With NW senators' approval 'Fast track' passes Senate

In what looked like a major defeat for organized labor, the U.S. Senate on May 23 voted 66 to 30 to give the president "fast-track" negotiating authority. All four senators from Oregon and Washington voted for it. "This bill will guarantee that future trade deals perpetuate the flaws of NAFTA by costing Americans jobs, hurting the environment and protecting investor rights over those of citizens and states," said national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney after the vote.

Because labor and environmental groups have had some success in organizing public opposition to "fast track," President George W. Bush changed its name to "trade promotion authority." But the essentials are the same: The U.S. Congress would have to vote up or down any trade and investment agreement the president negotiated - without amending it - within 60 days of its being introduced.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico was passed in 1992 under such rules. Both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations have taken part in negotiations to expand NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere. Fast track speeds this up, because foreign negotiators know that the agreement they hammer out cannot be modified.

Congress has not granted the president fast-track authority since the last one expired in 1994.

Though touted by backers as leading to jobs in export, a decade of experience suggests that so-called "free trade" agreements are speeding the export of U.S. jobs. Trade agreements in the last decade and a half have been less about eliminating tariffs, which are already low, than about regularizing business conditions abroad, and giving corporations a set of "rights."

Negotiators have focused on eliminating "non-tariff" barriers to trade, such as regulations intended to protect consumers and the environment, or rules that give preference to local companies. At no time in these negotiations have workers' rights been fought for by U.S. negotiators, with the result that the agreements simply make it more attractive for U.S. corporations to "invest" abroad, particularly in building factories or subcontracting to foreign companies the production of goods that were formerly manufactured by better-paid U.S. workers.

The new fast-track bill, at the insistence of Senator Phil Gramm, R-Texas, specifically forbids U.S. negotiators from including enforceable workers' rights provisions in the text of future trade and investment treaties.

In some ways, however, the fast track bill that cleared the Senate was a setback for President Bush. It took much longer than predicted for the bill to be brought up in the Senate. And in the two weeks that it was debated, numerous amendments were proposed, and several passed, including:

* An amendment by Senators Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Mark Dayton, D-Minn., that would give Congress the right to seek a separate vote on any provision in an agreement that would weaken American laws that penalize "dumping" and foreign trade subsidies. The Bush Administration has threatened to veto the bill if this remains in the final package. It passed 61 to 38, with all four Northwest senators voting in favor.

* An amendment sponsored by Senator John Edwards, D-North Carolina, to expand an existing program of financial aid to U.S. workers displaced by trade-related plant closures - by extending its protection to textile workers, adding 26 weeks of unemployment coverage to the current 52, and by adding a new subsidy that would pay 70 percent of the health costs of all trade-displaced workers. It passed 66 to 33.

* An amendment by Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to declare that protecting human rights would be a principal negotiating objective of future trade talks. Though largely symbolic, the amendment passed 53 to 42, with the support of all four Pacific Northwest senators.

During the several weeks of debate, numerous other amendments were introduced but defeated, including an attempt to protect essential services like Social Security from being privatized in future trade agreements, an attempt to get a ban on foreign companies calling U.S. labor or environmental laws "trade barriers" in U.S. courts, several attempts to get enforceable labor rights protections into future treaties, and several proposals to pay for health care or give temporary mortgage assistance for steelworkers and others thrown out of work by trade.

Oregon Senators Gordon Smith, a Republican, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat, differed on several of these votes. But, said Oregon AFL-CIO Research Director Lynn-Marie Crider, from labor's perspective, no amount of assistance for displaced workers would make it okay to vote for the bill that displaced them.

In a visit to Washington, D.C., prior to the Senate debate, Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt made it clear to Smith and Wyden that the union federation's top priority was defeating fast track outright. The senators' votes were a disappointment, but not a surprise.

"Ron Wyden refuses to believe we've lost any jobs to trade in Oregon," Crider said.

Forty-one Republicans, 24 Democrats and one Independent voted for the final bill, while five Republicans and 25 Democrats voted against it. However, the Senate bill is different enough from a House bill that the two bodies will have to resolve the differences in a conference committee and return it to the House for a second vote. Fast track passed the House by a single vote in December, at a time when the nation's attention was focused on the war in Afghanistan. Oregon Republican Greg Walden voted for it, while Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Darlene Hooley and David Wu voted against it, as did Southwest Washington Democrat Brian Baird. Fast-track opponents have some hope that it can be defeated when it comes up again in the House.

It's likely to come up quickly. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said he was ready to begin talks immediately so the bill can be signed into law before July 4.

Witt said the Oregon AFL-CIO is calling on union members to call their members of Congress now to ask them to vote against fast track.

June 7, 2002 issue

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