Labor Takes Up Case Against Beijing

By Gus Tyler

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the umbrella outfit that speaks for the American trade union movement, has filed a complaint that calls upon the U.S. government to take action against China to protest Beijing’s total disregard of worker rights.

The complaint — the first of its kind — is based on the Trade Act of 1974, passed under the Nixon administration. The act calls upon the U.S. government to apply penalties on nations that deny workers basic rights. Ironically, China, which is allegedly a worker’s paradise since it is a communist society, has consistently denied its workers the right to organize free trade unions: namely, unions that are not dominated by the communist hierarchy.

China also denies unions the right to strike. The minimum wage law is a dead letter to which that regime pays no attention. And should some brave soul set out to organize a “free” and independent union or somehow gets what amounts to a “company union” to go on strike, that someone will be arrested, beaten or sent off to another world.

Whether President Bush will be moved by the AFL-CIO complaint to take action against China is dubious. Both the U.S. and China are members of the World Trade Organization, whose rules covering trade do not contain any provisions on worker rights.

If Bush rules out any action for that reason, the AFL-CIO — possibly together with the European unions — might very well start a movement to have the WTO take the labor provisions formulated over the years by the International Labor Organization and make those provisions a part of all WTO trade agreements.

In its appeal for action to win rights for workers in China, the AFL-CIO is motivated by developments that, by China’s denial of such rights, have seriously injured American workers. Multinational corporations that once employed American workers have been closing down U.S. plants to place their work in China with its abysmally low wage and its denial of workers’ rights to organize to improve their conditions. The complaint alleges that almost 3 million American factory jobs have been lost to China as a result. (Other nations may be added to the list later.)

In presenting its case, the AFL-CIO points to a U.S. State Department declaration on labor conditions in which it declared that “China continued to deny internationally recognized worker rights.” The statement also noted the repressive policies of the Chinese regime in its harsh treatment of union leaders.

The stand taken by the American labor movement may also serve as an inspiring first step in dealing with the overall problem of “outsourcing.” One may say of the outsourcing outrage what Mark Twain said about the weather: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Millions of voices have been crying out against the deleterious impact on the American, European and Japanese economies. But so far, all that talk has been just talk. The AFL-CIO action moves from talk to action, especially if the principles of the 1974 American Trade Act become the basis for joint efforts by the WTO and ILO to establish universal labor rights. They say, “Well begun is half done.” The AFL-CIO has given the world a good beginning.






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