The Protectionist Trap

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Caroline Lund

IN JULY, THE United Nations and some fifty large corporations came to an agreement that the companies would all respect workers’ rights and protect the environment in their investments around the world. Anyone who believes that this will actually happen is maybe in the market for a certain bridge as well.

But the fact that this window-dressing agreement exists at all is testimony to the power of what has come to be called the “Seattle movement.” A new consciousness has sprouted up, worldwide, amongst a layer of students, working-class youth, trade-union activists, environmentalists, human rights and religious people. The destructive results of unbridled capitalist globalization on our planet have become so blatant that a new opposition movement is pressing for controls on capital and for radical alternatives to the profit system.

This new movement holds great potential for all of us who are out to change the world towards a place where human solidarity and human needs come first. But the battle of ideas is intense within it, and the outcome of this battle will shape the future of the movement.

I am an auto worker and I work in a plant called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.) in Fremont, California. My Local sent a delegation to the demonstration against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last November, and also to Washington, D.C. in April of this year.

But the big issue for the officialdom of my union (and the whole AFL-CIO) is not sweatshops, or the rape of the environment, or inequality between the poor countries and the rich countries — the issues that have galvanized radical youth into opposing capitalist globalization.

The top issue for the union leaderships has been trade with China. They are against permanent normal trade relations between the United States and China.

To me, this debate over trade with China is a critical one, both within the unions and inside the “Seattle movement.” It comes down to a question of whether this movement will pursue a course of international solidarity, or will be derailed into protectionism and U.S. nationalism.

My union, the UAW, opposes trade with China for two reasons. First, the officials say, we need to help Chinese working people by putting pressure on their government to support human rights and worker rights.

Second, they say trade with China will cost “American jobs” by increasing U.S. investments in China and exports from China. At my February Local membership meeting, we were warned by a union official that, “NUMMI could be the next plant that is moved to China!”

Who Would Suffer?

As to the first reason, stopping U.S. trade with China is not going to help Chinese working people. However authoritarian its government might be, every country needs to trade to develop its economy and feed its people.

Banning trade relations is going to hurt the Chinese people. It will not hurt their rulers. The ruling officials of China have insulated themselves from any such hardships. In addition, the AFL-CIO officialdom exaggerates the brutality of the Chinese regime, in a throwback to their old cold-war anti-communism.

Even Business Week’s Asia Regional Editor, Mark L. Clifford had to write, “China is not the Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany. It is a country more akin to authoritarian South Korea or Taiwan in the 1970s and early `80s than it is to a totalitarian police state.”

South Korea and Taiwan are U.S. allies, and we never heard the AFL-CIO calling for stopping normal trade relations with them. Nor have they called for stopping trade relations with other horrendous dictatorships such as Suharto’s Indonesia, or Pinochet’s Chile, or “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haiti, to name just a few.

Nor is the United States a model for human and worker rights. This country has the highest number of prisoners in the world (two million), rampant police brutality, child labor in the fields, and repression of union organization. Columnist Sean Gonsalves notes, “A federal law prohibiting domestic commerce in prison-manufactured goods unless inmates are paid `prevailing wage’ allows politicians to feign concern for human rights with a straight face, railing about prison labor in Communist China.” However, this prison-labor law does not apply to production for export.

The California Prison Industry Authority is one of this country’s top producers of prison-made products. Says Gonsalves, “inmates are forced to work at sewing machines to make blue work shirts at $.45 cents an hour. If they refuse to work, they have their canteen privileges suspended and they lose `good time’ credit on their jail terms.”

If the leadership of my union, the UAW, were really interested in aiding Chinese workers to fight for their rights, there would be more effective ways than lobbying against trade with China. The UAW could, for instance, use its real muscle in the auto industry to demand of GM and the other companies that they increase wages and respect the rights of workers in their plants in China and Mexico.

Or, if the UAW officials were really interested in solidarity with Chinese workers, it could oppose the specific trade deal that President Clinton negotiated with China, which favors U.S. big business at the expense of China.

As President Clinton bragged about it, “This vote by Congress is on an agreement that lowers no American trade barriers, lowers no American tariffs, grants no greater access to China to any part of the American economy — nothing, zip, zilch, nada, zero. On the other hand, Chinese tariffs will fall by more that half over five years in every sector — from telecommunications to automobiles to agriculture.”

A Utopian Scheme

The second reason for the UAW (and AFL-CIO) policy — protecting “American jobs” — is the real reason, I believe. And this resonates with a large layer of U.S. workers who have had their lives disrupted and devastated by downsizing and plant closures as corporations move to outsourcing and shifting production to nonunion plants, plants in the U.S. South, and plants in low-wage countries.

