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AFL-CIO To File Trade Complaint To President Bush Against China

By Steven Greenhouse and Elizabeth Becker

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The AFL-CIO will file an unusual trade complaint on Tuesday to press President Bush to punish China, which it asserts has gained a commercial advantage through a systematic violation of workers’ rights by suppressing strikes, banning independent trade unions and not enforcing minimum wage laws.

Timed to maximize pressure on Bush as the presidential campaign heats up, the complaint asserts that the United States has lost as many as 727,000 factory jobs because the labor violations it cites artificially lowered China’s production costs and unfairly undercut American companies. The AFL-CIO argues that this illegal repression of workers’ rights translates into a 43 percent cost advantage on average for China.

“This will put the onus on the Bush administration to explain that China is not repressing workers’ rights, and to me that is an extraordinarily difficult case to make,” said James Mann, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The record going back for decades is that China has intensely resisted independent trade unions, and I don’t see how the administration can pretend otherwise.”

This is the first case ever brought under the Trade Act of 1974 that seeks penalties because of violations of workers’ rights. Some trade experts said the complaint could be vulnerable to challenge at the World Trade Organization because global trade rules do not protect labor rights.

Concerned about the loss of nearly 3 million factory jobs in the United States since January 2001, the AFL-CIO is asking Bush to impose punitive taxes of up to 77 percent on China or to persuade China to pledge to halt all such violations against workers’ rights. Union leaders warned that if Bush rejected the complaint, it would anger millions of American workers, especially in Midwestern battleground states where factory workers have been hit especially hard.