U.S. Unions Rail Against China Trade


Despite the current economic expansion, American workers have every right to fear the loss of their jobs. If the lingering memories of the wrenching deprivations of the catastrophic Great Depression no longer incite that fear, the mass layoffs of the past two decades in one industry after another are more than enough to keep workers warily looking over their shoulders.

Clearly, workers need a new jobs program to replace the bosses’ jobs scheme that pits workers against workers, domestically and internationally. In other words, workers need a jobs program that protects working families from the built-in boom and bust cycles of the capitalist economy.

Such a program would automatically raise wages to counter the scourge of inflation. Such a program would automatically divide all available work among all available workers to thwart the plague of unemployment. Such a program would ensure that workers’ highest aggregate share of the gross national product is guaranteed.

In short, such a program would make sure that the terrible burdens of the bosses’ and investors’ economic system (capitalism) are not borne by workers.

For example, if Ford drives General Motors out of business (remember American Motors, Packard, and Studebaker), the auto workers need not be forced into unemployment, provided the production of the remaining auto plants is spread around to the entire auto workforce.

Nor need the auto workers suffer a reduced standard of living, if the auto workers’ share of the gross national product legally must stay the same. That’s not the present practice, as the fewer and fewer auto workers building more and more cars know first hand.

Meanwhile, Ford bosses strategize on how to distribute “nearly half its $24 billion cash hoard, one of the largest of any company in the world, while minimizing taxes for its shareholders and giving the Ford family greater financial flexibility, especially for estate planning [read “tax avoidance”] (The New York Times, April 15, 2000).

In Washington, D.C., last month, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and some affiliated unions passed up a golden opportunity to lay out such a workers’ jobs program. The AFL-CIO leaders had the national media spotlight.

The labor representatives were surrounded by over 15,000 rank-and-file workers, hopeful student youth, and social justice and environmental activists, who rallied to demand job protection and fight for a better life for all.

If the labor leaders had proclaimed that from April 12 forward the unions would fight for a jobs program based on all workers’ fundamental right to a job and a secure, decent standard of living for working families, the leaders likely would have won the immediate approval of American workers, and the solidarity of workers around the world.

The approval and solidarity easily would have surpassed the enthusiastic worldwide support for both the 1997 Teamsters United Parcel Service strikers and the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrators in Seattle.

However, what the AFL-CIO brass did do in Washington was organize a mass lobbying effort to urge a congressional turndown of normal trade relations legislation (NTR) with China. The union leaders claimed that as many as 800,000 domestic jobs were at stake, should Big Business gain greater access to a Chinese workforce earning as little as 14 cents an hour.

But, they said, they’re not knee-jerk protectionists fighting with Chinese workers over an artificial shortage of jobs in the international economy. Rather, they asserted, they oppose the likely increase in Chinese exports to the United States (if the NTR passes), because they oppose China’s record on democratic rights, prison labor, working conditions, and the like.

“When you look at China’s record on not only worker rights but human rights, it is atrocious,” argued Rob Black, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 2000). However, union statements about abuses of Chinese workers usually contained references to labor competition.

For example, “[W]hile we are losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, China is setting new records for violations of human rights and polluting the environment” (AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney).

“Who will make sure the workers of America know who voted to ship our jobs to China and ship our morals to the moon? We will!” (AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Linda Chavez-Thompson).

Not surprisingly then, suspicions about the sincerity of labor’s speakers backing-off from their traditional protectionist stance on trade abound. (Typically, business unionists try to protect the profits of some corporations or entire industries in order to retain their memberships, even at the expense of other workers, unionized or not.)

Those suspicions were bolstered by the appearance of Patrick Buchanan at the Teamsters’ rally held earlier and separately from the AFL-CIO rally. Buchanan hopes to be the organizer of a serious, substantial ultra-right movement.

Buchanan’s speech to the 1992 Republican Convention brought flashbacks to countless minds of the fascist horrors of the 20th century. His anti-Semitic, racist, jingoistic pronouncements regularly bring rebuke from mainstream organizations and publications.

Lately, Buchanan has baited his arch-rightist hook with populism; as did the white supremacist and one-time Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who demagogically championed poor and middle-income (white) workers against the rich.

On the Teamsters’ platform, Buchanan disgraced the union movement with his racist chauvinism, as did Teamsters President James Hoffa, who gave Buchanan a union pulpit and a blue and gold Teamsters jacket.

According to the Washington Post (April 12, 2000), Buchanan, wearing his Teamsters jacket, told the rally,

“With NAFTA we were defeated and lied to. … The deficit with Mexico grows every year. … If I was in the White House and the Chinese communists came to my office, I’d tell them, ‘Stop threatening my country; stop persecuting the Christians or you will have sold your last pair of chopsticks.'”(Washington Post, April 12, 2000).

Buchanan paid homage to Hoffa by publicly offering Hoffa a high federal post (top trade negotiator) should Buchanan win his bid for the presidency on the Reform Party ticket.

Of course the union officials are right about the abysmal working conditions, wages, and political tyranny that the Chinese people endure. Of course U.S. corporations intend to exploit the poorly paid Chinese workers (and at the same time further the privatization of the still largely nationalized Chinese economy). And of course corporate America intends to use its lower costs in China to whipsaw American workers into taking lower wages and benefits.

But all that is obvious. What isn’t obvious yet to American workers is what to do about it and not fall victim to the bosses game of divide-and-conquer. All for-profit trade strategies, free trade, protected trade, and yes, so-called fair trade, are, at bottom, strategies for fending off or beating up business rivals.

That’s why trade-for-profit rivalry (sharks gobbling up the sardines) is bad news for workers. Clearly, American workers would be much better off if they and their leaders understood that the unemployment resulting from trade as well as from strictly domestic causes originate in the inevitable workings of a social system that puts profits before everything that makes life worth living

The AFL-CIO tops misled the workers gathered in Washington when they sent them off to lobby on behalf of a for-profit trade strategy that will not and can not protect workers’ well-being. That’s because that strategy will not and can not end the enforced rivalry between workers.

They misled the workers when they consciously spread the illusion that capitalism can and will provide a bountiful, peaceful world. The 20th century speaks for itself.

And, finally, they misled the workers when they failed to explain American imperialism’s responsibility for the present plight of China’s workers.

“Gunboat diplomacy”only begins to signify the gangster tactics used by American capitalism to shape China’s fate.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.