brought sweet reason to South Africa?”

In fact, he maintains, “If there is going to be a convergence, it will be toward authoritarianism. Corporations are authoritarian by nature. So are Communist regimes. It is illegal for a Russian plant manager to release production figures. He could go to jail. Wouldn’t that suit any corporate manager right down to theground?”

There is much more to Levinson’s argument, and to Vodka-Cola. He spends many pages trying to prove that David Rockefeller of the Chase Manhattan Bank is a kind of Darth Vadar of finance—a black force—-and that the Trilateral Commission, charitable foundations and the Mafia are also roughly handled. But this is thoroughly explored territory; what makes Levinson unusual is his disturbing analysis of détente, its origins and its consequences. He does raise questions that cry for answers: Are we really subsidizing our own unemployment? Have human rights been laid at the feet of international trade? Who does benefit from all these billion-dollar deals? And, what the hell are ITT, Ford, Exxon, GM et al up to in the Soviet Union, anyway?

Just as disturbingly, while Levinson has answers to all these questions (Respectively: “Yes,” “Yes,” “The MNs” and “No good”), he has no solutions. “I am like the gnat on the backside of an elephant. I can’t really do him any harm, but I bother the hell out of him, until he starts thrashing around. With any luck, he’ll do himself an injury.”

Levinson says it will be time to start considering the solutions “when people wake up to the fact that we have moved into a dangerous new political world. For the moment, I have enough to do just talking about the problem.”^