Monday, March 02, 2009

Shelve worker rights because of crisis? No!

“Right now everyone wants to maintain jobs, even if they are sweatshop jobs (China). I think it is exactly why many union people will tell you it is not the time to push on labor standards...The economic logic is against [your] perspective.”

That message was in an email criticizing something I wrote. The email reflects a tempting notion that may be spreading: forget the pro-worker agenda for the sake of the anti-recession agenda. But the temptation is based on a fallacy: that the two agendas are necessarily in conflict.

I started to write a strong rebuttal, but soon realized that there was no need to do so. Why should I, when much wiser heads have already rejected that position? They did so in a letter timed for President Barrack Obama’s official meeting on February 19 with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Canada.

The letter, dated February 18 and addressed to the top leaders of the two countries, was signed by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and President Kenneth Georgetti of the Canadian Congress of Labor (CLC), who together represent 12,200,000 union members.

Their five-page letter detailed the ways in which Canada and the United States need to work together on the economic crisis and on advancing worker rights. They discussed those two major areas under two headings: “1. Coordinated Response to Current Economic Crisis” and “2. NAFTA Renegotiation.”

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sparked by far the most interest. Media accounts suggested that Obama’s concerns center on moving the “side” (separate) agreements on labor and the environment into the main body of NAFTA. Whatever the administration’s closely held position may be, the AFL-CIO and CLC position is not limited to what the existing labor and environment agreements cover.

“Substantive amendments” are required in otherimportant areas, Sweeney and Georgetti state. For example, NAFTA’s investment section is flawed by, among other things providing investments “unwarranted and excessive protections.” Other “central concerns with NAFTA” cover its provisions on energy, trade in services, and agriculture.

All in all, “a very ambitious list,” as the two labor leaders conceded. But they certainly don’t believe that the economic crisis requires sacrificing the rights of workers, whether here at home or abroad.

UPDATE: Since writing the above, I learned that the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)has just released a long report on the President's trade policy, which I'll comment on as soon as I have a chance to read it and think about it. Meantime, check it out yourself at, and do by all means send me YOUR comments.

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