Over 160,000 people, mostly women, work in Malaysia's big electronics plants -- a production workforce the size of that in Silicon Valley. The bosses are all foreign high-tech giants. Chips and circuit boards assembled on the line in Penang are shipped out of Malaysia, overwhelmingly to the U.S., Japan and western Europe -- the rich countries with the markets.
Like their sisters on the line in Sunnyvale, California, Malaysian electronics workers have a very hard time organizing unions. In fact, the same number of plants are unionized in both places: 0.
It's not because workers don't want unions. Ten years ago, RCA's Malaysian assemblers organized one. They went to the government to register, and were told they couldn't belong to a union that tried to organize the whole industry -- only to a union limited to the one company. Then, when they tried to get recognition for that union, RCA changed its name to Harris Solid State, and claimed to be a different company. Over the years since, the company has changed its name three times, each time again denying recognition to the union. Workers in the plant still have no bargaining rights.
"Workers really can't have a union there," says G. Rajasekaran, secretary-general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress. "The law says they can, but in practice they can't. Our government says thousands of jobs are leaving Malaysia because our unions are too militant. The governments of Asia seem to have been convinced by employers that workers shouldn't have the right to organize and bargain. And U.S. companies are among those most guilty of violating our rights."
Rajasekaran made his plea in Seattle, at a forum held during the WTO negotiations last year. His description of class battles at RCA would be familiar to workers and unions in many developing countries, as they confront one face of the global economy. Corporations build factories to exploit low wages, producing goods for markets in developed countries where the standard of living is much higher. Governments assist them by restricting unions, and those social rights and benefits which might discourage foreign investment.
The WTO's Seattle meeting also saw huge demonstrations organized by workers confronting globalization's other face -- the loss of jobs in developed countries as companies relocate production in a race to lower their labor costs to the bottom. Unions joined together with environmentalists, youth and fair trade campaigners who realized they had a common enemy -- a corporate-dominated global economic system.
One protester was Michael Everett, a worker from the Hollywood studios. Everett and the Hollywood Fair Trade Campaign accuse the studios of sending movie production to Canada and Mexico, in the wake of NAFTA's relaxation of restrictions on the movement of investment between the three countries.
"Our own political leaders have arranged a system of trade agreements designed to enhance corporate profits by shipping our jobs offshore," Everett says. "In exchange for NAFTA-sanctioned subsidies from Canada and elsewhere, the studios have turned their backs on their own community and have engaged in the wholesale destruction of the Hollywood jobs base."
Last fall Everett and other Hollywood union activists organized demonstrations during a dinner hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America at Sony Studios, honoring Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and his "Free Trade Education Tour." Daley's dog-and-pony show seeks to make the case that when the administration pushes free trade to help U.S. corporations, the public benefits.
But Hollywood jobs are not only going to Canada, say studio unions. Twentieth-Century Fox made last year's most popular move, Titanic, in a maquiladora in Rosarito, 60 miles south of the border. In a scenario reminiscent of the problems suffered by Malaysia's electronics workers, the independent and militant Mexican union which represented workers there was forced out by government support for a union more friendly to foreign companies.
While Everett sees the impact of globalization on Hollywood in terms of job loss. across the Pacific, Korean unionists see it in terms of the destruction of their country's film industry.
"The colossal power of Hollywood -- one of the major sources of American global dominance -- is destroying the fragile Korean film industry," says a statement by the country's militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. The KCTU criticizes the government of reformer Kim Dae Jung for scrapping the quota on foreign-made films. Korean directors and actors even shaved their heads in protest. The measure, demanded by the International Monetary Fund in return for bailout loans, was made "to appease American pressure," according to the KCTU.
Workers in neither country benefit from Hollywood's global operations. In fact, it was clear in Seattle that unions and workers around the world believe that the global economy is attacking their standards of living, their jobs, and their rights as workers. It is a perception held in common, in countries on both sides of the world's great economic divide between rich and poor.
