DETROIT - The United Auto Workers union support for the U.S. Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) has received a lot of "ink" in recent days as a number of unions have criticized the deal.
The UAW and all of labor opposed the 2007 U.S.-Korea trade pact that was negotiated by President George W. Bush. At that time the U.S. ran a $12.8 billion trade deficit with Korea, of which $10.3 billion was concentrated in the auto and auto parts sector. Almost 90 percent of Korea's auto exports to the U.S. would have received immediate duty-free access on the day the agreement became law. The unions' concern, of course, was the disastrous effect this would have on American workers' jobs.
The UAW argues that the 2010 version of the pact is an improvement. In a statement released yesterday the union says the agreement extends the number of years the U.S. can impose tariffs on imported vehicles, and also opens the South Korean market to U.S. cars by eliminating and reducing Korean tariffs on vehicles and trucks coming from the U.S.
The union's statement notes, "For the first time ever, the UAW was consulted and played a meaningful role in the negotiations and was able to successfully influence the process and secure significant improvements to the automotive provisions in the trade agreement."
The statement also expresses concern about the changed balance of forces in Congress as a result of the November 2010 elections, saying "The incoming Republican majority would have advocated for the 2007 Bush-negotiated agreement with no safeguards for our members."
In addition, the UAW says, the KORUS FTA includes labor and environmental commitments, as well as important enforcement mechanisms.
On the other hand, many unions and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka oppose the agreement. (It should be noted the United Food and Commercial Workers has also expressed support for the pact.)
Trumka in a released statement said he "welcomes the tremendous efforts by the Obama administration to address the urgent concerns of autoworkers and auto companies with respect to market access, safeguard provisions and some non-tariff barriers."
However he added that "the labor movement's concerns about the Korea trade deal go beyond the auto assembly sector to a more fundamental question about what a fairer and more balanced trade policy should look like."
In particular Trumka said the labor movement worries that provisions in the Korea deal will encourage off-shoring of jobs.
While the labor movement is divided on this issue, they are united on the need to build global solidarity.
For many, more significant than the trade pacts being negotiated by governments are the ties and solidarity being built by workers and their unions across the globe. Worker solidarity is what can eventually bring relative equality in wages, working conditions and stronger environmental standards. It can also end the ability of corporations to whipsaw workers in one country against those in another.
Last Friday, UAW President Bob King led a delegation of UAW leaders on a visit to Korea to meet with the Korean Metal Workers Union. Several days earlier the United Auto Workers demonstrated outside the Hyundai America Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., to show support for striking Hyundai workers in Ulsan, South Korea.
The Korean Hyundai workers are classified as "temporary." At the Ann Arbor rally King called that a "global problem."
He said, "We have to build a global movement for social and economic justice. What we confront today is a global problem for workers. Bosses all over the world, even tremendously profitable corporations like Hyundai, are trying to reduce the number of permanent workers, and expand the number of temporary workers."
Global solidarity can trump the interests of the corporations, the labor movement is increasingly agreeing. That solidarity is built by workers of one nation reaching out to another because of their common interests. On this score the UAW and the rest of labor are united.
Photo: UAW members carry U.S. and South Korean flags, Dec. 6, at a rally at the Hyundai America Tech Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., to show their solidarity with Korean Hyundai workers. PW/John Rummel