US labour and the new movement against capitalist globalisation

By Barry Sheppard

In the demonstration in Seattle at the close of 1999, a new generation of radicalising youth emerged to take on the World Trade Organisation. Tens of thousands of trade unionists also participated, demonstrating that there is a potential for this movement to begin to mobilise working people.

The targets of this new movement are globalising corporations and the international financial and trade organisations dominated by the rich countries, above all the United States. Clearly, these young people have deep internationalist sentiments, and wish to fight for better conditions for the world's poorest people exploited by these corporations and institutions. This anti-corporate consciousness can rapidly deepen into anti-imperialism, and can begin to question capitalism itself.

The participation of trade unionists in Seattle reflects the fact that the radicalising youth have a natural ally among working people and the trade unions. But the participation of the major US trade union federation, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) was marred by the political line it sought to bring to the action. As the editors of the July-August 2000 issue of the independent socialist magazine Monthly Review put it:

… the idea of globalization has often been promoted in such a way that the suggestion [by trade union leaders and others—BS] is that what has changed is the fact that third-world economies and populations are gaining at the expense of workers in the United States and other rich countries, as US plants are shifted to the third world. Rather than promoting genuine international solidarity, this frequently leads to debilitating forms of economic nationalism.

Just before the Seattle actions, there was a full-page advertisement in the New York Times calling for protectionism for the US steel industry against competition from China and other countries. It was signed by various steel magnates—but also by the president of the United Steelworkers union! The message is that the owners of US steel corporations and their workers have a common interest in protecting what is seen as "our" industry against foreigners. The Steelworkers planned symbolically to dump some China-made steel into the Seattle harbour to protest the "dumping" of steel in the US market by China.

Another example has been the opposition by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) to the lowering tariffs the US government imposes on textiles and garments from Third World countries. The US currently imposes some 3000 such tariffs. The UNITE! leaders have come out together with the textile and garment companies against lowering the trade barriers to such goods from sub-Saharan Africa, some of the poorest countries in the world. This protectionism reveals itself as solidarity with the bosses against the garment and textile workers of Africa.

Leading up to the Washington demonstrations in April 2000 against the IMF and the World Bank, the AFL-CIO made opposition to normalising trade with China its central campaign. Not wanting to be tainted with the ANTI-IMF, anti-World Bank actions, union leaders organised two labour rallies separate and apart from the demonstrations. Perhaps the AFL-CIO leaders also wanted to keep their members away from the actions for fear of contamination: many trade unionists in Seattle had their consciousness advanced by rubbing shoulders with the youthful demonstrators.

In the same editorial, Monthly Review noted:

… the AFL-CIO's decision to hold a rally in Washington, D.C. against most-favored-nation status for China, and to demand that China not be admitted to the WTO—only a few days before the April 16th and 17th protests in Washington against the IMF and the World Bank—symbolized a tendency to exploit sentiments of economic nationalism, fear of imperialism in reverse, and even the xenophobia of many workers. To be sure, this stance is being taken in the name of workers' rights and human rights (although outside of any strong alliance with Chinese workers). But it has also served as a powerful diversion—since labor chose to put its weight on the side of the anti-China lobby, joining with the Republican Right in denying most-favored-nation status and WTO status to China, rather than getting solidly behind the ANTI-IMF and anti-World Bank protests.

There were two such rallies, one organised by the AFL-CIO, and the other by the president of the Teamsters, James Hoffa, Jr. On the platform with Hoffa were both self-styled socialist congressman Bernie Sanders and the ultra-rightist Patrick Buchanan. The ranting against China by the speakers was punctuated with shouts of "Commie bastards!" from the crowd. Shades of a red-brown alliance!

The anti-China demonstrations of the AFL-CIO tops came in the midst of a government-orchestrated anti-Chinese scare. It was not only the Republican right which was pushing this campaign but also the Clinton White House. The content of the scare campaign was that China had obtained by espionage key secrets of the US nuclear arms program. The Clinton administration tried to indict a Chinese-American scientist, Wen Ho Lee. Even though Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months under conditions that can only be described as psychological torture in an attempt to get him to "confess", the government's case blew up in its face.

