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George Becker, president of the steelworkers union, is even more emphatic, calling the WTO and the trade structure fundamentally flawed: "There’s nothing in it for working people. Nothing. That law exists to support multinationals. It’s not for workers. There’s no way that you can put a comma here, or change a word there, to make it compatible. It’s not our law. Scrap it."
While unions that oppose the WTO process are often called protectionist, McWilliams retorts that his union owes its existence to trade. "We’re not against fair trade, we’re against free trade," he explains. "If workers aren’t going to be able to find dignity and justice in the workplace along this road to corporate prosperity, we’re going to resist it every way we can."
According to McWilliams, Becker and their allies, the North American Free Trade Agreement has already demonstrated that worker protections are unenforceable. When NAFTA was negotiated in 1994, it included a side agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, that was supposed to protect workers’ rights in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. In the last five years, however, over 15 cases have been filed alleging that the U.S. and Mexican governments especially have not enforced labor laws, and that workers have been fired and unions broken as a consequence.
The best-known example has been the effort by workers at the Han Young factory in Tijuana to organize an independent union and conduct a legal strike. Judicial authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico have agreed that the workers’ right to do so was illegally denied by the Mexican government, but the NAFTA process failed completely to make any meaningful change.
Leo Girard, a national vice president of the steelworkers, says labor solidarity is a better answer, pointing to his union’s long support of the Han Young workers. "The kind of trading regime represented by NAFTA and the WTO is not meant to improve the quality of life," he argues. "This trade simply benefits the employers. It represents an extension of exploitation rather than a diminishing of it."
The AFL-CIO counters that the NAFTA side agreement didn’t have teeth for enforcement, a problem it says can be corrected by having the WTO enforce labor protections, just as it enforces protections for corporations. McWilliams is doubtful, pointing out that the U.S. government has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions and is unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements the government doesn’t itself recognize. "We have one of the worst records of any industrial nation anywhere of subscribing to international labor-union rights," he notes.
These differences surfaced in October at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, where a number of unions, including the ILWU, the Auto Workers and the Teamsters, abstained from endorsing Vice President Al Gore in his quest for the presidency, citing his support for free trade. Since the convention, these distinctions have grown even sharper. Last month, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney signed on to a letter from the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks — including having the WTO set up a working group that would, for the first time, discuss workers’ rights. Sweeney sits on the committee with heads of major corporations, who also signed it. The letter also supports administration action to gain greater access for U.S. corporations and investors abroad.
An AFL-CIO statement called the new commitment by the letter’s signatories to a WTO workers’ rights discussion "a sharp departure from the business community’s previous position that workers’ rights are in no way the domain of the WTO," and calls for a hard fight "to make the WTO a more democratic and accountable institution."
Nevertheless, the move stunned many union leaders. Steve Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chairman of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. "Good trade policy does not trickle down from flawed assumptions about ‘free trade’ and its impact," he said, nor " from ‘pie in the sky’ rhetoric such as we haven’t heard for years that acknowledges labor and environmental issues but does nothing concrete or enforceable to address them." Teamsters president James Hoffa also announced his opposition to Sweeney’s move.
Since signing the letter, Sweeney has attempted to bridge the gap with his labor colleagues — joining with them in harsh denunciation of the administration’s new agreement to favor China’s entry into the WTO, and delivering a speech last Friday to the National Press Club in which he opposed a new round of WTO talks unless worker rights were made part of any new agreements.
Behind this tightrope act, however, are obvious concerns of AFL-CIO leaders over the potential fallout from a big battle with the Clinton administration over trade policy. On the one hand, the AFL-CIO is going all-out to mobilize union members to go to Seattle to demonstrate against free trade, an issue unionists care about deeply. At the same time, federation leaders face an uphill battle to get some of those same members to vote for the very politicians who support free trade, especially Clinton’s chosen successor, Al Gore.
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