Now that President Clinton has beat the rap,
theres room for some real news in the newspapers again. Even if its 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 its 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. Its a scheme called the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA). (Its 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., its 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.
Youll last about as long as Levi workers.
BOTH PARTIES WANT FAST TRACK
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
But even before we get to the "fast track" battle, well 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
Houses 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
SUB-SAHARAN SWEATSHOP ZONE
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, its 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
As you can imagine, the promoters of the bill dont 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 Ill be darned if I can
figure out what it is. Maybe Rangel thinks hes 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.
WORLD LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP?
Get the picture? Its 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 isnt 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, youd have every plant you own
on a barge." That way, you could throw your workers overboard and head for cheaper
waters at a minutes notice.
Fellow workers, you know whats 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 GEs advice and invest in barges. If you want to do whats
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).