Teamster President James Hoffa Jr. wrote an op-ed in the New York Times several months ago saying, “American workers should not be asked to compete with foreigners who are not paid a living wage.” The implication is that products of these poor countries should be kept out of the United States, and that U.S. corporations should not be allowed to build factories there.

But this protectionist vision is not only utopian in today’s global and integrated world economy, it will not work. Protecting decent-paying union jobs has to do with the relationship of forces in the struggle between workers and the corporations, both in this country and worldwide.

Under capitalism, trade policies — whether “free trade,” protectionism, or so-called “fair trade” — are designed to protect the profits of sections of the capitalist class, according to whether they produce mainly for export or for domestic consumption.

Siding with one or another trade policy of the capitalists is not going to help the workers’ cause. It only puts us in the camp of our bosses and pits us against our allies among working people throughout the world.

The AFL-CIO calls for a “fair trade” policy, claiming that the United States is at a disadvantage because Third World countries pay such low wages. But this is complete hypocrisy. For us in the United States to be calling for “fair” treatment in trade turns reality on its head.

The reality is that the ruling rich of the U.S. and other developed countries hold all the cards in world trade. They control the world’s wealth and capital. They control the distribution system of world trade. They control the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF. They control much of world cultural production. They control the sources of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

They enforce their control of world wealth and trade with their gigantic military apparatus and arms trade. The United States controls the world’s reserve currency, the dollar. The poor countries of the world are starved for capital. For over a century the rich countries have been sucking wealth out of these countries through their investments and profit-taking, as well as interest on loans.

The income ratio between the world’s richest and poorest countries was 30 to 1 in 1960. In 1990 it had doubled; and in 1997 it was at 74 to 1. The richest 20% of the population living in the advanced capitalist countries consumes 86% of all goods and services produced in the world, has 74% of all telephones, and owns 87% of all vehicles, according to United Nations reports.

There can be no “fair trade” in an unfair world. What U.S. corporations mean by “fair trade” is protectionism against Third World goods while opening Third World countries to U.S. goods and investment, thus deepening the inequality. The AFL-CIO leaders echo the corporate leaders.

Who Controls?

So what is the answer to plant closures and downsizing? Maybe it is useful to look at the case of Mexico, where U.S. companies have transferred a great many more jobs than to China. The answer is clearly not to call for a ban on trade with Mexico, even though Mexico, like China, has very low wages and independent unions are repressed.

Another bad answer is the Teamsters union’s call to keep Mexican truck drivers from entering the United States because of supposed unsafe vehicles. Under NAFTA, Mexican trucks were supposed to have free access to all U.S. highways after the first of this year. Meanwhile, U.S. trucks are allowed into Mexico.

Of course, Mexican trucks should be subject to the same safety regulations that U.S. trucks are subject to, no more and no less. But why not welcome the Mexican truck drivers in and demand they get the same pay as U.S. drivers?

This Teamster policy is thinly veiled racism. And this racism toward workers of Third World countries is not only found in the Teamsters leadership. Here is an excerpt from a story in the May/June issue of the International Association of Machinists Journal:

“A good indication of how unsafe Mexican trucks would be on U.S. highways appeared recently in an article for Teamster magazine. Reporter Charles Bowden interviewed several Mexican truck drivers. Almost all said they had been involved in a fatal accident and they reported working long hours with little rest.

“Bowden wrote that one trucker told him `when he was a younger man, he would prepare for long, sleepless hauls by laying in a supply of beer, marijuana, pills and cocaine. Now he has moderated his habits and runs his sleepless journeys with just coffee, pills and cocaine.’”

The only way working people can impose controls over capitalist downsizing and plant closings is by fighting back against those corporations, not against China or any other Third World country. We need to fight for penalty payments against corporate plant closings; for reparations to devastated communities; for adequate retraining and severance pay.

We need to organize the unorganized, to bring up everyone’s pay. We need to fight for a shorter workweek to spread the work. We need to fight for massive public works projects to rebuild our schools, mass transit, roads, and hospitals.

We need to solidarize with the struggles of Third World workers against those same corporations. We need to support their demand for access to capital for development. We need to support the lifting of U.S. tariffs on products of the poor countries.

Brian McWilliams, President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, summed it up pretty well: “Seattle has presented us with new questions about our relationship with workers and unions in other countries. Globalization doesn’t affect us all in the same way. In the U.S., workers experience runaway shops. In less developed countries, they endure super exploitation, environmental rape and the destruction of their traditional way of life. But the most important thing for us is to deal with the gap in living standards, which is enforced by U.S. political and military power. As long as that gap exists, jobs will leave and super exploitation will continue.

“So we have to ask ourselves the question — what strategy will allow us to unite the world’s workers? That strategy isn’t new. We need international workers’ solidarity. That’s the only way we’ll be able to stand up to international capitalism.”

The AFL-CIO’s campaign against trade with China leads in the opposite direction.

ATC 88, September-October 2000