Labor unions were angry with President Clinton for signing into law the North American Free Trade Agreement. They pressured Congress to act to revisit the law. When the House of Representatives initially rejected Clinton’s request to negotiate new trade deals in 1997, Clinton had to show he took labor’s concerns seriously. So as part of a new trade deal with Cambodia, Clinton agreed to a union proposal to provide the Cambodian government incentives to improve the conditions of apparel workers. The final compromise between the Clinton administration and labor allowed workers to unionize in return for an increased export quota. They received $50 a month for a 48-hour week, a dozen federal holidays, vacation days, sick leave and maternity leave. The Cambodian deal became the only free trade agreement with an enforceable labor provision.
The plan worked. With oversight from the International Labour Organization (ILO), Cambodian clothing exports and union density grew together. Apparel makers signed union contracts with workers. It was not a perfect system—factory owners tried to avoid the regulations and coached workers on what to say to ILO inspectors. But it led to enormous improvements and showed how government could improve workers’ lives. Like most trade agreements, this one came to an end. The U.S.-Cambodian trade pact ended with the Multifibre Agreement’s demise. Cambodia now had to compete with the rest of the world without inspections or union contracts. Within weeks of the quota ending, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Companies were more free than ever before to concentrate in nations with the worst workplace standards, and Cambodian labor saw its union pacts quickly scuttled and its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by 17 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011.
Even the threat of U.S. legislation regulating labor on imported products can move industry to action. In 1992, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act, which would have prohibited importing goods made with child labor to the United States and called for both civil and criminal penalties for violators. Indian carpet makers, reliant upon child labor, began moving toward an independent monitoring system with the assistance of German unions, although when it became clear that Harkin’s bill would not pass, the Indian carpet industry resisted meaningful monitoring and the system was weakened and easily avoided by the carpet makers. Unfortunately, Congress has never passed the Child Labor Deterrence Act, but the actions of the Indian carpet makers suggest suppliers and importers are watching American labor law and will react positively to mandates.
Admittedly, these stories are anomalies in a long history of government indifference to workers’ rights. Despite these occasional efforts of government, for most of U.S. history the government has not supported workers’ rights. The Department of Commerce, controlled in the 1920s by Republican presidents who opposed such legislation, undermined the Seaman’s Act by creating lax enforcement provisions on ships and assuming that ships from nations with standards similar to American laws would not need inspection, regardless of the actual conditions on the ships. The anti-immigrant laws passed in the 1920s meant that seamen could not take advantage of the ability to quit in an American port if they were from China or Italy or Russia because they couldn’t immigrate to the United States. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled the international provisions of the Seaman’s Act unconstitutional during a period where the growth of trade agreements and the need to rebuild Western Europe in the face of the Cold War made the court uncomfortable with the United States mandating labor conditions abroad.
The Senate’s unwillingness to pass international treaties, including United Nations conventions guaranteeing basic human rights, remains a major impediment for labor rights, human rights, and environmental protection. The Basel Convention of 1989 provided regulatory control over hazardous-waste trading between the global North and South and prohibited the export of hazardous waste to many countries. But the United States is one of only a handful of nations, including Myanmar and Haiti, to refuse to ratify the treaty. Instead, the United States has explicitly exempted electronic waste from the very limited laws the nation does have to protect countries from toxic waste. With the United States undermining the treaty through its active role in the toxic waste trade, the entire treaty becomes almost impossible to enforce, and also illegal imports and bribery are now a major part of the international toxicity trade.
The Supreme Court has also limited the actions citizens can take to support workers overseas. U.S. shipping unions supported a strike by Italian workers flying under a Liberian flag for better working conditions. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled this action a violation of legitimate union activity, in part because it would be damaging to American foreign relations if American unions could affect ships flying under foreign flags. Recent decisions are more concerning. International groups have sued U.S. corporations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), enacted in 1789. Under the provisions of this law, U.S. district courts have the right to hear claims from foreign citizens if they have suffered from actions “in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Beginning in the 1980s, people around the world began filing lawsuits in U.S. courts for human rights violations, even when an American was not directly involved. Lawsuits against Texaco for its environmental damage in Ecuador are an example of people using the ATS to try to hold corporations accountable for the wanton damage they create. Similarly, Nigerians sued foreign oil companies in American courts for aiding the Nigerian government in torturing and killing civilians protesting oil exploration. But in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Roberts Court found for the oil companies by a 5 to 4 margin, severely undermining the ability of human rights activists to use U.S. courts to push for international standards. However, it remains unclear whether American companies can be sued on these grounds.
