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Hollywood a Rustbelt?

Photo by David Bacon

Hollywood a rustbelt?

That’s what some studio workers are beginning to call it. Clinton administration trade policies are coming home to Los Angeles with a vengeance, they claim, affecting workers far removed from the auto and steel industries. According to Michael Everett of the Hollywood Fair Trade Campaign, even the city’s crown jewel, the motion-picture industry itself, is on the chopping block.

"Our own political leaders have arranged a system of trade agreements designed to enhance corporate profits by shipping our jobs offshore," Everett says. "In exchange for NAFTA-sanctioned subsidies from Canada and elsewhere, the studios have turned their backs on their own community and have engaged in the wholesale destruction of the Hollywood jobs base."

Earlier this month, Everett and other Hollywood union activists organized demonstrations, supported by the L.A. County labor federation, during a dinner, hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America at Sony Studios’ Rita Hayworth Dining Room, honoring Commerce Secretary William Daley and his "Free Trade Education Tour." Daley was greeted by dozens of boisterous protesters from various studio unions, including International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees locals representing sound technicians, camera operators, and workers in props, set lighting and wardrobe, respectively. Supporters came from other unions as well, including the longshoremen, communications workers, and state, county and municipal employees.

The jobs aren’t going only to Canada, say the studio unions. 20th Century Fox made Titanic in a maquiladora in Rosarito, 60 miles south of the border. After production was over, the independent Mexican union that represented workers there was forced out by government support for a more conservative union, more friendly to foreign companies.

There’s not much disagreement among U.S. unions nationally that Hollywood has a problem, or that the problem is shared with millions of other workers in dozens of industries in the rest of the country and the world. No one disputes that trade policies have a profound effect on jobs. But as thousands of union members prepare to go to Seattle, to demonstrate in the streets outside of possibly the most important set of trade negotiations this century, there is increasingly bitter disagreement in labor over what it will take to solve the problem, or even who the enemy is.

Unions are mobilizing their members to protest the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, a body set up five years ago to enforce the increasing number of free-trade agreements that set the rules for the global economy. Those rules, unions say, are negotiated by governments to increase the ability of multinational corporations to earn profits around the world.

Ron Judd, head of Seattle’s central labor council, predicts that as many as 50,000 labor, social-justice and community activists will pour into the city’s streets as the WTO meeting begins on November 30. "This demonstration is intended to send a message," he says, "not just to this administration but to all administrations around the world, that the rules as they’re written do not work for workers and communities, and that they undermine environmental and health standards. Something has to change."

The AFL-CIO believes that future trade agreements can be written in such a way that they protect workers’ rights and the environment, much as the existing agreements protect corporate profits. The union federation is calling on the WTO to incorporate several international labor conventions into the text of future treaties. These conventions, written by the International Labor Organization (ILO), would guarantee workers everywhere the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively with employers, and would restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor and outlaw discrimination. They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast financial consequences against governments that violate existing trade rules.

Juan Somavía, the ILO’s director-general, says his organization "is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even Somavía, however, doesn’t believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There’s no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits. Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO’s international-affairs department, says that incorporating protections for workers into trade agreements will protect their rights. She compares it to the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to enforce fair labor standards such as the minimum wage and the eight-hour day.

"We have to create the political will to get them into [trade] agreements in an enforceable fashion," she asserts. "That’s the challenge we face. If we didn’t believe it was possible, I don’t know why we’d be doing all this mobilizing. As you know, there are rules for capital that are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time and the place to get them for labor."

A number of unions inside the AFL-CIO, however, don’t think it’s possible to make the WTO enforce workers’ rights. "It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He calls Shailor’s position "an honorable thing to do," but says "it’s not good enough. Nor will it answer the exploitation of workers. There has to be another mechanism, outside the WTO, to police workers’ rights worldwide."

 

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.

Hollywood’s Michael Everett probably exemplifies their worst nightmare — members whose experience with free trade has soured them on the AFL-CIO’s presidential endorsee. "Hollywood workers will not roll over for policies that export our jobs," he says. "We won’t give endorsements, we won’t walk precincts, we won’t give money, and we won’t vote for any politicians of any party who support trade agreements that export our jobs."


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