World labor needs independence and solidarity

By David Bacon, 4 March 2000

Within weeks of the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, thousands of workers at India's state power company struck to prevent the privatization of electricity generation and distribution in Uttar Pradesh. Despite the jailing of hundreds of their leaders, they succeeded in halting it, at least for a time. Meanwhile, in ports along the subcontinent's coast, thousands more longshore workers also stopped work over the same issue - privatization.

Both battles are part of a class war against pro-capitalist economic reforms. Not just in India, but around the world, workers have been fighting for over two decades to keep the social gains they won in the years following World War Two. These struggles dramatize the new problems workers face in the global economy, as well as their refusal to passively accept its new (or not-so-new) priorities.

Turning national enterprises over to private owners is a key component of these reforms—the hallmark of the neoliberal transformation of national economies. Privatization is imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (and now the World Trade Organization) on governments around the globe, through loan conditions, structural adjustment programs, and trade sanctions.

Privatization opens up important sections of the economies of countries like India to transnational corporate investment. Even more important, it reduces the ability of states to control their national economies, and use that control to promote social goals other than profit-making, whether promoting strategic industries, subsidizing prices for farmers and workers, or maintaining social benefits, high wages and unionization.

Privatization, however, has consequences which give unions and workers a big stake in opposing it. Almost invariably, workers at privatized enterprises face huge layoffs and wage cuts, as new private owners seek to cut labor costs.

The transformation of national economies around the world, in which privatization plays a key role, has forced world labor to debate the meaning of international working-class solidarity. Part of that argument surfaced in Seattle, over the issue of international labor standards and their enforcement. This debate will grow even more heated, as workers discuss not only ways of fighting growing corporate power, but revisit even more basic questions. Should encouraging profit-making and productivity be the overriding criteria in making economic decisions? Do countries have a right to control their own economic development? And should labor challenge private ownership itself, or merely argue over the conditions under which workers sell their labor power to corporate employers?

The cost to workers of privatization and structural adjustment

In 1997, the sale of just one railroad in Mexico, the 6,521-kilometer Pacific North line, to Jorge Larrea's Grupo Mexico, resulted in the reduction of its 13,000 person workforce by more than half. The plan was met by months of wildcat strikes which paralyzed operations for a time, but which were ultimately unable to stop the cuts.

As privatization has moved from industry to industry in Mexico, its once-powerful official unions have been gutted. Three-quarters of the country's workforce belonged to unions three decades ago. That percentage is now less than 30. In the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, union membership still hovers at 72%. But when the collateral petrochemical industry was privatized over the last decade-and-a-half, the unionization rate fell to 7%. New private owners like Larrea reduced the membership of the railway workers union from 90,000 to 36,000 in the same period.

When governments pursue policies favoring private investment, the standard of living for workers drops and their social benefits disappear. During the last two decades of neoliberal economic reforms, the income of Mexican workers lost 76% of its purchasing power.

A recent government survey of family income discloses that the average 5-member family has an income equivalent to four times the minimum wage, or about 5-6000 pesos a month. That income is based on three of the five family members working full time.

This means that families aren't making enough to live on, explains Alejandro Alvarez Bejar an economist at the National Autonomous University. It's normal now that young people, when they get married, still live with their parents since they can't earn enough to live independently.

The government estimates that 40 million people live in poverty, and 25 million of them in extreme poverty, almost all in the countryside. Since 1994, the wealth of the top 10 percent of the population has grown, according to Alvarez, while that of the remaining 90 percent has decreased.

The government crows that liberalization brings investment, which brings jobs, and estimates unemployment at less than 6%. But Mexico's new independent union federation, the National Union of Workers (UNT), puts unemployment at over 9 million people, or a quarter of the workforce. Alvarez notes that real unemployment is hidden by the informal economy, which includes streetsellers, day laborers and workers in other marginal occupations who can't find regular employment.

