Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The China Syndrome

by Ben Sears

The US labor movement, in the face of — or because of the enormous challenges it faces — has in recent years broken much new ground. It has demonstrated its ability to act politically and influence elections at all levels. The sea change in Congress in 2006 was in no small part due to labor's electoral effort. And it was all the more effective because organized labor had the organized support of "Working America" which gives workers without a union a way to put their collective muscle into political campaigns. This effort showed tangible results when the Employee Free Choice Act actually got serious and sympathetic attention in the House earlier this year.

On the international front, both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have shown considerable courage and persistence in their call for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and thus oppose at least a part of the Bush Administration imperial foreign policy. In fact the readiness to discuss a foreign policy issue in a constructive and open debate marks a significant and welcome change. And of course, the AFL-CIO, a few years ago, dropped its decades long quarantine against Communists. When we recall that that body, at its birth, stated that it would actively join in the witch hunt, it should be obvious that all these changes are major, major positive steps forward.

All of which makes what I am going to say that much more difficult. The AFL-CIO filed a petition with the US Trade Representative calling on the Bush Administration to impose "trade remedies" against China in the form of sanctions or tariffs because, the petition charges, China does not "enforce workers' rights." The petition was originally filed in 2004; the article reporting on it is dated June, 2006, and it is still on the Website. Here is a quote from the article:

"China prevents workers from joining unions and bargaining collectively, denies its citizens safe working conditions, provides no minimum wage and uses forced labor. As a result, Chinese workers' wages are between 47 percent and 85 percent lower than they should be…."

The petition is allegedly based on extensive documentation and was prepared by a Columbia law professor. China's labor policies are, it is argued, responsible for the loss of over 400,000 US jobs between 2001 and 2005. The Web article makes the point that this is the first time the Trade Act of 1974 section 301 has been invoked to protest a nation's labor practices.

OK, so what is disturbing about all of this?

  1. The persistence with which forces in the labor movement have pursued this project and targeted China. The AFL-CIO has protested labor policies in other countries, e.g. Colombia or Iraq, but never filed such a petition.
  2. The apparent refusal to consider even the possibility of talking face to face directly with (or even recognizing as a workers' organization) the All China Federation of Trade Unions. (I know that at least one American labor leader, SEIU's Andy Stern has been to China several times, met with that organization's leaders and mentioned it in his book "A Country That Works.")
  3. The echoes, or hangover, of the Cold War that this whole situation evokes.
  4. The use of "dissidents" (and the use of that term itself) from the country in question — China in this case — to give an impression of legitimacy.

The Steelworkers' "Get the Lead Out" campaign can easily be seen as a continuation of this policy thrust. But this is proving hard to write about constructively. Are we in favor low wages? Lead in toys? Etc. etc.? Of course not. But neither, in my opinion, should we support the total failure to have any contact with the main labor organization in a nation of over a billion people. How do we know for a fact what the situation really is on the ground in China — or in the many parts of that vast nation? The failure/refusal of labor leaders to talk to workers organizations in "Communist countries" in the past cost American workers dearly. We need discussion on this and on how to try to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. I invite responses. I very much appreciated the discussion we started to have during our last Editorial Board phone conference.

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