China Trade: The Yellow Peril?

By CHARLES WALKER

Some commentators are saying that the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations have ensured that foreign trade will be a weighty political issue in the run up to next year’s presidential election. But even before the Seattle actions, organized labor intended to campaign against the U.S. Congress granting China the same access to the U.S. market that many other countries have.

The AFL-CIO effort promises to be as intense as its anti-NAFTA campaign. “We will flood every Congressional office with phone calls, letters and visits,” James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said. “We will do whatever it takes. And with the momentum from Seattle, we will win.” (The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2000).

There’s a bigger question for workers than whether the AFL-CIO wins the Congressional battle, or loses, as it did its 1993 anti-NAFTA fight. The bigger question is whether the AFL-CIO’s anti-China trade strategy is in the interests of American workers, and Chinese workers too, for that matter.

The AFL-CIO says that primarily it wants to ensure that China has fair labor standards, that Chinese workers have the right to organize unions, bargain collectively, and otherwise act to achieve a decent standard of living. It denies that it is using its objections as a cover to hide a protectionist agenda to safeguard certain domestic industries’ profits, in hopes of saving workers’ jobs.

Nevertheless, labor’s opposition to NAFTA partly meant opposing reductions in trade barriers with Canada, a country whose labor laws are at least equal, if not superior to U.S. labor laws.

Whatever the union tops’ intentions, there’s no denying that the effects of their present China trade policy could be virtually the same as their earlier nakedly protectionist “Buy American” policy.

That approach sought to keep American workers on the job by protecting the profits of internationally uncompetitive domestic firms, at the expense of foreign workers.

While that may seem understandable to many American workers, clearly it’s not a solidaristic, internationalist approach. That’s because rather than uniting workers across borders, it allows bosses to continue to whipsaw workers, forcing them to compete with each other, making it easier to conquer them.

Clearly, whipsawing workers across national borders is just a variation on whipsawing workers within national borders. Just as clearly, unions that condone whipsawing are attacking the very foundations of unionism.

Of course, it’s too much to expect the present labor union leadership to adopt a socialistic policy of seeking production for human needs, rather than profits. And it’s too much to expect the union bureaucrats to fight to liberate workers and the economy from the private profit restraints that shackle productivity, and the horrendous waste, poverty, and insecurity that’s inevitable under an undemocratic economic system.

Unfortunately, the union chiefs can’t even be expected to take on the bosses over the good-paying jobs that daily are lost because of job streamlining, downsizing, and ordinary speedup. In fact, it’s likely that many more good-paying jobs are lost due to domestic company cost-cutting than to international trade.

Rather than seeking to mobilize the pro-worker sentiments revealed by the Seattle demonstrations, and still earlier by the widespread public support for the 1994 Teamsters strike against UPS, and fighting to create jobs by reducing the workweek with no reduction in wages, the bureaucrats have virtually traded away the eight-hour day and millions of jobs in return for overtime pay for some and pink slips for others.

Now the union tops are embarking on a political trade fight that may ignite the same narrow passions that once divided workers along racial lines-whites against Chinese and, of course, whites against Blacks.

Hopefully, things will not come to that. But even so, American workers will still need to find a leadership and a program based on their interests, and not the dog-eat-dog choices of capitalism.