Unions Gear Up For New Fast Track Fight

COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS PRESIDENT LARRY COHEN told senators that trade promotion authority – also known as “fast track” – in the form President Obama favors would cost workers jobs and income.  Photo courtesy CWA for PAI Photo Service.

senators that trade promotion authority – also known as “fast track” – in the
form President Obama favors would cost workers jobs and income. Photo courtesy CWA for PAI Photo

WASHINGTON —Unions are gearing up for yet another fight over so-called “fast track,” also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), which would let Democratic President Barack Obama jam through trade treaties with European and Asian nations without worker rights or protections for citizens and consumers.

The calls to action come even before Obama includes fast track in his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 28.  That’s because the leaders of the two congressional trade committees, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., dropped fast track legislation in the hopper on Jan. 9.

Baucus’ Finance Committee held a Jan.16 hearing on the measure.  There, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen testified that fast track, as the two lawmakers wrote it, would harm workers and cost jobs (see separate story).

The Baucus-Camp fast track bill shuts workers and their allies out of negotiating or approving trade treaties.  It gives lawmakers only one up-or-down vote in each house of Congress on laws to implement the pacts, regardless of what the treaties say.  And it says laws implementing the treaties need only a majority vote, after little debate.

That’s not kosher, workers reply.  “We need to have trade policies that give American workers a fair chance, and that create jobs, rather than lose jobs, as in the past,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told a telephone press conference Jan. 14.

“America lost nearly 700,000 jobs because of NAFTA,” to choose a harmful pact negotiated under fast track, 20 years ago, Teamsters President James Hoffa added in a mobilizing statement.  “Jobs have been shipped across borders, gutting the middle class.  We can’t make that same mistake again.  Corporate America loves to tout the growth in trade due to NAFTA.  But those dollars have largely gone into the pockets of top executives.”

Baucus, Camp and Obama want a fast track law to let the president’s trade representative negotiate trade pacts in secret.  Congress would have to vote on the laws implementing them, not the pacts themselves, within 90 days.  There would be limited debate.  Changes, including changes to enforce worker rights, are barred.

Obama’s fast track would grandfather in two trade pacts he’s negotiating right now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Asian nations, including Japan but not China, and a pact with the European Union, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s TradeWatch, told the Women’s National Democratic Club on Jan. 14.

“Fast track allows transformation of trade treaties into a whole set of policies” trashing everything from workers’ rights to the environment to Buy American laws to regulating financial finagling, she said.  And it’s set up so that citizens, workers and consumers could not fight back against its pro-corporate rulings.

Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, Communications Workers President Cohen and Teamsters President Hoffa are taking the lead in mobilizing members against fast track.

“This is the wrong proposal at the wrong time,” Gerard said in a statement calling his members to action.  “It is wrong for American workers and will only continue to take us further down the road in the wrong direction.  Why on earth would we want to simply continue doing things the old way, when it’s resulted in rising trade deficits, more manufacturing job losses and greater income inequality?

“It’s time for a new approach to trade.  Today’s trade policies have fueled historic trade deficits and left our trading partners with bags of U.S. dollars and millions of American jobs.  More of the same will only yield more outsourced and off-shored jobs and shattered dreams.”

Organized labor and pro-worker congressional Democrats have an alternative to fast track, calling for fair trade, with U.S. bargaining objectives written into law as mandatory orders to trade negotiators, with ensuring worker rights among those objectives, and with congressional approval – in advance – of whom we negotiate with.

By contrast, Cohen says, fast track would let the U.S. negotiate and sign a trade pact – the TPP — with Vietnam, among other nations.  In Vietnam, the average hourly wage is 75 cents and the minimum wage is 28 cents.

“Fast track is the wrong track when it comes to a trade deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that will affect our laws, our jobs, our food and our environment,” Cohen added.  “Fast track forces Congress to give up its constitutional right to amend and improve this trade deal, which now is reportedly more than 1,000 pages long.”

Wallach told Democratic club – whose members were skeptical of fast track – that most of the TPP pact, which fast track would allow, has nothing to do with trade.

But it would do things like abolish Buy American laws, and let multi-national corporations challenge any federal, state or local law that might restrain present or future profits from trade.  A secret tribunal of three trade lawyers would hear such challenges, and there would be no appeal from their rulings, she said.

That secrecy is in line with how the Obama administration, like other presidents, Democratic and Republican, have negotiated past trade pacts, starting with NAFTA.

“For nearly four years, the U.S. Trade Representative and TPP negotiators have purposely restricted participation and information, keeping Congress and citizen groups, unions, environmental and consumer organizations in the dark,” Cohen continued.

“There has been no opportunity for public interest groups to meaningfully participate in the negotiations, and under fast track, there will be no opportunity for our elected representatives to amend the deal and make it better for Americans.

“Fixing any one problem with fast track at this late date is not the solution.  As important as workers’ rights, environmental standards, consumer issues, job loss or currency manipulation might be, fast track should be rejected, not tinkered with.  None of us who focus on those issues had any input into this fast track legislation and this in itself is as serious as the glaring deficiencies.”

Baucus and Camp say they’re opening up the procedures slightly to input from lawmakers, but Gerard said they aren’t.  “New procedures and greater transparency cannot undo the damage that is being done by trade policies” such as open trade with China and Korea, he retorted.  Korean free trade alone has cost 45,000 U.S. jobs in just its first year, Cohen told senators.

“Our negotiators should not be able to pick and choose which negotiating object-ives are important and which to ignore, and no trade agreement should be protected if it fails to achieve all of the objectives,” including protecting worker rights, Gerard said.

Wallach said the way to stop TPP and other such bad trade pacts is to stop fast track first.  Without it, she said, Obama can’t get the “free trade” pacts, or more precisely the laws implementing them, through Congress.  That’s because citizens have learned the lessons of bad trade deals, starting with NAFTA, Wallach said.

“Free trade has become the vehicle for every kind of rotten, knuckle-dragging, Dracula-like policy” that corporations want “to stuff into” the trade pacts, she explained.  Those policies are framed by the 600 corporate “advisors” now sitting in on U.S. negotiations on the TPP.   There are 14 union reps and two environmentalists.

While unions gear up, a growing number of lawmakers oppose fast track.  Marshaled by influential Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., three-fourths of the House Democratic Caucus – 151 – already wrote to Obama against it.  So have 28 Republicans, many of them Tea Party members who hate the president.

TPP’s harm may be the tipping point, Wallach says.  “You have to have a majority willing to stop a trade agreement to stop fast track,” she concluded.

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer