Who does protectionism protect?
In the wake of Trump’s recent string of tariffs there are debates raging around the world about the merits of protectionism or free trade. These are long standing debates in the history of capitalism from the debates over the Corn Laws in 1840’s Britain, the early Australian electoral contest between the Protectionist Party and the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association, through to today with Donald Trump’s push for protectionism against pretty much all other G20 leaders support for free trade. For as long as this debate has raged amongst the ruling class it has also divided the workers’ movement. But, do workers really have anything to gain from either side?
Donald Trump claims that his protectionist tariffs will bring back jobs to American workers. But the reality simply doesn’t stack up. For example, since 2000 the US steel industry has lost 480,000 jobs. But importantly it still produces the same amount of steel. Most of the steel jobs have been lost due to productivity gains from technological improvement, not lack of import protection. Furthermore, the steel industry in the US has shifted south chasing lower wages in less unionised states, so even the small amount of jobs that the tariffs may bring back will not go to the rust belt workers Trump claims to represent, and certainly won’t be going to the members of United Steel Workers, whose leaders have praised Trump’s trade policy.
Unions in America and Australia have a long history of campaigning for protectionist trade policies as a strategy to defend jobs. Unions tying themselves into campaigns to defend the profits of the bosses, in the hope that some of that will trickle down to their members in jobs is a dead-end strategy. If trickle-down economics doesn’t work with a free trade policy, why would it work under protection? These campaigns merely provide cover for union leaders unwilling to launch the kinds of industrial campaigns that are necessary to defend both jobs and decent wages and conditions.
The most insidious part of protectionist campaigns by unions is that it creates the illusion that workers and bosses have a collective “national interest”. Apparently, workers’ enemies are not the bosses, who exploit them and would throw them onto the scrap heap the moment they can’t make a profit off of them, but instead Chinese workers, who they are apparently in competition with. The conclusions are clear in the United Steel Workers’ statement in response to Trump’s tariffs:
“For the USW, the objective has always been to restore market-based economics that ensure that our domestic producers can achieve a fair return as they invest in facilities, equipment and people, and contribute to the strength of our nation. The objective should also be to reduce the negative impact of steel and aluminum imports that have decimated production in the United States. The tariff levels the president announced will help to achieve that objective.”
This ‘national interest’ is a sham. Workers need to organise against their employers to defend their class interests. They need campaigns that demand job security, decent wages and safe conditions. Class collaborationist campaigns weaken workers’ ability to do this.
So, is free trade the answer then? The “free trade” status quo is how we got here in the first place. The reason that Trump’s calls for ending free trade can have resonance with working class people is because for the last 40 years the free trade that was supposed to be benefiting everyone has left them behind. Inequality in industrialised nations, like the USA and Australia, has increased. Wages have stagnated or fallen, technological changes and downsizing have increased unemployment, and workers’ private debt levels have increased. Meanwhile the rich have never been richer. On top of this, inequality between the richest and the poorest nations has also increased.
Fundamentally all that these debates really represent are different strategies from different sections of capital over how to get the most profit and screw over rival blocks of capital. They couldn’t give two hoots about the welfare of ordinary people. A race to the top for profits means a race to the bottom for wages. Workers need to stand together in solidarity across national boundaries against their exploiters. Workers should play no part in imperial rivalries. Instead we need to organise to defend working class interests, to push back stagnating wages, to increase workplace health and safety conditions, to stop the cuts to health and education, and defend and expand the welfare system and social safety net. This will take rebuilding our unions as organisations of working class defence, and in order to do this we need independent working class struggle oriented campaigns that don’t line up with a section of the bosses in the hopes of getting some of the scraps that fall from their table.