Should socialists opppose free trade? A response to an Alliance activist

With the signing of the recent FTA with China, the debate over the issue of free trade has been reignited among workers and left-wing political activists in New Zealand.

Many left union officials and members of political parties such as the Alliance have argued that immigration controls and tariffs must be retained to protect NZ jobs and businesses from being undercut by foreign competition.

By contrast the Workers Party strongly believes that this kind of economic protectionism is a poison which only serves to divide the international working class and encourages illusions in the “progressive” nature of local capitalists. We argue that the solution to NZ companies closing down production and laying off workers is not protectionism, but instead a militant union-led campaign to occupy all those businesses threatened with closure and keep them running under workers’ control.

Below we reprint an interview from 2004, in which Workers Party and Spark editorial board member Don Franks responds to a series of questions from an Alliance Party activist on the question of free trade and the approach that the left should take towards it:

What do you see as the problems or benefits of the free trade agenda in NZ?

The ‘free trade agenda’ is a misnomer. Popular at the moment is the slogan ‘fair trade, not free trade’. It is a fantasy to hold up the goal of ‘fair trade’ under capitalism, for at least two reasons. First, under capitalism, exploitation of workers takes place at the point of production and is built into the system of wage labour. The worker’s labour power sold to the capitalist is different from all other commodities in that it is creative. Labour power produces more value than it takes to maintain itself. But the ‘surplus value’ created is taken by the capitalist, not the worker. Despite recent claims from Council of Trade Unions’ president Ross Wilson, there can be no such thing as “a fair day’s wage for a fair days work” under capitalism. The most fundamental and most common exchange taking place under capitalism is inherently unfair, and will remain so as long as the system stands.

Second, capitalism can only exist as many competing capitals. This competition compels those who possess stored up labour to use it as capital, to try and expand its value by employing workers. The basic dynamic of capitalism is production for production’s sake, accumulation for accumulation’s sake. It is a fantasy to claim that there can be ‘fair trade’ in an anarchic system with built-in exploitation and regular crises of overproduction. The ‘trade’ of capitalism has, throughout its whole history, been a ‘trade’ of the most fierce and barbaric competition, accompanied by despoliation, pollution, social destruction and war. That hideously consistent pattern will not suddenly yield to pleas by uncomfortable intellectuals for ‘fair trade.’ The economic and social problems we face today are not problems of any particular form of trade, they are problems of capitalism itself.

What do you see as short-term solutions to any problems you have identified?

The only short term solutions are for workers to organise collectively to get the best deal they can. There is much room for improvement here. A huge advance would be for unions to ditch the false notion of ‘partnership’ with their exploiters. Various forms of this nonsense disarm the trade union struggle.

‘Partnership’ is a rotten thread weakening the fabric of the whole union movement. Instead, union leaders should be building multi-union campaigns for better wages and conditions. To be effective, these campaigns must move beyond feeble token stuff like sending form letters to MPs. Effective multi-union campaigning for better wages and conditions means building up to strike action and street demonstrations. Such campaigns would attract workers back to unions, as the Unite! union organising drive in the fast food industry is beginning to do. Unity on the ground is the key to all this, meaning that union activists should have as their goal “every site a union site” .

What do you see as long-term solutions to any problems you have identified?

International socialist revolution is the long term solution. The only solution to the problems created by capitalism is the destruction of the capitalist system. The only social force strong enough to destroy capitalism and build a new cooperative system is the international working class. We have seen glimpses of this historic process already. For a few weeks, the Paris Commune of 1871 exercised workers power over a city. For a few years, before the restoration of capitalism in Russia, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 exercised workers power over a country. Today, in every continent of the earth, socialist workers are striving towards the necessary international socialist revolution which will liberate the planet. Eventually, they will prevail.

What would you say to the approximately 150 largely unskilled workers in Palmerston North who are going to lose their jobs in the next three months?

I would say this: Sunbeam workers – through no fault of your own, your livelihood is about to be taken from you. This theft of your livelihood will be presented to you by your employers as a common tragedy which management and staff all suffer. This tale from your employers is bullshit. The company and its bosses will look after themselves as they have always done. They are insulated from the cold wind of unemployment by the wealth that they have gained from exploiting your labour power.

From their safe and comfortable positions they will offer you a few crumbs, perhaps counselling to make you feel better, maybe a day off to look for another job. These offers are insincere. They are made in the hope that you will thankfully be quiet and gratefully take the little scraps that the bosses offer and go away and not bother them anymore. Having made them rich, you are of no further use to them.

Sunbeam workers, the best thing you can do to protect your immediate interests is to brush aside the bosses’ bullshit and kick as hard as you can. One way would be to occupy the factory, demanding that it stay open. That would attract support from pissed off exploited workers all over the country – and also workers overseas. A strong stand such as that would at the very least, be a way to force much higher compensation from the bosses who are tossing you out into the street.

Should this course of action appeal to you, I will be only too pleased to come up to Palmerston and occupy the factory with you.

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