avatar
Labor in 2000: No Place to Go?


Mark Weisbrot

In

the movie version of Steven King’s classic, "The Dead Zone,"

Christopher Walken reads the mind of the mother of a demonic serial killer. His

psychic powers discern that she had long been aware of her son’s vicious

murders. His eyes widen with shock and repulsion: "You knew!" he

exclaims.

And

so it was, the day after the China trade vote, when Washington woke up and

stared down the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It seems the Journal–

and other supporters of the bill– knew all along what this legislation was

really about.

Before

the vote, noted the Journal, "business lobbyists emphasized the beneficial

effect the agreement would have on U.S. exports to China. They played down its

likely impact on investment, leery of sounding supportive of labor-union

arguments that the deal would prompt companies to move U.S. production to

China."

"But

many businessmen concede that investment in China is the prize."

Which

means that our enormous trade deficit with China will increase, as will the

downward pressure on the wages of American workers. And manufacturing workers

will continue to lose jobs.

Vice

President Al Gore, and the 73 House Democrats who voted for the bill went along

with the ruse because they assume that labor has no where else to go. However

many times they get kicked in the face, they reason, unions will stick to the

Democrats because they have only the Republicans for an alternative.

Or

will they? United Auto Workers’ President Steve Yokich declared that it was

"time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting

candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is

right."

His

was not the only angry voice heard from labor after the vote. Steelworkers’

President George Becker called it "a blatant betrayal of American workers,

their families and communities by elected politicians in both parties," one

that the Steelworkers "would never forget." Teamsters’ President James

P. Hoffa made a similar statement. Neither the UAW nor the Teamsters has yet

endorsed a presidential candidate.

Gore

was willing to break with the President over the case of Elian, but remained a

loyal and disciplined soldier for the China vote. The difference was clear: Big

Business was calling the shots this time. And the message was not lost on those

who were wondering what labor could expect from a Gore Administration.

Nader

may well turn out to be a much more serious candidate than the experts give him

credit for. Unlike his last campaign, which never really happened, this one is

expected to raise millions of dollars and get him on the ballot in 45 states.

The relevant comparison may be Ross Perot, who was actually ahead in the polls

for a bit in the 1992 Presidential race– until he repeatedly shot himself in

the foot. He still ended up with 19 percent of the vote.

Of

course Nader can’t draw on $60 million of his own money, as the billionaire

Perot spent in ’92. But he is already known and respected by millions of voters,

some of whom remember his battles with General Motors over auto safety as he put

the American consumer movement on the map. Unlike other candidates, who tritely

pledge that they will "fight for the little guy," Nader has actually

spent his entire adult life doing just that.

Uncorrupted

by corporate contributions, Nader is campaigning on issues that really matter:

national health insurance, clean elections, and stopping the erosion of labor

and environmental standards that is worsened by globalization.

Popular

discontent with both Republicans and Democrats remains high. People see both

parties as mainly bought by big money. The China vote– which was clearly framed

as a contest between non-commercial values such as human rights and economic

fairness versus the ruthless pursuit of business interests– did everything to

reinforce that impression.

Of

course the election is still too far away to make any predictions. Another

possibility is that many working-class Democrats will stay home, as they did

after President Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress by similar means. That

response was widely seen as contributing to the Republican takeover of the House

in 1994.

But

if the China vote brings union endorsements to Nader, and helps push him over

the crucial media threshold, we could be headed for the most interesting

election year in decades.

 

  ——–

Not

Exactly Free Trade

By Mark Weisbrot

Have

our political leaders learned anything from the last seven years of political

conflict over our trade and commercial policy? From the looks of the latest

trade bill now being whisked through Congress, it appears not.

The

legislation combines two controversial bills that have been held up for years:

the Orwellian-named "African Growth and Opportunity Act" and the

Enhanced Caribbean Basin Initiative.

The

combined package retains almost all of the offensive material that public

interest groups have fought against. In exchange for increased access to US

markets, countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and Central America

would cede more power and privileges to foreign corporations and organizations

like the International Monetary Fund.

At

the same time, every attempt to make the new trade benefits "trickle

down" to the poor and working people of Africa and the Caribbean was

defeated. The right to organize unions, or human rights in general, will not be

protected or advanced by this law.

"By

their deeds ye shall know them." When the international spotlight was on

the protesters in the streets of Seattle last December, President Clinton said

he was for a new kind of trade agreement: one that included enforceable labor

rights. We can now see how sincere that commitment was, as his Administration

lobbies to make HR 434 into law while no one is looking.

Once

again, American workers at the lower rungs of the pay scale are being asked to

sacrifice their jobs and wages on the altar of "free trade," so that

the poorer countries of the world might pursue an economic development strategy

that offers little hope for the vast majority of their own populations. Over the

last 25 years, we have lost more than a million jobs in textiles and apparel. At

the same time, the median wage in the United States has not risen– in other

words, the majority of the American labor force has been literally excluded from

sharing in the gains from economic growth for a quarter-century.

This

is the natural and inevitable result of negotiating NAFTA-like trade agreements

that create new rights and benefits for corporations, while providing nothing

for labor.

No

one can say that there was no alternative to this bill. Last year Congressman

Jesse Jackson, Jr. put forth a bill that expanded Africa’s access to US markets,

while also including labor rights and genuine debt relief. The latter is

especially important for sub- Saharan Africa, which loses about a quarter of its

export earnings to never-ending foreign debt service. Despite having more

Democratic co-sponsors than the current legislation, his bill never even got a

hearing.

In

the Senate, an effort was also made to protect Africa, where 23 million people

are infected with the AIDS virus, from the predatory practices of pharmaceutical

companies and their advocates here. An amendment sponsored by California Senator

Diane Feinstein and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold would stop our government

from bringing economic and political pressure against countries that try to make

anti-AIDS drugs more cheaply available to their citizens, so long as the

countries’ measures did not violate WTO rules. Until the end of last year, the

Clinton administration leaned hard on South Africa not to use local manufacture

or "parallel importing"– importing outside of the drug companies’

authorized channels– to make these life-saving drugs more available to the

millions of South Africans who have AIDS or are HIV-positive.

The

Feinstein amendment has been removed from the final version of the bill. It

appears that our political leaders are not prepared to abandon protectionism–

yes, that’s what it is, in strictly economic terms– so long as it is the $80

billion monopoly profits of pharmaceutical companies that are being protected

from the competition of free international markets. And as if there weren’t

enough special interest pieces tacked on– for companies like Fruit of the Loom

in the Caribbean– Congress added a special "banana rider" for

Chiquita, whose chief Carl Lindner is cashing in on his family’s huge political

campaign contributions. This little gem would increase the power of retaliatory

tariffs for WTO decisions, like the one that gave Chiquita the right to wipe out

tens of thousands of small banana farmers in the Caribbean and Africa.

Senator

Feinstein and others have threatened a filibuster in the Senate. Given the way

this bill has been rammed through the House, with Members not even seeing the

bill until the debate was under way, it’s a reasonable response. If ever such

tactics were called for, this would be the time.

Mark

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in

Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

Leave a comment