Worldwide inequality

The protectionism of the labour tops is rooted in their view that Third World workers are gaining at the expense of US workers, what the MR editors call "imperialism in reverse". The editors also point out that confusion "about the basic workings of imperialism is a crucial ideological obstacle to internationalism today. The period of neoliberal economic restructuring in response to decades of stagnation has undermined the living conditions of workers everywhere and has provided the objective basis for a renewal of internationalism." But this renewal can be thwarted by false notions about how foreign workers are taking "US jobs".

It's true that capitalists have used the threat of building plants in countries with lower wages if the workers won't accept the bosses' terms. The capitalists have built plants all over the world, in other imperialist countries as well as Third World ones. They do this for many reasons: to be nearer potential markets, to exploit the natural resources of Third World countries, for lower wages, and so on. This cannot be stopped by raising tariff barriers against foreign goods.

In the imperialist world system, not all countries are equal. There are a handful of advanced capitalist countries, with about 15% of the world's population, in which the corporations and banks not only exploit their own workers and small farmers, but suck super-profits out of the so-called developing countries as well.

I say "so-called" because "developing countries" implies that they will catch up with the imperialist countries sooner or later. A better term would be super-exploited countries, for the truth is that the gap between these countries and the imperialist ones is growing, not diminishing, especially under neo-liberal policies and capitalist globalisation. Within all countries, including the United States, the gap between the rich and the workers and peasants is growing. So within countries and between countries the world is being increasingly polarised.

Even the pro-capitalist Business Week reports in its November 6 issue that "in 1960, the world's 20 richest countries had 30 times more income than the poorest 20%. Now, that wealth gap has grown 74 times." This issue had a number of articles under the rubric of "Global Capitalism: Can it be made to work better?" The editors are nervous. They write, "it would be a grave mistake to dismiss the uproar witnessed in the past few years in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Prague [the US press didn't cover Melbourne]". So they propose some palliatives and public relations gimmicks to better sell capitalist globalisation.

But there are terrific forces driving this system, and it cannot reverse the increasing inequality it is responsible for. After more than a century of imperialism, the world now has more than 800 million hungry people, one billion illiterates, four billion in poverty, 250 million children who work regularly and 130 million people who have no access to education. There are 100 million homeless and eleven million children under five years of age dying every year from malnutrition, poverty and preventable or curable diseases.

The same issue of Monthly Review printed Fidel Castro's opening speech to the April 2000 conference of the Group of Seventy-Seven Third World countries held in Havana. He pointed out:

[The results of the] neoliberal race to catastrophe are in sight. In over one hundred countries, the per capita income is lower than fifteen years ago. At the moment, 1.6 billion people are faring worse than at the beginning of the 1980s.

Over 820 million people are undernourished and 790 million of them live in the third world. It is estimated that 507 million people living in the South today will not live to see their fortieth birthday.

In the third-world countries represented here, two out of every three are underweight; thirty thousand who could be saved are dying every day; two million girls are forced into prostitution; 130 million children do not have access to elementary education; and 250 million minors under fifteen are bound to work for a living.

The world economic order works for 20 percent of the population but it leaves out, demeans and degrades the remaining 80 percent.

The WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and the imperialist governments are imposing ever worse terms of trade and finance on the super-exploited countries. Due to imperialist policies, the Third World debt to the banks of the First World has ballooned to more than US$2 trillion, from $567 billion in 1980 and $1.4 trillion in 1992.

The spiralling debt has become a perpetual motion machine of money flooding from the super-exploited to the imperialist countries, as recalculated interest payments dwarf the principal and new loans are needed to pay off part of the old ones. These debts are a club the imperialist countries hold over the Third World countries, forcing them to acquiesce politically in imperialist policies, such as opening their economies to more imperialist ownership, slashing social spending, accepting unequal terms of trade and the rest of the neo-liberal agenda.

The debt payments and the siphoning of profits from investments in the Third World by the imperialists are two of the more well-known ways of sucking super-profits from the super-exploited countries. Another is through unequal trade. Even if there were really free trade, which there isn't, because the imperialist countries routinely erect their own trade barriers, the gap between the have and the have not countries would necessarily widen.

This is because of the big gap in the productivity of labour between the imperialist countries and the rest, due to the differences in when these countries first adopted the capitalist system of production. The countries which adopted it first imposed on the others a stunted and distorted version of capitalism that made them dependent on, at the mercy of, the First World. They were not and are not being allowed to develop into "normal" capitalist countries.

