China Trade Vote, Why the AFL-CIO Lost


by Charles Walker


In 1993, the AFL-CIO banked on the Democratic Party to block the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It passed anyway.  This year the AFL-CIO tops again turned to the Democrats in hope of defeating the bill giving China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR).

Labor officials claimed that the proposed legislation would cost American workers at least 800,000 jobs. Democrats were persistently warned that unions saw the China bill as a litmus test and if the bill passed, disappointed workers would “Remember in November” — that is, at election time.

On May 19, Steelworkers President George Becker said, “Our manufacturers are at the mercy of what’s unleashed by China, and what our leaders are inviting in. And I think that it’s going to be a terrible price for the Democrats to pay.”

Nevertheless, on May 24, Democrats from the White  House to the Congress once again turned their backs on their “friends” in labor.

The PNTR bill  passed 237–197. Actually, it wasn’t even that close. Hours earlier a 294–136 congressional vote stymied a labor-backed effort to derail the pending trade bill vote. The earlier  vote also allowed some of  labor’s “ friends” to see that their vote wasn’t needed to pass the PNTR bill. That allowed them to safely and cynically switch back to the unions’ side.

There’s no doubt that when the bosses have super profits in their sights (as in China), workers are in for a tough fight. But no one should think that workers are as weak as the congressional NAFTA and PNTR trade votes indicate.

The history of  workers’ upsurges during the Great Depression and in  the wake of World War II shows that America’s ruling class need not get its way. More recently, the popular Teamsters UPS strike and  Seattle anti-WTO street demonstrations showed on a smaller scale the same thing. All of these examples also demonstrate the strategic power of  mass actions that are independent of the ruling class and its political puppets who daily put Pinocchio to shame.

Why doesn’t the labor hierarchy use the class struggle methods that rebuilt the American labor movement during the 1930s to further its aims? Why did AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney limit labor’s protests to lobbying, though admittedly more vigorous lobbying than is usual from the labor Officialdom?

What’s wrong with the mass action strategy that French and German workers have used to win a shorter workweek and defend past gains? Why doesn’t the American labor bureaucracy borrow a page from the Norwegian unions  who in May called a national strike of a third of their private sector members and were on the verge of escalating the strike when the bosses settled?

The short answer is that the Democratic “friends of labor” wouldn’t tolerate such actions for a minute — because of the social instability implicit in them.

In other words, there can not be a successful fight for organized labor’s major policy demands as long as labor is tied to the Democrats.

Some would-be “friends” of the labor movement suggest that concessions be made to labor, as a balm for union officials’ hurt feelings over the China vote, and undoubtedly to keep workers tied to the political status quo. A New York Times writer ( Thomas L. Friedman) suggests that politicians and corporate bosses sit down with organized labor and ask what can be done to address labor’s “concerns” — short of compromising Big Business’s basic interests.

However, workers have won little and lost much from past Labor-Business-Government conferences and tripartite boards.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich proposes a different sop to labor. He suggests scrapping the laws that allow firms to permanently replace strikers with scabs (or “replacement workers,” as he of course calls them). Reich’s suggestion brings to mind the concessions made to labor during World War II, in exchange for no-strike pledges. However, the bosses are hardly as worried over organized labor’s threat to “Remember in November” compared to the wartime urgency they felt to keep worker militancy contained.

Only a real movement toward class political independence, probably fueled by a general labor upsurge, will bring political concessions from the bosses. But those concessions would probably be puny compared to what workers would be aiming for by then.

May 25, 2000