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Class Warfare and Korea “Free Trade”: An Open Letter to UAW, My Union

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Jonathan TasiniSo-called “free trade” is part of the relentless class warfare under way in America. And the so-called “free trade” deal with South Korea is no exception. That said, a lot of the shallow criticism of the UAW’s support for the deal is–well, shallow. Here’s my view about how we should engage the UAW–my union–via an open letter to the union’s president.

December 9th 2010

Bob King
President
UAW
8000 East Jefferson
Detroit, MI  48214

Dear Bob:

Over the past few weeks, I keep coming back to one question: where do we draw the line to oppose the unrelenting class warfare now under way in our country, and the rest of the world?

From listening to the rhetoric and watching the back-slapping among members of the deficit commission, Democrats and Republicans, we have a bi-partisan agreement, apparently, that working Americans have to “share the pain” for an economic crisis that they had no hand in creating; our president buys into the mantra of a phony debt “crisis” and, then promptly turns around and stands ready to treat the already-staggeringly wealthy top one percent to hundreds of billions of dollars of the U.S. Treasury’s bank account; Wall Street bonuses are back in bullish amounts; and corporate profits are at record levels, partly because of a plague of slashing jobs that will not come back.

When do we say finally: no more, enough is enough.

And, then, there is the South Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). In my view, this deal is another disaster for the working people of this country, and for the world. I hope that you, and others, read the concerns I raise about this deal in the spirit in which they were written.

First, we’ve known each other a very long time. As a proud UAW member, I think of you not only as one of the most progressive and visionary leaders in the labor movement but also as a person of enormous integrity. When you took office this year, you said, “We are one union. We are one society, and we are one world. If we don’t stand up and fight for our own membership in every sector and if we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.” [emphasis added]

And you want our union to live those words. You just spearheaded a rally in Michigan on December 6th to support Hyundai workers who are engaged in a bitter strike in South Korea because you understand the nature of global solidarity. As you said at the rally, “Bosses around the world, even at tremendously profitable corporations like Hyundai, are trying to reduce the number of permanent workers and expand the number of temporary workers, weakening the middle class. We want permanent, middle-class standard of living jobs for every person working in the world.”

Second, I also understand that, while it is easy for liberal/progressive observers to sit back in the comfort of their offices or homes and pontificate from hundreds of miles away about “fighting” and “not selling out”, you have to fulfill your mission to protect the livelihoods of UAW members, livelihoods that have been under brutal assault from transnational auto companies for the past two decades. While I understand both intellectually and emotionally what our sisters and brothers face, I know you grapple with this every day you walk into the office.

Almost two decades ago, I remember exactly where I was standing when NAFTA passed: Mazey’s bar at the union’s Black Lake education center. We had just finished the day working to build coalitions between the UAW and non-UAW activists—the mission that our Region 9A leadership, under then-Director Phil Wheeler, had dedicated the week to. We gathered around the television bracketed on the wall to watch the vote. At the end, when the vote was announced, I remember thinking: this is the end of the American middle class.

NAFTA was a disaster. Not just because it ruined the lives of millions of American, Mexican and Canadian workers. As important, it became the model for all future so-called “free trade” agreements: protect capital and investors. In my view, the South Korea deal is baked in the same NAFTA mold.

People are going to argue about whether the concessions given to the UAW in the KORUS were sufficient in terms of significant changes in tariffs or rules of origin and other similar issues. I’m going to stay away from those points in part because I think that whether X or Y cars will be allowed into Korea gets us down into the weeds and misses some crucial points:

  1. Is This Deal Worth The Paper It Is Written On When It Comes To Enforcement?
  1. Can The President Be Trusted?
  1. Does This Transform The Debate About Global Fairness?

A quick observation about why I use the term so-called “free trade”. There simply is no such thing as “free trade”, at least not if we are talking about the NAFTA model. “Free trade” is as real as the phony government deficit-debt “crisis”, as real as the Wall Street “reforms” (that left mostly the same people in charge of the financial system, making it almost a certainty we will have another financial calamity) and as real as Robert Reich’s promise that if we all just get smarter and get a college education, we’ll be fine (no one uses the absurd term “symbolic analyst” anymore and thank god for that).

I could write a “free trade” agreement in 10 pages, okay, maybe 20. But, these deals are hundreds and thousands of pages long because they are very much managed and tightly controlled corporate trade—-they set forth very specific, detailed protections for capital and investor rights (particularly, the Chapter 11 rules).

