What Worker Rights Can Do

Why put worker rights in trade bills? At first glance they seem toothless. In the past, when these rights made it into trade bills, the signing countries just had to "strive to ensure" the rights. Now congressional Democrats are crafting a new, tougher trade bill for Panama and Peru with language that would flat-out ensure work-er rights.

Still, as a labor lawyer, I have my doubts. In 1995 when I helped bring a workers' case against the Mexican government under NAFTA, not a darned thing happened. Why do free traders go into fits over worker rights? So far as I can tell, the rights have yet to stop a thimble's worth of trade. Indeed, it's possible that the tougher the sanctions for these rights, the less likely it is that the U.S. will ever apply them. Government is, well, government. It likes the quiet life.

Besides, it seems unlikely the U.S. will complain about violations of worker rights in foreign countries when some of our rivals could make the same complaints about us. I often wonder, why they don't. Maybe these more unionized countries, like Germany, figure our lower labor standards in some way hold us back from competing as effectively in higher-wage, higher-skilled types of industries.

Yet even if the worker-rights lan-guage was never enforced, I'd still argue for putting it into trade bills. Yes, our government likes the quiet life, but other governments do, too, so sometimes they ask: "How do we comply?" These worker-protection agreements also create more leverage for labor groups to lobby. And they skew any debate in these countries in favor of rights. A human-rights lawyer friend once conceded that these "laws" aren't laws, but he believed just saying it's a law changes how people think.

These worker rights also help trade. The big threat now to safe, predictable, and peaceful global trade is the rise of the so-called "managed" democracies, in Russia, Central Asia, and Venezuela, countries that control a lot of oil. Work-er rights, though, create oppositions. They put checks on authoritarian rule. They promote the democratization that we attempted so badly in Iraq. The rise of the trade union Solidarity in Poland, helped by our own AFL-CIO, ought to be a model. Indeed, even the U.S. occupation of Germany has a lesson to teach: One thing the U.S. Army did in 1945 was to help put workers on corporate boards instead of preaching laissez-faire.

The great thing about pushing worker rights is that it also pushes a kind of political action. Indeed, it's the closest thing to creating a polit-ical party, pulling people out of their old ethnic and religious networks. Above all, for unions to work, people have to trust each other, despite race and religion. If it can happen in South Chicago among black, white, and Latino, maybe it can even happen between Shia and Sunni. In the case of Iraq, at least, we should have supported any kind of secular organization if only to replace the Baath Party. That sure would have beaten a six- or seven-year military occupation.

In the end, the countries with the strongest labor movements are also the most open to free trade. Sure, there is, and should be, some protectionist instinct. But the protectionism of an open democracy, with labor rights, is much more modest than the protectionism of a "managed democracy" without one.

So yes, we should include worker rights in our trade bills. They should be part of our foreign policy. But we should also think of alternatives to sanctions to make sure these rights are enforced. This summer, China's leaders let its country's work-ers sue in Chinese courts to enforce their employment contracts, even those with U.S. multinationals. Why? A labor law-yer who knows China told me, "Of course China doesn't want people striking. They don't want a Lech Walesa, or 1989." But the Chinese got sick of being ripped off by the multinationals, "and unlike other countries, China has the clout to make demands on these companies."

But here's an idea: Why not let workers who are stiffed in foreign countries sue U.S. multinationals in American courts for their wages? Yes, they could be from Honduras or Bhutan. Let them sue any U.S. corporation that has a 20 percent or more ownership of a company that refuses to pay a prom-ised wage. Let them also sue any U.S. corporation that uses such a foreign company as an exclusive supplier. These would not be suits for human rights but class actions for cold, hard cash. "But wouldn't workers be terrified to bring them?" some may wonder. In some cases, yes, but it's a big world, and not all the people in it are living on their knees.

Such a law would not stop outsourcing, but at least those who do it would have to foot the bill. Why not make them pay the real cost of doing business in this flat world they're always touting?