Contrary to what her petite figure might suggest, Thea Lee knows how to take charge. As chief international economist for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), she oversees 13 million workers and 58 unions, not including overseas trade unions, and deals with the U.S. government’s labor department and Congress.
“It’s a pretty fun job,” Lee said. Her only grievance is that right now she does not think that the global economy operates fairly, particularly toward workers’ rights.
“Yes, it could be fair,” she said, “but it isn’t fair today.” She argued her views last week in a lecture titled “Globalization as if Workers Mattered: Reforming the Rules of the Global Economy.”
The main problems with globalization, according to Lee, concern trade unions that include mostly high-ranking CEOs and only one labor, one environmental and one consumer representative.
She described a typical trade union agreement as a “corporate sleepover,” in which CEOs bring “wish list(s)” that benefit only their companies and ignore workers’ rights and the environment.
The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), created 11 years ago among the United States, Canada and Mexico, is one agreement Lee considers unfair. Although the agreement thoroughly protects corporations, she said the workers’ rights piece is “weak.”
Another agreement that Lee cites as not “having a lot of teeth” is the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) trade agreement of 1998.
This is in spite of the fact that the 175-section document gives workers freedoms of association, collective bargaining and union formation. It also forbids child labor, forced labor and discrimination.
However, Lee believes “fundamental human rights” are missing from the agreement. There are no parts that mention minimum wage, hours or health and safety regulations. “You can’t deal with it when you feel like it,” she said. “It shouldn’t be okay to compete in the global economy and ignore workers’ rights. It is a kind of competition that is destructive.”
“We are part of the global economy,” Lee said. “We can’t go back.”
She said she believes that since the United States is immersed in globalization, it must get “the right set of rules.”
Lee left her audience with two reasons for reforming trade agreements in the world of globalization.
One is for the sake of “morality” and “human dignity,” because workers with higher wages become consumers, creating more demand and helping the economy.
She said the second is because it is simply inefficient to use child or slave labor in the long run.
A voice for workers creates “good jobs and wages,” giving them a role in the global economy, while also creating political strength, democracy and stability, Lee added.
Professors and students alike said they learned a lot from Lee’s presentation.
“She showed the important role politics can play in making the global economy more productive, as well as fair,” Brian Potter, assistant professor of political science, said.
Dan Garcia, freshman history and secondary education major, said Lee helped him choose his position on the argument of globalization and its effect on certain labor classes.
“The manner in which she presented economic concepts was clear and easy to understand,” Nicole Pfeiffer, freshman English and international studies major, said. “And I thought the human rights issues she discussed were particularly relevant to current society.”
“Thea Lee’s lecture on labor and globalization was fabulous,” John Landreau, assistant professor of modern languages and women’s and gender studies, said.
Still, some found her thoughts on the global economy to be gloomy and pessimistic. In response to this, Lee said, “Well, it’s a little bit gloomy but, long term, it’s a positive vision. So let’s do this right.”