Workers vs. WTO

Will China's entry into the World Trade Organization soften labor support for Al Gore's presidential bid?

Published November 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The tentative trade agreement forged over the weekend between China and the
United States is likely to pave the way for China's entry into the World
Trade Organization, but not without lots of gnashing of teeth and shedding of
political blood beforehand.

The deal, on the basis of preliminary information, opens up market
opportunities for U.S. high-technology and business consulting firms as well
as American agriculture on terms that appear slightly improved from those
the Clinton administration rejected last spring. With those concessions in
hand, the Clinton administration can more easily ask Congress to OK
China's entry into the WTO, thereby granting China the equivalent of
permanent "most favored nation" (MFN) status.

Most business groups applauded the deal and the prospect of China entering the
WTO. Peter Morici, senior fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute, a
think tank that promotes the interest of American export firms, argued that
the trade deal "should create many more opportunities for Americans than for
Chinese," especially in high technology, logistics, software, business and
legal consulting, and telecommunications services.

Labor unions, however, denounced the deal in
especially harsh terms. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney attacked the Clinton
administration as "disgustingly hypocritical" and as making a "grave
mistake" in its "fevered rush" for a deal with China. Sweeney's lambasting
of the administration comes just weeks after Clinton and Gore lobbied
aggressively to secure an early endorsement for Gore's presidential
campaign, and could potentially cause headaches for the vice president in
getting the union rank and file to mobilize on his behalf.

"At a time when WTO rules protecting workers' and human rights and the
environment are yet unwritten, this agreement undermines that possibility
and squanders a chance for the WTO to achieve the legitimacy it and other
international institutions lack among people around the world," Sweeney said.

"There could be a big trade fight in this country over this, bigger than
NAFTA," said Mark Levinson, chief economist for Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). "It's outrageous. It shows the
administration doesn't take workers' rights seriously."

Even though Gore, Bradley and Bush all support deregulation of international
trade, Gore's direct link with Clinton may cost him votes among union and
working-class voters, votes that may be crucial in a competitive Democratic

Even if Gore survives a challenge from former Sen. Bill Bradley, there
is a precedent for trade deals negotiated by Clinton translating into
Republican victories at the ballot box. In the Republican landslide of 1994
many "blue-collar" voters who would typically have supported Democrats
simply stayed home, in part because of disillusionment with Democratic
support for NAFTA.

The deal comes as Sweeney is under growing pressure from industrial unions
to show that he understands their concerns about deregulated trade. There
was a mini-rebellion in the ranks when the AFL-CIO president joined business
executives on a trade advisory panel in supporting the administration's
strategy for the WTO meetings coming up at the end of the month in Seattle,
including the formation of a "working party" to discuss protecting worker
rights at the WTO.

That deal, which left many industrial union leaders
angry, now looks especially hollow and leaves Sweeney politically vulnerable
unless he takes the administration to task on its China policies. With the
admission of China to the WTO, it would be much more difficult to make even
the slightest headway toward linking trade privileges and protection of
internationally recognized worker rights.

The administration acknowledges that some U.S. industries -- such as apparel
and textiles -- will lose many jobs to Chinese imports, but the United
States market is already open to many other Chinese products and last year
ran a $57 billion trade deficit with China. Although the new trade deal may
open business and financial service markets to American companies, unions
and other free-trade skeptics doubt the forecasts of a China export boom
that will diminish the deficit and gain jobs for the United States. After
all, Levinson argues, the administration used similar models in evaluating
NAFTA and was far off the mark.

Imports from Mexico were eight times
greater in just the first five years of NAFTA than the International Trade
Commission had projected for the "long term." The administration negotiated
provisions to protect against surges of Chinese import in certain industries
and to eliminate export subsidies, but labor argues that China's suppression
of worker rights to organize and bargain for higher wages allows them to
produce cheap products and gives them an unfair market advantage, which will
lead to the loss of American jobs.

Even more than trade deficits and job losses, organized labor is worried
that China's entry into the WTO will stifle any progress on defending workers'
rights around the world. Competition from China is likely to encourage governments in other
poor, developing countries to suppress worker rights and hold down wages.
The poorer countries of Asia may face the biggest immediate short-term job
threat when the WTO admits China, which is expected to capture much of the
export-oriented garment, textile and shoe business from other countries in
Asia when the global agreement on quotas on "fiber" products expires in five

The repercussions of the trade deal and China's entry into the WTO could go
far beyond what most people think of as "trade." New foreign competition
could hasten the loss of jobs in China's large state industries, throwing
millions of workers into the streets, depressing wages further and creating
social turmoil. As cheap Western grains flood Chinese markets, many
millions more peasants may be forced off the land into the cities. As China
opens up to international investment, banks and financial services firms, it
will lose some of the control over its economy that helped it avoid the
worst of the Asian financial crisis of recent years.

Analysts like Morici argue that membership in the WTO will "further lessen
the grip" of the Chinese government over the economy and eventually lead to improved conditions on human-rights issues. But the United Nations Development Program reported earlier this year that rapid economic liberalization in developing countries has been
associated with huge increases in inequality, and does not necessarily lead to improvements of human rights.

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

MORE FROM David Moberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore China Democratic Party Unemployment