And the sooner we stop repeating the term “free trade”—which is a great marketing phrase because who isn’t for something “free” and who doesn’t want to trade—the better for the American people and our understanding of what is really afoot here: we are being robbed by these trade deals. Not simply because of the off-shoring of jobs. But because NAFTA-style trade is based on one thing and one thing only: wage and regulation arbitrage.

Every NAFTA-style deal essentially sets up a framework that allows companies to move production in search of low wages and/or undermine regulations that protect people and communities. That is what trade is about today.

You were right when you said that if “we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.”

Respectfully, every NAFTA-style so-called “free trade” deal pushes us further from the vision that you so passionately and powerfully speak of.

They are playing us. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

Enforcement: A Sham

In the past, the UAW initially made clear, in its own testimony, that the “KORUS FTA has inadequate protections and enforcement mechanisms to enforce either the spirit or the letter of the law.”

Now, the UAW’s statement in support of the South Koreal deal says that the language of the agreement “includes labor and environmental commitments”. It goes on to say: “This agreement is an important step toward a global rule-based trade system, an important step in giving labor a real voice in trade negotiations. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration on the issue of global rights for workers — especially the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

I don’t see the progress.

As I understand it, the deal keeps in the very same NAFTA-style, Bush Administration language that prevents the deal from living up to the conventions of the International Labor Conventions (ILO). To be sure, the ILO’s conventions lack much in the way of enforcement power. But, when these NAFTA-style trade deals try to even keep high-minded ILO rhetoric from muddying the waters, what are we to think?

That enforcement is a sham.

In February 2008, I posed a challenge to then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who were both pledging to renegotiate NAFTA in order to enhance enforcement of labor and environmental enforcement. As you recall, the labor and environmental provisions were added on to NAFTA because that was the only way to buy a handful of Democratic votes to ram through the agreement.

NAFTA enforcement was supposed to have been under the purview of the Commission for Labor Cooperation (CLC). The CLC was supposed to be funded, partly by the U.S., via a $2 million-a year appropriation, which would have meant that, over the period between 1993 and 2005, the CLC would have had $22 million from the U.S.

But, as Public Citizen found:

In another example of the gap between promised authorizations and actual funds appropriated to such programs, the CLC has only been granted $7.2 million of the $22 million it was authorized to receive from the United States as of 2005, or less than a third of the promised amount.

The game was rigged from the beginning. For argument’s sake, let’s say the CLC got the full $22 million? Would that have been sufficient?

I like to use this analogy. In the U.S., we have accepted, under Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, that injury, illness and death in the workplace are a cost of living in the wonders of the “free market”. We make a show of enforcement—-the same show that was proposed for NAFTA enforcement—-but the truth is that the system embraced, in a bipartisan way, does very little to ensure a safe workplace.

Here’s what the AFL-CIO found in its 2007 report [the emphasis is mine]:

At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 133 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In seven states (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA-approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory. In these states, it would now take the state OSHA’s a combined 62 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.

The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 63,670 workers. This compares to a benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization for industrialized countries. In the states of Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, Nebraska, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1/100,000 workers.

When the AFL-CIO issued its first report “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” in 1992, federal OSHA could inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years, compared to once every 133 years at the present time. Since the passage of the OSHAct, the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA’s jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA staff and OSHA inspectors has been reduced. In 1975, federal OSHA had a total of 2,405 staff (inspectors and all other OSHA staff) responsible for the safety and health of 67.8 million workers at more than 3.9 million establishments. In 2005, there were 2,208 federal OSHA staff responsible for the safety and health of more than 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million workplaces.

The 2008 OSHA budget proposed $490 million. Yes, that was a Bush budget. But, even in Democratic Administrations, OSHA has always been underfunded given the task described above. The 2010 Obama budget proposed a $559 million—-a significant increase but still inadequate.

So, think about that for a moment: we have an entirely inadequate system in this country just to watch over safety and health in the workplace, funded at a miniscule level of several hundred million dollars—and, yet, we even more ludicrously proposed, in the past, to oversee labor rights enforcement over three countries (the U.S., Mexico and Canada) at a laughingly pathetic and criminal level of a couple of million bucks?

The fact is enforcement is a farce. It was a farce created to buy a few votes to jam NAFTA through a Democratic Congress. It was a farce concocted by a Democratic president and his Labor secretary (Robert Reich), who were both full-throated champions of NAFTA and so-called “free trade”.

