labor Obama Intensifies TPP Push As Critics Worry Trade Deal Will Threaten US Jobs
To Barack Obama, the Trans-Pacific pact will increase trade, strengthen protections for Asian workers and aid international relations.
But opponents of the most important trade deal in a generation - including unions, but also left-leaning Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren – are worried about the impact it will have on US jobs.
And on the right, Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina and others have attacked Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP’s) “secrecy” and the lack of transparency in a deal involving 12 nations accounting for 40% of the world economy.
As a vote to speed adoption of the deal looms on Tuesday, Obama almost seems to be channeling rightwing anti-union firebrands such as Republican governor Scott Walker as he attacks critics of the Trans-Pacific trade pact that he so badly wants.
Irked by Warren’s criticisms of the deal Obama chided his long-time ally for being a “politician” who was making “arguments” that “don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny”.
He has called union leaders and other critics of the deal “dishonest” for saying the Pacific pact was “secret”. He also suggested union leaders were frozen in the past for likening the deal to the two-decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which labor insists was a disaster, costing hundreds of thousands of US manufacturing jobs.
Obama has adopted unusually sharp rhetoric as the Senate prepares to vote Tuesday on whether to approve trade promotion authority or “fast track”, which would speed up the president’s power to complete the pact by giving trade deals an up or down vote and ban amendments or filibusters. Such fast track authority would last six years and would also cover the trade deal - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP - that Obama is seeking to negotiate with the European Union.
Obama has never before attacked his labor allies so vigorously, and some union leaders ask why is he fighting so hard for a deal they say will be a boon to corporate America while doing little to help US workers. Unions have gone all-out to block the deal, warning that they might withhold endorsements from any lawmaker who votes for fast track. And some political analysts say whether Obama wins on fast track, a pivotal fight for him, is too close to call.
In his speech last Friday at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon, Obama said unions have been “fellow travelers” with him on increasing the minimum wage and job training, but he added: “On trade, I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong.
Later the president added: “If I didn’t think this was the right thing to do for working families, I would not be fighting for it.”
To labor, Obama’s choice of Nike headquarters for a major address on trade was dismaying. Nike is often seen as a poster child for all that’s wrong on trade. Not only was Nike a leader in sending production overseas – making more than 90% of its footwear in Asia – but for years, its overseas factories faced revelations about low wages, long hours, dangerous chemicals and bullying bosses. Its factory conditions have improved, but some critics say not nearly enough. (In response to Obama’s Nike speech, labor launched a Twitter campaign against fast track, with the hashtag #JustDontDoIt.)
In his Nike address, Obama admitted that Nafta had led to an exodus of manufacturing jobs and “real displacement and real pain”. But he sought to assure labor – and all Americans – that the Pacific deal would be better, that it would make Nafta’s largely unenforceable labor and environmental provisions “actually enforceable”. Defeating the Pacific pact, he said, would leave Nafta’s weaker, largely unenforceable provisions in place.
Obama warned against torpedoing this trade agreement, saying that protectionism would undercut economies worldwide: “The lesson is not that we pull up the drawbridge and build a moat around ourselves.”
Obama argued TPP would not cost manufacturing jobs because the low-wage jobs that would go to Asia already have gone there. Indeed, Nike says that if a trade deal is reached, that would increase its sales and production, and as a result it would hire thousands more workers in the US for high-wage design and engineering jobs.
But Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the main US union federation, isn’t buying Obama’s arguments. “We don’t want no trade – we want trade that works for this country,” Trumka told the Guardian. As for the supposed improvements in the Pacific deal, he said, “It’s the same tired old labor standards we had with George Bush, with a few trinkets added.”
In a largely toothless side agreement, Nafta’s three signatories – the United States, Mexico and Canada – targeted child labor, minimum-wage violations and occupational safety problems. But Nafta provided little enforcement in those areas, and virtually none on violations of the right to unionize and bargain collectively
Labor unions not in a trusting mood,
Obama is essentially telling labor, trust me, this deal will be better. But America’s labor unions aren’t in a trusting mood, feeling that they have been repeatedly duped on trade deals – deals they say have largely advanced corporate America’s agenda. And they say the Trans-Pacific deal will do big favours for pharmaceutical companies and other US corporations, for instance, by lengthening copyright protections and the monopoly period for newly developed drugs.
Trumka said that in 2008 the AFL-CIO and Guatemalan labor unions filed a complaint under the Central America Free Trade Agreement, asserting the Guatemalan government had allowed repression of union activity as well as intimidation and violence, including the assassination of two union officers. Trumka said that today, seven years later, a dispute settlement panel has not yet heard that case.
Four years ago, Trumka noted, the Obama administration and Colombia – where more than 2,000 trade unionists have been killed over the past three decades –agreed to a “labor action plan” that aimed to bring Colombia into compliance with internationally recognized labor rights. But in the four years since that plan was announced, Trumka said, 100 more Colombian trade unionists have been assassinated.
In 2012, the Obama administration agreed to a trade deal with South Korea, insisting it would increase exports and US jobs by lowering Korean trade barriers. But since then, America’s merchandise trade deficit with Korea has soared 84%, which, according to Public Citizen, translates into a loss of 85,000 jobs.
“This does not engender trust” about labor agreements, Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, wrote recently. “Still, free traders now are huckstering the TPP with promises of job gains.”
Some critics of the trade pact say the White House staff has not done a good job briefing Obama about the deal and its critics’ arguments.
After Senator Warren attacked the trade deal for being negotiated in secrecy and for largely helping multinational corporations, Obama slammed Warren in an interview with Yahoo. He said she was “absolutely wrong” to suggest he would ever sign a trade pact that would unravel the Dodd-Frank provisions that tightened regulations on the nation’s banks.
But Warren had said her fear wasn’t that Obama would weaken Dodd-Frank, but that if Republicans won the White House in 2016, the new president, bowing to Wall Street, might use trade deals to water down Dodd-Frank’s protections.
In late April, Obama angrily told reporters he was upset at those who called the Trans-Pacific pact a secret deal. “Every single one of the critics saying this is a secret deal” he said “could walk over and see the text of the agreement”. But journalists and the public are barred from seeing the agreement, and labor leaders involved in the negotiations are under a security pledge not to disclose details.
Without giving specifics, Trumka said the Pacific pact’s labor protections are too few and don’t have enough teeth. He said the deal badly needs rules to restrict currency manipulation – something the Obama administration says other countries won’t agree to.
Obama boasts that the Pacific deal will provide the best labor protections of any trade deal the United States has ever negotiated. But, labor says, that’s a very low bar. In his Friday speech, Obama said the deal would improve worker protections in Vietnam and other developing countries. Indeed, he argued the Trans-Pacific deal is vital to create a set of tougher, US-blessed rules – rather than leaving the field to China, which might negotiate a trade pact with other Asian countries with lesser labor and environmental protections.
Obama’s argument is that organized labor should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But to America’s unions, that misstates the state of play – they say the deal is a lousy one when the administration should be negotiating a good one.