Toxic Trade Kills: Government Regulation Essential to Protect Public from Unsafe Imports

With a motorcycle police escort, the United Steelworkers’ “Toxic Trader” puppet lurched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, on his way to the Grand Hyatt Hotel on H Street in Washington, D.C. on July 9.

That is where the Bush administration-backed Import Safety Summit was being conducted by industry leaders and lobbyists who proposed self-instituting standards for safety rather that face government-imposed inspections and regulations to ensure products shipped into this country don’t maim and injure consumers.

On the sidewalk, just outside the Summit, three red-caped Toxic Avengers slew the evil puppet and saved the world. That was the point of the USW’s street theater production, which travels the country to protest unfair trade and so-called free trade deals that export jobs and flood our shores with unsafe imports, from tainted fish to deadly dog food.

Steelworkers also dropped a huge banner inside the Hyatt hotel as the summit ended, telling the participants: “Unfair Trade Kills.” These victims have included a four-year-old boy who was poisoned from swallowing an imported lead pendant that came attached to his shoelace, 81 patients who succumbed after taking contaminated heparin blood thinner imported from Chinese manufacturers, and two Philadelphia carpenters killed in a car crash caused by defective imported tires.

The USW’s puppet and street theater production are part of a long history of steelworker protests against unfair trade that has both endangered the health of U.S. citizens and threatened their livelihoods by shipping their jobs overseas.

The USW launched the Stand Up for Steel campaign to preserve that American industry against unfair foreign imports in 1998. The United Steelworkers union was among the protestors against unregulated so-called free trade in Seattle in 1999 and in Miami in 2003. We helped alert the public to the dangers of lead paint on imported toys last year by conducting a public awareness campaign and handing out lead testing kits. And now we have issued a report, “The Toxic Truth: Unfair Trade Kills,” detailing how the race-to-the-bottom trade policy has destroyed lives, jobs and the environment.

This isn’t about shutting down trade. American workers will compete with the best of them. It’s about fair trade. We want our trade treaties to require respect for environmental and labor laws. As Red Blake, a steelworker who is about to lose his job at a Goodyear tire plant in Tyler, Texas pointed out, he does not want to forfeit his livelihood to a foreign worker who is not protected from toxins and workplace hazards that the USW negotiated for years to ensure that he would be safeguarded against. He does not want to lose his job to a foreign worker who will be paid pennies per hour, and then buy the cheap tires that person makes only to discover later they are substandard and unsafe.

Voluntary standards that industry implements itself will not protect the public in such a situation. Industry must be held accountable. And the Bush administration is far too close to industry lobbyists to be trusted to hold any corporation answerable for anything. That is why the Summit at the Hyatt was disingenuous and deserving of protest.

No one knows how many toxic traitors were inside the Hyatt that day. We only know for sure that there was one Toxic Trader outside. He was slain by the Toxic Avengers. Unfortunately, that was only theater. Good public policy is far harder to accomplish.

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