By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It reminds one of the close of Bertolt Brecht’s Weimar satire, The Threepenny Opera, in which the privileged and connected characters celebrate their good fortune while London’s beggars shamble off into the shadows:
For some are in darkness
And others are in light.
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.
Capitalism, as Marx famously said, "has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." The bittersweet irony is that China, the world’s last Marxist power, will be the cause of so much of the coming misery. Still, as Sweatshop Watch claimed in a "working paper" published last year, it is the multinationals, in their never-ending search for lower labor costs, that have actually taken jobs out of the United States, not China.
"Who benefits from the expiration besides China?" Mark Levinson asks. "Wal-Mart, the Gap — most apparel companies are the big multinational retailers. They want to source product anywhere they can."
Levinson’s organization is the descendant of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. It merged last summer with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE. UNITE has plenty to lose New Year’s Day. Since 1990 the number of American garment and textile workers has declined more than 50 percent; today about half a million workers are employed in what remains of America’s once robust apparel and textile manufacturing industries. Worse, UNITE’s partner, HERE, is engaged in a bitter and protracted contract dispute with hotels in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The combined unions claim a membership of 840,000, but more than 400,000 of these are retirees.
"There’s absolutely no question that the end of quotas will result in job loss in the U.S. textile and apparel industry," Levinson says. "We’re trying to protect the numbers we have right now and to expand, but we’re not going to organize in a factory that’s going to be shut down."
Levinson says his union is now concentrating on organizing America’s largest domestic apparel manufacturers — those contracted by the Defense Department.
"Our argument is ‘Look, you don’t want sweatshops making garments for our soldiers.’"
UNITE HERE has joined the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition (AMTAC), an industry-labor lobby that is petitioning the Commerce Department through an interagency group called the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA), to stall the quota terminations or to adopt "safeguard" restrictions on imports.
As of this writing, CITA, which can thwart the removal of quotas if it believes they will cause a serious disruption to America’s clothing and textile industry, has agreed to review eight of the petitions and is considering the remaining three. This is an unprecedented action because such petitions are normally only filed after evidence of economic disruption can be proved, not in anticipation of it. Needless to say, the Chinese, who joined the WTO in 2001, are not happy. Although repeated queries by the Weeklyto Chinese trade agencies, as well as to the Chinese embassy and to China’s Los Angeles consulate, went unanswered, Beijing’s China Daily recently made clear its displeasure by quoting a Beijing textile manager as saying "it is ‘ridiculous’ that the U.S. government would decide the fate of Chinese pant producers by pure speculation."
For its part, AMTAC accuses the Chinese of using currency manipulation and state subsidies to create unfair trade conditions. It’s worth noting that China’s command economy, which assigns individual factories their own, internal quotas (apart from the WTO’s), has created a Byzantine system in which factories can "sell" surplus quotas to other factories. For example, if a Los Angeles apparel maker called Teen Seen contracts for 10,000 tank tops from People’s Tank Top Factory No. 1, and the Chinese plant is only permitted to make 9,000 units, it will have to buy 1,000 quota units from People’s Tank Top Factory No. 2. But the cost for the subsequent 1,000 units, which can easily account for 10 percent of the overall tank top cost, is passed on to Teen Seen in Los Angeles. In some cases, the selling of quotas has become bigger business than manufacturing itself and, in the Wild, Wild East of today, creative entrepreneurs have set up dummy factories to make money by selling the quota units they’ve been granted to real factories.
Until the first signs of economic change appear after New Year’s, observers will content themselves with predicting the most likely winners of a world without quotas — China, India and Vietnam, the last of which is poised to join the WTO. And there are the losers, a long list that includes Honduras, Bangladesh, Mauritius and the Philippines — all the former equatorial colonies whose teeming millions live beneath tin roofs, forever at the mercy of foreigners.
It’s unclear what direction CITA is leaning toward regarding the pleas now before it, although a Chinese textile industry spokesman has noted that CITA’s decision to review AMTAC’s petitions was made before the presidential elections and seemed to be more of a political gesture by the Bush administration than a genuine signal of concern. (A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department declined to answer questions directly for this article, preferring instead to give only background information via e-mail.)