The problem here is that these are precisely the programs that unions have been championing, and business has been opposing, for years. Do Friedman, Miller et al. really think that small-business lobbies will kick in for a living wage if the UAW agrees to more trade deals? (The enlightened burghers of Santa Monica seem perfectly content to spend all of eternity in hell just to defeat an extension of the living wage.) The Republican Party of George W. Bush wants to privatize the risk of investing for one’s retirement. In the early ’90s, the business-oriented DLC opposed a hike in the minimum wage; in the year 2000, a number of business-oriented congressional New Democrats oppose their party leaders’ proposal to make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors. And the one proposal for which labor might in theory be willing to swap some of its trade positions — a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions without fear of retaliation — has failed to win the support of a single business leader during the 20-plus years it’s been kicking around. In short, the forces that promote laissez faire abroad also promote it at home.
Time was when the Democratic Party itself was the vehicle where business and labor worked out their compromises — but that time passed around 25 years ago. The New Deal Order, in which growth was more or less equitable and unions coexisted with regulated industries, has given way to a globalized economy where growth, and contractions, are explosive and utterly inequitable. There isn’t even a table that business and labor could repair to if they wanted to — some agency of global government that could make a social compact into a binding reality. And the clash between business and labor within the Democratic Party — a clash that was largely in abeyance so long as the Newtsters were gnawing at the very foundations of civilization — clearly has not gone away. That is one meaning of last week’s China vote.
But there’s another meaning, too, which suggests that there’s nothing remotely rear-guard about the unions’ opposition to the deal that Congress enacted. If we compare the debate on this proposal to the 1993 debate on NAFTA, it’s clear that the terms of debate have shifted in the direction of the unions. Suddenly, free trade is no longer an end in itself. Instead, it has become a given that the emerging global economy should promote human rights and worker rights and environmental standards. The deal’s proponents argued that increasing the presence of American business and dollars in China would somehow make all that come to pass — a refutable presumption, but one that raises the bar for future trade deals.
If labor really were arguing for protectionism, this sea change in the terms of discussion would never have occurred. In fact, from the 1997 fight against fast-track to the battle in Seattle last November, to the A-16 demonstrations in Washington this April, to the China vote last week, America’s presumably protectionist unions have made the case for globalizing the New Deal Order. Which, in a better world, would unify the Democrats like nothing since Newt Gingrich.