AFL-CIO steps up to fight permanent trading status for China

On May 22 in Washington D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill organized labor has declared "priority number one" to defeat. Initiated by President Bill Clinton and supported by the Republican Party leadership, it's a bill to grant permanent normal trading status to China, paving the way to China's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Currently, under a 1974 U.S. trade law, China must get a waiver from the president and Congress every year in order to enjoy normal trading status with the United States. Though the waivers have been approved every year since 1980, China has often made small improvements in its human rights situation in advance of the votes.

Unionists and human rights advocates believe that ending this annual review will severely undercut the ability of the United States to pressure China on international human rights, worker rights, and environmental standards.

By a four-to-one margin, Americans oppose the idea of permanent normal trade relations with China, according to a January poll commissioned by the national AFL-CIO.

Accordingly, labor has been mobilizing to defeat the bill, which is expected to be a very close vote. On April 12, some 15,000 rank-and-file members came to Washington, D.C., to lobby representatives. On April 13, Steelworkers held candlelight vigils across from the White House to bring attention to China's dismal human rights record.

Representatives of big business are lobbying heavily in favor of the bill. In the last few months, groups like the Business Roundtable have orchestrated hundreds of face-to-face meetings with members of Congress and staff in which delegations of local businesspeople deliver testimonials on the importance of the Chinese market. Supporters of the bill have generated thousands of letters to Congress, including one signed by 47 governors, among them Oregon's John Kitzhaber and Washington's Gary Locke. And in key congressional districts of undecided members, the bill's supporters have waged a campaign of TV, radio and print advertising.

Over the last month, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt met with four of Oregon's five U.S. representatives. Democratic Representatives Peter DeFazio and David Wu say they'll vote no on the China trade bill; Democrats Darlene Hooley and Earl Blumenauer, and Republican Greg Walden say they'll vote yes.

Nesbitt thinks it's unlikely any of the Oregon representatives will change their positions, but he still encourages union members to make their views known to their representatives.

"Once we give it up, it will be nearly impossible to get it back," says Nesbitt.

China is a consistent violator of freedom of speech, religion, association, movement, and assembly. There are no independent trade unions. The police use force to break up worker strikes and religious gatherings. Millions of workers suffer routine abuses including forced overtime, exposure to poisonous chemicals, and abuse by factory managers. Use of prison labor is widespread in production for overseas markets.

May 5, 2000 issue

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