This gap in the productivity of labour means that when products are traded on the world market between the imperialist countries and the super-exploited ones, the hours of labour exchanged are far from equal. It takes more and more hours of labour in the super-exploited countries to produce the raw materials needed to buy one tractor produced in the US, for example. While there is some high-tech investment in the poorer countries by imperialist concerns, this generalisation remains true overall.

Castro explained in the speech quoted above that "today the purchasing power of such commodities as sugar, cocoa, coffee and others [largely produced in the Third World—BS] is 20 percent of what it used to be in the 1960; consequently, they do not even cover production costs".

Moreover, wages as measured by US dollars in the super-exploited countries are very low due to the difference in labour productivity and massive unemployment. An aspect of this massive unemployment has been the driving of hundreds of millions of peasants off the land because they cannot compete with low-cost agricultural products from the first world. The North American Free Trade AGREEMENT—NAFTA—has accelerated this process in Mexico as cheap US agricultural imports are no longer taxed by Mexico.

Another aspect of the displacement of the peasantry has been reorientation of farming to the needs of the world market. An example is Iran. After the 1953 CIA-directed coup that installed Shah Reza Pahlavi, the new dictatorship launched the "green revolution", a salient feature of which was to introduce large farms to produce for the world market. Millions of small peasants were driven off the land in this process. Another result was that Iran moved from being a country self-sufficient in food to one that has to import food.

These landless peasants stream into and around the cities of the Third World, seeking jobs that are very scarce. One need only think of the slums of Rio, Jakarta, Mexico City, Teheran and so forth. Imperialist and local capitalist investments in these countries cannot meet the demand for jobs.

Reducing the gap

What trade policy would help reduce the gap between the rich and the poor countries, short of the overthrow of imperialism on a world scale?

There are two sides to the question. The first is that the Third World countries need protectionist measures of their own, to allow their industries to develop in the face of competition from the advanced countries.

The other side of the coin is that the imperialist countries should end all tariffs and quotas on goods from the Third World countries, especially for goods these countries can produce competitively because they do not require massive investments and are labour intensive, such as textiles and garments.

These changes to trade relations between the have and have-not countries should be complemented by cancellation of the debts the super-exploited owe the super-rich.

Of course, the imperialists are pressing in the opposite direction. They are forcing the Third World countries to eliminate their protectionist policies, while maintaining protectionist policies against Third World countries.

A 1992 United Nations Development Program study reports that most industrialised nations are more protectionist than they were in 1980, with severe repercussions for Third World countries.

This is the context in which to evaluate the AFL-CIO's demands for more protectionism by the US against Third World countries, including China. These demands go exactly in the wrong direction. Labour in the US and the other imperialist countries must, if it is to survive, join forces with workers and peasants in the Third World. A key aspect of this in regard to trade is to oppose the unequal terms of trade, by understanding and supporting Third World countries' need for protectionist measures, and by opposing protectionist measures by the imperialists against them. This would help put the labour movement in the US on the side of workers and peasants in the Third World resisting their own ruling classes' adaptation to neo-liberalism and imperialism.

In the longer run, trade between the advanced countries and the Third World should be based not on world market prices, which are largely determined by labour productivity in the imperialist countries, but on the exchange of equal hours of labour. This would help the super-exploited countries build up their economies and improve their labour productivity. The result would be to lift all of humanity, as labour productivity on a world scale rose.

Cuba succeeded in forcing the former Soviet Union to move in this direction. The fact that the industrialised USSR traded some important commodities with Cuba closer to the hours of labour embodied in them, as compared to the world market prices, was an important factor in helping move Cuba's economy forward in the face of the US blockade. This was the basis of the assertion by bourgeois apologists that the USSR was "subsidising" Cuba, trying to give a negative twist to a positive arrangement. Certainly, they are opposed to the US or other advanced capitalist countries agreeing to such positive terms of trade with Third World countries, since that would cut into imperialist profits. The adoption of such a policy would probably require the victory of socialist revolution in one or more of the advanced capitalist countries.

The AFL-CIO reactionary protectionist campaign against Third World countries is covered up with assertions that protectionism will help the environment, workers and human rights, and eliminate child labour in the Third World. While these assertions are phoney, they should be examined.

