Divided Unions May Enable Passage of U.S.-Korea Free Trade Treaty

by Paul Garver

For several years unified opposition from the U.S. labor movement and a coalition of environmentalist and global justice groups has blocked passage of “free trade” treaties negotiated by the Bush administration with Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Now the Obama administration has negotiated strategic concessions from Korea for the vehicle assembly and meat processing industries that have persuaded the United Auto Workers (UAW) and United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to endorse the revised treaty.

Opponents of “free trade treaties” [more accurately labeled “investor protection treaties”] are concerned that the defection of the UAW and UFCW will enable the Obama administration in 2011 to push through another basically flawed trade agreement on the NAFTA model, thereby winning a dubious “bi-partisan” victory as divisive as Clinton’s enactment of NAFTA.

UAW President Bob King is taking a lot of flak for endorsing the renegotiated U.S. Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). The UFCW has also been accused of settling for the “crumbs from the table” by endorsing KORUS in return for Korean concessions on importing meat products from the U.S. Blogger Jane Hamsher of Fire Dog Lake wrote that King “demonstrates that the UAW has become a Chinese-style union: much closer to the interests of management and the government than those of its line workers.” According to her, Matt McKinnon, Political Director of the Machinists (IAM) called the UAW’s endorsement of KORUS a “yellow-belly flip flop” that would mark the “end of the UAW.”

More balanced official statements from the Communication Workers (CWA) and the United Steelworkers (USW) acknowledged that the treaty revisions on autos and meat represented important improvements for labor. However both unions continue to strongly oppose passage of the revised KORUS agreement, because it continues the basically unacceptable structure of all such “free trade” agreements. Investor rights to sue governments for loss of profits would be greatly expanded, while labor and environmental safeguards remain weak and secondary and largely unenforceable.

Global Watch Trade Director Lori Wallach, a respected long-time campaigner against “free trade” deals, pointed out that pushing back the elimination of tariffs on light trucks and autos made in Korea for a few years would not save substantial numbers of jobs in the U.S. auto industry, and that more U.S. assembled vehicles would be exported to Korea only if Koreans were willing to buy them.

After considerable deliberation, the AFL-CIO issued a statement opposing the revised agreement because nothing was done to address the fundamental labor rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining that are repeatedly violated in both Korea and the USA. KORUS would not contribute to the creation of a fair and sustainable global economy. At the same time the statement praised the Obama administration for negotiating key improvements in the auto provisions. It implicitly accepts that KORUS may pass:

“Going forward, we hope to work closely with the Obama administration to address all of these concerns in any future deals, particularly the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.”

Disappointed with the AFL-CIO’s failure to announce any call to action or mobilization to defeat the treaty, the Campaign for Labor Rights (a project of the Alliance for Global Justice) encouraged supporters to send messages to AFL-CIO President Trumka , asking him to lead an all-out campaign against the passage of KORUS. It is unlikely that this external appeal will force the AFL-CIO to vigorously campaign against KORUS when Pres. Obama seeks Congressional approval in 2011.

The UAW and UFCW advance rather persuasive arguments that they achieved measurable results for their members. Tariffs on imports of autos and light trucks from Korea will remain in place for several years, while exports to Korea may rise somewhat from their current negligible level. Meat exports to Korea will increase. Unionized jobs in the vehicle and meat industries will be at a higher level for several years than they would otherwise be without the revisions in the draft treaty.

Critics have asserted that the UAW and UFCW leaderships rushed to endorse the treaty in return for the concessions without adequate democratic consultation of their respective memberships. Whatever the underlying truth of this critique, we must consider the realities of nailing down a negotiated agreement. It is likely that UAW and UFCW negotiators were able to wrest these genuine if modest gains for their members only in return for their commitments to endorse the revised agreement.

Nor should we fear the immediate pragmatic consequences if KORUS passes. Most of the current trade deficit between Korea and the USA consists of the imbalance in vehicle production, which has been partially addressed by the revisions. Korea is no paradigm of exporter of cheap goods based on low-wage labor. The Korean labor movement is vigorous, and while it opposes KORUS for its lack of labor protections, its own courageous and militant struggles keep pushing the envelope and are the primary determinant of worker rights in Korea. The recent occupation strike by subcontracted workers at four Hyundai plants followed a Korean Supreme Court decision that they should be considered regular Hyundai employees. The UAW has demonstrated solidarity with the struggles of Korean auto workers. Bob King believes that in the long run international labor solidarity may be more effective than trying to force reform of Korean and American domestic labor laws through trade legislation. The Korean Metal Workers union (KMWU) could be a valuable ally in helping the UAW organize Hyundai plants in the USA. Of course the UAW and KMWU will have to overcome their differences on KORUS.

However, the UAW goes too far in advancing a less persuasive general argument for its change in position:

“This agreement is an important step toward a global rule-based trade system, an important step in giving labor a real voice in trade negotiations. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration on the issue of global rights for workers — especially the right to organize and bargain collectively.”

In reality the UAW’s assertion that the revised agreement includes enforceable labor rights is misleading (There has been no improvement in the inadequate language the UAW previously criticized in the 2007 version of KORUS).

The CWA, USW and AFL-CIO, while praising the fact that they had some access to the trade negotiations, do not consider the results of that access as sufficient. Not only did the other unions receive no specific gains for their members, they have cause to complain that the UAW and UFCW agreed to endorse the revised treaty without consulting them.

The general arguments made by the USW, CWA, AFL-CIO and NGO opponents of “free trade” agreements are persuasive. KORUS is based on the intrinsically flawed NAFTA model that effectively advances the interests of capitalists while throwing crumbs to workers and environmentalists. The principled struggle to transform trade and investment laws that now favor capitalists into ones that move towards a more sustainable and just global economy will be set back by the passage of KORUS even in amended form.

Furthermore, I agree with the concern expressed in the appeal of the Campaign for Labor Rights that passage of KORUS could become a precedent for the free trade agreement with Colombia. The Obama administration, which has not demonstrated any concern for democracy or human rights in Latin America, will likely push for the passage of the Colombia FTA to win another bi-partisan “victory,” thereby rewarding Colombia’s right-wing government for its subservience to U.S. imperial interests in Latin America

Even as we accept that the UAW and UFCW have valid institutional reasons for endorsing the passage of KORUS, we should continue to strongly oppose its passage.

One Response

  1. Unusually alluring blog blurb.

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