Oregon lawmakers defy labor on trade

Over the strong objections of organized labor, two new NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)-like trade treaties were approved July 24 by the U.S. House of Representatives: one with Chile, and one with Singapore. The Senate was considered likely to vote on the agreements before Aug. 1, and observers predicted passage.

The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement passed 272 to 155, supported by 197 Republicans and 75 Democrats and opposed by 27 Republicans and 127 Democrats. Among the supporters were Oregon Democratic Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Darlene Hooley, and Republican Greg Walden, and Washington Democratic Representative Brian Baird. Oregon Democrats Peter DeFazio and David Wu voted against it.

Less than an hour later, the House passed the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement 270 to 156. Voting “yes” were 195 Republicans and 75 Democrats; voting “no” were 27 Republicans and 128 Democrats. Blumenauer, Wu and Walden voted in favor of the Chile agreement while DeFazio, Hooley and Baird voted against it.

In a statement issued the following day, Wu explained his split vote, saying that he supports free trade, but that “We ought to have free trade with free people.”

“Chile is a free and open democracy that maintains a strong relationship with the United States,” the First District congressman said. “Singapore, however, is a closed society governed by a single-party authoritarian government. I voted the way I did because I believe we should use our financial leverage to enhance open democracy around the world and not use it to support authoritarian states simply because they have market-based economies.”

Blumenauer also issued a statement explaining his votes for both agreements despite his statement to 85 labor leaders at a July 1 breakfast that he was planning to vote against the Singapore deal. “I was encouraged by steps taken to address concerns that had been raised in the weeks leading to today’s floor vote,” Blumenauer wrote. The treaty in its completed form was signed May 6, and under the “fast-track” rules, Congress was not allowed to make any amendments to it.


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But Blumenauer said his reservations were dealt with in other ways: The bill implementing the treaty spelled out that there could be no expansion without Congress’ approval of a provision that allows Singapore to export, duty-free, electronics products manufactured on two Indonesian islands; and Singapore signed a promise to work to end trade in endangered species and illegal timber.

Baird, too, explained his votes in a written statement. He said he voted against the Chilean agreement because the things Chile is strongest in are things the Northwest produces: timber, salmon, berries and apples. Opening the Chilean market to U.S. products is a fine thing, Baird said, “but the problem we face today isn’t getting our local products into Chilean stores, it is getting U.S. products like raspberries into U.S. stores.”

Baird wrote that Singapore, on the other hand, has one of the highest manufacturing costs in Asia, buys products from several Washington companies, and has no agricultural exports that would compete with growers in his district. So he voted for the agreement.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt said he wasn’t surprised the Chile and Singapore agreements passed, but he said he was disappointed with the votes of Oregon’s representatives.

“I don’t see how any candidate can call himself or herself pro-worker if they don’t vote down these trade agreements,” Nesbitt said. “When are our representatives going to realize that these trade agreements destroy jobs and hurt American workers?”

“They represent a state with the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Nesbitt said, “a state that’s lost over 50,000 jobs in the last 11 years due to unfair trade, and still they’re voting for trade agreements that are worse than NAFTA.”

Nationally, NAFTA has cost more than a half-million American jobs since it was passed in 1994, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

National AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the Chile and Singapore agreements “are the blueprint for a global economy without meaningful workers’ rights, job and wage security, and balanced international trade.”

According to the Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy, the proposed workers’ rights clauses in the two new pacts are weaker than worker protections in existing U.S. agreements with other countries and retreat from the workers’ rights provisions in a trade agreement with Jordan. Congress created the Labor Advisory Committee to advise the president and Congress on whether pending trade agreements promote the economic interests of the United States.

Teamsters President James Hoffa (a member of the Labor Advisory Committee), in a letter to each lawmaker, warned that U.S. workers would lose jobs and rights should the treaties pass, and that labor would remember how Congress voted come next November.

The Chile and Singapore trade treaties, Hoffa said, “will likely be viewed by this Administration as a green light for similar, if not identical, language in future trade agreements.”

The U.S. is currently negotiating trade agreements with Australia, Morocco and countries in Southern Africa, Central America and throughout the Western Hemisphere.

At a town hall meeting on trade in Portland a few days prior to the House vote, Barbara Dudley, a Portland State University political science professor and former assistant director of strategic programs at the national AFL-CIO, told listeners that U.S. trade policy has undergone an ideological shift.

“They want to eliminate government interference with business. It’s a resurgence of laissez-faire.”

Where once trade policy was about tariffs, quotas and manufactured goods, Dudley said, now it’s about protecting foreign investments, enforcing and extending patents and copyrights, promoting privatization of government services and limiting governments’ ability to regulate business.

All of those elements were contained in the Chile and Singapore agreements.

The town hall meeting was organized by“Local to Global,” a labor and community coalition that opposes NAFTA-style globalization.

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