It is not clear to me how the agreement with Korea to enforce labor rights is anything but a continuance of the farce. There is simply no way—no way—that these provisions can be enforced. None. Please explain how I am mistaken.

But, here is a larger point: there is no enforcement that can work. Ever.
The problem is not enforcement of NAFTA-like agreements.

It is NAFTA-style trade itself and its very conception and framework. Labor and environmental rights are slapped on as add-ons to deals that are sideshows to the meat of these agreements—protecting capital and investors’ rights. We cannot “fix” NAFTA-style trade deals unless we destroy the fundamental motivation behind them—lower wages and a careful obliteration of every reasonable regulation to protect individuals.

We are being played. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

The President’s Promises

This president cannot be trusted. I don’t mean that in some Tom Delay-Newt Gingrich venal “he will lie” manner. I believe that he is who he is—-and who he has always been: a person who believes in marketing phrases like “free trade” and the “free market”, a person who surrounds himself first and foremost with the Robert Rubins of the world; and, regretfully, a person who does not have the best interests of organized labor as a first and overriding principle.

It is also not clear to me, as a political matter, how he can help. He appears unwilling or unable to fight. Why do we think he will go to the mat for organizing rights when he will cave in and let the raiding of the U.S. Treasury by the richest people in the land continue, even after those richest people have pocketed a king’s ransom in wealth over the past 30 years?

He has promised to aid our organizing efforts, particularly in the South. Why should we believe he has a strategy to do so, beyond rhetoric? If we learned anything from the recent tax fight, it isn’t going to happen. The expiration of the tax breaks for the wealth was something he, and the rest of the Democratic Party, knew was coming from the first day the president took office.

So, a reasonable person could ask: why did he not take that on from the get-go when he was riding high? Why not take that mandate then, when he had the attention of the people (in a good way) and say, “today, we are taking a first step towards ending class warfare in America”.

Because there was no strategy.

So, I am skeptical that there is a winning strategy behind the promises on organizing.

Transforming The Debate

Even if you believe that you could find enough money to deploy inspectors all around the world and even if you are willing to believe that this president—or any president in the current political environment—will fight for the UAW at the cost of alienating large corporate contributors, there is a much bigger challenge:

How do we stop the stupefying, unrelenting class warfare of which so-called “free trade” is an integral piece?

Where do we draw the line?

Sure, each union, for the price of its support, can get a few concessions in any so-called “free trade” deal. We can get jobs some jobs. I certainly can imagine, given the dire predicament of UAW members, that any promise of some jobs is welcome.

But at what price?

Is the price of a hammering down of wages worth it—because that is precisely what will happen if we continue to let the NAFTA-style of trade grown and mutate.

Is it worth letting another NAFTA-style deal pass which is a link in a chain that connects tax cuts for the rich, the growing divide between rich and poor, the decline of union power, and Wall Street greed?

At the end of the day, if the UAW has to support this agreement, I understand the real world: we have very little power to get a better deal right now. In some peoples’ minds, we’ve gotten very little from fighting these NAFTA-style deals over the past two decades. True, nothing good has come from these rancid products.

But, let’s not, to abuse the cliché, put lipstick on a pig. Why not simply say: this deal stinks but it is the best we can get. “Free trade” is a disaster for the working people of the world. But, we have to swallow this bitter pill because of our weakness today.

I am planning on posting this letter on my blog and would also do so for any thoughts you had in response. I think these issues are crucial for labor to consider and I think a lot of people would be interested in your point of view.

Solidarity,

Jonathan

This article was originally posted on Working Life.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.


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Corporate Rewards: Controlling U.S. Trade Policy

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Leo GerardReal men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.

Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.

The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.

Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.

Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.

Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:

“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”

In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.

Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.

In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.

Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”

They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.

It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:

“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”

The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.

When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.

The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.

Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.

If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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Kiss The Jobs and Wages Goodbye: Hello “Free Trade” Again

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Jonathan TasiniYesterday, I wrote about the disastrous state of labor in the wake of the elections. Suffering from either a lack of sleep or simple brain lock, I neglected to include one of the most dangerous coming debacles: we have lost much of the ground built opposing so-called “free trade” agreements, which have played a central role in undermining jobs and wages here–and have caused the decline in wages across the planet. And it is now about to get worse, thanks to “bi-partisanship”.

