David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Is Free Trade Making Hollywood a Rustbelt?
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA (11/19/99) - Hollywood a rustbelt?

That's what studio workers are beginning to call it. Clinton administration trade policies are coming home to Los Angeles with a vengeance, they claim, affecting workers far removed from heavy metal industries. According to Michael Everett, of the Hollywood Fair Trade Campaign, even the city's crown jewel, the motion picture industry itself, is on the chopping block.

"Our own political leaders have arranged a system of trade agreements designed to enhance corporate profits by shipping our jobs offshore," Everett says. "In exchange for NAFTA-sanctioned subsidies from Canada and elsewhere, the studios have turned their backs on their own community and have engaged in the wholesale destruction of the Hollywood jobs base."

Earlier this month, Everett and other Hollywood union activists organized demonstrations, supported by the LA County Labor Federation, during a dinner hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America at the Rita Hayworth Dining Room at Sony Studios, honoring Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and his "Free Trade Education Tour." Daley was greeted by dozens of boistrous protesters from various studio unions, including International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees Locals 44 (props), 728 (set lighting), 705 (wardrobe), 695 (sound technicians) and 600 (camera operators). Supporters came from other unions as well, including the longshoremen, communications workers and state, county and municipal employees.

Jobs are only going to Canada, say studio unions. Twentieth-Century Fox made last year's most popular move, Titanic, in a maquiladora in Rosarito, sixty miles south of the border. And after production was over, the independent and militant Mexican union which represented workers there was forced out by government support for a more conservative union, more friendly to foreign companies.

There's not much disagreement among U.S. unions nationally that Hollywood has a problem, or that it's shared with millions of other workers in dozens of industries in the rest of the country, and the world. No one argues that trade policies have a profound effect on jobs. But as thousands of union members prepare to go to Seattle, to demonstrate in the streets outside of possibly the most important set of trade negotiations this century, there is increasingly bitter disagreement in labor over what it will take to solve the problem, or even who the enemy is.

Unions are mobilizing their members to protest the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, an organization set up five years ago to enforce the increasing number of free trade agreements which set the rules for the global economy. Those rules, unions say, are negotiated by governments to increase the ability of multinational corporations to earn profits around the world.

Ron Judd, head of Seattle's central labor council, predicts that as many as 50,000 labor, social justice and community activists will pour into the city's streets as the WTO meeting begins on November 30. "This demonstration is intended to send a message, not just to this administration, but to all administrations around the world, that the rules as they're written do not work for workers and communities, and that they undermine environmental and health standards. Something has to change."

The AFL-CIO believes that future trade agreements can be written in such a way that they protect workers rights and the environment, much as existing agreements protect corporate profits. The union federation is calling on the WTO to incorporate five international labor conventions into the text of future treaties. These five agreements, written by the International Labor Organization, would guarantee workers everywhere the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively with employers, and would restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor, and outlaw discrimination. They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast financial consequences against governments which violate existing trade rules.

Juan Somavia, the ILO's secretary-general, says his organization "is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even Somavia, however, doesn't believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There's no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits.

Nevertheless, Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO's international affairs department, says that incorporating protections for workers into trade agreements can protect their rights. She compares it to the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to enforce fair labor standards like the minimum wage and 8-hour day.

"We have to create the political will to get them into [trade] agreements in an enforceable fashion," she asserts. "That's the challenge we face. If we didn't believe it was possible, I don't know why we'd be doing all this mobilizing. As you know, there are rules for capital that are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time and the place to get them for labor."

A number of unions inside the AFL-CIO, however, don't think it's possible to make the WTO enforce workers' rights. "It's like asking the fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He calls Shailor's position "an honorable thing to do," but says "it's not good enough. Nor will it answer the exploitation of workers. There has to be another mechanism outside the WTO to police workers' rights worldwide."

George Becker, president of the steelworkers union, is even more emphatic, calling the WTO and the trade structure fundamentally flawed. "There's nothing in it for working people. Nothing. That law exists to support multinationals. It's not for workers. There's no way that you can put a comma here or change a word there to make it compatible. It's not our law. Scrap it."

While unions which oppose the WTO process are often called protectionist, McWilliams retorts that his union owes its existence to trade. "We're not against fair trade, we're against free trade," he explains. "If workers aren't going to be able to find dignity and justice in the workplace along this road to corporate prosperity, we're going to resist it every way we can."

According to McWilliams, Becker and their allies, the NAFTA agreement has already demonstrated that worker protections are unenforceable. When NAFTA was negotiated in 1994, it included a side-agreement, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, which was supposed to protect workers' rights in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. In the last five years, however, over 15 cases have been filed alleging that the U.S. and Mexican governments especially have not enforced labor laws, and that workers have been fired and unions broken as a consequence.

The best-known example has been the effort by workers at the Han Young factory in Tijuana to organize an independent union and conduct a legal strike. Judicial authorities in both the U.S. and Mexico have agreed that their right to do so was illegally denied by the Mexican government, but the NAFTA process failed completely to make any meaningful change.