Almost half of Mexico's workers are not covered by its national health care system, due to the growth of illegal jobs. Companies which, despite the law, pay less than minimum wage, with no taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits, are now estimated to employ over half the country's workers. Meanwhile, government increases in the minimum wage (14% in 1998) are more than eaten up in inflation (20% in the same year.) As a result, Mexican labor becomes even cheaper on the world market.

While each country has its own particular set of circumstances, the impact of economic reforms from country to country is overwhelmingly similar to that in Mexico. In many cases, it's even more extreme.

The two strikes in India were not a unique response in this global debate. The indigenous uprising which toppled Ecuador's government in January also sought to stop privatization, along with the complete dollarization of the country's economy.

In three weeks in February, 1999, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) collected 2,700,000 signatures opposing the privatization of central Mexico's electrical grid. It is indisputable that the move to privatize our electrical system is a condition dictated by the International Monetary Fund, intended to create opportunities for private investment, particularly foreign investment, says Ramon Pacheco, the union's secretary for international relations. By organizing a Front of National Resistance, the union was able top stop the privatization effort, but Pacheco believes that the proposal will resurface, since the Mexican government remains committed to neoliberal reforms. We will only be able to stop these proposals when people in Mexico establish a new government, committed to a different course of economic development, he explains.

Over the last two decades, workers around the world have demonstrated, struck, and engaged in all kinds of industrial and political action to confront the same problem. While U.S. labor has also mounted important struggles against privatization, the state-controlled section of the U.S. economy has always been very small, even compared to many capitalist countries. Nevertheless, the loss of social benefits in the U.S. is comparable to what's happened to us, says Benedicto Martinez, general secretary of Mexico's Authentic Labor Front (FAT). It's all a product of the same global policy.

In countries like Mexico and India—mixed economies in which socialism was put forward as an eventual goal of economic development - a large percentage of workers have been employed by state enterprises. A majority of Mexican industrial workers worked for the state until economic reforms began transforming its economy in the 1970s, and its organized labor movement had its greatest strength in the state sector.

For countries like Russia and China, where the state controlled the economy completely, and employed virtually everyone, the impact of privatization has been even more devastating. The governments of both countries, which formerly guaranteed jobs for life and retirement security, now disclaim responsibility for both as enterprises are closed and sold. Workers face a bleak future of unemployment, while retirees go hungry and sell their possessions when their pensions evaporate.

In the Russian and Chinese industrial heartlands (and in the formerly socialist countries of eastern Europe), whole cities were built around huge mills, mines, and factories. Every social benefit, from subsidized housing and childcare, to schools and hospitals, were financed by those enterprises whose doors are now being closed, or which are being sold off to private owners. In Russia, where capitalist transformation is further advanced, millions of workers have even gone months at a time without getting paychecks.

What does solidarity mean to workers who face such problems? This question may seem remote to U.S. workers, whose problems are largely different. But it is a crucial one for any real international working-class movement. The workforces of just three countries now facing this crisis—Russia, China and India—alone constitute perhaps half the world's workers. Efforts to build international labor relationships which do not attempt to answer this question risk being irrelevant.

The AFL-CIO moves away from free trade and cold war policies

Since the 1995 AFL-CIO convention, when John Sweeney was elected president, the U.S. labor federation has moved closer to asking this question, and away from its old coldwar support for free trade and U.S. corporate expansion overseas. In the coldwar era, past AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland not only didn't question the basic goal of U.S. trade policy—they gave U.S. labor a role in defending government economic and political goals abroad.

In developing countries from Vietnam to Brazil to Chile to El Salvador, the AFL-CIO subsidized unions which supported U.S. policy, and attacked ones which didn't. Sometimes, as in Chile and Brazil, it even helped organize fascist coups which left thousands dead and entire labor movements in ruins.

Forcing economic reforms and a return to capitalism on formerly socialist countries was as much a goal of this policy as imposing corporate investment on countries in the developing world. Kirkland's high point was Poland. He bragged that the federation had played a key role in toppling its Communist government through support for Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc. But Poland was just one of many AFL-CIO projects organized in eastern Europe. The big prize was Russia—the then Soviet Union.

