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Will A Social Clause In Trade Agreements Advance International Solidarity?
On November 30 the AFL-CIO mobilized thousands of union members to demonstrate in Seattle outside the meeting of trade ministers of the World Trade Organization. The labor federation called for incorporating the rights of working people around the world into the text of future trade agreements, and for treating the impact of trade on workers as a fundamental issue.
But the AFL-CIO is proposing a way of dealing with trade with which a number of unions disagree. It proposes a social clause, which would incorporate into future trade agreements core labor standards, including prohibitions against child labor and prison labor, against discrimination, and against violations of the right of workers to organize unions and bargain. The WTO enforcement process, now used to protect the ability of transnational corporations to move investments and production freely across borders, would then be used to protect workers rights as well, the labor federation argues.
But many unions, including left-wing ones in Europe and Canada, have serious questions about the proposal for a social clause. Some equate it with proposals in Europe to create a social contract between labor and capital as part of the process of creating a single European economy.
The social contract has tended to be a proposal of Europes more conservative unions. The more radical ones have argued for opposing the process of merging economies itself, rather than negotiating worker protections within an economic framework dominated by transnational corporations and banks. In Europe, the movement towards a single currency and the merger of markets has brought with it austerity formulas and the elimination of social benefits and protections won by workers over the last fifty years.
Social democrats are now in power in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. In some of those countries workers and unions have been able to reverse the economic trend, and some governments have been more responsive to worker pressure than others. But all these social democratic governments argue that for Europe to make it in the world economy, productivity has to be increased, and social needs and benefits brought into line. That often brings the governing parties into basic conflict with the working-class base which has brought them to power. The conflict is not so different from that which has taken shape in the U.S. between labor and the Clinton administration.
The flaw in the social democratic argument is that its assumption and purpose is wrong. Society exists to serve the social needs of people, not the productivity needs of capital. Those two needs are in basic conflicta conflict of class interest.
The criticism made by the Canadian Labour Congress of the proposal for a social clause in the WTO negotiations is similar. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a social clause or environmental rules," a CLC statement declares. "Were determined to change the entire trade regime."
Assuming, however, that negotiating a set of basic international labor rights or standards is a good idea, in the context of trade negotiations it especially requires that labor agree on a common agenda. The social clause, or the set of core labor standards, the AFL-CIO proposes reflects the perspective of unions in a wealthy, industrial country. Unions and labor in other countries see other needs which go beyond them, especially the need for economic development.
Parents of farmworker families in the Philippines and Mexico, for instance, overwhelmingly would prefer that their kids have the opportunity to go to school rather than work. But simply prohibiting child labor doesnt provide that opportunity. It just cuts the income families depends on to survive.
Developing countries are the source of immigrants who work in the first world. Their remittances are often a large source of national income, especially income which goes directly to the families of workers and farmers, rather than trickling through the pockets of government and banks. The status of that expatriate population and its right to work, therefore, is a basic labor rights question for developing countries, and one which affects directly the income of their working class populations.
The current definition of what the social clause should cover is too narrow, reminescent of the land reform proposals of the AFL-CIO in El Salvador during the civil war or of the Sullivan Principles in South Africa. While labor rights are important, theres a bigger struggle going onover who controls the economies of developing countries, and what development program they can follow.
Labor federations in developing countries propose a large variety of programs for economic development. The more conservative generally support foreign investment and the governments which encourage it, even governments which keep minimum wages at starvation level, and suppress the efforts of workers to organize, especially in export industries. More radical unions support a program of national development which seeks to protect local industries, and even keep them in public, rather than private, hands. They support policies which encourage the formation of an internal, national market, based on the rising income of workers and farmers.
National development programs are the antithesis of the economic framework the WTO enforces. The international institutions supported by the U.S. government, from the WTO to the IMF, do everything in their power to keep developing countries from exploring these alternatives. Those governments which do pursue them become pariahs in the international trade system, eventually subject to sanctions, and even called "rogue nations." Unless the international trade structure is changed drastically, these national development alternatives will not be possible. So proposing a social clause within that trade structure, even one which limits the prerogatives of foreign investors, undermines proposals for nationalization and national development less dependent on transnational capital, and those unions which support them.
U.S. unions need to negotiate a common agenda with labor in developing countries and recognize and respect differences of perspective and opinion. Saying, for instance, that the All China Federation of Trade Unions is not a legitimate union body because it doesnt agree with the AFL-CIOs trade agenda is a form of national chauvinism and smacks of the old cold war prohibitions and destabilizations. It is also very short-sighted from the perspective of forging a common front against transnational corporations who seek to whipsaw workers and take advantage of differences in standards of living from country to country.
The big problem in the new (or old) international economic order is the difference in the standard of living between wealthy and poor countries. The difference between Mexico and the U.S., which was about 3:1 in the 1950s, is about 16:1 today. That difference is the cause of the loss of U.S. jobs as corporations relocate production. So long as this huge gulf exists, U.S. workers will continue to have that problem, social clause or no.