I can almost guarantee–if I was a pollster, I’d use a fancy chart and put the certainty of this happening at 99 percent–that, in searching for areas of “bi-partisanship”, to show the voters and the country that the two parties have “heard” the message of the election, that so-called “free trade” will be one of the first things on the cooperation agenda. I would not be surprised to hear that declared within the next few weeks.

Here is my long-held view: our so-called “free trade” agreements are directly connected to the decline in wages–both because they encourage the movement of high-wage jobs to lower-wage countries (though, let’s be clear that such movement can happen without these trade deals–the deals just make it easier) AND because so-called “free trade” is based on the fundamental principle of the race to the bottom on wages.

The world of trade today is not based on the best product. It is based on wage and regulation arbitrage. That is, worldwide corporations are simply looking for the places to do business where they can get the cheapest wages and the lowest level of regulation possible (as in lax environmental standards, no labor standards and no protection for anything–except for capital and corporate intellectual property right). And they are clear: they do not care about creating jobs here.

And, simply on the question of do they work, Public Citizen destroyed the idea that so-called “free trade” agreements live up to their claims of increasing trade.

To outline what we face legislatively: First, the Nancy Pelosi-led House (and I invoke her name positively because she deserves credit for this) was the finger in the dike preventing the passage of the so-called “free trade” agreements with South Korean and Colombia (and Pelosi did that even when there were senior Democrats like Charles Rangel who were trying to do the bidding of corporate lobbyists). You can bet your life that the John Boehner-led Lobbyist Convention (what we once used to call the “House of Representatives”) will now press for the passage of those deals. While a smattering of Republicans in the past did oppose so-called “free trade”, their numbers have never been consequential. These deals will now pass the House. Absolutely guaranteed.

Take no comfort about the Senate. On trade, the Senate Democratic caucus has been, as a whole, much more inclined to support so-called “free trade”. I am not even sure whether Sherrod Brown–the main Senate sponsor of the TRADE Act, which would try to usher in a new sane era on trade–could muster enough votes to filibuster a so-called “free trade” deal. The House has been the bulwark. With the House gone, it’s over in the Senate. There will be no reason for the Senate leadership to hold these deals back.

And the president has not been an ally in this area. He has consistently, going back to the 2008 presidential primaries, referred to himself as a “free trader”. In his last State of the Union address, he said:

And that’s why we’ll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.

As important, this is also terrible politics. I think it is understandable why people are angry. The truth is the people have been robbed by the entirely bankrupt system of the “free market”–and so-called “free trade” has been an important oil in that robbery. Rather than focus on the phony deficit “crisis”, the president and the Democrats should be talking about how to stop the robbery–and approving more so-called “free trade” agreements is, to put it mildly, off message.

If we want to “hear the message”, it is that everyone is sick and tired of being screwed by the big corporations and the top one percent of the wealthy in this country who care only about draining more of our national wealth into their own pockets.

Stan Greenburg and James Carville demonstrated, in an otherwise useless memo, that opposition to so-called “free trade” was an electoral winner:

There is a second message that centers on made in America, creating American jobs and opposing the Republicans who supports trade agreements and tax breaks for companies that ex-port American jobs. The message is strongest with older women and seniors and with inde-pendents. These can be used in a targeted way, while working in our next poll and focus groups to bring these two messages together.

My passion is “made in America,” working to support small businesses, American companies and new American industries. (REPUBLICAN HOUSE CANDI-DATE) has pledged to support the free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and protect the loophole for companies outsourcing American jobs. I have a different approach to give tax breaks for small businesses that hire workers and give tax subsidies for companies that create jobs right here in America.

This message framework for the election is helped by an attack on the Republican candidate for supporting trade agreements and tax breaks that lead to lost American jobs. Those at-tacks are very strong with white older women and seniors.

I am not for a message that opposes trade by targeting workers abroad i.e., “[Fill in the blank] is taking our jobs and we have to build everything here because we’re better” or words to that effect. In my humble opinion, that leads us down the same track that fosters anti-immigrant feelings and a moral superiority that does not do our country well.

I am for–and I believe many Americans will respond to–a message that says, “No more greed in American–whether it’s on Wall Street or in corporate trade. Vote against any candidate who will vote to let corporations attack our wages and pensions and the American Dream by forcing workers everywhere to work for slave wages.”

