Juan Williams: Democrats must show unions tough love on trade

Juan Williams: Democrats must show unions tough love on trade
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In love affairs, sentimental feelings are welcome. In Washington politics, however, they lead to pandering. And pandering is the only way to explain why most Congressional Democrats remain opposed to a new foreign trade deal.

Out of sentimentality, most Democrats are reluctant to give the straight truth to their union allies: Global trade is a reality and manufacturing jobs are not the future of the American economy.


It is easy to understand the Democrats’ impulse to sentimentality. Income inequality is stirring populist nostalgia for the 1950s. That’s when big labor had the power to produce the world’s best pay and benefits, and spurred the growth of the American middle class.

Fast forward to today: The American labor movement is taking a beating. Membership in private sector unions has fallen to the point where it is vanishingly small. Republicans and their corporate backers are expanding right-to-work laws in statehouses as part of a broader anti-union agenda, which also includes assaults on paycheck deductions for union dues and on the right to organize. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s rise to the upper ranks of the GOP presidential field is rooted in his success in weakening Wisconsin's public sector unions, thereby reducing their ability to fund Democrats.

There is no question that America's unions need friends with political firepower right now.

But friends ought not to encourage delusions by pandering.

The harsh reality is that few Americans hear a factory whistle in the 21st century. 

The steady, good-paying jobs in the country go to highly educated people able to compete in the financial industry, in Hollywood, in business creation, technology, pharmaceuticals and medicine. These are not highly unionized fields. 

This spring's college graduates are unlikely to ever walk into a union hall. That has been true for more than forty years.

Factory owners, often pushed by big hedge funds, have outsourced jobs, if not whole operations, to nations with low-wage workers. This trend is long past the point of no return. Among the factories still here, as of 2011 only 11 percent of U.S. manufacturing jobs remained unionized, according to CNN Money.

This is where sentiment gets in the way. 

Democrats in Congress don't want to hurt the already-damaged feelings of union leaders by telling them that opposition to a global trade deal is not going to bring back their glory days.

What the labor movement needs from political friends right now is a hard-nosed intervention. Politicians who care have to set off the alarm to wake up unions to the need to reinvent themselves as a force in a global economy. 

Look at the polling. Gallup has a clear majority of Americans backing “foreign trade as an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports.” The poll found 33 percent opposed to increasing overseas trade because of the “threat to the economy from foreign imports.” Gallup also reports that opposition to increased foreign trade is near a 20-year low.

American workers, struggling with stagnant wages, are shouting for unions to adopt a new approach focused on negotiating the best trade deal to bring more high-paying jobs to the United States.

"Globalization is happening with or without trade agreements," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial last week supporting President Obama's push for Congress to give him fast track authority to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with 11, mostly Asian, countries.

And there is no doubt about the benefits of increased trade for American workers. 

Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanOn The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report MORE, the U.S. Trade Representative, recently told doubting Democrats that, since 2009, American exports have increased by almost 50 percent, an expansion that is responsible for about a third of the nation's economic growth during that time. 

"At a time when too many workers haven't seen their paychecks grow in much too long, these jobs typically pay up to 18 percent more on average than non-export related jobs," Froman told the Senate Finance Committee in January.

Froman went back to the Finance committee earlier this month to make it clear that a new trade deal will create new markets for American products, increasing the already positive bottom line that export has had for the most vital parts of the modern American economy.

President Obama, in a February radio address, delivered the same tough-love message for sentimental Democrats when he said "95 percent of the world's potential customers live outside our borders." 

At a press conference this month, the president was direct with the unions again when he said the biggest markets for American goods in the coming years will be in Asia. Without a trade deal incorporating rules that benefit American business and their workers, "then China will set up rules that advantage Chinese workers, and Chinese businesses,” Obama added.

Leading Democrats from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have not said yes or no to a trade deal out of sentimental concern for the feelings of the beleaguered labor movement. But labor’s revival is only possible if Democrats stop being so nice.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.