New York Times - November 20, 1999
Trade Pacts Must Safeguard Workers, Union Chief Says By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
WASHINGTON -- Raising the stakes in labor's dispute with President Clinton over trade, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, John J. Sweeney, called on the administration on Friday to scuttle a worldwide round of trade-liberalization talks unless negotiators first take steps toward protecting workers' rights.
Sweeney, already angry about last week's trade agreement with China, said American labor unions want Clinton to persuade trade ministers gathering in Seattle on Nov. 30 to allow trade sanctions against countries that violate basic labor standards, like the ban on child labor.
The labor movements in the United States and in other industrialized countries are taking a much more aggressive approach toward the Seattle trade talks than toward previous rounds of negotiations, insisting that workers' rights be included in any new trade agreements. In past rounds of trade talks, corporations and developing nations prevailed with their arguments that worker rights have no place in trade accords.
In what was billed as a major address to the National Press Club here, Sweeney rejected accusations that labor's attacks on the World Trade Organization and the China deal stemmed from protectionism and isolationism.
"The debate isn't about free trade or protection, engagement or isolation," he said. "The real debate is not over whether to be part of the global economy, but over what are the rules for that economy and who makes them -- not whether to engage China, but what are the terms of that engagement, and whose values are to be represented."
Union leaders view the Seattle trade meeting as a landmark opportunity to establish for the first time a worldwide system of enforceable labor rights. Labor officials say these rights would enable workers, and not just corporations, to enjoy the fruits of expanded trade.
Sweeney said it was time to ensure that any future trade agreements take into account not just corporate concerns, but also the concerns of workers, environmentalists and human rights advocates.
Sweeney said he was pleased that President Clinton had backed labor's call to have the trade organization ministers set up a committee that would draft rules on core labor standards. But with developing countries vowing to block such a move, union leaders fear that Clinton will drop his commitment to labor rights, rather than block the planned round of worldwide trade talks from moving forward.
"Until the W.T.O. addresses these important issues, there will be no support for a major new round of trade negotiations," Sweeney said.
Some labor leaders are warning that if President Clinton leaves the Seattle talks without winning an international pledge to create a system of worker rights, he will further antagonize union members who are already fuming about his deal to let China join the W.T.O. Union leaders are angry that the administration agreed to China's membership in the trade organization without having gotten China to agree to allow independent trade unions and to free imprisoned labor leaders.
Gene Sperling, the president's economic adviser, said: "There's no question that Bill Clinton is the single head of state fighting hardest for and leading the effort for a working group on labor. We will continue to make an all-out effort to achieve that goal."
The anger at the administration, union leaders say, might not only soften labor's support for Vice President Al Gore in his campaign for the presidency but cause a diversion of union money and manpower from Gore's race to a fight against the China trade accord and the W.T.O.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is working with environmental, consumer and human rights groups to sponsor a large rally in Seattle to protest what they see as the trade organization's pro-corporate tilt and its frequent overruling of countries' environmental and consumer protection laws.
The trade organization's meeting, scheduled to run from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 and bring together ministers from 135 countries, aims to set ground rules for a multiyear round of trade talks that would liberalize trade in agriculture, financial services, Internet services and other areas.
As an example of how labor values might be included in trade rules, Sweeney argued that W.T.O. rules should allow China's trading partners to seek sanctions against China for using forced labor and barring trade unions.
"This is a country where anyone attempting to organize a union is immediately arrested and imprisoned -- no exceptions," Sweeney said of China.
Developing countries are seeking to block the trade organization from creating enforceable core labor standards and even from taking the preliminary step of setting up a working group on labor rights. Such core labor standards, union officials say, would include a ban on child labor and on forced labor, and a right to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Third world countries fear that allowing their trading partners to seek sanctions for violations of such labor standards would pave the way to banning their exports.
"These countries say that we'll just slap restrictions on their exports and make them poorer," said Jeffrey Schott, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.
Thomas Donohue, the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, expressed alarm at Sweeney's call on Clinton to block the new trade round unless worker protections are included. Donohue has backed creating a working group on labor.
Insisting that the new trade agreements will increase American exports and jobs, Donohue said, "I think John Sweeney and other labor leaders are smart enough to recognize that to scuttle this trade round and the China-W.T.O. deal would not be in the interests of this country, its workers, its economy or its national security. This is a watershed opportunity to bring China into the international trading system and to get it to adhere to the international law."
Sweeney's speech made clear that he would rely on an alliance with environmental, consumer and human rights groups to pressure the W.T.O. "We will continue to organize in the Congress against any trade accords that do not include workers' rights and environmental protections," he said.