Unions decry global pacts

Locals rally to denounce plan to extend free trade

'I'm fighting for my job'

Members take opposition to FTAA to city streets

November 09, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Morgan Wheeler, a Baltimore electrician and union member, has for nearly a decade been opposed to free-trade agreements that he believes cost U.S. jobs and allow companies to push environmental concerns aside to increase profits.

But with the number of manufacturing jobs shrinking and more than 300 of his fellow electricians out of work, Wheeler is now angry enough to take to the streets with that cause.

Last weekend, he and his wife headed to Belvedere Square in North Baltimore to hand out fliers denouncing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed international agreement that would end many restrictions on trade within the Western Hemisphere.

The FTAA would be an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement, ratified in 1994. It would expand the elimination of tariffs beyond North America to every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba.

Proponents say the FTAA would open markets that are closed to American business, creating jobs and opportunities for U.S. workers and the companies that employ them.

"How can Teamsters be opposed to global trade when it means an increase in the trucking business?" asked Jerry Haar, director of the Inter-American Business and Labor Program at the North-South Center, an independent think tank associated with the University of Miami.

Labor unions, however, fear that the FTAA would cost them even more manufacturing jobs as companies seek cheaper labor abroad. They say that the FTAA does little to protect workers' rights, while giving corporations the power to challenge U.S. public health and environmental regulations.

"We're not opposed to trade; we're not opposed to investment," said Thea Lee, chief international economist for the AFL-CIO. "But we are opposed to the set of rules embodied in the current proposal to the FTAA, and we think the Bush administration has done a bad job negotiating for working-family priorities."

Experts say the unions are complaining about rules proposed for the FTAA that would allow corporations to sue governments when their environmental or health rules aren't in harmony with the terms of the treaty. NAFTA rules have led to similar legal challenges of regulations that the unions view as beneficial to workers and their families.

Wheeler, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24, said as he handed out fliers at Belvedere Square last weekend: "I think it's high time that we got out here. As a worker myself, I'm fighting for my job."

For years, workers such as Wheeler have been angry about international trade agreements that they believe are costing Americans jobs. Recently, a sour economy resulting in the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs has increased their hostility.

"Since the labor movement and its allies shut down the World Trade Organization meetings at the turn of the millennium, December 1999, labor's involvement with this issue hasn't gone away, it's only intensified," said Jeremy Brecher, a historian and author of Globalization From Below.

The American labor movement was once a strong supporter of expanded international trade. After World War II, when the United States dominated the world economy, labor thought expanded trade would mean more work.

But as other countries recovered from the war and the landscape grew more competitive, Americans started losing their dominance in some markets, and labor organizations opposed trade agreements such as NAFTA, Brecher said.

Adding fuel to the fire is the huge loss of manufacturing jobs in the past few years - about 2.6 million jobs in three years - and the wave of service jobs, from computer programming to work at call centers, that are moving overseas, Brecher said.

Unions from around the country plan to send members to Miami on Nov. 20 to protest a two-day meeting of trade ministers from the nations negotiating terms of the proposed FTAA.

Agreement on what the FTAA would do to promote trade is still a ways off. If the more than 30 nations involved can negotiate an agreement, it would still have to pass the House and the Senate and be signed by the president before it could take effect in the United States.

A congressional vote on the issue is not likely before the 2004 presidential election, making the FTAA a political hot button in the next presidential campaign, said Tracy Roof, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

Limiting the unions' political effectiveness in lobbying against this issue is the shrinking percentage of the U.S. work force that belongs to labor organizations, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

The percent of wage and salary workers who were unionized fell to 13.2 percent last year, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which data are available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership was reportedly as high as 36 percent in the early 1950s.

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