International Solidarity? Not So Much.

Trade unions and other workers’ rights groups often oppose trade liberalization, especially agreements with developing countries where labor is relatively cheap. To have any chance of securing organized labor’s support, preferential trade deals must, they insist, include references to International Labor Organization norms (which include things like the right to organize and the right to bargain collectively ).

The labor groups commonly give two plausible-sounding justifications for these demands: First, the requirements are supposed to protect American workers in import-competing industries from facing competition from “sub-standard” employers abroad. Second, they say that access to the U.S. market is a compelling incentive to encourage countries that would not normally sign up to ILO standards to do so. In other words, there is an element of international union solidarity in their insistence on enforceable labor standards.

But a telling quote in a story in today’s Inside U.S. Trade [paywall] exposes that explanation as being…shall we say…incomplete:

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters could oppose a final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal if it grants more dairy market access and threatens the jobs of 31,000 dairy workers the union represents in the United States, Teamsters legislative representative Mike Dolan said in a Dec. 7 presentation to negotiators here.

He highlighted that the union has no “beef” with Fonterra [a New Zealand dairy cooperative] and recognizes it as a global leader on labor practices. Fonterra has adopted a “global labor agreement” that adheres to principles found in key International Labor Organization conventions, such as the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, he said. In this respect, Dolan said Fonterra is a “model” for the U.S. dairy industry.

But Dolan stressed that opening the U.S. market to New Zealand, the largest dairy exporter in the world, could have a dramatically negative impact on an industry that is already being forced to sell much of its product well under the price of production. [emphasis added]

The TPP is being negotiated with a number of different countries, some of which are not as labor-friendly as New Zealand, so clearly the Teamsters’ opposition is more nuanced than the above quotes suggest (as the full article makes clear). But Dolan’s admission that his union opposes increased dairy imports from New Zealand even though it is “a model” of labor rights is telling. It suggests that trade negotiators wanting to appease the unions by more explicitly incorporating stronger labor protections are embarking on something of a Sisyphean task, at least so long as import competition is the real driver of organized labor’s opposition, as it appears to be here.