Unions Unite Over Foreign Trade Ads

The United States government rarely moves against its allies who flagrantly violate the rights of workers in their countries. So it came as a shock when the government wisely gave in to pressure recently and stopped promoting U.S. investments in South Korea because of blatant repression of workers there.

But the opposite side of U.S. policy is evident in countries such as El Salvador, where our government is helping to finance an advertising campaign to persuade U.S. firms to take jobs to countries where wages are a fraction of those paid here.

Actions like these have helped to reduce once bitter arguments among U.S. unions and unite them on issues of foreign policy.

Today, organized labor in this country is in agreement on most foreign policy questions, including, for instance, the joint action by the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to persuade the little-known U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC) to suspend all new business with South Korea.


The long-awaited, though mild, action against one of our major trading partners stemmed from a petition by the United Auto Workers and was backed by the 14.5-million-member labor federation.

The American unions didn’t have much trouble giving evidence to OPIC, proving that South Korea is, as the government agency said, “in violation of internationally recognized workers’ rights.”

South Korean government troops were quickly sent in when corporations asked for help to break strikes there. South Korea has outlawed many unions and jailed at least 500 unionists.

OPIC, which encourages foreign investments by providing loans, loan guarantees and insurance, has so far refused to act against other equally repressive regimes. That is a mistake.


But it is also a mistake, and economically dangerous to U.S. workers, for our government to help promote the export of jobs.

It is bad enough for President Bush to encourage U.S. firms to move their companies, and jobs, to Mexico by pressing for the proposed U.S.-Mexico Free Trade Agreement. The agreement would eliminate most tariffs on products made in Mexico and shipped here.

But even worse are the advertising tactics financed largely by our government and used to persuade U.S. companies to open plants out of this country.

One devastating example: The U.S. government is financing extensive advertising in textile trade magazines to tempt manufacturers to open their factories in El Salvador, known mostly here as a bloody battlefield between deadly rival political forces.


The ads cleverly humanize the temptation by saying that “Rosa Martinez (otherwise unidentified) produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. YOU can hire her for 33 cents an hour.”

Just a year ago, almost identical ads said U.S. companies would have to pay Rosa 57 cents an hour.

The ads, placed in, among other publications, the trade journal Bobbin, assured our manufacturers that “Rosa is more than just colorful. She and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning.”

The low wages paid to Salvadoran workers, U.S. companies are being told, make them “one of the best buys (for U.S. manufacturers). In addition, El Salvador has excellent road and sea transportation, including Central America’s most modern airport.”


No mention is made of the brutal civil war that killed thousands there, the death squads or any other such troubles U.S. companies might face in El Salvador.

Instead, manufacturers, anxious to escape our minimum wage laws that require them to pay at least $4.25 an hour to workers here, are urged to contact FUSADES, “a private, nonprofit and nonpartisan organization” in El Salvador.

To make it easy for runaway U.S. corporations, FUSADES has opened offices in Miami. The offices in El Salvador and Miami are, like the ads, paid for mostly by U.S. taxpayers. And, of course, some of the taxpayers ironically are our own textile workers whose jobs are, in effect, being auctioned off to the lowest bidder.

A FUSADES spokesman says the idea is a generous one and, in the long run, will help develop industry in that undeveloped country--just as the United States is trying to help encourage private enterprise in many other countries around the world. That may be true, but it means the loss of jobs here.


Almost all of the money for FUSADES comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which last year gave the El Salvadoran organization $11 million.

Unions in this country are strongly opposing the use of U.S. money to fund FUSADES, and they are also calling for the elimination of all U.S. military aid to El Salvador until abuses of human rights there end.

The activities of organized labor in the international arena are seldom in the news, but they are extensive, as South Korea has found. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates are active in more than 80 countries and play a major but far from decisive role in U.S. foreign trade policy.

They led the losing battle in Congress against putting the proposed U.S.-Mexico Free Trade Agreement on a fast track as President Bush demanded. But their strong opposition might yet derail it.


While labor is still not fully united on all foreign policy issues, the once furious public battles they used to have among themselves have almost disappeared.

That relative unity enables them to act more effectively against worker repression in other countries like South Korea. And it might at least slow the U.S.-financed advertising campaigns designed to encourage our manufacturers to take advantage of cheap labor in such nations as El Salvador.