NEW ORLEANS The AFL-CIO is mounting a massive campaign to prevent the United States from forging stronger trade ties with China, which labor leaders condemned as “one of the worst offenders of human rights in the world.”
The first step in this effort, announced yesterday at the labor federation’s executive council meeting here, will be to block Clinton administration and congressional efforts to grant China permanent normal trade relations with the United States, a move that is essential to China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
The campaign against China pits organized labor squarely against President Clinton, who has vowed an all-out push to grant China permanent trading status. It also threatens to strain labor’s relations with Vice President Al Gore, who won the federation’s presidential endorsement last fall.
Organized labor fears that stronger trade ties with China will lead to job losses in the United States. Many large U.S. manufacturers, such as Nike and Reebok, have manufacturing operations in China, where workers are paid pennies a day. The federation believes that it is wrong to promote trade with China, which has been criticized by rights groups worldwide for its treatment of workers.
“It is insane that under the rules governing worldwide trade today you can take action against a company for pirating a Madonna videotape, but you can take no action against a company for employing children, or using forced labor, or violating workers’ fundamental rights, or poisoning the environment,”said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
The federation would not disclose how much money it would spend on the campaign, which will include grass-roots protests and television and radio advertising targeting congressional candidates who favor giving China permanent trade status.
But he said the effort will be “much broader and more intense” than the AFL-CIO’s successful campaign in 1997 to torpedo Mr. Clinton’s bid to gain sole authority to negotiate trade deals with other countries, known as fast track.
The federation plans to run television and radio ads in 15 to 20 congressional districts that are home to candidates who favor granting China permanent trade status. Labor organizers also hope to mobilize a grass-roots effort to go door-to-door in those districts dispensing brochures detailing labor’s position on trade with China.
Business groups said they are waging a similar fight in support of permanent trade with China. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, has vowed to target between 35 and 40 districts in its campaign. Chamber officials said they will spend as much as $100,000 per district, on television ads and grass-roots efforts, to pressure incumbent congressional candidates to support the deal.
For its part, the federation hopes to capitalize on growing concern in the United States about global trade in the wake of the massive protests late last year that disrupted the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle.
The federation yesterday released a survey that showed while most Americans favor freer trade with China, a majority oppose granting that country permanent trading status. The survey was conducted by Peter Hart Research, a Washington-based polling firm and was based on calls to 609 private respondents.
The AFL-CIO worked with scores of religious, environmental and human rights groups to organize the Seattle protest.
Mr. Sweeney said the federation planned to again work closely with those groups in its campaign against China. He said he was meeting tomorrow with the Sierra Club, a Washington-based environmental group, to plot strategy.
The House Ways and Means Committee yesterday held a hearing on permanent normal trade relations with China, and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky testified.
The annual fight over China’s trading status traditionally has been contentious. But each year lawmakers have agreed to extend China’s trading privileges for one year.
This time, however, the fight is expected to be more difficult as the Clinton administration, many in Congress and leading business groups, seek to end the annual debate and give China permanent trade status.
Federation officials said their rift with the administration over trade policy will not dampen their enthusiasm for Mr. Gore’s presidential bid. Mr. Sweeney said he was heartened by Mr. Gore’s promises to link future trade deals to stricter global rules protecting worker rights and the environment.