By Kim Moody
With the support of many pro-labour Democrats, Congress overwhelmingly ratified the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the new worldwide free trade agreement.
One reason for the big Democratic "yes" vote was that, as with NAFTA in 1993 and in sharp contrast to any recent labour-backed legislation, the Clinton administration pulled out all stops to pass this big business favourite.
Another reason was that while it officially opposed GATT, the AFL-CIO did not mobilise to defeat the agreement. Instead, the federation opted for a behind-the-scenes approach aimed at amending the GATT implementation legislation.
Commenting on an anti-GATT demonstration across from the White House organised by William Bywater of the International Union 0f Electrical Workers, Mark Anderson, director of the AFL-CIO's Task Force on Trade, said, "He wants to run around on Lafayette Square and we want to fix things".
But not everyone saw it that way.
As one Massachusetts state AFL-CIO leader told the Boston Herald, "The national AFL-CIO took a walk on GATT. Instead, they are trying to prop up an endangered presidency."
Indeed , the national AFL-CIO seems to be fighting a single-handed rearguard action to save an endangered Democratic Party that has become quite candid about its lack of regard for unions or working people.
The federation retreated on its post-NAFTA pledge not to support any politician who had backed that agreement. In November's election, the AFL-CIO endorsed 59 House Democrats and five senators who had voted for NAFTA.
Whether or not they will be around next year, most of these same Democrats simply repeated their performance and voted for GATT. They were joined by a considerable number of other "friends of labour" who had opposed NAFTA.
In fact, for all the endorsements and behind-the-scenes lobbying, the AFL-CIO was unable to fix much of anything in the new GATT.
The main concession to labour was Section 131 of the GATT legislation, which says the president will "seek" to establish a working group, in the new World Trade Organisation (WTO) that will administer the agreement, to "examine" worker rights.
As CWA [Communications Workers of America] president Morton Bahr wrote in a letter to Senator Ted Kennedy, who sponsored the amendment, "Section 131 has no substance whatever" (Bahr's emphasis).
Indeed, as Bahr noted, Clinton explicitly "de-linked" trade policy and worker rights at the Asian Pacific trade summit held two weeks before the GATT vote.
There were other concessions with little or no substance. For example, the president must get Congressional permission before negotiating any new trade agreements. It seems fairly obvious, however, that such permission will be as forthcoming from the new Republican Congress as it was from the outgoing Democratic one.
A worthless concession was the inclusion of a clause giving the US the right to withdraw from GATT after six months if the WTO rules against the US too much. In fact, the GATT already gives any nation this right.
Despite the AFL-CIO's abdication, there was some grassroots labour opposition.
The Teamsters repeated their anti-NAFTA strategy, organising a national campaign to flood Congress with fax messages opposing ratification.
In Massachusetts, activists from the union-backed Jobs With Justice campaigned against ratification. Drawing on the heavy debt Ted Kennedy owes labour from his return to the Senate, several Massachusetts unions pressured him to call a public hearing. But Kennedy made it clear he was backing GATT.
In October, Ralph Nader joined the IUE's Bywater and about 75 other IUE officials to demonstrate across the street from the White House.
Noting the absence of AFL-CIO support for such a demonstration, Nader introduced one speaker by saying sarcastically, "Following him surely will be Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue from the AFL-CIO. They're not here? Oh."
While labour's big-time lobbying apparatus was missing from action, the New York Times remarked, "by contrast, business backing for the trade pact is monolithic".
It seems clear whose voices Clinton is heeding as he continues his career as "salesman-in-chief". Moving on from the GATT vote, Clinton went to the December "Summit of the Americas" to lay the basis for a future hemispheric free trade agreement.
[Reprinted from the US magazine Labor Notes, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, Michigan 48210.]