THE BLOG
12/09/2010 01:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Class Warfare and Korea "Free Trade": An Open Letter to UAW, My Union

So-called "free trade" is part of the relentless class warfare under way in America. And the so-called "free trade" deal with South Korea is no exception. That said, a lot of the shallow criticism of the UAW's support for the deal is -- well, shallow. Here's my view about how we should engage the UAW -- my union -- via an open letter to the union's president.

December 9th 2010

Bob King
President
UAW
8000 East Jefferson
Detroit, MI 48214

Dear Bob:

Over the past few weeks, I keep coming back to one question: where do we draw the line to oppose the unrelenting class warfare now under way in our country, and the rest of the world?

From listening to the rhetoric and watching the back-slapping among members of the deficit commission, Democrats and Republicans, we have a bi-partisan agreement, apparently, that working Americans have to "share the pain" for an economic crisis that they had no hand in creating; our president buys into the mantra of a phony debt "crisis" and, then promptly turns around and stands ready to treat the already-staggeringly wealthy top one percent to hundreds of billions of dollars of the U.S. Treasury's bank account; Wall Street bonuses are back in bullish amounts; and corporate profits are at record levels, partly because of a plague of slashing jobs that will not come back.

When do we say finally: no more, enough is enough.

And, then, there is the South Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). In my view, this deal is another disaster for the working people of this country, and for the world. I hope that you, and others, read the concerns I raise about this deal in the spirit in which they were written.

First, we've known each other a very long time. As a proud UAW member, I think of you not only as one of the most progressive and visionary leaders in the labor movement but also as a person of enormous integrity. When you took office this year, you said, "We are one union. We are one society, and we are one world. If we don't stand up and fight for our own membership in every sector and if we don't stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we've given up." [My emphasis added.]

And you want our union to live those words. You just spearheaded a rally in Michigan on December 6th to support Hyundai workers who are engaged in a bitter strike in South Korea because you understand the nature of global solidarity. As you said at the rally, "Bosses around the world, even at tremendously profitable corporations like Hyundai, are trying to reduce the number of permanent workers and expand the number of temporary workers, weakening the middle class. We want permanent, middle-class standard of living jobs for every person working in the world."

Second, I also understand that, while it is easy for liberal/progressive observers to sit back in the comfort of their offices or homes and pontificate from hundreds of miles away about "fighting" and "not selling out", you have to fulfill your mission to protect the livelihoods of UAW members, livelihoods that have been under brutal assault from transnational auto companies for the past two decades. While I understand both intellectually and emotionally what our sisters and brothers face, I know you grapple with this every day you walk into the office.

Almost two decades ago, I remember exactly where I was standing when NAFTA passed: Mazey's bar at the union's Black Lake education center. We had just finished the day working to build coalitions between the UAW and non-UAW activists -- the mission that our Region 9A leadership, under then-Director Phil Wheeler, had dedicated the week to. We gathered around the television bracketed on the wall to watch the vote. At the end, when the vote was announced, I remember thinking: this is the end of the American middle class.

NAFTA was a disaster. Not just because it ruined the lives of millions of American, Mexican and Canadian workers. As important, it became the model for all future so-called "free trade" agreements: protect capital and investors. In my view, the South Korea deal is baked in the same NAFTA mold.

People are going to argue about whether the concessions given to the UAW in the KORUS were sufficient in terms of significant changes in tariffs or rules of origin and other similar issues. I'm going to stay away from those points in part because I think that whether X or Y cars will be allowed into Korea gets us down into the weeds and misses some crucial points:

  1. Is This Deal Worth The Paper It Is Written On When It Comes To Enforcement?
  2. Can The President Be Trusted?
  3. Does This Transform The Debate About Global Fairness?

A quick observation about why I use the term so-called "free trade". There simply is no such thing as "free trade", at least not if we are talking about the NAFTA model. "Free trade" is as real as the phony government deficit-debt "crisis", as real as the Wall Street "reforms" (that left mostly the same people in charge of the financial system, making it almost a certainty we will have another financial calamity) and as real as Robert Reich's promise that if we all just get smarter and get a college education, we'll be fine (no one uses the absurd term "symbolic analyst" anymore and thank god for that).