In the wake of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms, the AFL-CIO set up an office in Moscow, funneling money and resources to groups of workers likely to break away from the old unions affiliated with the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. As Yeltsin implemented economic reforms, those unions became independent of the government and Communist Party. They were then pushed by workers, desperate over unemployment and plummeting incomes, to organize protests over the reforms. AFL-CIO-sponsored organizations attacked those efforts which criticized Yeltsin and the reformers.

Meanwhile, Kirkland, and even United Mine Workers President Rich Trumka, sat on the governing panel for a project intended to privatize Russia's coal industry, close a majority of its pits, and displace almost half a million workers. The project was financed by the World Bank.

When the new administration of current President John Sweeney was elected in 1995, leaders like Trumka said the time had come to find a new policy for building international relationships. The cold war has gone, he declared at the New York convention. It's over. We want to be able to confront multinationals as multinationals ourselves now. If a corporation does business in 15 countries, we'd like to be able to confront them as labor in 15 countries. It's not that we need less international involvement, but it should be focussed towards building solidarity, helping workers achieve their needs and their goals here at home.

Jack Henning, past executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, one of the most vocal critics of the old AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs, noted that we were associated with some of the very worst elements...all in the name of anti-communism. But I think there's an opportunity now to review our foreign activities, to stop the global competition for jobs among the trade unions of the world.

In the wake of Sweeney's election, the activities of the Moscow office changed considerably. It no longer sought to build up rival union federations, and use them as a labor base to defend Yeltsin. Instead it began providing more concrete help, training unions to set up grievance procedures and mount legal challenges to employers, working with both new independent unions and the old ones.

Meanwhile, the situation of Russian workers deteriorated so drastically that in 1997 as many as 40 million went for months without any paychecks at all. The International Chemical, Energy and Mining union secretariat organized a worldwide solidarity campaign to support Russian miners as they struggled to get paid, and the AFL-CIO participated.

Ending labor intervention defending the worst effects of Russian economic reforms was an important step away from the cold war. But some fundamental issues were left unresolved. Are the reforms themselves the problem—are Russian workers better off as a result of the movement toward capitalism, especially the destruction of the state sector of the economy? And if Russian workers and unions choose to resist, and seek a change in political and economic direction, can they count on U.S. labor support? If so, what could U.S. unions do that would help?

These questions don't just apply to Russia. They lie at the heart of solidarity between U.S. unions and those in most other countries of the world. In the federation's attempt to find a new direction for international labor solidarity, they must be answered. What they really ask is whether the AFL-CIO will challenge the structure of the international free trade system itself, and defend the right of workers to get their countries to withdraw from it.

The argument over international labor standards

Like previous U.S. administrations going back five decades, the Clinton administration seeks to manage a world of internationalized production for rich, first-world markets, governing the system through trade agreements, forged by developed countries to benefit a corporate elite.

It became clear in Seattle that the government is willing to negotiate over certain abuses of this system, and even impose some limits on the most extreme forms of exploitation. But its purpose is to prevent a larger and more profound challenge. It seeks to prevent U.S. labor from questioning or opposing its basic direction and goal—the liberalization of the world's economies.

Clinton told bankers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that free markets continue to be the key to international prosperity, but warned them that they had to bring unions and environmentalists to the table. You have to decide whether you agree that globalization is about more than markets alone, he declared.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was even more blunt. We have an enormous job to do to convince the sincere and well-motivated opponents of the WTO agenda that the WTO can be, indeed is, a friend of development, he warned.

At Davos, Sweeney responded that leaders of the corporate community should join the effort to build enforceable laws that put limits on cutthroat competition. It is in the self-interest of multinational corporations and the governments that regulate them to have rules that are agreed upon by all.

