Thursday, December 18, 2003

I've been mentioning for a while that labor unions have it tough in Iraq, where the CPA is continuing to enforce Saddam's anti-union laws. But labor unions have it tough all over -- as in China, where strike leaders are getting harsh jail sentences, while the government tries to push reporters away from the problem.

Well, sucks to be them, right? Except that in a new, globalized world, lousy labor situations can migrate, as companies shopping for factory sites with the lowest labor costs depress wages worldwide.

But things might be looking up -- we have an administration now which, aside from its rhetoric, clearly isn't as firmly attached to the globalization and free trade agenda as some of its predecessors -- just look at the steel and textile tariffs, for instance, or the continued insistence on maintaining agricultural price supports, all unambiguous trade barriers.

Well, they're not attached to the free trade part of the globalization and free trade agenda. But "free trade" can mean something different if you put it in quotes, in the title of a treaty. As Nathan Newman points out in this case study of free-trade-in-quotes, where a "free trade" agreement pushed hard by our government strips treaty signatories of the privilege of having publicly owned utilities, in effect demanding that they sell their utilities off to large Western conglomerates, even though privatization failures in Latin America have already started riots. Which is actually of a piece with their trade (barrier) policy -- both are intended to secure profits for established American corporate interests.

But you can't focus too obsessively on trade deals, even when they do concern things that properly belong in the political arena. For instance, getting back to wages, it's nice to suppose that if we just eliminated favoritism in trade deals, and the race to the bottom they engender, then American labor rights law would start functioning as designed, and we'd restore some kind of a balance. Don't count on it. A few years ago, Human Rights Watch blasted the U.S. government for failing to protect labor rights all on its own -- in 2000, after eight years of a Democratic presidency (though, to be fair, a Republican Congress for most of that time).


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