Usually, the form these assertions take is calls for the US not to lower tariffs on goods from Third World countries until these countries eliminate low wages and child labour, adopt better environmental rules, improve human rights, allow free trade unions and so on. This sounds good. Shouldn't labour fight for those things? Of course. But the question is how.

Why are there lower wages and more child labour in the Third World than in the imperialist countries? Isn't it because of imperialist exploitation? In fact, it is impossible for wages in these countries to be raised quickly to the level of the imperialist countries, given the low level of productivity and the massive poverty caused by imperialist exploitation. This would be true even if there was a socialist revolution in an underdeveloped country that could resist neo-liberalism.

For many in the Third World, child labour is not a preferred choice for parents, obviously, but is often a necessity for a family to survive.

Restricting trade with Third World countries would not raise wages or eliminate child labour. It would, in fact, lead to lower wages and more child labour, because the economy would be constricted!

The AFL-CIO protectionist campaign has centred on China, as a good target, since the campaign can appeal to anticommunism and the racist fears of "yellow hordes" sweeping across the world.

Why single out China for trade sanctions because of its violations of human and worker rights? The AFL-CIO never proposed such a "remedy" for Suharto's Indonesia, Pinochet's Chile, Mobutu's Zaire, Franco's Spain, Rhee's South Korea, Somoza's Nicaragua, or the regimes of the Greek, Brazilian, Argentinean, or Uruguayan colonels—and so many more.

Does anyone think that the AFL-CIO would call for stiff tariffs on oil from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, countries where most workers are not even citizens and have no right to organise, and half of those considered citizens (women) cannot vote and are subjected to extreme discrimination and brutality? Or against Israel, which has carried out the greatest ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world since 1945?

The bigger hypocrisy, however, is to look to the US as world protector of human and labour rights. Didn't Washington support all of the above regimes, and help put most of them in power? Didn't Washington drop atomic bombs the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and initiate the nuclear arms race? Weren't these actions detrimental to human rights?

How many millions of Chinese and Koreans did the US kill and maim in the Korean War? Doesn't the destruction of two million Vietnamese say anything about human rights? Didn't the USA keep millions under the heel of the Jim Crow system of legalised racial apartheid, and doesn't it still oppress blacks and other minorities? Are the other imperialist powers any better?

The imperialists don't adopt trade policies, whether protectionist or not, in order to further human and union rights. As a matter of fact, they don't like free unions, even in their own countries. Their trade policies are determined by their self-interest.

Another argument, put forward by some socialists who back the AFL-CIO anti-China campaign, is that the treaty the Clinton administration forced China to sign is an unequal treaty, opening further China's markets to imperialist goods and imperialist investments. As Clinton crowed, the US gave China nothing and got these concessions from China, in return for normal trading relations and membership in the WTO. These terms will help accelerate the transition to capitalism that the Chinese bureaucracy has embarked on.

If workers and peasants in China resist the onerous terms of this treaty and the other moves towards capitalism like privatisations, we should give them all-out support. We can be certain that they would not be demanding that China not be allowed to trade with the US—they would be demanding more equal terms of trade.

Workers in the US should be demanding exactly the opposite of what the AFL-CIO is saying. Instead of trying to block Chinese goods from entering the US, we should be for ending all trade barriers to such goods. Instead of opposing trade with China, we should attack the unequal terms of trade Washington seeks to impose on China. Against Washington's demands on China to further open its markets to US goods—which is the other side of the AFL-CIO's protectionist coin—we should defend the right of China and all Third World countries to protect their own industries.

The "don't trade with China" slogan is not just wrong; it is reactionary. It pits US workers against Chinese workers.

Protectionist campaigns in the US make it appear that the problems workers face are due to other countries, not to their own capitalist class, the way the capitalist system works and their own capitalist governments. It puts workers in the position of defending "our" company, or "our" industry, against the world, including the workers of the world. It cuts across what's needed, international working class solidarity. Against capitalist globalisation, we should fight for the globalisation of solidarity, and ultimately for the globalisation of socialism.

Barry Sheppard, a member of the US socialist organisation Solidarity, works at United Airlines' San Francisco Maintenance Operations Center, where he is a shop steward.