Sweeney acknowledged that developing countries are prisoners to unpayable debt burdens, but agreed with Clinton that globalization has tremendous potential to lift people around the world. It's creating vast new wealth. But financial crises are growing more frequent and severe, and inequality is rising, as the United Nations reports, both among and within nations. This means that the seeds for rejection of globalization are in every political system, in developed nations as well as developing nations.

In Seattle, Bill Jordan, head of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, told a labor forum that unless the WTO takes on the call made by the President of the United States, for a social dimension to globalization, then globalization will fail..

The failure of globalization, however, at least in its present form, is exactly what many progressive unionists would like to see. That is because the current trade structure, which the WTO has come to symbolize, enforces conditions on developing countries designed to make their economies more open and attractive to foreign investors.

Rather than challenge this system headon, the AFL-CIO is proposing a social clause which would incorporate core labor standards into future trade agreements. The AFL-CIO believes those agreements can be written in such a way that they will protect workers rights and the environment, much as existing agreements protect corporate profits. The federation called on the WTO to incorporate five international labor conventions into the text of future treaties. These five agreements, adopted by the International Labor Organization, guarantee workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers, and would restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor, and outlaw discrimination. They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast financial consequences against governments which violate existing trade rules.

Juan Somavia, the ILO's secretary-general, says his organization is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy. Even Somavia, however, doesn't believe the conventions are a cure-all. There's no vaccination against the ills of work, he admits.

Nevertheless, Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO's reorganized international affairs department, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, says that incorporating protections for workers into trade agreements can protect their rights. She compares it to the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to enforce fair labor standards like the minimum wage and 8-hour day.

We have to create the political will to get them into [trade] agreements in an enforceable fashion, she asserts. If we didn't believe it was possible, I don't know why we'd be doing all this mobilizing. There are rules for capital that are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time and the place to get them for labor.

Putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards is supported by some unions in the developing world, but opposed by others. Some of our colleagues fear linking trade to labor standards, and fear that labor standards will be used as a tool for protectionism, explains G. Rajasekaran, secretary-general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress, which nevertheless supports the idea.

H. Mahadevan, deputy general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress, says his federation has demanded that the Indian government take two steps to reduce child labor: guaranteeing a living wage to parents, and making education compulsory. The country's present government, however, is beholden to rich peasants who don't want agricultural wages to rise, or any restrictions on children in the fields. But most important, he says, the Indian government has been fulfilling the dictates of the IMF for many years, and when have they ever been in favor of higher wages? Further, the IMF puts pressure on the government to end subsidies, not to increase incomes, and that becomes an excuse for the government not to pass any laws like the ones we propose. Mahadevan says his federation wants core labor standards implemented in India, but also says that Clinton has no business threatening us with economic sanctions. Indian unions would like support from U.S. labor, he emphasizes, but what would really be useful is if American unions would bring pressure on their own government to stop putting conditions on assistance, like structural adjustment programs, which create the conditions for child labor to begin with. Our sovereign rights shouldn't be taken away, he says.

Parents of farmworker families in Mexico as well would prefer that their kids have the opportunity to go to school rather than work. But simply prohibiting child labor doesn't provide that opportunity. We all know that children have to work for their families to survive, says Benedicto Martinez of the FAT.

Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, recognizes that there is a controversy in the developing South about labor standards. Workers are worried about the loss of jobs, and suspect these proposals are a disguise for protectionism by unions in developed countries.

But for Vavi, head of one of the world's most progressive labor federations, the idea is worth a try. These standards are really nothing new—they've been around for decades, he points out. The real reason for much of the protest is that everyone knows that the ILO has no enforcement mechanism. The lack of enforcement has itself become a means of attracting investment.

Vavi admits that there is an inherent contradiction in giving the WTO this responsibility. But that doesn't mean that we should drop trade union rights from the overall trade system. It's a struggle.

