What has the AFL-CIO been thinking all these years? America is a big country, and foreign trade is a secondary issue, which is why the U.S. economy can go on prospering even when whole regions of the world fall into economic panic and disaster. The real problem besetting America's working class is the giant chasm that has opened between the rich and everyone else. The United States used to be a dreamland of social equality compared with Western Europe. We read Tocqueville's Democracy in America because, in turning its pages, our patriotic hearts pound with pride and nostalgia at how astonished a fair-minded Frenchman could be, long ago, upon discovering such an egalitarian society. But, in matters of social equality, Western Europe is not the feudal nightmare it once was. And America may still boast of many things, but social equality is no longer among them.
So why has the American labor movement spent the last seven or eight years fighting with such ferocity against the growth of foreign trade and investment--so much so that trade has become labor's most visible issue--instead of focusing on the much bigger question of domestic inequality? The psychological reason, some people suggest, may be that, in the world of American politics, social inequality is a giant issue, and the AFL-CIO is no longer the giant organization it was in the 1950s. Ours is a conservative age, and it has become a little daunting even to speak about social equality as a democratic ideal. You get hooted at with the words "equality of results," as if nothing were more outrageous.
And so the labor movement, conscious of its weakness, has convinced itself that foreign trade, which is a smaller and easier thing to discuss, must surely be the working class's gravest enemy. And, with that belief in mind, the AFL-CIO duly marched off to war. The war didn't go badly, either, at least psychologically--even if NAFTA did go into effect and China will now become a normal trading partner of the United States. For the labor movement has fought valiantly, and blood has coursed through militant veins, and no one can say anymore that America's unions have mummified into lifeless bureaucracies.
But what would have happened if the AFL-CIO had emphasized a different set of battles? The trade wars have nicely demonstrated that, even at one-third of its size of yore, the AFL-CIO can still mobilize all kinds of people who don't have many other avenues of political participation. You can laugh all you want at the student demonstrators who ran around Seattle and Washington, D.C., denouncing the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the other diabolical agents of globalization. But those were big demonstrations, and the students were in earnest, and plainly they represented a larger, mild-mannered cohort temperamentally disinclined to march in the streets. The whole complicated question of the rights and wrongs of work has become a topic of national discussion, and largely because of the AFL-CIO. So it is not true that, on big public issues, labor is too weak and shrunken to be heard.
I wonder, then, what would have happened if the AFL-CIO had spent these last few years kicking and screaming about social inequality instead of foreign trade. What would have happened if the labor movement had fought as hard for a universal health care bill, when such a thing was on the table, as it fought against NAFTA? The unions have hammered away more quietly on the minimum wage, the right of workers to take leaves, saving Social Security from the vicissitudes of stock-market gambling, and several other excellent issues. But what if the labor movement had melded those issues into a single theme and taken that single theme to the country, not just to Washington, D.C., and pointed to the depleted state of labor law, the semi-ruined condition of the National Labor Relations Board in the post-Reagan years, the plutocratic turn in the Internal Revenue Service, and other sinister developments?
The unions could have shown that social inequality in modern America derives from political decisions, not just impersonal market forces. If labor had talked about the domestic causes of social inequality with the fervor and moral intensity it poured into opposing foreign trade, the tenor of public discussion might be different, and we might be spending this election year arguing about the undemocratic direction that American life has lately taken instead of about sweatshops on the far side of the earth. At least the issue would have been raised.
It's only fair to note, in the AFL-CIO's defense, that all over the world people seem transfixed by the growth of international trade. The real meaning of globalization is a vast new elaboration of the classic division of labor, which has created a lot of new wealth. But nothing about globalization or any other division of labor ensures a proper division of the benefits. I happen to be writing this column in Mexico, a country that, in the age of nafta, has doubled its exports, and whose economy is advancing so quickly that people worry about what is called "overheating." And yet large numbers of Mexicans have ended up poorer than ever.
In Mexico, even more than in the United States, a rise in absolute wealth has been accompanied by a rise in social inequality. And so, in Mexico as in so many other countries, many people assume that foreign trade, not the domestic policy of their own countries, must be the true villain, and that maybe foreign trade ought to be reined in. It's hard to believe, but one day in Mexico City I watched a delegation of Mexican workers from General Motors march down the grand Paseo de la Reforma carrying a banner denouncing nafta. They had their nerve. But people like them are symptomatic of the times.
The real conundrum right now, for Americans and Mexicans and probably half the people on earth, has something in common with the challenge posed by early capitalism and the industrial revolution in England a couple of centuries ago. In those days, too, radical innovations in the division of labor created a genuine increase in overall wealth. Yet peasants sank deeper into poverty. And, just as people did in those times, we can respond today by marching into town and smashing the new economic methods. Or, alternatively, we can do nothing at all, in the benign expectation that everything will turn out for the best in, say, 500 years. Or we can choose a third alternative and actively promote and even admire the new economic efficiency, while also promoting a few serious measures for spreading the benefits. That is what the afl-cio ought to be advocating today, a program for social equality--now that, to everyone's surprise, labor turns out to be rather good at making people think about economics and democracy at the same time.
Paul Berman is author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.