SYNOPSIS: Organized labor is trying to survive on the backs of others

In the 1920's, South Africa's Communist Party campaigned under the slogan "Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa!" This wasn't quite as incongruous as it sounds: the political movement that eventually imposed apartheid had strong populist, even socialist roots. It was sincerely concerned with improving the economic status of the Afrikaner worker, and protecting him from the depredations of international capital. Unfortunately, the movement improved the lot of white labor mainly by preventing capitalists from offering industrial jobs to nonwhites, whose intense poverty made them willing to work for less.

The U.S. labor movement is not as brutally direct in its slogans. Probably its leaders don't even admit to themselves that their increasingly vociferous opposition to imports is, in effect, an effort to improve the condition of American workers by denying opportunity to workers in the rest of the world. But when the Teamsters' president, James P. Hoffa, declares, as he did on this page not long ago, that "American workers should not be asked to compete with foreigners who are not paid a living wage," the implications are clear. Given the low productivity of workers in third-world countries, their nations' lack of infrastructure and general lag in development, to insist that such workers be paid what Americans would regard as a living wage is to insist that they price themselves out of their jobs. And that is no accident: any policy that didn't price those workers out of the market would offer no relief to workers here.

There is a sort of tragic inevitability about the way labor has reached this moral impasse. The U.S. labor movement has every right to feel that American workers have gotten a raw deal. By standard measures, the real take-home pay of blue-collar workers is lower now than it was a quarter-century ago. You can quibble with the statistics, but without question blue-collar workers have been largely left behind by the nation's economic growth. And far from fighting this inequality in rewards, policy has in general reinforced it: taxes have become less rather than more progressive, public schools for those who can't afford to live in the right places have gotten worse, and so on.

A well-meaning economist can give you a list of things that might help America's working class: some form of national health insurance, bigger and better wage supplements along the lines of the earned-income tax credit, etc., etc. But if I were a labor leader, I would sneer at my professorial na´vetÚ. You know and I know that such proposals are pipe dreams, that in America today the left, such as it is, has its hands full holding back efforts to tilt the tax-and-benefit system even more toward the interests of the affluent. And the labor movement -- whose influence is far less today than it was even 20 years ago -- is in no position to reverse the political tide.

So what's a labor leader to do? Choose a fight that he might be able to win: a fight to limit imports that compete with the workers he represents. Voters might not see protection as a direct threat to their pocketbooks (though it is). The payoff may be limited -- the arithmetic suggests that even a total ban on manufactured imports from third-world countries would raise blue-collar wages no more than 3 or 4 percent -- but who's counting? And if the target is unattractive enough -- if it is, say, a nasty regime in China -- labor's limited but not negligible lobbying power just might pull off a victory.

In other words, it's understandable that labor has decided that it must try to help American workers by denying opportunity to even needier workers abroad -- while, of course, denying that it is doing any such thing. If I were a labor leader I would probably be a protectionist too. But to understand this political strategy, even to accept its inevitability, is not to approve.

Those who would like easy moral certainties -- which means all of us -- wish that it were simpler, that corporate greed were the only enemy, that people like Mr. Hoffa were standing up for the rights of workers everywhere. It's hard for liberals to admit that the U.S. labor movement, with its noble tradition, is now working against the interests of most of the world's poor. But it is.

Originally published in The New York Times, 5.21.00