Trade With China Is Not The Real Problem

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

American workers have more — and bigger — problems than China

When Congress voted to give China permanent normal trade relations, they didn't do American workers any favors. But those union leaders who want us to use this single vote as a litmus test for candidates are wrong.

Some of our best friends in Congress voted for this bill -- people who have supported us on nearly every other issue. Refusing to support them because of a single vote is political suicide. All we will do is make it that much easier for our enemies to get elected.

The fact is, American labor's main problem is not Chinese imports. It is not that Chinese workers can't form unions. The biggest problem facing U.S. workers is that American workers cannot form unions.

On paper, yes, we still can. The Wagner Act of 1935 allows workers to vote for union representation at their place of work. But that bill has been so weakened by 30 years of court decisions, ruthless acts by business, and continued underfunding of the National Labor Relations Board that, for many workers who want to organize, it is merely a worthless piece of paper.

Sure, it's against the law to fire workers for organizing. But who gets punished when companies break the law? The worst that can happen to the company is that they must hire back the injured worker and apologize. By then, several years may have passed, and the organizing drive will have long ago been crushed.

Recently, the jury in a discrimination lawsuit awarded 17 employees of Wonder Bread a total of $120 million because the company discriminated against them on the basis of their race, denying them promotions and giving them bad work assignments. Workers who are discriminated against in exactly the same way because they are strong union members are not allowed to sue for damages. If they get fired, they might be able to get the pay they missed, but even that will be reduced by any money they earned elsewhere while fighting their illegal firing.

As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in an essay in The New Yorker magazine (June 22, 2000), "Private companies have [so few] disincentives to lawlessness . . . a company that does not break the law is practically guilty of fiduciary irresponsibility to its stockholders."

In other words, America's protections for workers who want to organize are so weak that it makes sense for companies to break the law to break unions. The costs are negligible. Companies can simply budget in a few thousand dollars for legal fees and back pay, then break the law whenever they see fit.

U.S. labor laws are weaker than those of nearly every other developed nation. That fact is the biggest obstacle to progress for workers, because labor unions improve the quality of life for all workers. Every good thing that labor unions have won for their members through hard work -- the 40-hour week, paid vacations and holidays, pensions, health insurance, and thousands of other benefits -- have been transferred to the rest of the work force.

In countries where a majority of the workers belong to unions -- such as Denmark, Germany, and Norway -- workers enjoy better standards of living than we do. They have universal health care, free education at all levels, strong social security programs, and high wages.

We could enjoy all these advantages, too, if we had strong unions to fight for workers. Instead, unionists with tunnel vision have locked themselves in a futile battle against trade with China.

In November, workers had better come to their senses and vote for candidates who support the union movement. Want to "send a symbolic message" to Congress or the president? Elect pro-worker candidates to office.

In politics, symbols mean nothing. There are only winners and losers.

Losers go home and try to figure out what they'll do in the next election.

Winners take office and begin enacting the legislation they talked about during their campaigns.

We cannot afford to squander our votes on candidates with no chance of being elected. Despite early polls, political experts say the presidential election and many congressional races will be close. In 1994, Newt Gingrich's followers took over the House by a margin of only a few votes per precinct.

The same thing can happen this year. The Democrats can take back the House if workers get behind their candidates. And although they often look alike, the two major parties differ on one key point: The Republican Party platform calls for a national right-to-work law that would weaken unions; the Democrats oppose such a law.

Vote in your own best interest this fall. Vote in the best interest of your family and of all workers.

The China trade vote was wrong. But punishing our friends by electing our enemies is suicide. Vote for candidates who will strengthen our labor laws.