The KCTU, for instance, condemns the "inherently undemocratic nature of the ideology of globalization," saying it leads to "the ever-widening gap in development and wealth between rich and poor countries, and the rich and the rest [of the population] in individual countries, despite all the rhetoric about the virtues of the free market and liberalization championed by the institutions of global capitalism."
Ron Judd, head of Seattle's central labor council, said the WTO protest was designed to send a message "to all administrations around the world, that the rules as they're written do not work for workers and communities, and that they undermine environmental and health standards. Something has to change."
But while they recognize a common problem, it was also evident in Seattle that unions internationally don't agree on what should be done about it.
The AFL-CIO believes that future trade agreements can be written in such a way that they protect workers rights and the environment, much as existing agreements protect corporate profits. The federation called on the WTO to incorporate five international labor conventions into the text of future treaties. These five agreements, adopted by the International Labor Organization, would guarantee workers everywhere the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively with employers, and would restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor, and outlaw discrimination. They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast financial consequences against governments which violate existing trade rules.
Juan Somavia, the ILO's secretary-general, says his organization "is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even Somavia, however, doesn't believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There's no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits.
Nevertheless, Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO's international affairs department, says that incorporating protections for workers into trade agreements can protect their rights. She compares it to the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to enforce fair labor standards like the minimum wage and eight-hour day.
"We have to create the political will to get them into [trade] agreements in an enforceable fashion," she asserts. "That's the challenge we face. If we didn't believe it was possible, I don't know why we'd be doing all this mobilizing. As you know, there are rules for capital that are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time and the place to get them for labor."
Putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards is supported by some unions in the developing world, but opposed by others. "Some of our colleagues fear linking trade to labor standards, and fear that labor standards will be used as a tool for protectionism," explains Rajasekaran. "India, for example, has lots of child labor, and they fear that sanctions will be applied to them because of it."
Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, recognizes that "there is a controversy in the developing South about labor standards. Workers are worried about the loss of jobs, and suspect these proposals are a disguise for protectionism by unions in developed countries."
But for Vavi, head of one of the world's most progressive labor federations, the idea is worth a try. "These standards are really nothing new -- they've been around for decades," he points out. "The real reason for much of the protest is that everyone knows that the ILO has no enforcement mechanism. Many countries know they're guilty of violating the conventions, but that the ILO can't take the matter forward. And the lack of enforcement has itself become a means of attracting investment."
Vavi admits that "there is an inherent contradiction in giving the WTO this responsibility. But that doesn't mean that we should drop trade union rights from the overall trade system. It's a struggle."
Suspicion in developing countries grew even more intense when President Clinton endorsed the idea before the WTO meeting. He trumpeted U.S. passage of an ILO convention on child labor, calling on other governments to do likewise. Clinton neglected to point out, however, that the convention only banned child prostitution and the most extreme forms of child exploitation. ILO Convention 138, which takes a much stronger prohibition against the labor of children under 14, remains unratified.
"One of the main criticisms of the American government is that it has double standards," Vavi says. "It hasn't ratified most ILO conventions itself, while shouting about enforcing them everywhere else."
But the difference in point of view between unions in developed and developing countries is more basic than just suspicion over hypocrisy. Bill Jordan, head of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, told the Seattle forum that "unless the WTO takes on the call made by the President of the United States, for a social dimension to globalization, then globalization will fail.."
The failure of globalization, however, at least in its present form, is exactly what many progressive unionists would like to see. That is because the current trade structure, which the WTO has come to symbolize, enforces conditions on developing countries designed to make their economies more open and attractive to foreign investors.
In Brazil, "after a quarter century of liberalization, the difference between rich and poor is wider than ever," according to Nair Goulart of Forza Sindical. "Unemployment is over 9.5 percent, and workers buying power is 27 percent of what it was in the 1980s. The UN Development Program says the goal of investment and trade liberalization is to improve the quality of life. Yet we are competing to sell our natural resources and our workforce for the lowest possible price."
In addition, the gap between rich and poor countries is getting bigger. The difference in standard of living between the U.S. and Mexico, which was about 3:1 in the 1950s, is about 16:1 today, according to Mexican economist Alejandro Alvarez Bejar. That difference impoverishes Mexican workers, and is the cause of the loss of U.S. jobs as corporations relocate production.
