Thanks to the aggressive spirit of many newly elected Democrats, this Congress offers an encouraging opening for opponents of corporate-led globalization to go on offense. For decades, the critics of the global system have been pinned down by multinational business and finance and reduced to playing defense. Labor, environment and other reform advocates have mostly tried to block new trade agreements negotiated by Republican and Democratic Presidents. Their efforts usually have fallen short.
This year could be different. In both the House and Senate, the growing nucleus of legislators who are skeptical of or downright hostile to globalization is strong enough to force debates on some reform ideas. That doesn’t mean the reformers will necessarily prevail. But they can employ the kind of political jujitsu that gradually leverages change by forcing reluctant officials to cast roll-call votes they would rather avoid. Do incumbents in the middle stand with the public’s rising concerns or with the multinationals? The Republican right used this tactic brilliantly for many years as its way to take over the party from traditional conservatives. Progressive Democrats can do the same if they’re willing to put some of their fellow Democrats on the spot and discomfit party leaders who may want to avoid divisive controversies. Forcing a roll call and taking down names of those who vote wrong is useful, even if the issue is likely to lose. Voters are educated and mobilized. Bruised incumbents eventually change their views. Or voters change their representatives.
Here are a few global issues that ought to be addressed. They don’t deal with every disorder of globalization, but they might jump-start a debate Congress has long avoided.
Sweatshop imports. The principle at stake is whether Congress has the power to regulate any products imported from foreign factories. Global advocates assume not, but Congress has already embraced the opposite precedent.
A few years back, American consumers discovered to their horror that fur collars on made-in-China coats purchased in US stores were made from the fur of cats and dogs. The Humane Society of the United States conducted an eighteen-month undercover investigation and exposed the slaughter of more than 2 million domestic dogs and cats by garment makers in China and other Asian countries. Congress acted swiftly. It enacted the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000, banning all imported garments made with dog or cat fur. The bill included fines of up to $10,000 for each illegal item and barred repeat violators from importing or exporting any fur products.
Question: If Congress can protect the rights of dogs and cats in foreign trade, will it do the same for the young girls–some as young as 11–who work in sweatshops? They stitch garments for as little as 6 cents an hour and typically work twelve- to sixteen-hour days, sometimes longer and often in brutal conditions.
The vile human abuses lurking behind famous brand names have been repeatedly exposed by Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee, which has been investigating factories in Central America, China, Bangladesh, Mexico and others. Wal-Mart is among the repeat offenders. Like other US retailers, it claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions. The investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”