AFL-CIO's Nesbitt argues against fast-track trade scheme

On Dec. 6, President George W. Bush won, by one vote, House approval for "fast-track" authority to negotiate new free trade agreements. But the debate over free trade is far from over. The U.S. Senate has yet to approve fast track, and any agreement Bush negotiates expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire Western Hemisphere would likely be the subject of ferocious debate in Congress.

That debate took place in miniature at a northeast Portland church Feb. 12, when Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt joined environmental lawyer Brent Foster to debate trade lawyer Walter Evans III, a supporter of NAFTA and other corporate-crafted trade agreements.

The debate was moderated by Portland State University professor Barbara Dudley, and was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, which is considering adopting a new policy statement on trade.

Dudley said despite the appearance in the news that the issue is "free trade versus protectionism," the current debate about trade is no longer about tariff protections for American industries. In the last 50 years, tariffs have already been lowered, through a process set up by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), from an average of 40 percent to an average of 4 percent. Instead, today's trade policy debate is over "non-tariff barriers to trade." These are things like government regulations or laws designed to protect consumer safety, worker rights, or environmental health. In the '80s and '90s, corporations pushed for and won the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and new treaties like NAFTA, that enabled foreign investors to challenge such laws if they interfered with their profits.

The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a 34-nation agreement now the subject of secret negotiations, would be like a NAFTA for the entire Western Hemisphere, except that it would expand rights for investors even further.

"I'm not going to defend the WTO as it stands today," said Evans, an attorney with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, who chairs the Trade Policy Committee of the Pacific Northwest International Trade Association. Evans conceded that the WTO and NAFTA may go too far in permitting corporate challenges to important public protections, but said that he is committed to working to fix their flaws.

"Walt says he's fixing it," Nesbitt responded, "but there's nothing coming down the pipeline that would fix it."

If anything, Nesbitt said, the upcoming FTAA negotiations would make a bad situation even worse. Free trade is a good idea, Nesbitt said, but only when there's a democratically-accountable higher authority that guarantees certain minimum standards. Free trade - between states - has worked to enhance prosperity in the United States, for example. But that's not the model being applied in the new breed of corporate-led international negotiations. In these negotiations, Nesbitt said, trade representatives meet behind closed doors to discuss not freedoms, but rules.

"They're rules for investors. They want rules against rules that don't comply with their rules, " he said. Thus free trade is a misleading term - the question is who will write the rules for the global economic system, and who will benefit from them.

Nesbitt said NAFTA and the other trade agreements have failed to produce jobs for Americans as their backers promised. It's time to set the record straight, he said: As a trade-dependent state, Oregon should be a success-story, according to the formula advocated by NAFTA-supporters; instead, when jobs lost to imports are subtracted from jobs gained from trade, it turns out Oregon has suffered a net loss of 13,400 jobs to NAFTA (and 41,000 jobs to NAFTA and the WTO combined).

If fast track passes the U.S. Senate, the president would have free rein to negotiate the FTAA. Then Congress would have 60 days to accept or reject the agreement, without the possibility of amending it. Negotiators hope to conclude the FTAA agreement by 2005.

Big Business and the Bush Administration cut last-minute backroom deals to persuade enough Republican lawmakers in the House to support fast-track authority. The AFL-CIO countered with its own campaign of phone calling and demonstrations. In Oregon, union members made enough noise that the four Democratic representatives voted against the bill.

Now, the state labor federation is urging calls to Oregon's senators to stop fast track. Senator Ron Wyden can be reached at 503-326-7525 in Portland, 503- 589-4555 in Salem, or 541-858-5122 in Medford. Senator Gordon Smith can be reached at 503-326-3386 in Portland or 541-318-1298 in Medford.

March 1, 2002 issue

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