The Global Economy Must Market Democratic Values

[This article is published in "Viewpoint" column.]

The Steelworkers’ commitment to the global justice movement is a logical extension of the principles of economic and social justice that our union has always championed.

The global economy created by NAFTA and other trade agreements, along with institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), undermine these principles by serving only international financiers and multinational corporations to the exclusion of basic human rights. By denying labor and other progressive groups an active role, the global free trade movement is engaging in a Rambo capitalism that exploits entire societies.

If we’re to have an integrated global economy, it must provide for the upward harmonization of living and working standards everywhere. Trade agreements must protect workers, create jobs, provide security and safety, and protect the environment. A global economic system that focuses solely on manufacturing products at the lowest cost will, in the long run, fail our country and workers everywhere.

The increasing disparity of wealth between the rich and poor being induced by so-called free trade is appalling. Trade agreements like NAFTA should not be incentives for multinational corporations to destroy communities by undermining working families’ living standards. Corporations must be prevented from degrading the environment, paying poverty wages, denying health care, and employing child and forced labor. Trade agreements that exploit people in these ways strip them of their dignity and nurture nothing but social upheaval.

VERGE OF COLLAPSE

In the American steel industry right now, we are witnessing first-hand the devastation caused by failed trade policies and the faulty fiscal policies practiced by the World Bank and the IMF. Despite being the most efficient industry in the world-we produce steel with the fewest man-hours per ton, the least pollution, and the lowest consumption of energy-the U.S. industry is on the verge of total collapse.

Under the guise of free trade, other countries have subsidized their industries in multiple ways, while illegally dumping steel on our markets below the cost of production and calling us protectionists when we demand enforcement of our trade laws.

At the same time, many of these nations have policies that effectively bar American steel from their markets. The International Trade Commission has unanimously ruled that unfair trade by foreign competitors has done serious injury to nearly 80 percent of the products being made by American steel companies-ample evidence of what our union has been insisting for years.

The financial crisis which arose in Asia in the summer of 1997 and spread to Russia and Brazil during 1998 and 1999 was a direct result of the lack of regulation in the world’s financial markets. It had a severe impact on the steel industry that continues to this day. Twenty-nine steelmakers have gone into bankruptcy since 1998-13 have already liquidated-driving more than 34,000 steelworkers out of their jobs and causing more than 20 million tons of steelmaking capacity to be shut down in the last 16 months.

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Prices have sunk to 20-year lows. By the end of last year the industry was operating at less than 60 percent of its capacity. A U.S. Commerce Department report released in July 2000 documents decades of unfair trading practices by foreign steel producers that are destroying the American steel industry. The report states that “the thirty-year history of repeated unfair trade actions is symptomatic of underlying market distorting practices in the global steel market.”

NOURISHING DEMOCRACY

Indeed the danger is very real that the unfair trade in steel-and the global overcapacity that has accrued since the Asian financial crisis-may prove a precursor to similar conditions in other industries, throwing into turmoil the entire global trading regimen and swelling the ranks of unemployed manufacturing workers, more than one million of whom have lost their jobs in the past 18 months.

Globalization may be inevitable, but it is the responsibility of labor and other progressive groups to ensure that democracy is nourished rather than undermined in the process. A global economic system must benefit more than the very few who now control it.

That’s why Steelworkers were on the streets of Seattle and Quebec City, standing shoulder to shoulder with environmentalists, students, and people of faith. That’s why we are active in Nicaragua today, working with Students Against Sweatshops to protest the firing of union leaders at Chentex, a Taiwanese-owned textile plant that sews jeans for stores like Wal-Mart.

It’s why we went to Mexico to support the efforts of 13,000 Alcoa workers fighting to organize a free trade union. It’s why a delegation of Steelworkers traveled to Colombia, at great personal risk, to protest the murder of two leaders of the mineworkers union-pulled from a company-chartered bus and shot, execution style, in front of the other miners.

The USWA has also taken the lead in forming global councils of unions in tire, aluminum, and other industries which span national boundaries. Workers worldwide must develop common goals and strategies, promote the development of global bargaining, and take collective action in mutual support when multinational corporations such as Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone, and Alcoa engage in repressive practices in developing societies-practices they are prevented from employing in industrialized societies with more formidable labor movements.

What’s at stake, therefore, is more than trade policy. America’s historic commitment to economic and social justice is in the balance. Labor must lead a global coalition to derail institutions that, in the name of free trade, rule against national laws and regulations designed to protect the right to free association, public health, and a clean environment. Progressives must unite to ensure that these principles become the basic tenets of human rights.

Labor Notes welcomes alternative viewpoints on this issue.