Despite these problems, activists and citizens need to force the government to act for the benefit of people rather than corporations. Some commentators argue that globalization has lessened the power of the state, severely restraining the possibility of using state power to control global corporations. While outsourcing has introduced a new dynamic to the world, states can still control the corporations residing or doing business within their borders. The reason for using state power to create progressive change is simple— the vast majority of victorious social struggles in American history have been won only after they forced the government to codify their demands into law. The labor movement triumphed when massive strikes pressed the federal government to level the playing field between workers and corporations in the 1930s. The civil rights movement could not achieve its basic goals without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The women’s suffrage movement needed the Nineteenth Amendment to succeed, and the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s takes an important legal tool away from the women’s movement today. Environmentalists forced corporations to reduce their polluting of American water, soil, and air only when the government mandated it. Gay marriage proponents require legal transformations, and they are winning because of their brilliant strategy.
Dealing with the outsourcing plague will require reshaping the government’s priorities, because many politicians today care little about economic inequality. Republicans openly support whatever their corporate masters want, opposing nearly all regulations, giving the wealthy tax breaks, promoting corporate influence over politics, and encouraging union busting. Democrats usually support higher minimum wages, environmental regulations, and a more robust social safety net. These are important differences between the parties. On the other hand, Democratic presidents have pushed job-killing free trade agreements with as much vigor as Republicans. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. Barack Obama wants the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In a post–Citizens United nation, corporate leaders are buying elections. The two-party system seems hopeless for creating progressive change.
But there has never been a successful third-party movement in U.S. history. As we saw after 2000, Ralph Nader’s success in drawing enough voters from Al Gore in Florida and New Hampshire to swing the election to George W. Bush did absolutely nothing to move the Democrats to the left, nor did it help build a long-term left-leaning challenge to the Democratic Party. The last third party to have any lasting impact was the Populist Party in the 1890s, but it collapsed after Democrats co-opted a few of its positions, leaving the small farmers who engaged in that rebellion against corporate exploitation in no better shape than before it began. Some have called the early Republican Party a third party, but this is inaccurate. It filled a gap in the two-party system after the Whigs declined in the face of sectional tensions over slavery. The winner-take-all American political system simply makes a third-party challenge an enormous mountain to climb.
This leaves one political tool—taking over the Democratic Party. We have to make it stand for working people, for environmental justice, for economic equality, and for fair-trade agreements. We can turn Democrats who support polluting and union-busting corporations over unions and greens and prioritize Wall Street over workers out of office. We can run for city and county Democratic Party offices, bringing a pro-worker agenda into the party. We can pressure candidates to support higher minimum wages and to hold corporations accountable for their actions both inside and outside American borders. We can show candidates that embracing working people is a ticket to victory. We can turn the Democratic Party back into the force that it was in the 1930s and 1960s, when it fought for working Americans because working people themselves had the political power to make the party elites listen.
Even on the local level, progressives dominating government can make a big difference. In 2013, the Portland, Oregon, city council adopted a resolution divesting city resources from Walmart, a plan it is currently implementing. It did this after evaluating city holdings that cause “health and environmental concerns, abusive labor practices, and corrupt corporate ethic and governance.” Walmart’s labor practices fit these standards and the city acted. If other cities followed, it could make a real impact on Walmart and potentially force it to treat its workers with some semblance of respect. Similarly, the city government of Madison, Wisconsin, has instituted an ethical-sourcing program for the city, committing its vendors to fair labor practices modeled on International Labour Organization guidelines. This is how government can create change if citizens demand and fight for it.
Taking over the Democratic Party is no easy task, as any activist will tell you. Today, the federal government is less responsive to the needs of working people and the cause of economic justice than at any time since the 1920s. But while the challenges of taking back the American government are great, conservatives have shown us it is doable. The structures are in place. Ultimately, however we manage to do it, we have to challenge corporations and their uncontrolled mobility that dominates our modern economy. Nothing else will allow Americans to create stable jobs for working-class people or allow people of the developing world to claw their way out of poverty.
Some will argue that focusing on the American government is wrongheaded. Wealthy American supporters of the current economic model might say, “What about the governments where this stuff happens? Doesn’t Bangladesh have a responsibility to crack down on Gap and Walmart instead of us innocent consumers with busy lives?” They will even argue that lower safety standards are good for Bangladeshis because they mean the country will attract more jobs. The Bangladeshi government is absolutely at fault for the Rana Plaza collapse. The factory owners dominate Bangladeshi politics and have no incentive to change the system. They kill organizers and repress unions. But making these claims that safety standards are strictly the responsibility of the government and people of the nation of production is immoral, particularly since American business funds and supports the oligarchs who control politics in these countries. In 2006, Vietnamese workers struck in protest against the conditions in their factories. The government threw the strike leaders into prison. In 2013, Cambodian garment workers protesting for rights from their government found themselves at the wrong end of a gun. When Cambodians and Bangladeshis and Vietnamese workers find themselves oppressed by a combination of their own governments and their Western-based employers (or the companies who contract with them), the American people must demand better.
Excerpted from "Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe" by Erik Loomis. Published by The New Press. Copyright 2015 by . Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.