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Labor in 2000: No Place to Go

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Mark Weisbrot
Miami Herald, June 20, 2000
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, June 1, 2000

In the movie version of Steven King's classic, "The Dead Zone," Christopher Walken reads the mind of the mother of a demonic serial killer. His psychic powers discern that she had long been aware of her son's vicious murders. His eyes widen with shock and repulsion: "You knew!" he exclaims.

And so it was, the day after the China trade vote, when Washington woke up and stared down the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It seems the Journal-- and other supporters of the bill-- knew all along what this legislation was really about.

Before the vote, noted the Journal, "business lobbyists emphasized the beneficial effect the agreement would have on U.S. exports to China. They played down its likely impact on investment, leery of sounding supportive of labor-union arguments that the deal would prompt companies to move U.S. production to China."

"But many businessmen concede that investment in China is the prize."

Which means that our enormous trade deficit with China will increase, as will the downward pressure on the wages of American workers. And manufacturing workers will continue to lose jobs.

Vice President Al Gore, and the 73 House Democrats who voted for the bill went along with the ruse because they assume that labor has no where else to go. However many times they get kicked in the face, they reason, unions will stick to the Democrats because they have only the Republicans for an alternative.

Or will they? United Auto Workers' President Steve Yokich declared that it was "time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates, such as Ralph Nader, who will take a stand based on what is right."

His was not the only angry voice heard from labor after the vote. Steelworkers' President George Becker called it "a blatant betrayal of American workers, their families and communities by elected politicians in both parties," one that the Steelworkers "would never forget." Teamsters' President James P. Hoffa made a similar statement. Neither the UAW nor the Teamsters has yet endorsed a presidential candidate.

Gore was willing to break with the President over the case of Elian, but remained a loyal and disciplined soldier for the China vote. The difference was clear: Big Business was calling the shots this time. And the message was not lost on those who were wondering what labor could expect from a Gore Administration.

Nader may well turn out to be a much more serious candidate than the experts give him credit for. Unlike his last campaign, which never really happened, this one is expected to raise millions of dollars and get him on the ballot in 45 states. The relevant comparison may be Ross Perot, who was actually ahead in the polls for a bit in the 1992 Presidential race-- until he repeatedly shot himself in the foot. He still ended up with 19 percent of the vote.

Of course Nader can't draw on $60 million of his own money, as the billionaire Perot spent in '92. But he is already known and respected by millions of voters, some of whom remember his battles with General Motors over auto safety as he put the American consumer movement on the map. Unlike other candidates, who tritely pledge that they will "fight for the little guy," Nader has actually spent his entire adult life doing just that.

Uncorrupted by corporate contributions, Nader is campaigning on issues that really matter: national health insurance, clean elections, and stopping the erosion of labor and environmental standards that is worsened by globalization.

Popular discontent with both Republicans and Democrats remains high. People see both parties as mainly bought by big money. The China vote-- which was clearly framed as a contest between non-commercial values such as human rights and economic fairness versus the ruthless pursuit of business interests-- did everything to reinforce that impression.

Of course the election is still too far away to make any predictions. Another possibility is that many working-class Democrats will stay home, as they did after President Clinton pushed NAFTA through Congress by similar means. That response was widely seen as contributing to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

But if the China vote brings union endorsements to Nader, and helps push him over the crucial media threshold, we could be headed for the most interesting election year in decades.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy