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Defeat labor but address concerns

Published Sep. 27, 2005

At stake in next week's vote by Congress over whether to grant China Permanent Normalized Trade Relations is not just the future of U.S.-Chinese relations but also the future of the Democratic Party.

Let's be honest, we have a bizarre situation here that can't go on indefinitely for the Democrats: We have the leadership of the Democratic Party, including the president, at war with its rank-and-file labor union base. Labor is now spending millions of dollars on a nationwide jihad to kill what would be one of President Clinton's most important foreign policy achievements: bringing China's 1.3 billion people under the rules of the World Trade Organization and into a long-term open-trading relationship with the United States.

There is only one way to heal this breach in the Democratic Party, and that is, first, for labor to be thoroughly defeated on this China vote.

Because only once this deal is passed, only once one-fifth of humanity _ the Chinese people _ have been brought into the WTO and into an open-ended trading arrangement with the United States, will labor's leadership have to conclude that it is time to stop fighting over whether we globalize and to start focusing instead on how we globalize. Labor then might finally put forward a positive global agenda that addresses how to strengthen U.S. workers _ other than by pushing trade barriers. Labor's failure to do that up to now has only been eroding its own power and put it in a reactionary corner with Pat Buchanan.

But while defeating labor on this issue is necessary, it's not sufficient. As dangerous as losing this China trade bill would be for the Democratic Party, and the country as a whole, equally dangerous would be if the winners treat victory as a final victory against all the forces uncomfortable with globalization, and therefore a free pass to forget the concerns about free trade.

I disagree with labor's stand on China, but the zeal with which labor's rank-and-file have fought , and the passive support the unions clearly have around the country, underscore that there are real anxieties out there _ about globalization, about losing manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries, about people feeling that they are not winning from this new economy the way they would like _ that would be reckless to ignore.

If at this time of rising prosperity in the country as a whole, with unemployment at record lows for all sectors of the population, a bill to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China can only win by one vote, then, folks, we have a problem. Imagine what will happen when we have our next, inevitable, recession and unemployment really rises. There could be a ferocious backlash against all these free-trade initiatives and a mass move to put back the walls.

That's why now is the time to be addressing the anxieties and myths about globalization. That is what a united, progressive Democratic Party agenda should be about. But while progressive politics requires a labor base that is ready to embrace the new economy, it also requires business and government leaders ready to finance the training programs, health-care reforms, public-education programs and labor laws that give workers the security to try to master change rather than stop it, and to open up, rather than hunker down.

Right after this vote, if labor loses, would be the ideal time for a labor-government-business conference in which government and business say to labor: Look, we know you have concerns; what can we do to address them without putting up walls?

I believe you dare not be a globalizer in this world (and this is business' mistake), an advocate of free trade and integration, without also being a social democrat, ready to spend what it takes to bring the have-nots, know-nots and left-behinds along _ otherwise they will eventually shut the doors on you. But you dare not be a social democrat today (and this is labor's mistake) without also being a globalizer, because without embracing globalization and free trade you will never have all the resources, markets, immigrants and knowledge needed to keep generating rising incomes to redistribute.

The trick is finding the right balance. Defeating labor on this China bill is necessary for that, but it will be sufficient only if the winners also draw the right conclusions.

+ Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist. +

New York Times News Service