I could write a "free trade" agreement in 10 pages, okay, maybe 20. But, these deals are hundreds and thousands of pages long because they are very much managed and tightly controlled corporate trade -- they set forth very specific, detailed protections for capital and investor rights (particularly, the Chapter 11 rules).

And the sooner we stop repeating the term "free trade" -- which is a great marketing phrase because who isn't for something "free" and who doesn't want to trade -- the better for the American people and our understanding of what is really afoot here: we are being robbed by these trade deals. Not simply because of the off-shoring of jobs. But because NAFTA-style trade is based on one thing and one thing only: wage and regulation arbitrage.

Every NAFTA-style deal essentially sets up a framework that allows companies to move production in search of low wages and/or undermine regulations that protect people and communities. That is what trade is about today.

You were right when you said that if "we don't stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we've given up."

Respectfully, every NAFTA-style so-called "free trade" deal pushes us further from the vision that you so passionately and powerfully speak of.

They are playing us. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

Enforcement: A Sham

In the past, the UAW initially made clear, in its own testimony, that the "KORUS FTA has inadequate protections and enforcement mechanisms to enforce either the spirit or the letter of the law."

Now, the UAW's statement in support of the South Korea deal says that the language of the agreement "includes labor and environmental commitments." It goes on to say:

"This agreement is an important step toward a global rule-based trade system, an important step in giving labor a real voice in trade negotiations. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration on the issue of global rights for workers -- especially the right to organize and bargain collectively."

I don't see the progress.

As I understand it, the deal keeps in the very same NAFTA-style, Bush administration language that prevents the deal from living up to the conventions of the International Labor Conventions (ILO). To be sure, the ILO's conventions lack much in the way of enforcement power. But, when these NAFTA-style trade deals try to even keep high-minded ILO rhetoric from muddying the waters, what are we to think?

That enforcement is a sham.

In February 2008, I posed a challenge to then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who were both pledging to renegotiate NAFTA in order to enhance enforcement of labor and environmental enforcement. As you recall, the labor and environmental provisions were added on to NAFTA because that was the only way to buy a handful of Democratic votes to ram through the agreement.

NAFTA enforcement was supposed to have been under the purview of the Commission for Labor Cooperation (CLC). The CLC was supposed to be funded, partly by the U.S., via a $2 million-a year appropriation, which would have meant that, over the period between 1993 and 2005, the CLC would have had $22 million from the U.S.

But, as Public Citizen found:

In another example of the gap between promised authorizations and actual funds appropriated to such programs, the CLC has only been granted $7.2 million of the $22 million it was authorized to receive from the United States as of 2005, or less than a third of the promised amount.

The game was rigged from the beginning. For argument's sake, let's say the CLC got the full $22 million? Would that have been sufficient?

I like to use this analogy. In the U.S., we have accepted, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, that injury, illness and death in the workplace are a cost of living in the wonders of the "free market". We make a show of enforcement -- the same show that was proposed for NAFTA enforcement -- but the truth is that the system embraced, in a bipartisan way, does very little to ensure a safe workplace.

Here's what the AFL-CIO found in its 2007 report [the emphasis is mine]:

At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 133 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In seven states (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA-approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory. In these states, it would now take the state OSHA's a combined 62 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.

The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 63,670 workers. This compares to a benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization for industrialized countries. In the states of Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, Nebraska, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1/100,000 workers.

When the AFL-CIO issued its first report "Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect" in 1992, federal OSHA could inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years, compared to once every 133 years at the present time. Since the passage of the OSHAct, the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA's jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA staff and OSHA inspectors has been reduced. In 1975, federal OSHA had a total of 2,405 staff (inspectors and all other OSHA staff) responsible for the safety and health of 67.8 million workers at more than 3.9 million establishments. In 2005, there were 2,208 federal OSHA staff responsible for the safety and health of more than 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million workplaces.

The 2008 OSHA budget proposed $490 million. Yes, that was a Bush budget. But, even in Democratic administrations, OSHA has always been underfunded given the task described above. The 2010 Obama budget proposed a $559 million -- a significant increase but still inadequate.