Supporters of WTO enforcement point out that the labor side-agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement provides a precedent for using the existing trade structure to enforce workers' rights. When NAFTA was negotiated, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation was also signed, which provides a mechanism for parties to file complaints alleging that one of the three signatory countries (Mexico, Canada and the U.S.) is not enforcing its own laws protecting labor rights and standards.

Over 15 complaints have been filed under the sideagreement, almost all against the Mexican government, alleging that workers have been unable to organize independent unions without retaliation, and that the country's health and safety laws are not enforced. The complaints have yielded almost no concrete results—no workers fired for exercising their rights have been rehired, and the one independent union that finally won government registration, the October 6 union in Tijuana's Han Young plant, has been unable to strike legally or win a contract.

Complaints filed in the U.S. over the violation of labor laws, and the victimization of immigrant workers in particular, have also failed to achieve concrete results.

The FAT, which has been involved in filing almost all of the complaints, feels that they have put pressure on the Mexican government to be more cautious, and have provided an important forum for exposing the violations of workers' rights. Nevertheless, Martinez says that the government has actually placed new obstacles in the path of workers seeking to organize more militant unions, especially at foreign-owned companies. In order to challenge an existing, pro-company union, workers now have to file lists of signatures showing their support, along with a statement by the boss verifying that the signatures are valid. This process just exposes workers who want a change, Martinez explains, and of course the boss will never sign.

Defenders of the sideagreement say that incorporating its provisions into the main NAFTA agreement would give it more teeth. This is similar to the proposal for having the WTO enforce labor standards. The question remains, however. Can the same body which has as its primary purpose creating favorable conditions for investment, including low wages, weak unions, and high unemployment, also defend workers against those very conditions?

Prior to the Seattle meeting, suspicion of WTO enforcement of workers rights grew even more intense in developing countries when President Clinton endorsed the idea. He trumpeted U.S. passage of an ILO convention on child labor, calling on other governments to do likewise. Clinton neglected to point out, however, that the convention only banned child prostitution and the most extreme forms of child exploitation. ILO Convention 138, which takes a much stronger prohibition against the labor of children under 14 remains unratified by the U.S.

One of the main criticisms of the American government is that it has double standards, Vavi says. It hasn't ratified most ILO conventions itself, while shouting about enforcing them everywhere else.

An additional controversy involves which labor standards are to be considered the most important, or core, standards, and who will participate in making that decision. There is very little disagreement on protecting the right to organize, for instance, and more around proposals for eliminating child labor. But missing are proposals which would treat protection of the state sector, and social benefits and subsidies, as international labor standards.

Missing also are proposals protecting the rights of migrant workers from developing countries, working in developed ones. Over 80 million people worldwide live outside the countries where they were born, another product of growing global incquality. Migrants leave their native countries, fleeing poverty which is in great part also a product of economic liberalization.

The remittances of migrants are a large source of national income in their countries of origin, going directly to the families of workers and farmers rather than trickling through the pockets of government and banks. The status of that expatriate population and its right to work, is a basic question of labor rights for developing countries.

ILO Convention 142 would require governments to protect the rights of migrants and their families, and prohibit the extreme violence suffered by immigrants in Germany, Spain, France and the U.S. Discriminatory laws like California's Proposition 187, which sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving medical care and education, or the 1996 immigration reform bill, which denied Social Security and other benefits to legal residents, would be illegal.

The AFL-CIO is in the process of developing a much stronger position in defense of immigrant rights. It might consider mounting a campaign for ratification of the ILO convention on migrants, and prosposing that it, too, be considered a core labor standard.

Disagreement among U.S. unions

Inside the AFL-CIO, a number of unions don't think it's possible to make the WTO enforce workers' rights. It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse, says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union,. There has to be another mechanism outside the WTO to police workers' rights worldwide. He points out that the U.S. government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't itself recognize.