Labor standards alone will not address that gap. There's a bigger struggle going on, over who controls the economies of developing countries, and what development program they can follow.
The trade structure enforced by the WTO fosters a favorable climate for foreign investment, including low wages and weak unions. National development programs are its antithesis -- encouraging the formation of an internal market based on the rising income of workers and farmers, protecting national industries, including by nationalization, and guaranteeing workers the right to organize, bargain and exercise political power.
For the KCTU and other leftwing union federations in developing countries, national development policies are crucial to winning control over the economies of their own countries. They represent "the principle of a balanced growth strategy, sustainable development, and the right of people to pursue an alternative path, not dictated by some nebulous force, but determined by their political and social aspirations through the democratic process."
Yet the international institutions supported by the U.S. government, from the WTO to the IMF, do everything in their power to keep developing countries from exploring independent national development. Governments that pursue this alternative become pariahs in the international trade system, labeled rogue nations and subject to sanctions.
"Governments are told that workers' rights and economic development are a zero sum game, that improving workers' lives slows development," Vavi says. "This is a scare tactic. In the pursuit of profit, they are told to remove worker protections, and then use that as an inducement for investment. This policy always leaves humankind and the environment as losers.
"Development is a wider concept. It includes social development, and the living conditions of the people. An approach which seeks to erode workers' rights and wages undermines development. Development can't exist with mass unemployment and poverty. Labor rights is a development issue."
Even inside the AFL-CIO, a number of unions don't think it's possible to make the WTO enforce workers' rights. "It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He calls Shailor's position "an honorable thing to do," but says "it's not good enough. Nor will it answer the exploitation of workers. There has to be another mechanism outside the WTO to police workers' rights worldwide."
The ILWU, as a union for dockworkers, owes its existence to international trade, but also inherits a tradition of working-class internationalism from its radical past. It was one of the leftwing unions which left the CIO in the late 1940s at the beginning of the cold war in labor, and over the following decades used its power on the docks to defend unions and workers in Central America, Chile, Korea and South Africa. During the WTO demonstrations, it shut down every west coast U.S. port on November 30. While unions which oppose the WTO process are often called protectionist, McWilliams retorts that "we're not against fair trade, we're against free trade."
The ILWU president points out that the definition of labor standards should be broadened to include those which would impact the U.S., including the prohibition of strikebreaking, the right to free health care, living wages, and protections for the rights of immigrants. As long as the gap in living standards between developed and developing countries exists, he says, jobs will leave high wage countries, with our without WTO agreements. Therefore, U.S. unions should "take a critical position toward U.S. economic and military policy that plays a role in enforcing that living standards gap," McWilliams emphasizes.
George Becker, president of the steelworkers union, calls the WTO and the trade structure fundamentally flawed. "There's nothing in it for working people. Nothing. That law exists to support multinationals. It's not for workers. There's no way that you can put a comma here or change a word there to make it compatible. It's not our law. Scrap it."
According to McWilliams, Becker and their allies, the NAFTA agreement has already demonstrated that worker protections are unenforceable. When NAFTA was negotiated in 1994, it included a side-agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, which was supposed to protect workers' rights in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. In the last five years, however, over 15 cases have been filed alleging that the U.S. and Mexican governments especially have not enforced labor laws, and that workers have been fired and unions broken as a consequence.
The best-known example has been the effort by workers at the Han Young factory in Tijuana to organize an independent union and conduct a legal strike. Judicial authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico have agreed that their right to do so was illegally denied by the Mexican government, but the NAFTA process failed completely to make any meaningful change.
Leo Girard, a national vice-president of the steelworkers, says labor solidarity is a better answer, pointing to his union's long support of the Han Young workers. "The kind of trading regime represented by NAFTA and the WTO is not meant to improve the quality of life," he argues. "This trade simply benefits the employers. It represents an extension of exploitation rather than a diminishing of it."