So, think about that for a moment: we have an entirely inadequate system in this country just to watch over safety and health in the workplace, funded at a miniscule level of several hundred million dollars--and, yet, we even more ludicrously proposed, in the past, to oversee labor rights enforcement over three countries (the U.S., Mexico and Canada) at a laughingly pathetic and criminal level of a couple of million bucks?

The fact is enforcement is a farce. It was a farce created to buy a few votes to jam NAFTA through a Democratic Congress. It was a farce concocted by a Democratic president and his Labor secretary (Robert Reich), who were both full-throated champions of NAFTA and so-called "free trade".

It is not clear to me how the agreement with Korea to enforce labor rights is anything but a continuance of the farce. There is simply no way -- no way -- that these provisions can be enforced. None. Please explain how I am mistaken.

But, here is a larger point: there is no enforcement that can work. Ever.
The problem is not enforcement of NAFTA-like agreements.

It is NAFTA-style trade itself and its very conception and framework. Labor and environmental rights are slapped on as add-ons to deals that are sideshows to the meat of these agreements -- protecting capital and investors' rights. We cannot "fix" NAFTA-style trade deals unless we destroy the fundamental motivation behind them -- lower wages and a careful obliteration of every reasonable regulation to protect individuals.

We are being played. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.

The president's promises

This president cannot be trusted. I don't mean that in some Tom Delay-Newt Gingrich venal "he will lie" manner. I believe that he is who he is -- and who he has always been: a person who believes in marketing phrases like "free trade" and the "free market", a person who surrounds himself first and foremost with the Robert Rubins of the world; and, regretfully, a person who does not have the best interests of organized labor as a first and overriding principle.

It is also not clear to me, as a political matter, how he can help. He appears unwilling or unable to fight. Why do we think he will go to the mat for organizing rights when he will cave in and let the raiding of the U.S. Treasury by the richest people in the land continue, even after those richest people have pocketed a king's ransom in wealth over the past 30 years?

He has promised to aid our organizing efforts, particularly in the South. Why should we believe he has a strategy to do so, beyond rhetoric? If we learned anything from the recent tax fight, it isn't going to happen. The expiration of the tax breaks for the wealth was something he, and the rest of the Democratic Party, knew was coming from the first day the president took office.

So, a reasonable person could ask: why did he not take that on from the get-go when he was riding high? Why not take that mandate then, when he had the attention of the people (in a good way) and say, "today, we are taking a first step towards ending class warfare in America".

Because there was no strategy.

So, I am skeptical that there is a winning strategy behind the promises on organizing.

Transforming The Debate

Even if you believe that you could find enough money to deploy inspectors all around the world and even if you are willing to believe that this president--or any president in the current political environment--will fight for the UAW at the cost of alienating large corporate contributors, there is a much bigger challenge:

How do we stop the stupefying, unrelenting class warfare of which so-called "free trade" is an integral piece?

Where do we draw the line?

Sure, each union, for the price of its support, can get a few concessions in any so-called "free trade" deal. We can get jobs some jobs. I certainly can imagine, given the dire predicament of UAW members, that any promise of some jobs is welcome.

But at what price?

Is the price of a hammering down of wages worth it--because that is precisely what will happen if we continue to let the NAFTA-style of trade grown and mutate.

Is it worth letting another NAFTA-style deal pass which is a link in a chain that connects tax cuts for the rich, the growing divide between rich and poor, the decline of union power, and Wall Street greed?

At the end of the day, if the UAW has to support this agreement, I understand the real world: we have very little power to get a better deal right now. In some peoples' minds, we've gotten very little from fighting these NAFTA-style deals over the past two decades. True, nothing good has come from these rancid products.

But, let's not, to abuse the cliché, put lipstick on a pig. Why not simply say: this deal stinks but it is the best we can get. "Free trade" is a disaster for the working people of the world. But, we have to swallow this bitter pill because of our weakness today.

I am planning on posting this letter on my blog and would also do so for any thoughts you had in response. I think these issues are crucial for labor to consider and I think a lot of people would be interested in your point of view.

Solidarity,

Jonathan