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Europe Sets Example for U.S. Policies

Eleven of the 12 nations in the European Community are rarities these days, as many other countries--including the United States and Great Britain--seek a competitive edge by slashing wages, benefits and jobs of their workers.

The 11 are showing both good economic sense and humanitarian qualities by insisting that their workers must be helped, not hurt, by agreements to eliminate trade barriers and mesh the economies of the EC countries.

No such concern for the impact on workers of a “free trade” pact is shown by leaders of the United States, Mexico or Canada as they push toward that pact, which can only mean a loss of badly needed U.S. and Canadian jobs.

With wages in Mexico a fraction of even the lowest-paying jobs in this country, and with far fewer, less costly environmental controls, U.S. companies are certain to move more and more of their operations--and jobs--south of the border when tariff barriers are dropped almost entirely.

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The impact of that hit on U.S. workers is not even being considered by the Bush Administration in its free trade talks with Mexico.

In Europe, only Great Britain, one of the EC countries, refused to join in the imaginative social compact the other 11 signed recently.

The Brits’ Tory Party leaders say all that talk about workers and the “social policy” to protect their rights is just a scheme by the other EC countries to encourage unionism and even, God forbid, to reintroduce socialism into Britain by the back door.

After all, it took more than a decade of battling the Labor Party and unions there for former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successor, John Major, to reduce the percentage of workers represented by unions from 51% to 41% and get a firm grip on the government.

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It is heartening to see that the EC countries are trying to unite their political and economic strength when disunity and nationalism are wreaking havoc in much of the rest of the world.

The rights of workers are generally ignored as the former Soviet Union splinters itself, and smaller countries like Yugoslavia engage in bloody civil wars. They are being urged by the Bush Administration to rely on competition in a free market economy to take care of the needs of their workers.

Since the market economy is primarily helping the well-to-do here, and even Bush now admits that we are in a recession, the former communist countries better be wary of that White House advice.

Those countries, along with our own, would do better paying attention to the remarkable agreements reached by the 11 EC countries, which decided that paying decent wages makes sense for everyone.

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Workers in almost all of those countries (expect Spain and Portugal) earn far more than British workers. British factory workers get $12.42 an hour, compared to $21.30 an hour for the Germans--far above the $14.83 rate in the U.S. Mexican factory workers make only $1.85, an attraction that is hard for U.S factory owners to resist.

Even so, the economies of most of the “good guy” 11 nations, like France and Germany, are doing well compared to the U.S. and Great Britain, which are relying so heavily on cuts in workers’ wages and jobs to be competitors in the international market.

The 11 agreed at their historic meeting in Maasrtricht on Dec. 11 that their future should be built on the well-being of their workers. They don’t want competition based on the impoverishment of workers, and their agreement on the Social Policy says so in bold, sweeping language:

“The EC (countries) shall have as their objective the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, proper social protection, dialogue between management and labor (and) the development of human resources with a view to lasting high employment.”

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The rhetorical sound of that provision in the agreement may be scoffed at by skeptics as empty talk. But we don’t even see talk about concern for workers in discussions now going on for the U.S.-Mexico-Canadian Free Trade pact.

And there is little talk, either, about the welfare of workers in the former communist countries that are stumbling along unfamiliar paths toward uncertain market economies.

The EC Social Policy agreement goes further than generalities, however, providing specific proposals to make sure that all countries within the EC have a level playing field when trade barriers between them are lifted.

For instance, the Enlightened 11’s new policy includes such things as minimum mandatory vacations and rest periods, minimum wage levels and standardization of working hours.

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They want all the countries to encourage collective bargaining between labor and management, with emphasis on the system that gives workers a voice in the management of corporations, as the Germans have done through their long-established system of co-determination.

They want every worker in the European Community to have freedom of movement among the countries, and the right to seek work in all of the member countries.

Wages will not be uniform from country to country because the gap between wages in, for instance, Germany and Portugal is too great to be bridged quickly. (That gap is not nearly as wide, however, as the one that exists between the U.S. and Mexico.)

But they agree that “workers shall be assured of a wage sufficient to enable them to have a decent standard of living.”

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The 11 countries also agreed that every worker “must have access to vocational training and to benefits therefrom throughout his working life.”

There is more, but this gives you an idea of the scope of the EC’s Social Policy. Their leaders say they are well aware that they must still spell out details of the policy, and then put them into operation--no easy task. They hope to put it into operation by 1993, but the deadline is vague.

But it is encouraging to know there is such progressive thinking going on in our highly competitive world, and maybe the EC, without Great Britain, can set an example for our own and other countries.


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