Why AFL-CIO Lost the China Trade Vote

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In 1993, the AFL-CIO banked on the Democratic Party to block the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It passed anyway. This year the AFL-CIO tops again turned to the Democrats to defeat the adoption of a bill giving China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). Labor officials claimed that the proposed legislation would cost workers at least 800,000 jobs.

Democrats were persistently warned that unions saw the China bill as a litmus test and if the bill passed, disappointed workers would “Remember in November,” that is, at election time.

Nevertheless, on May 24, Democrats from the White House to the Congress once again turned their backs on their “labor friends.” The PNTR bill passed 237-197. Actually, it wasn’t that close. Hours earlier a 294-136 congressional vote stymied a labor-backed effort to derail the pending trade bill vote.

The earlier vote also allowed some of “labor’s friends” to see that their vote wasn’t needed to pass the PNTR bill. That allowed them to safely and cynically switch back to the unions’ side.

There’s no doubt that when the bosses have super-profits in their sights (as in China), workers are in for a tough fight. But no one should think that workers are as weak as the congressional NAFTA and PNTR trade votes indicate.

The history of workers’ upsurges during the Great Depression and in the wake of World War II show that America’s ruling class need not get its way. More recently, the popular Teamsters UPS strike and Seattle anti-WTO street demonstrations showed on a smaller scale the same thing. All of these examples also demonstrated the strategic power of mass actions that are independent of the ruling class and its political puppets who daily put Pinocchio to shame.

The AFL-CIO asserts that it is championing workers’ rights here and in China in its attempts to defeat the China trade bill. It denies that it is using workers’ rights as a cover to hide a protectionist agenda to safeguard certain domestic industries’ profits, in hopes of saving U.S. workers’ jobs.

But that’s not believable, given the labor hierarchy’s history of “Buy American” campaigns, inter-union raiding, and today’s talk of workers’ rights in one breath, and the bureaucrats’ predictions of job losses in the next.

Whatever its intentions, why doesn’t the labor hierarchy use the class-struggle methods that rebuilt the American labor movement during the 1930s to further its aims? Why did AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney limit labor’s protests to lobbying, though admittedly more vigorous lobbying than is usual from the labor officialdom.

What’s wrong with the mass-action strategy that French and German workers have used to win a shorter workweek and defend past gains?

The short answer is that the Democratic “friends of labor” wouldn’t tolerate it and its implicit social instability for an instant. In other words, there can not be a successful fight against Corporate America for even the narrowest of aims by organized labor, as long as labor is tied to the Democrats.

Some would-be “friends” of the labor movement suggest that concessions be made to labor, as a balm for union officials’ hurt feelings due to the China vote and undoubtedly to keep workers tied to the political status quo. A New York Times writer ( Thomas L. Friedman) suggests that politicians and corporate bosses sit down with organized labor and ask what can be done to address labor’s “concerns,” short of compromising Big Business’s basic interests.

However, workers have won little and lost much from past labor-business-government conferences and tripartite boards. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich proposes scrapping the laws that allow firms to permanently replace strikers with scabs (he calls them “replacement workers”).

Reich’s suggestion brings to mind the concessions made to labor during World War II, in exchange for no-strike pledges. But organized labor’s threat to “Remember in November” hardly matches the bosses’ wartime urgency to keep workers militancy contained.

Only a real movement toward class political independence, probably fueled by a general labor upsurge, will bring political concessions from the bosses. But those concessions will likely be puny compared to what workers will be aiming for by then. -CHARLES WALKER

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