LaborNet logo
Labor Newsline logo


By David Bacon

This week the AFL-CIO will mobilize thousands of union members to
demonstrate in Seattle outside the meeting of trade ministers of the World
Trade Organization. The labor federation is calling for incorporating the
rights of working people around the world into the text of future trade
agreements, and for treating the impact of trade on workers as a
fundamental issue.

But the AFL-CIO is proposing a way of dealing with trade with which a
number of unions disagree. It proposes a social clause, which would
incorporate into future trade agreements core labor standards, including
prohibitions against child labor and prison labor, against discrimination,
and against violations of the right of workers to organize unions and
bargain. The WTO enforcement process, now used to protect the ability of
transnational corporations to move investments and production freely across
borders, could then be used to protect workers' rights as well, the labor
federation argues.

But many unions, including leftwing ones in Europe and Canada, have serious
questions about the proposal for a social clause. Some equate it with
proposals in Europe to make a social contract between labor and capital
part of the process of creating a single European economy.

The social contract has tended to be a proposal of Europe's more
conservative unions. The more radical ones have argued for opposing the
process of merging economies itself, rather than negotiating worker
protections within an economic framework dominated by transnational
corporations and banks. In Europe, the movement towards a single currency
and the merger of markets has brought with it austerity formulas for the
elimination of social benefits and protections won by workers over the last
fifty years.

Social democrats are now in power in Britain, France, Germany and Italy.
In some of those countries workers and unions have been able to reverse the
economic trend, and some governments have been more responsive to worker
pressure than others. But all these social democratic governments argue
that for Europe to make it in the world economy, productivity has to be
increased, and social needs and benefits brought into line. That often
brings the governing parties into basic conflict with the working-class
base which has brought them to power. The conflict is not so different
from that which has taken shape in the U.S. between labor and the Clinton

The flaw in the social democratic argument is that its assumption and
purpose is wrong. Society exists to serve the social needs of people, not
the productivity needs of capital. Those two needs are in basic conflict -
a conflict of class interest.

The criticism made by the Canadian Labour Congress of the proposal for a
social clause in the WTO negotiations is similar. "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 declares. "We're determined to change the entire trade regime."

But even assuming that negotiating a social clause is a good idea, in the
context of trade negotiations first of all it requires that labor agree on
a common agenda. The social clause the AFL-CIO proposes reflects the
institutional needs of unions in a wealthy, industrial country. Unions and
labor in other countries see other needs as well, especially the need for
economic development. Parents of farmworker families in the Philippines
and Mexico, for instance, overwhelmingly agree they would prefer that their
kids had the opportunity to go to school rather than work. But simply
prohibiting child labor doesn't provide that opportunity. It just cuts the
income the family depends on to survive.

Labor federations in developing countries propose a large variety of
programs for economic development. The more conservative generally support
foreign investment and the governments which encourage it. The more
radical ones support a program of national development which seeks to
protect local industries, and even keep them in public, rather than
private, hands. Those kinds of development programs are the antithesis of
the economic framework the WTO enforces. Unless the international trade
structure is changed drastically, these national development alternatives
will not be possible. So proposing a social clause to limit the
prerogatives of foreign investors lines up with the more conservative labor
federations internationally, and undermines proposals for nationalization
and national development less dependent on transnational capital.

Our definition of what the social clause should cover is narrow,
reminescent of the land reform proposals of the AFL-CIO in El Salvador
during the civil war, or of the Sullivan Principles in South Africa. While
labor rights are important, there's a bigger struggle going on -- over who
controls the economies of developing countries, and what the development
program is.

U.S. unions need to negotiate a common agenda with labor in developing
countries, and recognize and respect differences of perspective and
opinion. Saying, for instance, that the All China Confederation of Trade
Unions is not a legitimate union body because it doesn't agree with the
AFL-CIO's trade agenda is a form of national chauvinism, and smacks of the
old coldwar prohibitions and destabilizations. It is also very
short-sighted from the perspective of forging a common front against
transnational corporations who seek to whipsaw workers and take advantage
of differences in standards of living from country to country.