The AFL-CIO counters that the NAFTA side agreement didn't have teeth for enforcement, a problem it says can be corrected by having the WTO enforce labor protections, just as it enforces those which protect corporations. McWilliams is doubtful, pointing out that the U.S. government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't itself recognize. "We have one of the worst records of subscribing to international labor union rights of any industrial nation anywhere," he notes.
In November, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney signed a letter from the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks. Sweeney sits on the committee with heads of major corporations, who also signed it. The letter supports administration action to gain greater access for U.S. corporations and investors abroad.
Sweeney said he'd gained assurances from the administration that it would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO statement calls the commitment "a sharp departure from the business community's previous position that workers' rights are in no way the domain of the WTO," and calls for a hard fight "to make the WTO a more democratic and accountable institution."
The Canadian Labour Congress was blunt in differing with the AFL-CIO approach. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a 'social clause' or environmental rules," a CLC statement declared. "We're determined to change the entire trade regime."
Sweeney's move stunned many U.S. union leaders as well. Steven Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. "I'm as cynical as I can be about putting the WTO in charge of enforcing labor standards," he said in Seattle. "I don't think the WTO is going to do anything. It's nonsense."
Yokich noted that his union, together with the ILWU, the Teamsters and the federal workers union all refused to vote for Al Gore's presidential endorsement at the AFL-CIO convention in October. Gore's unwavering support for administration trade policy was the big stumbling block.
"Clinton made a huge mistake on NAFTA, which created nothing but minimum wage jobs in the U.S.," Yokich explained. "NAFTA failed completely to protect labor rights in Mexico. The administration just hasn't been right on trade. We now have a $300 billion trade deficit this year -- that represents the loss of a lot of jobs. Ultimately, the administration has left us high and dry -- that's why we're here."
AFL-CIO leaders are obviously concerned over the potential fallout from a big battle with the Clinton administration over trade policy. While it went all-out to mobilize union members to Seattle, the federation faces an uphill battle to get those same members to vote for the very politicians who support free trade, especially Gore.
Hollywood's Michael Everett is probably their worst nightmare. "Hollywood workers will not roll over for policies that export our jobs," he announced. "We won't give endorsements, we won't walk precincts, we won't give money, and we won't vote for any politicians of any party who support trade agreements that export our jobs."
Everett took that position to the political endorsement convention of the California Labor Federation in January, where he tried to block labor support for seven Democratic Congress members, all of whom voted for NAFTA. While he didn't make much headway in opposing six of them, anger over Democratic support for free trade was nevertheless palpable. When a seventh Congressman, Monterey's Sam Farr, failed as well to support striking Teamsters last year, that anger boiled over and was enough to block his endorsement.
Trade is clearly the most volatile element reshaping the relationship between U.S. union members and the Democratic Party. Free trade has been the bedrock policy of every U.S. administration since World War Two, Democrat or Republican. Throughout the cold war decades, labor's anticommunist support for free trade led U.S. unions to line up behind neoliberal economics and foreign intervention, from the Marshall Plan to the Vietnam War.
Labor opposition to free trade is now the key that unlocks that unquestioning support. And greater political independence is a necessity if U.S. unions are to challenge free trade and the global economy.
At the same time, the trade debate is changing the way U.S. labor looks at the working class in the rest of the world. While there are still sharp differences of opinion, for the first time since the 1940s, millions of U.S. union members see their fate intimately tied to workers in virtually every other country. Forging that realization into a real program of solidarity is the biggest challenge U.S. unions confront.
Workers and unions in other countries remain suspicious that U.S. unions are motivated by self-interest in seeking to enforce international labor standards. But there is also a growing global awareness that no national union federation can avoid being whipsawed by the global economy if it cannot find links to a larger world movement.
The KCTU speaks for many unions when it observes that "peoples' actions in far-flung corners of the world are no longer disparate and isolated. They're creating a global movement with a new spirit of international solidarity, recognizing the integrity of all struggle, while debunking the attitude of established movements and organizations."
David Bacon is a writer and photographer based in Berkeley, Calif.