Sweeney Signs On To A Bad Deal At WTO

Just a month before the big November 30 demonstration in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney joined a group of business leaders in signing a letter endorsing the Clinton Administration’s trade agenda for the WTO negotiations. To some, it was a surprising move, since the AFL-CIO is helping to organize the Seattle protests.

Sweeney signed as a member of the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy. That body is composed mostly of representatives of business, along with three from labor—Sweeney, Jay Mazur of UNITE, and Lenore Miller of the UFCW. Mazur joined Sweeney in signing, while Miller declined.

The letter clearly indicates that the signers support Clinton’s WTO agenda. It includes, but does not emphasize, a call on Clinton to press for a WTO working group on labor standards—something Clinton already endorses.

Among the business signers of the letter were CEOs of global polluters and labor opponents such as Monsanto and Proctor & Gamble.

The signatures of Sweeney and Mazur seem all the more inappropriate because the AFL-CIO’s own petition for reform of WTO rules recognizes that the upcoming negotiations "are headed in the wrong direction—toward shoring up the rights of investors at the expense of other members of civil society.”

The letter brought an immediate reaction from some unions. United Auto Workers President Stephen Yokich fired off an angry letter to the AFL-CIO and resigned as chair of the federation’s Manufacturing and Industrial Committee.

“Good trade policy does not 'trickle down’ from flawed assumptions about 'free’ trade and its impact," Yokich wrote. "Neither does good trade policy flow from 'pie in the sky' rhetoric that we have heard for years that acknowledges labor and environmental issues but does nothing concrete or enforceable to address them.”

The Teamsters also issued a public protest and apparently walked out of an October 29 AFL-CIO meeting to plan for events in Seattle.


Sweeney sent a response to International union presidents denying that he or the federation endorsed the entire Clinton WTO agenda. The letter noted, he said, that not all Advisory Committee members agreed with all aspects of Clinton’s trade policy.

In fact, the letter goes on to say that “a strong majority (indicated by the signatories to this letter) believe that the U.S. negotiating agenda as a whole is bold and appropriately comprehensive.” In other words, those who signed are those who approve.

Sweeney further argued that the Advisory Committee letter had been a way “to lock in support of the business community on the workers’ rights agenda.”

In all likelihood, Sweeney doesn’t really agree with everything in Clinton’s trade agenda. Aside from his stated belief that an alliance with business leaders would help push the labor standards, he has another motive for signing such a letter. He does not want to embarrass Clinton and Gore at the beginning of a presidential election year.

Sweeney has been in the center of a debate in the AFL-CIO Executive Council about how servile to be toward Clinton and Gore in the light of Al Gore’s poor performance in the presidential race. Some unions, like the Laborers, want total silence on anything that would embarrass the Democratic duo. Few things are more embarrassing in labor circles than the Clinton-Gore corporate-America-takes-all trade and investment policy.



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Others, like the Teamsters and Auto Workers, both of which refused an early endorsement to Gore, want a harder line and perhaps more leverage on trade issues. It appears that for the moment, those who want to make Gore look better than he is have the upper hand.


Clinton supports some kind of coordination between the UN's International Labor Organization and the WTO to deal with labor standards. European governments support a similar approach.

Despite the more activist stance of the ILO’s new chief, Juan Somavía, the ILO is a tri-partite (business, government, and labor) body with no enforcement power. For its part, the WTO’s rules and enforcement mechanisms are directed at undermining government enforcement of any standards that interfere with trade or investment. So this approach promises little for labor (including child labor), while posing no threat to transnational corporations.

Other partners in the Clinton vision of labor standards enforcement include the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—a case of the fox guarding the hen house if there ever was one.

Beneath the talk of labor standards lies the real Clinton WTO agenda: ending protection of agriculture in Europe and the Third World; preventing regulation of U.S. e-commerce; avoiding labeling requirements for biotech products (such as genetically engineered food); reducing of barriers to U.S. exports and overseas operations (but protecting U.S. textiles and garments); and maintaining tough intellectual property rights (as in the case of pharmaceuticals, biotech seeds, etc.) against mounting attempts by developing nations to weaken them.


One major economic impact of this agenda would be a world-wide rise in the cost of medicines. This would come as generic drugs are banned because of WTO enforcement of patent and copy right laws, making it much harder for developing countries to fight diseases like AIDS and undermining national heath care programs everywhere—not to mention encouraging more HMO chiseling at home.

Another would be a “revolution” in agriculture that would destroy domestic farming across much of the world in favor of exports from leading developed nations like the U.S. This would further the domination of food production by big-time agribusiness domestically and internationally.

The eventual exodus from the land of millions more farmers around the world would mean higher unemployment in areas where it is already devastating. The spread of e-commerce would drive countless small retailers and many big ones here and elsewhere out of business, further crowding labor markets and accelerating the global race to the bottom in wages.

What all of this means is not the end to sweatshops or child labor that Clinton spoke of at the ILO conference in June, but their proliferation, as new waves of desperate people compete to make a living as best they can. The temptation to export work to poorer areas will be stronger than ever.

Sweeney has signed on to a bad deal for working people here and abroad. He has fallen for a fig leaf proposal and bought into a program for global dislocation, disease, and wage gouging. What’s more, it appears he has done so cynically to make his newly-endorsed presidential candidate look better than he is.

Despite the confusion coming from the AFL-CIO, labor will play a big role--along with environmental and other social movement organizations--in the events around the WTO meetings from November 30 through December 3.

Not only will the buses, trains, and planes roll into Seattle full of demonstrators, but local longshore, transit, teamsters, and other workers plan to attend the November 30 demonstration during the day, bringing much of the city’s economic activity--and at least some world trade--to a halt.