U.S. unions can seek to talk with the Chinese or Mexicans or Salvadorans or Cubans, and urge them not to rely on transnational corporations as a source of capital for economic development, and should do so. If they have cooperative relationships based on mutual respect and self-interest, they will have a more receptive audience than they will if they treat people with whom they disagree as though they had no right to exist.
U.S. labor is no longer in the cold war era in many ways, and one of the most important is that it no longer defends free trade internationally, as it did in the days of AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland. In fact, the AFL-CIO now urges the labor movements of developing countries to oppose policies by their governments which encourage foreign investment at any cost, converting their economies into export platforms, depressing wages, violating union rights, putting up national resources and enterprises for privatization to the highest bidder, and generally treating their workforce as a source of cheap labor for sale to international capital. This path is what the AFL-CIO now calls "the race to the bottom."
So why, then, offer political support to the very international structure which has those economic goals?
The big problem facing U.S. workers in the global economy doesnt come from the policies of foreign labor federations or even the governments of developing countries. Its source is much closer to home. U.S. economic and trade policy has a greater influence on the widening global gulf in income than any other single factor. That, of course, is our responsibility.
The Clinton administration, which just a couple of years ago was unwilling to discuss any labor protection in trade agreements, has seen a certain reality. Addressing (whether in real or just PR terms) the worst of the abuses in foreign factories is a way of deflecting domestic pressure. As unionists and young activists were gassed in Seattle streets, Clinton signed with great fanfare a watered-down prohibition of the worst forms of child labor, lecturing developing countries about their need to be concerned for labor rights. Yet this and previous administrations have refused to fight for the ratification of the dozens of ILO conventions which have been negotiated over the last 50 years (including a much stronger prohibition on child labor), and have no intention of doing so in the future.
At bottom, U.S. governments of both political parties have had no interest in addressing the fundamental problem of poverty in the developing world, and the role their policies play in perpetuating it. In fact, if anything, Clintons newfound interest in labor standards is a way of enabling the implementation of those same policies. The Labor Department, for instance, proposes a garment code of conduct which prohibits extreme abuses in Central American sweatshops. The corporations which violate its code are not included on the list of responsible manufacturers. The ones that abide by the code are praised.
But the proposals for standards and codes of conduct leave unasked a basic questionwhere does the poverty come from that forces workers through the factory doors? What policies are pursued by the U.S. government that perpetuate that poverty? Seeking to avoid these questions, the administration proposes to negotiate over limits on the worst abuses (not necessarily as the workers of those countries define them), so long as U.S. labor basically accepts an international trade structure and economic order which institutionalizes the global gulf in the standard of living, and the impoverishment of whole nations.
Since the AFL-CIO has already endorsed the candidate who proposes these same economic and trade policies, theres a certain political convenience involved, to say the least.
alternative to the argument for labor standards, enforced by the WTO, is
international labor solidarity. Solidarity is actually the official
policy of the AFL-CIO, which renamed its international policy arm the
American Center for International Labor Solidarity. But the goals of
U.S. labor solidarity could be based on a set of ideas much broader than
the agenda pursued at in negotiating with Clinton over labor standards
at the WTO. Those ideas might include:
1. Negotiate an agenda (including the terms of social clauses), based on mutual respect and self-interest, with the unions and workers of all countries.
2. Accept the legitimacy of existing unionsno cold war prohibitions or destabilization programs. Develop friendly and cooperative relationships based on dealing with common employers, and with the effect of U.S. trade and economic policies on the people of the country involved.
3. Oppose the negotiation of new trade agreements, and demand the restructuring of the international economic order.
4. Make attacking the difference in standards of living from country to country a primary objective of AFL-CIO policy, reexamining the role U.S. economic, political and military policy plays in reinforcing that difference. Labor solidarity means opposing U.S. foreign policy in areas where it has led to drastic decline in living standards, such as the economic reforms in eastern Europe.
5. Make independence from U.S. foreign policy a matter of principle, including ending subsidies for AFL-CIO programs from USAID, NED or other government institutions. The AFL-CIO should be unafraid to publicly criticize imperial policies like the U.S. counterinsurgency program in Columbia, economic and military sanctions in Iraq and Serbia, and the economic blockade of Cuba.
6. Respect differences in cultural and social norms, including different social systems. Some countries believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners through socially useful work, for instance, (a principle supported in the past by U.S. prison reformers as well). At the same time, prisons shouldnt be turned into commercial workhouses, and workers shouldnt have to compete against the products of unpaid labor.
7. Prohibitions against some forms of labor, such as child labor, need to include alternatives which will actually raise the incomes of the families affected, so that they can survive without the earnings of children.
8. Support an independent system for the enforcement of labor standardsnot the WTO system which should be opposed on principle. The WTO structure is controled by developed countries, and used to impose an unjust international economic order on developing ones. It is unrealistic to expect that same structure to ensure economic justice. Calling for it to do so alienates those people who are its victims, and raises the possibility that international labor standards could be used as the pretext for economic aggression in trade wars.
9. International labor standards should include those that affect people in the U.S. and developed countries, as well as developing countries. U.S. working people, for instance, need a prohibition on strikebreaking, living wages, the right to free health care, the elimination of mandatory overtime, an end to welfare reform, and protection for the rights of immigrants.