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Capitol Hill Shop Steward

Now that President Clinton has beat the rap, there’s room for some real news in the newspapers again. Even if it’s bad news. Like the recent morning when I picked up the paper and saw the headline, "Levi Strauss to close 11 U.S. plants." About 6,000 workers, most of them members of UNITE!, are getting fired.

The article explained that when Levi gets done with this round of plant closings, it will have just 11 remaining factories in the U.S. In the wake of the Levi decision, one unorganized denim fabric supplier to Levi announced it will be terminating almost 1,300 workers. By the time this thing shakes out, more than 10,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs will be destroyed. Maybe even more. But why? Because jeans have gone out of style? No, Levi has just decided that it’s time to move more production offshore to maximize profits.

Ask any ordinary working person why all of this is happening and most of them can tell you. It’s a scheme called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). (It’s also other antilabor deals like GATT and the WTO. NAFTA is just easier to remember.) When NAFTA was rammed through Congress back in 1993, its supporters promoted it as the miracle formula for expanded exports and lots of new high-wage jobs here in the U.S. And without exception, the 129 Democrats and 166 Republicans who voted for NAFTA knew from the start that it was a lie. Either that, or they were morons. But at least we can thank them for giving the race to the bottom a new name.

The day after the story about the Levi bloodbath, another newspaper article caught my eye. This one said, "Trade gap balloons to record high." Since we are making fewer and fewer things here in the U.S., it’s no surprise that we are importing a record amount. The numbers are frightening: In 1998, we imported products and raw materials totaling $168.8 billion more than we exported, a 53 percent jump over 1997! Try running your household finances like that for awhile and see how long you can last. You’ll last about as long as Levi workers.


You might think that right about now the politicians would be looking around for a towel to stop the bleeding. A handful are. But a much bigger number of Democrats and Republicans are looking for ways to expand "free trade." No joke. A good solid core of both major parties would like to renew "fast track" trade deal negotiating authority. It looks like another attempt is on the launching pad for later this year. Remember that "fast track" is the convenient mechanism that would allow job-killing disasters like NAFTA to go sailing through Congress on an up or down vote in a matter of weeks — before too many working people find out about it and get mad.

But even before we get to the "fast track" battle, we’ll be facing an attempt to pass a "NAFTA for Africa" free trade bill. You might have missed this little gem when it passed the House of Representatives last year by a 233-186 margin. The "yes" column was made up of 141 Republicans and 92 Democrats. The Washington Post credited the efforts of President Clinton and Newt Gingrich for the House’s yes vote. Thanks a lot, Bill and Newt. Fortunately, the Senate never voted on the bill. Unfortunately, the politicians and the Big Business crowd are back for round two this year.


In a nutshell, this bill would help set up a network of sweatshop zones throughout 48 sub-Saharan African countries. Once these zones are established, bosses could hire workers for literally pennies per hour, then pack up and ship all the goods to the U.S. for sale here. Desperate African workers will labor long and hard for a few bucks per week, and more U.S. factory workers will get pink slips. K-Mart and Wal-Mart will see their profits go up, since prices on sweatshop products rarely go down.

Even worse, since most of the manufacturing is likely to be clothing and textile products, it’s unclear if countries like China could bring even more of their own finished goods into the U.S. by claiming that they originated in one of the African sweatshops.

As you can imagine, the promoters of the bill don’t see it this way. Democrat Charles Rangel of New York and Republican Phil Crane of Illinois are the leading congressional sponsors. Both of these guys must think there is something in this bill for their U.S. constituents other than more plant closings, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what it is. Maybe Rangel thinks he’s doing U.S. and African workers a big favor by facilitating the development of a chain of multinational sweatshops. Phil Crane probably figures this is a good chance to pay back some of his corporate sponsors. Both men say that the bill promotes "trade, not aid." In my book it looks like the kind of trade that kills good jobs, creates miserable jobs, and aids Big Business.

The pressure is on for a quick vote on the African sweatshop bill. The faster it moves through Congress, the less chance folks like us will have to mobilize to save a few of our jobs and communities. By the time you read this, the dirty deed might already be done.


Get the picture? It’s a grim one. The bosses want their new and more destructive schemes pushed even faster. Faster!

Fortune magazine just named General Electric its number one "Most Admired Company," partly because it moves so fast. In recent years, GE has made a science out of downsizing its U.S. workforce and increasing its profit margin. Quickly!

GE CEO Jack Welch isn’t shy about this. He recently told a group of business people assembled for a session on "World Lessons in Leadership" that if he could start his career over, he would "do everything faster." Welch then gave his best advice to the adoring bosses: "Ideally, you’d have every plant you own on a barge." That way, you could throw your workers overboard and head for cheaper waters at a minute’s notice.

Fellow workers, you know what’s going on. Republicans and Democrats are passing laws making it easier and faster to put all our jobs onto barges, headed for the "port du jour" with the cheapest and most desperate workforce. If you want to make money, take GE’s advice and invest in barges. If you want to do what’s right, buckle down and build the Labor Party.

Chris Townsend is Political Action Director of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE).

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