Leo Girard, a national vice-president of the steelworkers, says labor solidarity is a better answer, pointing to his union's long support of the Han Young workers. "The kind of trading regime represented by NAFTA and the WTO is not meant to improve the quality of life," he argues. "This trade simply benefits the employers. It represents an extension of exploitation rather than a diminishing of it."

The AFL-CIO counters that the NAFTA sideagreement didn't have teeth for enforcement, a problem it says can be corrected by having the WTO enforce labor protections, just as it enforces those which protect corporations. McWilliams is doubtful, pointing out that the U.S. government itself has only ratified one of the five ILO conventions, and is unlikely to push the WTO to enforce international agreements it doesn't itself recognize. "We have one of the worst records of subscribing to international labor union rights of any industrial nation anywhere," he notes.

These differences surfaced in October at the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, where a number of unions, including the ILWU, the Auto Workers and the Teamsters, abstained from endorsing Vice-President Al Gore in his quest for the presidency, citing his support for free trade.

Those divisions grew even sharper after the convention, when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney signed on to a letter from the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, endorsing administration goals for the WTO talks. Sweeney sits on the committee with heads of major corporations, who also signed it. The letter supports administration action to gain greater access for U.S. corporations and investors abroad.

Sweeney said he'd gained assurances from the administration that it would press in return for a working group on labor issues. An AFL-CIO statement calls the commitment "a sharp departure from the business community's previous position that workers' rights are in no way the domain of the WTO," and calls for a hard fight "to make the WTO a more democratic and accountable institution."

Nevertheless, the moved stunned many union leaders. Steven Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, resigned as chair of the AFL-CIO Manufacturing and Industrial Committee in protest. "Good trade policy does not trickle down from flawed assumptions about 'free trade' and its impact," he said, "[nor] from 'pie in the sky' rhetoric that we have heard for years that acknowledges labor and environmental issues but does nothing concrete or enforceable to address them."

Teamsters President James Hoffa also announced his opposition to Sweeney's move. The Canadian Labour Congress was even more blunt in differing with the AFL-CIO approach. "The struggle by unions, social justice groups and environmentalists is about more than just winning a seat at the table, or a 'social clause' or environmental rules," a CLC statement declared. "We're determined to change the entire trade regime."

Behind the official statements, however, are obvious concerns by AFL-CIO leaders over the potential fallout from a big battle with the Clinton administration over trade policy. On the one hand, the AFL-CIO is going all-out to mobilize union members to Seattle to demonstrate against free trade, an issue unionists care about deeply. But at the same time, federation leaders face an uphill battle to get those same members to vote for the very politicians who support free trade, especially Clinton's chosen successor, Al Gore.

Hollywood's Michael Everett is probably their worst nightmare. "Hollywood workers will not roll over for policies that export our jobs," he announced. "We won't give endorsements, we won't walk precincts, we won't give money, and we won't vote for ANY politicians of any party who support trade agreements that export our jobs."

Then, in contrast to his conciliatory stance towards the administration, Sweeney issued a fire-breathing denunciation of China, after Clinton negotiated terms under which it will be admitted to the WTO. Sweeney attacked China for human rights abuses, calling it "a rogue nation," a term used by U.S. military planners to designate potential targets for both military attack and economic sanctions in the post coldwar era, such as Serbia, Iraq or North Korea.

Union leaders and trade campaigners then lined up to denounce China at a Washington, DC, press conference beside Harry Wu, a fellow at the ultra-conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Wu has a long history of alliances with Sweeney's conservative predecessors in AFL-CIO leadership. He spoke before the 1995 AFL-CIO convention, saying that thousands of U.S. workers were losing jobs because of prison camps "run by the Chinese government and its Communist Party."

At the time, retiring AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland was under attack for inaction in the face of administration trade policy, just before the start of Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. Wu's coldwar rhetoric blamed China, rather than NAFTA, for U.S. job loss. NAFTA itself, which resulted in the loss of over 170,000 jobs, wasn't even discussed at that convention.

Wu's reappearance in the current WTO debate in the AFL-CIO may signal a similar effort to make China the enemy, rather than Clinton's negotiating stance at the WTO. Sweeney and leaders of the auto and steel workers, while disagreeing over their attitude toward administration trade policy, found common ground in condemning China. The fight over transforming or dismantling the WTO is suddenly becoming a fight over whether to admit China to the club, which currently includes 76 other countries.

But whether superheated anti-China rhetoric becomes a big ingredient in Seattle or not, the primary source of the loss of Los Angeles jobs remains closer to home. Hollywood studios move production to Canada and Rosarito. San Fernando Valley's Price Pfister plant moved to Mexicali two years ago. The LA basin is living with the consequences of NAFTA, and has acquired a bitter experience with the failure of its promise to protect workers rights.

"Only a united front of labor will have the power to break NAFTA," Everett concludes, "and stop the WTO from destroying our livelihoods, our communities, and our children's future."

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