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Tariffs or Not Tariffs, That Is Not the Question US Workers Should Have Asked

 

Tariffs or Not Tariffs, That Is Not the Question US Workers Should Have Asked

By Choi-Chun Seung-Min

On 6th March, US President George Bush proclaimed that import tariffs of up to 30% will be imposed to protect the US steel industry. Those countries that have been exporting steel to the US are obviously outraged. How can anybody resort to such protectionism in this era of free trade? In particular the US - which has been proclaiming itself to be an enthusiastic patron of "free trade" within the multilateral trade regime? In the meantime, while US and other governments are gunning each other over the matter, there seems to be two perspectives taking shape among the progressives. One is just to keep quiet about the whole dilemmatic affair, and the other is to resort to nationalism. The latter seems the easier position and unfortunately, the more dangerous.
The scene where the US steel workers union sat together with the their CEOs to welcome the tariffs while the EU workers union sat with theirs to denounce it, is rather worrisome. There has been a common view among progressive forces that unions in the North were gradually overcoming their protectionist stance, but the unions now siding with their governments could very well dash these hopes. Then what should the workers demand, if they were not to be nationalists?

Steel, and financial globalization

The US claims that its steel industry experienced a drop in steel prices due to an abrupt increase of imports from Asia and the EU. Along with accusing the EU of conducting unfair trade practices, the US is also arguing that the strong-dollar policy has caused prices of US-produced goods to become relatively lower. However, all these are only a small part of the whole scheme. US steel workers, facing massive lay-offs and cut in pensions and benefits that have been won through decades of hard struggle, demanded a 40% tariff. Bush, not willing to take on the burden of compensating for the cuts yet wanting to gather support from the workers in the upcoming elections, presented the 30% tariff as a "countermeasure" to job insecurity and deterioration in working conditions. Thus, Bush was able to satisfy both the capitalists and trade unions, and consolidate a seeming harmony between the government, management and workers for the upcoming elections. The result? The deviation of the workers from the real causes of the economic recession and a crack in the internationalism of workers.
The fact of the matter is, the economic slow-down that the US is experiencing is not so much the result of "unfair practices" and "excessive import," as automation and financial globalization policies such as deregularisation, restructuring and labour flexibility. Also, although the strong-dollar policy did bring about relatively low prices for imported goods, while manufacturing sectors suffered from lack of capital and low prices, the financial sector enjoyed an abundance of capital and prosperity. Like elsewhere under the rule of financial globalization, foreign direct investments are not used for expanding production but in "make money through money" speculation. And it is precisely the accumulation of such speculative capital that is driving the US economy, as well of the whole world, into turmoil. Therefore, the logic that the economy can be saved by imposition of import tariffs not only misses the heart of the issue, it distorts it entirely.

Class management of the steel war

The reality behind the decline in the profitability of the steel industry is also the core to understanding the mechanisms of class management that is inherent inside Bush's decision. Not only is the import tariff unable to revive, in the long-run, the shrinking of the steel industry, it cannot stabilise employment or improve working conditions. Job insecurity and deterioration of working conditions are not caused by excessive imports but rather by the structural crisis within capitalism - the recent one coming from and being aggregated by neoliberalism - and the flexibility of labour promoted within the steel industry. Ultimately, protection of profitability and prevention of price falls through controlling excessive imports are interests of the capitalist class, not the working class. The steel workers union is not only looking in the wrong direction but is also being blinded by the ruling class ideology that relies on nationalism and scapegoating other countries for the problems caused by capitalism and its actors. Also, the union has overlooked the fact that the rise in the price of steel (as a result of the tariffs) will lead to rises in costs for other heavy industries and result in wage decreases and lay-offs for workers throughout all sectors.
An even more serious problem is that the class management effects of import tariffs are not limited to US workers alone. It can cause divisions between social movements of the North and South, and weaken the hard-won internationalism. The logic that deterioration in working conditions of US workers comes from abroad (low-price imports, dumping, Third World's low-wage labour etc.) has been adopted by trade unions and NGOs several times before. It was the logic behind the AFL-CIO's denouncement of the Permanent National Treatment (PNTR) and WTO membership of China, and its demand for social clauses to be incorporated into the WTO. Although it has been proven many times that low-price imports produced by Chinese and other low-wage Third World workers are not responsible for job insecurity and worsening working conditions in the US, the trade unions put the blame on other Third World nations and thus evaded the essence of the matter. In the meantime, the US government, as well as those of other developed countries, is able to effectively protect the interests of US capitalists through the use of nationalist agendas to pacify the resistance of the working class and disrupt the unity of workers in the North and South. The imposition of import tariffs, the series of retaliatory measures that followed, and the identification by the unions for each of the two perspectives will encourage division between US workers and those in Europe and Asia, and undermine internationalism of the working class. Nationalism and protectionism had previously brought about serious setbacks to the anti-neoliberalism movement that calls for solidarity between social movements in the North and South and radical alternatives to financial globalization.

Internationalism, not nationalism!

If the essence of the hardships of the steel industry lies not in the "cheap imports" but  in the restructuring of the industries where capital is accumulated through speculative activities in the financial markets instead of the manufacturing sectors, then it is quite clear that the steel tariffs will fall short of boosting production and increasing jobs. And if deterioration in living standards of many US workers stem not from their working sisters and brothers in other countries endangering their jobs but from labour flexibility policies of capitalists, then it is quite evident that workers should fight against neoliberalism and labour flexibility.
It is extremely important for social movements and trade unions worldwide to directly target neoliberalism as being responsible for deterioration in living conditions of workers. The intentions of Bush and the elites should be exposed, while it should be clearly stated that the fight over import tariffs cannot be an alternative for workers either in the US, Europe or Asia. It is within this framework of protesting against neoliberal flexibility of labour as it is, that international solidarity of workers and social movements can be attained. Workers in the US, Europe and Asia should not be fighting each other over who is stealing whose jobs, but should join hands and fight together against neoliberal restructuring and labour flexibility that attacks all workers all over the world.

The writer is an activist of Policy & Information Center for International Solidarity (PICIS).


Choi-Chun Seung-Min  dgudp@dongguk.edu

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