With inflation on the rise and the Democrats’ dismal polling numbers going into the midterm elections, the Biden administration is considering lifting the tariffs that Donald Trump imposed on China in an effort to bring relief to consumers.
In response to the news, some parts of the union movement have been pressuring Joe Biden to leave the tariffs intact. Axios last week reported that the Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy submitted a letter to the Office of the US Trade Representative calling for the tariffs to stay in place. This advisory committee is made up of the leaders of most of the largest unions in the country. Clearly, there’s significant support for these tariffs among the leadership of the labor movement. But supporting Trump’s tariffs today is a mistake, just as it was a mistake to support them in 2018.
As Doug Henwood correctly predicted back in 2017, Trump’s tariffs were never going to revive employment in the steel industry. This is because the amount of labor required to produce steel has long been falling. That has for decades been the story in manufacturing in the United States, which has been shedding workers as a share of employment since the end of World War II, long before concerns about foreign competition began in the 1970s.
While some labor-intensive industries like textiles have been affected by globalization, the decline in manufacturing employment in advanced economies is mostly a victim of productivity gains, something the labor movement has been unable to come to terms with, preferring instead to focus on trade. While technology has played a part in productivity gains, another major factor, as Kim Moody has noted, is work intensification through just-in-time and lean production methods.
These developments demonstrate two key weaknesses in the American labor movement. The first is the inability of unions to control the introduction of new technologies in the workplace. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) is an exception to the rule, and their contracts contain clauses about how new technology is to be introduced at ports. This has led to the ILWU remaining a militant union that retains significant structural power to disrupt the economy.
The second weakness stems from unions’ inability to prevent work intensification. The origins of this goes all the way back to the years following World War II, when unions like the United Auto Workers gave up control on the shop floor in exchange for higher pay and benefits. While there have been struggles over work intensification in some workplaces, the labor movement as a whole has not developed a broad strategy to stop it.
More troubling than the letter’s characterization of trade as the phenomenon that ails manufacturing workers in the United States are its hawkish comments on national security. According to the letter, the Communist Party of China’s “practices have also advanced their military-civilian fusion, which directly and indirectly threatens our economic and national security interests.”
Such a line could have been uttered by the most conservative China hawks. Not only does it recall the worst of the AFL-CIO’s anti-communism during the Cold War; it is very much in line with the labor federation’s long-problematic stance toward China, which has opted for vilification and protectionism instead of international solidarity.
Tailing the most hawkish segments of America’s foreign policy establishment is a huge mistake. There is scant evidence of claims that China is actively seeking to displace the United States as the global hegemon. While it will become more influential in East Asia, China has only been pursuing a greater say in global institutions set up by the United States like the International Monetary Fund; it is not trying to supersede them. And most pressing, China-US cooperation is essential in fighting climate change.
The result of continuing this trade war will only breed reaction. “Buy American” campaigns have had a problematic history. In the 1930s, such a campaign spearheaded by William Randolph Hearst specifically targeted the Japanese with yellow peril rhetoric, laying the ideological ground for the internment of Japanese Americans later on during World War II.
In the 1980s, fear of Japanese imports, especially around cars, resulted in the murder of Vincent Chin, who was of Chinese descent but mistaken to be Japanese by a white truck-plant superintendent and a laid off autoworker. With this ugly history and the COVID-19 pandemic stoking anti-Asian racism, pushing for confrontation with China is extremely dangerous. Not only does it inspire hate but it also closes off important political openings.
Promoting confrontation with China is seriously damaging for those civil-society efforts in both countries that are working to build a “détente from below.” It certainly does not help Chinese workers, as the state now has all the more excuse to crush labor actions in the name of national security.
There will be negative effects in the United States as well. Among the counties with industries where retaliatory Chinese tariffs have been introduced, 82 percent voted for Trump in the last election. Inflation is propelling the Republican lead in the polls for the midterms. The trade war is further entrenching right-wing populism in the United States.
The US labor movement has scored some important recent victories by teachers, Amazon warehouse workers, and Starbucks baristas. A long-sought union breakthrough in retail looks possible. Many of these jobs, and those in logistics, are the future of labor organizing, as they cannot be moved overseas and are far from being automated.
To say as much is not to dismiss the labor struggles of manufacturing workers. In fact, their support is essential to winning things like the Green New Deal. Some of the earliest visions of a just transition emerged from the labor movement, but as a whole, the rhetoric continues to separate jobs and the environment, as though only one side can be saved.
Overcoming such a false binary will require the labor movement to let go of its obsession with trade as a device that pits workers in one country against those in another. It will require a more progressive international vision where labor movements, north and south, come together to push for a more equitable global trading system as well as tougher environmental regulations.
The roots of the response of some unions to trade with China go back many decades and have long been identified by the Left as the weakness in the US labor movement that has kept it from assuming a more militant orientation. Ironically, it is the emergence of globalization, long resisted by many, that offers new horizons for class struggle, like organizing across global supply chains or gig workers simultaneously going on strike across different countries.
With American support for unions at its highest level in nearly sixty years, a new generation of workers is taking up organizing. They will have to contend with the legacies of how American unionism sowed the conditions of its own decline. But if they remember that it is “Workers of the world, unite,” they will be able to change it.