As I have been saying, even though we are facing a government of deplorables led by likely Attorney General Nathan Bedford Forrest and are naturally going to be fighting against the horrors to come, such as Meryl Streep speaking out against Trump which clearly shows that Jacobin will be leading the anti-fascist fight, we also must continue to articulate the world we want to see. And as the left has struggled to articulate a solid vision on trade in an era of globalization, we need to work on that too in order to counter the capitalists and the simplistic nationalistic narratives that pass for the trade agenda on large parts of the left. I have an essay in the new print issue of Dissent titled “A Left Vision for Trade” that expands upon what I wrote in Out of Sight to articulate more thoroughly what the national and international mechanisms for containing capital mobility and ensuring international labor and environmental rights would look like. You can read the intro to it above, but it is behind the paywall. I want you to subscribe to Dissent so you can read it, but I also want to include some of the meatier material here as well. Here is a small piece of that.
The first step in addressing these deficiencies would be to pass a new law that I call the Corporate Accountability Act, which would bind U.S. companies wherever they operate, whether at home or abroad. Such a law would need to include a regulatory function to monitor and punish recalcitrant corporations, set basic pollution and workplace standards, mandate living wages based upon the location of the factory, and ban the physical punishment of workers and violence against union organizers, among other things. Perhaps most importantly, it would seek to make corporations legally responsible for their supply chains, forcing companies like Walmart and Target to be accountable for conditions in their factories, wherever they are located.
Of course, another law does not solve the problem of enforcement. One way to do this is to open American courts for workers and citizens overseas to demand the enforcement of American treaties and laws. Specifically, activists should argue for the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) of 1789, which would allow corporations who violate the human rights of their workers abroad to be tried in U.S courts. Under the provisions of this law, U.S. district courts have the right to hear claims from foreign citizens if they have suffered from actions “in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In Filártiga v. Peña-Irala in 1980, a U.S. court ruled that a Paraguayan national could use the ATCA to sue another Paraguayan living in the United States for torturing him during that nation’s dictatorship. This opened the door to a series of cases being tried in U.S. courts for crimes committed abroad.
In 2013 in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, when Nigerians sued foreign oil companies for aiding their government in torturing and killing civilians protesting oil exploration, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the oil companies, claiming the suit did not involve U.S. companies and therefore had no place in U.S. courts. But there is nothing in that decision closing the door to suits against American companies operating overseas, although legally it remains unclear whether this would also enable suing companies within supply chains. There are significant possibilities here for using this law to shape a global regulatory regime for companies who want to sell their goods in the United States.
Even though Trump and congressional Republicans are unlikely to support a new law such as the one above, interpret the ATCA generously, or appoint justices who will side with workers over oil companies, we must encourage leading politicians on fair trade, like Senator Sherrod Brown, to repeatedly introduce such initiatives, build support for them among Democrats, and dare Republicans to vote them down. Such an exercise would mark clear distinctions between the positions of Democrats and Republicans on trade and the economy. The Trump era will end, and when it does, our organizations and movements must be prepared with a clear vision and proposals for how corporations will be held accountable and workers will be protected, not just in the United States, but abroad too.
Organized labor in this country has often struggled to build international solidarity. Foreign or immigrant workers have frequently served as targets of hate for many American workers for the last two centuries. In 2016, this contributed to the high number of union members who voted for Donald Trump. (Exit polls showed only 51 percent of union households voted for Hillary Clinton, the lowest number for a Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984.) Looking ahead, the American labor movement will need to see the world’s workers as allies and reject the divisive rhetoric that puts the workers of different nations at loggerheads. Breaking out of the constraints of national frameworks and matching corporations by forming an international movement for a more equitable global economy is an essential part of challenging this nativism. Encouraging foreign workers to seek redress in American courts can be a central part of that strategy.