Worker solidarity derails 'fast-track' trade bid

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The power of workers' voices was loud and clear as the U.S. House of Representatives pulled back a "fast-track" trade bill that would have allowed future trade agreements to ride roughshod over labor and environmental standards.

Coordinated by the AFL-CIO, working people logged more than 800,000 phone calls and mailed 750,000 postcards to convince wavering lawmakers to vote to derail fast track, which once was considered a done deal. Fast track gives the president authority to negotiate international trade agreements that Congress must then accept or reject on an all-or-nothing basis.

Many big business leaders lobbied Congress and the public to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada to Chile, and possibly the rest of South America. That trade pact has been a bonanza for American companies looking to move production to where they can pay $5-a-day wages. But it's been a disastrous experiment for workers, according to the national labor federation. Here's why:

Since NAFTA took effect, U.S. overall trade deficit with Mexico and Canada has grown steadily to the point where it reached $39 billion in 1996.

In addition to costing U.S. jobs, NAFTA is endangering the standard of living of all American workers. It's now commonplace for companies to threaten to move work to Mexico when American workers try to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions.

Mexican workers haven't benefited from NAFTA either, despite predictions from NAFTA boosters. They are suffering from widespread unemployment, and the buying power of their wages has plunged by 25 percent.

More maquiladora plants have sprouted up along the border with the U.S., carrying with them especially low wages and lax environmental and labor standards. The much-touted labor side agreement to NAFTA that was supposed to prevent the abuse of workers has proved to be totally ineffective, with no sanctions when worker rights are violated, and it's led to no changes in government policies.

"It would be a tremendous mistake to expand NAFTA to other South American countries," the AFL-CIO said. "It would give multinational corporations more places where they can locate production to take advantage of abysmally low wages and few labor or environmental standards -- which is why they're lobbying hard to expand it."

And why working people opposed it.

"The decision to pull down the fast-track legislation is the first bit of blue sky working Americans have seen in U.S. trade policy in many years," said national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "The American people oppose fast track by a 2 to 1 margin because they see existing trade agreements that don't do enough to protect living standards, or to keep our food and air and water safe. And a majority in the U.S. Congress sided with us."

At the time President Clinton withdrew the bill, GOP leaders were counting between 160 and 170 of the House's 228 Republicans as supporters of the bill, along with 42 of the 205 Democrats. A total of 218 votes would have been needed to assure passage.

According to the AFL-CIO, had a vote been taken, Democrats Darlene Hooley in Oregon's Fifth District and Earl Blumenauer in the Third, and Republican Bob Smith in the Second District, would have supported fast track.

Oregon Democrats Elizabeth Furse of Hillsboro in the First District and Peter DeFazio of Springfield in the Fourth District opposed fast track, with DeFazio leading the charge in opposition. Washington Republican Linda Smith also opposed the bill.

Earlier in the week the U.S. Senate approved fast-track authority with all four senators from the Pacific Northwest -- Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Slade Gorton of Washington supporting fast track.

At a Portland breakfast meeting with union officials days after the fast-track vote was pulled off the agenda and Congress had recessed for the year, Senator Wyden said that President Clinton "didn't do nearly enough to reach out to address labor and environmental questions" on the trade bill.

Clinton accused House members of being more concerned about their own political futures, than about national economic policy, arguing that had the House vote been taken in secret (an oblique reference to the political clout of organized labor), "it would pass overwhelmingly."

Wyden called the president's charges "totally out of line, totally unacceptable."

Wyden said that the next time the fast-track trade bill comes up he would like to look at ways to include language guaranteeing that workers share in any company gains. "There are not enough folks in the winner's circle (under fast track), I'm aware of that," Wyden said. "We've got to broaden that winner's circle."

Sweeney said that Americans understand that the question is not whether we will or should trade, "of course we should. They understand that there is no turning back from our increasingly global economy. But they also understand that how we trade and how we engage with other countries is important."

Sweeney said the AFL-CIO would welcome the opportunity to join with the president, leaders of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and citizens everywhere "to chart a new course of active engagement in the world that reflects our values and leads to economic growth broadly shared by working families."

He suggested continuing efforts to negotiate broad multilateral tariff reduction agreements that open up agricultural and information technology trade.

"We should work with the World Bank and other international financial institutions to ensure that environmental concerns and core labor standards are built into lending decisions. We should continue to negotiate a new international investment agreement that includes protections for people as well as property. And we should negotiate a free-trade agreement with Chile that incorporates workers' rights and environmental standards and ask Congress to approve it," he said.


Nov. 21, 1997 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.