IS FREE TRADE MAKING HOLLYWOOD A RUSTBELT?
By David Bacon
LOS ANGELES, CA (11/19/99) -
Hollywood a rustbelt?
That's what 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 heavy metal
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
Earlier this month, Everett and other Hollywood union activists
organized demonstrations, supported by the LA County Labor Federation,
during a dinner hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America at the
Rita Hayworth Dining Room at Sony Studios, honoring Commerce Secretary Bill
Daley and his "Free Trade Education Tour." Daley was greeted by dozens of
boistrous protesters from various studio unions, including International
Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Locals 44 (props), 728 (set
lighting), 705 (wardrobe), 695 (sound technicians) and 600 (camera
operators). Supporters came from other unions as well, including the
longshoremen, communications workers and state, county and municipal
Jobs are only going to Canada, say studio unions.
Twentieth-Century Fox made last year's most popular move, Titanic, in a
maquiladora in Rosarito, sixty miles south of the border. And after
production was over, the independent and militant Mexican union which
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 it's shared with millions of other workers
in dozens of industries in the rest of the country, and the world. No one
argues 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, an organization set up five years ago to
enforce the increasing number of free trade agreements which 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, 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
existing agreements protect corporate profits. The union federation is
calling on the WTO to incorporate five international labor conventions into
the text of future treaties. These five agreements, written by the
International Labor Organization, 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 which violate
existing trade rules.
Juan Somavia, the ILO's secretary-general, says his organization
"is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even
Somavia, however, doesn't believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There's
no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits.
Nevertheless, Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO's international affairs department, says that incorporating protections for
workers into trade agreements can 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 like the minimum wage and 8-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 which 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 NAFTA
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, which
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 their 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 sideagreement didn't have teeth
for enforcement, a problem it says can be corrected by having the WTO
enforce labor protections, just as it enforces those which protect
corporations. McWilliams is doubtful, pointing out that the U.S.
government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is
unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't
itself recognize. "We have one of the worst records of subscribing to
international labor union rights of any industrial nation anywhere," he
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.
Those divisions grew even sharper after the convention, when
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. Sweeney sits on the committee with
heads of major corporations, who also signed it. The letter supports
administration action to gain greater access for U.S. corporations and
Sweeney said he'd gained assurances from the administration that it
would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO
statement calls the commitment "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 moved stunned many union leaders. Steven Yokich,
president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair 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 that we have 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. The Canadian Labour Congress was even more blunt in
differing with the AFL-CIO approach. "The struggle by unions, social
justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat
at the table, or a 'social clause' or environmental rules," a CLC statement
declared. "We're determined to change the entire trade regime."
Behind the official statements, however, are obvious concerns by
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 Seattle to demonstrate against
free trade, an issue unionists care about deeply. But at the same time,
federation leaders face an uphill battle to get those same members to vote
for the very politicians who support free trade, especially Clinton's
chosen successor, Al Gore.
Hollywood's Michael Everett is probably their worst nightmare.
"Hollywood workers will not roll over for policies that export our jobs,"
he announced. "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."
Then, in contrast to his stance towards the administration on the
WTO, Sweeney issued a strong denunciation of China, after Clinton
negotiated terms under which it will be admitted to the body. Sweeney
attacked China for human rights abuses, calling it "a rogue nation," a term
used by U.S. military planners to designate potential targets for both
military attack and economic sanctions in the post coldwar era, such as
Serbia, Iraq or North Korea.
Union leaders and trade campaigners then lined up to denounce China
at a Washington, DC, press conference beside Harry Wu, a fellow at the
ultra-conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Wu has a
long history of alliances with Sweeney's conservative predecessors in
AFL-CIO leadership. He spoke before the 1995 AFL-CIO convention, saying
that thousands of U.S. workers were losing jobs because of prison camps
"run by the Chinese government and its Communist Party."
At the time, retiring AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland was under
attack for inaction in the face of administration trade policy, just before
the start of Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. Wu's coldwar rhetoric
blamed China, rather than NAFTA, for U.S. job loss. NAFTA itself, which
resulted in the loss of over 170,000 jobs, wasn't even discussed at that
Wu's reappearance in the current WTO debate in the AFL-CIO may
signal a similar effort to make China the enemy, rather than Clinton's
negotiating stance at the WTO. Sweeney and leaders of the auto and steel
workers, while disagreeing over their attitude toward administration trade
policy, found common ground in condemning China. The fight over
transforming or dismantling the WTO is suddenly becoming a fight over
whether to admit China to the club, which currently includes 76 other
But whether superheated anti-China rhetoric becomes a big
ingredient in Seattle or not, the primary source of the loss of Los Angeles
jobs remains closer to home. Hollywood studios move production to Canada
and Rosarito. San Fernando Valley's Price Pfister plant moved to Mexicali
two years ago. The LA basin is living with the consequences of NAFTA, and
has acquired a bitter experience with the failure of its promise to protect
"Only a united front of labor will have the power to break NAFTA,"
Everett concludes, "and stop the WTO from destroying our livelihoods, our
communities, and our children's future."
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