The big problem in the new (or old) international economic order is the
difference in the standard of living between wealthy and poor countries.
The difference between Mexico and the U.S., which was about 3:1 in the
1950s, is about 16:1 today. That difference is the cause of the loss of
U.S. jobs as corporations relocate production. So long as this huge gulf
exists, U.S. workers will continue to have that problem, social clause or

U.S. unions can seek to talk with the Chinese or Mexicans or Salvadorans or
Cubans about the dangers they see in trying to rely on transnational
corporations as a source of capital for economic development, and should do
so. And of course, if they have fraternal, cooperative relationships based
on mutual respect and self-interest, they will have a more receptive
audience that they will if they treat people with whom they disagree as
though they had no right to exist.

But the big problem isn't the policies of foreign labor federations, or
even their governments, but with our own. US economic and trade policy has
a greater influence on the widening gulf in income than any other single
factor, and that, of course, is our responsibility.

The Clinton administration, which at first was unwilling to discuss any
labor protection, has seen a certain reality -- that addressing (whether in
real or just PR terms) the worst of the abuses in foreign factories is a
way of deflecting domestic pressure. But it has no interest in addressing
the fundamental problem of poverty, and the role its policies play in
perpetuating it. In fact, if anything, its newfound interest in labor
standards is a way of enabling the implementation of those same policies.
So the Labor Department proposes a garment code of conduct which prohibits
forced and unpaid overtime after 60 hours, or the labor of kids under 14,
in Central American sweatshops. The corporations which violate the code
are demonized, and the ones that don't are considered ok.

But the proposals for standards and codes of conduct leave unasked a basic
question -- where does the poverty comes from which forces workers through
the factory doors? What policies are pursued by the U.S. government which
perpetuate that poverty? Seeking to avoid these questions, the
administration proposes to negotiate over limits on the worst abuses (not
necessarily as the workers of those countries define them), so long as U.S.
labor basically accepts an international trade structure and economic order
which institutionalizes the gulf in the standard of living, and the
impoverishment of whole nations.

Since the AFL-CIO has already endorsed the administration's presidential
candidate, who proposes these same economic and trade policies, there's a
certain political convenience involved, to say the least.

An alternative program for international labor solidarity could be based on
a much broader set of ideas. They might include:

1. Negotiate an agenda (including the terms of social clauses), based on
mutual respect and self-interest, with the unions and workers of all

2. Accept the legitimacy of existing unions - no coldwar prohibitions or
destabilization programs. Develop friendly and cooperative relationships
based on dealing with common employers, and with the effect of U.S. trade
and economic policies on the people of the country involved.

3. Oppose the negotiation of new trade agreements, and demand the
restructuring of the international economic order.

4. Make international policy dealing with the difference in standards of
living from country to country a primary objective of AFL-CIO policy,
reexamining the role U.S. economic, political and military policy plays in
reinforcing that difference. Labor solidarity means opposing U.S. foreign
policy in areas where it has led to drastic decline in living standards,
such as the economic reforms in eastern Europe.

5. Make independence from U.S. foreign policy a matter of principle,
including ending subsidies for AFL-CIO programs from USAID, NED or other
government institutions. The AFL-CIO should be unafraid to publicly
criticize imperial policies like the US counterinsurgency program in
Columbia, economic and military sanctions in Iraq and Serbia, and the
economic blockade of Cuba.

6. Respect differences in cultural and social norms, including different
social systems. Some countries believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners
through work, for instance, (a principle supported in the past by reformers
in the U.S. as well), while recognizing that workers don't want to have to
compete against the products of unpaid labor.

7. Prohibitions against some forms of labor, such as child labor, also
need to include alternatives which will actually increase the incomes of
the families affected, so that they can survive without the earnings of

8. Support an independent system for the enforcement of labor standards --
not the WTO system, which should be opposed on principle. The WTO
structure is controled by developed countries, and used to impose an unjust
international economic order on developing ones. It is unrealistic to
expect that same structure to ensure economic justice. Calling for it to
do so alienates those people who are its victims, and raises the
possibility that international labor standards could be used as the pretext
for economic aggression in trade wars.

9. International labor standards should include those which affect people
in the U.S. and developed countries, as well as developing countries. U.S.
working people, for instance, need a prohibition on strikebreaking, living
wages, the right to free health care, the elimination of mandatory
overtime, an end to welfare reform, and protection for the rights of
david bacon - labornet email david bacon
internet: 1631 channing way
phone: 510.549.0291 berkeley, ca 94703

Online communications for a democratic labor movement.
This page is maintained by
Copyright 1999 LaborNet