The union may pay a heavy price for winning its battle in Congress.
Sometimes the old methods work the best. That at least was the impression last week, when the Teamsters, America's legendary truck drivers' union, single-handedly threw a wrench into the works of some of the summer's most important legislation.
Remarkably, the union did not manage this feat by soft, "new labour" politicking, supposedly the modern model for organised labour. It reverted instead to old-fashioned xenophobic scaremongering.
President George W. Bush had planned to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement and allow Mexican trucks access to US highways. The Teamsters fought back by airing tens of thousands of dollars' worth of anti-Mexican radio spots suggesting that reckless vehicles from south of the border would endanger American lives if the plan went through.
"Tell President Bush: slow down, keep our highways safe," said the ads in ominous tones. They went so far as to reinforce the point with the sounds of a car crash. Congress duly complied by allowing current restrictions on Mexican transport to continue - and blocking $60bn in transport funding.
The whole exercise has been cited as evidence that union-style protectionism still sells in America - and evidence that organised labour still has the power to stop trade liberalisation. But there is another way to interpret events: that lawmakers took the Teamsters at their word and were genuinely nervous about safety. After all, we are talking about America here. The average Congressman's living nightmare is for a constituent's child to be killed by a reckless Mexican truck driver the week after the bill passes.
Economic protectionism, in contrast, is no longer the political force on Capitol Hill it once was. As recently as a decade ago, Nafta was still a young concept and the argument that looser borders could take away from domestic employment was considered mainstream.
Ross Perot even managed to disrupt a presidential election - the election of 1992 - with the argument that Nafta would take jobs from American workers. Economists posited that freer trade would expand US growth - but this was ephemeral theory.
Today the gains from free trade are indisputable reality. Trade liberalisation from Nafta and the Uruguay round together have added about $1,300-$2,000 to the income of the average US household. Unemployment has dropped since Nafta was signed in 1993.
These improvements are not lost on most Americans, including many truckers. Since the signing of Nafta, they have seen the number of jobs in their sector of industry, trucking and warehousing, increase by 412,000, or 28 per cent.
Hence the Teamsters' decision to ply the safety angle this summer. The union knew that straightforward protectionist arguments would win about as much support as Pat Buchanan, the protectionist candidate, did in the last presidential election.
But the Teamster coup, seen in this context, may not have been such a coup after all. It could even backfire. Consider how this fit of summer nastiness will affect the Teamsters' year-round preoccupation: winning additional members. Teamster membership, like that of many other unions, has shrunk dramatically over the decades.
Indeed, just a year ago, James Hoffa, the Teamsters' leader, joined other union heads in launching an outreach campaign to persuade Hispanics that they were no longer a white man's club. "We have to recognise that people who come to this country are being exploited and they have a right to join unions," Mr Hoffa told the papers.
Naturally enough, the Teamsters insist that their new pro-immigrant status and their new anti-truck position are not contradictory: "We're not anti-immigration," says the union. The Mexican truckers, in other words, are not immigrants - they are foreigners. But that is not how the matter will play in the Mexican-American community. For Mexican-Americans, more than other immigrant groups, reject the distinction between citizens and non-citizens.
The legal Mexican-American worker in Los Angeles maintains strong family and economic links with both his sister, who may labour illegally as a domestic worker somewhere in an Los Angeles suburb, and his brother down the road in Baja California. What happens to those siblings will affect the way the legal fellow responds when the union organiser comes knocking.
Anyone who doubts this need only recall how Republican anti-immigrant campaigns of the 1990s played out in California: the Grand Old party lost the Hispanic vote there - and with it control of the Golden State.
There will also be political fall-out from the hostile truck campaign. Long ago in the US - long, long ago - xenophobia was a big vote-getter. Today, though, the object of the American political game is winning minority votes, especially those of undecided Hispanics. And Mr Bush has proven adroit at that game: his pro-Nafta campaign position earned him the support of 35 per cent of Hispanics, a high share given that Democrats in recent years have proclaimed themselves as the "party of minorities".
By reverting to old-style nastiness, the Teamsters have given Mr Bush an opening as big as the Grand Canyon to win yet more Hispanic followers and hurt the union's main political ally on protectionism, the left wing of the Democrat party. That is hardly the path to greater influence on Capitol Hill.
All this suggests that future protectionist efforts are not likely to go over well, unless they too come garbed in scary arguments about safety. Unions such as the Teamsters must choose between policies of inclusion and foreigner-bashing if they want to thrive. Which will they pick?
© Copyright 2001 Financial Times
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