OPINION: The coronavirus economy: Labor got it right


Financial Secretary
UAW Local 2250

In the spring of the year 2000, America’s largest federation of Labor unions – the AFL-CIO, held a national protest of the proposed Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China. This legislation was essential for China to be admitted as a full member of the World Trade Organization.

At the time of this vote the U.S. had the ability to conduct an annual review and renewal of our trade relationship with China. This leverage to quickly address problems was a powerful reason the Labor Movement opposed PNTR for China.

When China began dumping steel, tires, and numerous other products, this could be addressed when it happened. Once China became a member of the WTO, the remedy could take several years to work its way through the system and be implemented.

Jobs were a primary reason that Labor opposed PNTR for China. The AFL-CIO contended the primary economic consequence of this legislation would be to encourage more U.S. investment in low-wage production in China. This would be followed by a massive increase in the trade deficit and equally large loss of American jobs.

How has the coronavirus economy proven Labor was correct in these positions?

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been in short supply since the pandemic reached our shores. N95 rated face masks are a vital piece of protection for first responders. At the time of this crisis America manufactured a very small percentage of the needed N95 masks. Most are imported from China.
  • Pharmaceuticals are another soft spot in the American economy. According to the Coalition for a Prosperous America, the last 20 years have seen U.S. pharmaceutical companies outsource large segments of their manufacturing. America currently imports 95 percent of its ibuprofen and 70 percent of acetaminophen from China.

In recent congressional testimony Rosemary Gibson testified that three commonly used antibiotics – azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, and piperacillin – now depend on ingredients only manufactured in China.

Since 2010, the U.S. has lost $66 billion in pharmaceutical production to imports.

These are just some examples that confirm the objections of the AFL-CIO to PNTR for China. If we had maintained an annual review of trade practices the loss of millions of jobs and important segments of our manufacturing base could have been prevented.

In the spring of 2000 I joined a busload of my UAW co-workers and busloads of other union members from St. Louis and rode to Washington, D.C. to protest on the Capitol steps.

We lost that vote and as it turns out, today’s crisis shows America lost too. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass PNTR for China 237-197 – 164 Republicans and 73 Democrats supported its passage, while 57 Republicans and 138 Democrats opposed. On Dec. 27, 2001 President George W. Bush signed PNTR for China into law.

While hindsight is always 20/20 it should be acknowledged that while many Americans are battling a virus without the proper supplies and equipment, it didn’t have to be this way. Labor had foresight then and had it prevailed would have saved manufacturing, jobs, and even lives!


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