The dockworkers union owes its existence to international trade, but also inherits a tradition of working-class internationalism from its radical past. It left the CIO in the late 1940s at the beginning of the coldwar, and only rejoined in the late 1980s. Over the decades it's used its power on the docks to defend unions and workers in Central America, Chile, Korea and South Africa. During the WTO demonstrations, it shut down every west coast U.S. port on November 30. While unions which oppose the WTO process are often called protectionist, McWilliams retorts that we're not against fair trade, we're against free trade.

The ILWU president points out that the definition of labor standards should be broadened to include those which would impact the U.S., including the prohibition of strikebreaking, the right to free health care, living wages, and protections for the rights of immigrants. As long as the gap in living standards between developed and developing countries exists, he says, jobs will leave high wage countries, with our without WTO agreements. Therefore, U.S. unions should take a critical position toward U.S. economic and military policy that plays a role in enforcing that living standards gap, McWilliams emphasizes.

George Becker, president of the steelworkers union, calls the WTO and the trade structure fundamentally flawed. There's nothing in it for working people ... There's no way that you can put a comma here or change a word there to make it compatible. It's not our law. Scrap it.

In November, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney signed a letter from the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks, including gaining greater access for U.S. corporations and investors abroad. Sweeney sits on the committee with heads of major corporations.

Sweeney said he'd gained assurances from the administration that it would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO statement calls the commitment a sharp departure from the business community's previous position that workers' rights are in no way the domain of the WTO, and calls for a hard fight to make the WTO a more democratic and accountable institution.

The Canadian Labour Congress was blunt in differing with the AFL-CIO approach. 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 declared. We're determined to change the entire trade regime.

Sweeney's move stunned many U.S. union leaders as well. Steven Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. I'm as cynical as I can be about putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards, he said in Seattle. It's nonsense.

Yokich noted that his union, together with the ILWU, the Teamsters and the federal workers union all refused to vote for Al Gore's presidential endorsement at the AFL-CIO convention in October. Gore's unwavering support for administration trade policy was the big stumbling block.

AFL-CIO leaders are obviously concerned over the potential fallout from a big battle with the Clinton administration over trade policy. While it went all-out to mobilize union members to Seattle, the federation faces an uphill battle to get those same members to vote for Gore.

Labor solidarity and national economic development

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, even when those governments keep minimum wages at starvation level, and suppress the efforts of workers to organize, especially in export industries.

More radical unions support programs of national development which seek to protect local industries, and keep them in public, rather than private, hands. They support policies which encourage the formation of an internal, national market, based on the rising income of workers and farmers.

According to Mahadevan, Indian labor has proposed such an alternative development plan to its government. All government programs should be employment oriented, he explains. There should be a break with the IMF, and the emphasis put on development of local resources. We need land reform, and technology suited to Indian conditions. We have a very big internal market here, with a large middle class, and we should produce for it.

The FAT's Martinez says that to win similar changes in Mexico, there has to be a political change here—things can't go on as they are. There has to be an answer which includes economic development. We're more indebted than ever, despite the fact that our debt has been paid many times over. The Mexican government is simply enacting agreements imposed by the U.S., and as a result, more plants come here because of the advantages they get. These things affect all of us. We have to have a broader concept of solidarity.

The difference in standard of living between the U.S. and Mexico, which was about 3:1 in the 1950s, is about 8:1 today, according to Mexican senator and economist Rosalbina Garabito. That difference impoverishes Mexican workers, and is the cause of the loss of U.S. jobs as corporations relocate production.

National development programs, however, are the antithesis of the economic framework the WTO enforces. The international institutions supported by the U.S. government, from the WTO to the IMF, do everything in their power to keep developing countries from exploring these alternatives. Those governments which do pursue them become pariahs in the international trade system, eventually subject to sanctions, and even called rogue nations.

Governments are told that workers' rights and economic development are a zero sum game, that improving workers' lives slows development, Vavi says. In the pursuit of profit, they are told to remove worker protections, and then use that as an inducement for investment. But development is a wider concept. It includes social development, and the living conditions of the people. An approach which seeks to erode workers' rights and wages undermines it. Development can't exist with mass unemployment and poverty.

