Monday, July 19, 2010

Organized Labor's Incoherent, Yet Revealing, Opposition to the US-Korea FTA

American labor leaders quite often like to claim that they generally support "free trade" - just not this particular free trade agreement - because of some specific problem (or series of problems) that negotiators failed to resolve in the deal.  Usually, the unions' "go-to flaw" covers what they deem to be insufficient labor protections in the FTA partner's market which, if not resolved, would hurt poor foreign workers.  This "concern" paints the unions not as selfish thugs using political muscle to shield their antiquated industries and/or overpriced labor contracts from duty-free foreign competition, but instead the altruistic global protector of poor workers everywhere.  For example, late last week Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's top dog, said the following about the US-Korea FTA:
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he would support an altered version of the Bush administration's proposed free-trade agreement with South Korea, but only if the pact reduces nontariff barriers in Korea and protects workers' rights, among other considerations.
"We don't oppose trade," he said in an interview. "We oppose the type of one-way trade we've had in the past." The existing proposed agreement was reached in 2007, but Congress hasn't approved it.
Leaving aside NTBs for now (more on that canard here), Trumka's "workers' rights" comments are par for the course.  However, a quick Google search reveals just how inane this particular criticism is and, even more importantly, undermines the sincerity of the unions' whole line of argument.  You see, while it might be arguable that a country like Colombia has, despite immense and laudable progress, some lingering labor problems, it's absurd to argue that the KORUS FTA needs to be scuttled because of South Korea's insufficient labor protections.  As but one example, consider the fact that the International Labor Organization reports that Korea has ratified 24 ILO conventions, while the United States has ratified only eleven.  Of course, for a whole host of reasons I'd never be one to use ILO standards as some sort of benchmark for the strength of a country's commitment to workers rights, but do you know who would?  Yep, Richard Trumka's AFL-CIO:
Reports from respected international organizations, such as the U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO), show that the laws of Colombia fall far short of the core labor rights, considered a minimum set of rights to be guaranteed by all countries regardless of level of development.
In short, the AFL-CIO uses the ILO as an FTA benchmark when doing so will give it a reason to oppose the FTA, but abandons the very same standard when it doesn't serve the unions' protectionist purposes.  Pretty admirable and altruistic, huh? 


Then again, Trumka’s contradictory comments are valuable in one sense: they reveal just how hollow the AFL-CIO’s “support” for free trade really is.  For them, the “labor rights” issue is just an automatic excuse to oppose an FTA without regard to the agreement’s actual merits or, in particular, its effects on workers’ rights.  Seen in this light, one can easily understand Trumka’s silly KORUS comments as just a kind of Pavlovian “auto-reply” - when asked about the trade agreement he just reflexively uttered “blah blah blah labor rights concerns blah blah blah,” figuring that - even though the AFL-CIO’s own ILO metric deems the KORUS FTA to be a resounding success – his organization would come up with something to oppose before the agreement got to Congress for a vote.

Of course, for those of us who pay close attention to trade issues, the unions’ unscrupulous, goalpost-moving FTA opposition is nothing new.  They'll always find something wrong with whatever FTA is under consideration, and, as I’ve previously noted, this miserable strategy has a lot of adherents in Congress too.  And it’s not like most folks in developing countries actually believe in the sincerity of American labor unions’ claims – indeed, they often vocally oppose the claims of mustachioed heavies like Richard Trumka who brazenly claim that they speak for the world’s working men and women. 

Nevertheless, noting union hypocrisy on trade is still an important exercise, given the pull that Trumka and his buddies have in this White House and on the Hill.  So until that changes and the AFL-CIO and other unions lose their clout in Washington – a trend that, as AEI's Claude Barfield notes, might actually be starting to occur (dare to dream!) – it's always valuable to point out just how awful American labor unions actually are on free trade and just how empty their promises of eventual "support" really are.

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