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Latest News - April 2015

April 20, 2015
AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka explains why labor unions hate Obama's trade deal
Source: VOX
By: Danielle Kurtzleben

Richard Trumka truly hates the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Once you get him talking about the massive trade deal, the head of the AFL-CIO is by turns furious and incredulous that it could soon be in force. Even when he's not talking, he's voicing his opposition — when he shows you photos of his grandson, it's impossible to miss the sticker emblazoned in big letters on the back of his phone: "STOP FAST TRACK," in opposition to the bill the Obama administration wants Congress to pass in order to ease the passage of the trade pact.

The TPP has created some strange bedfellows: the Obama administration has found itself with many GOP allies in promoting the trade deal, while unions and liberals like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders staunchly oppose it. Vox spoke with Trumka recently about why he opposes the pact and what he thinks needs to be done to fix it.

What unions want from the TPP

The AFL-CIO has a variety of problems with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, problems with both the substance of the agreement and the process by which it is being negotiated. When I asked Trumka to lay out these basics for me, he listed his main concerns:

"One, it fails to address currency manipulation. Currency manipulation ... has or will cost us between 2.3 million and 5.8 million jobs. China leads that group. Twenty countries have been determined to have manipulated their currency. And yet there's nothing in the agreement to stop it. So all of the benefits they claim we could get from TPP, even if you assume every one of the benefits is right, could be wiped out the next day by a country manipulating its currency, to negate all this.

"Two, it has the ISDS [investor-state dispute settlement] secret tribunals that are only available to foreign investors, and it thus encourages people to send jobs and money offshore. Because think about this: people invested here in the past because we had a safe, defined system and a rule of law. If they can now get that in Vietnam because of ISDS, they will send their money to Vietnam and send their products back here. The reason why countries would develop a rule of law is because of the pressure of non-investment. This eliminates that pressure, so it would slow down the migration in these countries to a real rule of law.

"Same with environmental standards. It fails to address climate change in any way, so that encourages people to go outside. Here's why: if it doesn’t have the same targets or the same cooperative agreements that are just as strong as the US-China bilateral deal, it encourages them to go elsewhere so they don’t have to comply with our carbon emissions standards in this country.

"It also fails to help create jobs here because it doesn’t have strong rules of origin," Trumka says. In other words, Trumka fears that Chinese companies could put factories in a TPP country like Vietnam or ship raw materials to a TPP country for assembly, which would give China the preferential access to US markets provided by the TPP without having to follow the TPP itself.

"It prohibits things like Buy American policies. Say the taxpayers in Minneapolis decide they want to use their money to do something and they want to make it a Minnesota product, that violates this trade agreement, and it can be negated.

"And the last thing is transparency. This is an agreement that’s going to cover 40 percent of the world’s GDP. It’s going to be NAFTA and [the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement] on steroids. And yet they want to be able to do it in secret, plunk it down, and have Congress vote up or down with no amendments," says Trumka.

The effort to stop fast-track

The AFL-CIO's PACs recently stopped all donations to Congress members' campaigns as a way to protest Trade Promotion Authority, also known as "fast-track." The legislation would also pledge Congress to only give the pact an up-or-down vote, without amending it, once the 12 countries in the TPP reach a final agreement. The legislation would also establish guidelines the Obama administration would have to follow in negotiating

Trumka explains that the donation freeze is not only about drawing attention to the fight but about making the most of the AFL-CIO's financial power.

"We did it so we could conserve all the resources that we would normally give out for the fight against fast track and against TPP. So whenever the fight’s over, whatever's left, we’ll open our PACs up again," he says, regardless of how Congress ends up voting on TPA.

Trumka adds that he thinks it has been a successful strategy so far: "I think it’s gotten people’s attention that this is a serious issue to us, that we’re taking it seriously and we are going to fight as hard as we can because the stakes are so high and there’s so much for the American worker to lose."

He also says the AFL-CIO is not opposed to all trade liberalization; rather, it's opposed to ones they consider detrimental to workers' interests: "We’re opposed to bad trade deals, not trade deals."

I pushed back on his opposition to fast-track, pointing out that it could be too hard to negotiate a trade deal with other countries if they knew Congress could change the deal after the fact.

"I get the argument. But Bill Clinton didn’t have fast-track. And he negotiated a whole string of agreements," Trumka said.

When Trumka refers to a "string of agreements," he is in fact talking about one agreement: the Jordan Free Trade Agreement, which Congress approved in 2000.

It's true that Clinton didn't have fast-track authority for much of his presidency, but he did have it at the start, and that is when he negotiated (and Congress passed) NAFTA, the biggest trade agreement of his presidency. After fast-track expired in mid-1994, Clinton pushed for TPA to be reapproved, to no avail.

But Trumka's bigger problem with fast-track is that he considers it undemocratic.

"If you can’t get it passed because people get to debate it and amend it, then it’s probably a bad piece of legislation that shouldn’t be passed, because it doesn’t meet the needs of the American people," he said. "[The administration’s] whole theory is that any agreement is better than no agreement. And that’s simply not the truth."

In fact, Trumka says the AFL-CIO wouldn't accept fast-track under any circumstances. When I asked him if his organization would approve of TPA if the pact contained everything that unions wanted, he gave an emphatic no:

"We’re opposed to fast track. It’s too important a decision and it affects too many lives of too many people for too long to be done in the dark and then plunk something out of the dark, a thousand-page treaty, and say, 'Vote it up or down with no amendments.' We think that’s the most undemocratic thing you can do. We think that’s dangerous."

 

 


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