Unless the international trade structure is changed drastically, these national development alternatives will not be possible. Proposing a social clause within that trade structure, even one which limits the prerogatives of foreign investors, does little to support national development less dependent on transnational capital. At the same time, it provides political support to the very institutions which seek to stop it.

Seattle has presented us with new questions about our relationship with workers and unions in other countries, McWilliams says. Globalization doesn't affect us all in the same way. In the U.S., workers experience runaway shops. In less developed countries, they endure superexploitation, environmental rape and the destruction of their traditional way of life. But the most important thing for us is to deal with the gap in living standards, which is enforced by U.S. political and military power. As long as that gap exists, jobs will leave and superexploitation will continue.

So we have to ask ourselves the question—what strategy will allow us to unite the world's workers? That strategy isn't new. We need international workers solidarity. That's the only way we'll be able to stand up to international capitalism.

International solidarity should not only protect the jobs and conditions of workers in developed countries, but should also defend the right of workers in developing countries to pursue economic development in their own interest. That means opposing U.S. foreign policy in areas where it has led to a drastic decline in living standards, whether loan bailouts in Mexico, austerity programs in East Asia, or economic reforms in Eastern Europe.

This kind of international solidarity is at loggerheads with every U.S. administration economic, political and trade policy, whether Democrat or Republican. In the end, it is impossible to pursue a solution to these problems if the labor movement continues to avoid potential conflicts with the Democratic Party in the interests of electing its candidate, even when he's a free trader. The problem is compounded by the subsidy the AFL-CIO continues to receive for international programs from the U.S. government. There is a basic conflict of interest.

Therefore, political independence is crucial. The federation has to be unafraid to publicly criticize imperial policies like the U.S. counterinsurgency program in Columbia, economic and military sanctions in Iraq and Serbia, or the economic blockade of Cuba. These aggressions are the iron fist lying behind the imposition of U.S. economic and trade policy.

The AFL-CIO left Seattle making opposition to China's membership in the WTO, and new administration trade agreements with China, the centerpiece of its trade policy. This may be a declaration of political independence, but it's one which lines up with the old China lobby, instead of with those calling for a fundamental reordering of the international economic system.

COSATU's Vavi questions its hypocrisy. He notes that the Chinese government and labor movement supported the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He asks why China's record on human or labor rights is any worse than many other countries, whose WTO membership and trade agreements the AFL-CIO has not opposed. We are disturbed by the obstacles to workers seeking to organize independent unions, and limits on the ability to demonstrate freely, and we intend to talk to Chinese unions about these problems, he says.

In Vietnam, where unions have been more militant in defending workers' interests, and the government has backed away from an all-out dismantling of socialism, foreign investment has started to slow. The AFL-CIO did not oppose Vietnam's WTO membership, or Cuba's. Opposing it for China is not going to force Chinese unions to oppose government economic policy. And saying that solidarity with Chinese labor is impossible because the All China Federation of Trade Unions is not a legitimate union body smacks of old coldwar, China-lobby prohibitions.

Like the old government-affiliated unions in Mexico, the Chinese labor movement has been tied to the government and its political party since 1949. As the government has become committed to economic reforms, those unions clearly face a choice—between old political relationships and fighting for the needs of workers under the guns of privatization and the explosion of sweatshops in the new economic zones.

U.S. unions would obviously like to see the Chinese rely less on transnational corporations as a source of capital for economic development. If they have 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.

The AFL-CIO's campaign on China's WTO membership won't move workers in either country an inch closer to a common front against transnational corporations. Instead, U.S. workers need to better understand Chinese unions and develop relations with them.

Over and over, U.S. workers and unions need to ask ourselves how we can achieve closer relations with workers in other countries, even if we don't agree with all the policies of their labor movements. The first step is opposing the WTO system on principle.

The global trade structure is controlled by developed countries, and used to impose an unjust international economic order on developing ones. It is a cruel illusion to expect that same structure to ensure economic justice.