Over the past few election cycles, opposition to so-called “free trade” was an electoral winner. Public Citizen showed how in 2006 and 2008 Democratic gains came partly because of a rejection of the so-called “free trade” model.

In a new analysis by Public Citizen released today, the organization says:

House Democrats that ran on fair trade platforms in competitive and open-seat races were three times as likely to survive the GOP tidal wave than Democrats who ran against fair trade, according to a comprehensive 182-race, 70-page report released today by Public Citizen. The GOP tsunami obliterated many candidate-specific features of the midterm contests, but trade, job offshoring and/or government purchases of foreign-made goods were a stunningly persistent national focus of midterm election campaigns, with 205 candidates campaigning on these issues. A record number of 75 Republicans adopted some fair trade messaging as well, 43 of whom won their races. More than sixty races became “fair trade offs,” where both the Democrat and Republican ran on fair trade themes. Only 37 candidates campaigned in favor of more North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)-style trade agreements – about half of these candidates lost.

I have no reason to doubt the analysis–Public Citizen is quite on top of the issue and has done incredible work. BUT–

I think we are whistling in the dark here. We should be afraid–very afraid: The votes are not there to stop these deals from going through.

UNLESS:

We can make the real argument that the American Dream–and a decent livelihood for workers all across the planet is at stake. And that unless the Democratic Party understands this, it will not win elections in the future–and will not deserve to.

This article was originally posted on Working Life.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.


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Free Trade Gets Some Fresh Thinking

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The Obama administration has taken some nice first steps toward a more worker-friendly vision of global trade. New free trade agreements pushed by the Bush Administration, such as those with Colombia and South Korea, are apparently getting some deep re-thinking – or at least, being put on the back burner while the new Administration sorts out climate change, health care and domestic trade union rights. And refreshingly, on July 16, the new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a more proactive strategy to enforce labor provisions in existing free trade agreements. Here’s what’s new under the sun.

First, a bit of explanation about what he’s talking about. Existing free trade agreements from NAFTA on through the most recent deals require our trade partners- at least on paper- to enforce their labor laws and to try to live up to international labor standards.  So what’s so striking about USTR Kirk saying that the Administration wants to make sure existing language in our trade deals is enforced?

In truth, no prior administration has ever sought to actually take the initiative when it comes to these provisions. Instead, we have assumed that of course all our trade partners are enforcing labor rights protections- except when someone points out they aren’t. In other words, enforcement of these provisions has been carried out largely on a complaint-driven basis. This model can’t really work, as the people who are most affected- the most exploited workers in the countries with which we trade- just don’t have practical means to access the mechanisms that have been set up for filing complaints. Thus, not surprisingly, very few complaints get filed, no matter how many abuses actually occur. Even when complaints do get filed- for instance, my organization, ILRF, filed about a dozen cases on behalf of Mexican workers in the early years of NAFTA- those cases take years to resolve, and workers see little return for the effort of engaging in the process.

But there is no downside to the US Trade Representative taking a new look at how we enforce these deals- and, we hope, finding a better way to do it. Real enforcement of the labor provisions in trade deals would be a win-win for both US workers and workers overseas.  Promoting policies that protect workers in other countries makes good sense for the US, economically.  Creating decent and sustainable jobs that raise developing country workers into the middle class is a win-win for workers and businesses, as it expands markets for US and global products. That has long been the main moral argument for more global trade- although few have cared to deal with the ugly reality that many workers in export industries in these countries have been getting sweatshop jobs, not decent jobs, and have not been able, in their lifetimes, to afford the goods they are producing.

Poor working conditions in developing nations not only strip laborers in those countries of their rights, but also create unfair competition in the global labor market. This global “race to the bottom” leads to degradation of conditions, to the increase in ‘sweatshop jobs,’ here at home. We need to bring up the bottom for everyone.

It’s great that USTR Kirk wants to hold trading partners accountable for labor rights, and would be even better if the new Administration sought ways to hold investors- the multinational companies that chase cheap labor around the globe- accountable as well. This would get us past the current ‘free trade’ model to one of what we might call fair trade. For example, we should be supporting terms of trade requiring that investors who benefit from trade deals agree to a floor of decent wages and working conditions that ultimately enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty, and should reward governments that institute laws and policies to regulate ‘footloose’ investors and require companies to make long-term commitments to investments- and their workforce- in developing countries. This is in all of our long term interests.

About the Author: Bama Athreya
is the Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

This article originally appeared on Union Review on August 4, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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