December 1, 2006 Volume 107 Number 23

Upcoming NAFTA-style trade deals may be DOA

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

The long march of NAFTA-style trade agreements may be nearing an end.

Starting in January, the new Democratic majority in both houses of Congress will make it harder for the Bush Administration to win approval for trade agreements that don’t do anything to improve the labor and environmental standards of trading partners.

And even before the new Congress is sworn in, resistance to several already-negotiated trade treaties may prevent their passage during the remainder of the “lame-duck” session of Congress.

On Nov. 13, the Republican House leadership failed to pass a bill the president wanted that would have normalized trade relations with Vietnam. The vote was 228-161 in favor, but that was short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill without debate. The bill may come up again when Congress reconvenes Dec. 4. Congress is expected to meet for one to two weeks before final adjournment.

Trade watchers earlier expected a trade agreement with Peru to also get a vote during the lame duck session. Now, says AFL-CIO global economic policy specialist Jeff Vogt, it doesn’t look likely to be scheduled for a vote.

And a treaty with Colombia faces even longer odds; Vogt sees no chance it will come up before the end of the year, because it’s too controversial.

Critics of the so-called “free trade” agreements think Congress’ mood is changing because of growing concern among voters that the agreements are worsening the U.S. trade deficit and trade-related job losses.

Democrats, especially, are increasingly critical of the trade agreements, in part because the Bush Administration has taken a hard line, refusing to address the concerns of key Democratic constituencies like unions and environmental groups. NAFTA-style trade treaties eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade; guarantee foreign corporations get treated the same as domestic corporations; and commit to enforce patent, copyright and trademark monopolies. If countries fail to live up to these commitments, the treaties contain enforcement mechanisms including fines and punitive tariffs. Unions and environmental groups want what they call “fair trade” treaties — treaties that would also guarantee labor and environmental protections in the same way. But so far, none of the treaties negotiated by the Bush administration contain more than non-binding promises to enforce whatever labor and environmental laws the countries already have.

That’s not enough, union leaders say, especially when the workers in those countries lack basic rights, like the right to join a union.

The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passed by two votes in July 2005. Just 15 of the 202 House Democrats voted for it, while just 27 of the 231 Republicans voted against it.

Now it looks like some of the Republicans who voted for it may have been punished at the polls in November: 18 “free trade” incumbents in the House and six in the Senate lost to “fair trade” challengers, reports Global Trade Watch, a project of the non-profit group Public Citizen. In addition, “fair traders” won 11 House seats and one Senate seat being vacated by retiring “free traders.” Meanwhile, no “free trader” defeated a “fair trade” incumbent, and no “free trader” won any seat vacated by retiring “fair traders.” For “fair traders” that’s a net gain of 29 votes in the House and seven in the Senate.

Fifteen countries have NAFTA-style bilateral or multilateral trade agreements with the United States: Canada, Mexico, Jordan, Australia, Morocco, Singapore, Chile, Bahrain, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Oman.

President Bush finalized a NAFTA-style treaty with Peru in April. On previous occasions, U.S. trade negotiators had said that adding enforceable labor rights provisions to trade treaties would be unacceptable to some Third World trading partners. This time, that dodge was exposed: Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo publicly offered to include an enforceable commitment to comply with basic standards promulgated by the United Nations-affiliated International Labor Organization. The U.S. trade representative declined to take him up on the offer. New York Congressman Charles Rangel and New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman wrote a letter to Bush saying he could get a bipartisan majority if he renegotiated the treaty to accept Toledo’s offer before going to Congress for ratification. The letter was signed by 14 other members of Congress, including Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. President Bush disregarded that advice.

The Vietnam vote wasn’t about a trade treaty but about “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR). Under a 1974 law, each year Congress and the president look at the human rights record of Communist countries before awarding them the same tariff treatment other countries get. In 2000, Congress voted to exempt China from this annual review. Now the president wants to exempt Vietnam. Oregon Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Darlene Hooley and Greg Walden voted for permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam, along with Southwest Washington Congressman Brian Baird. Voting against it were Oregon’s Peter DeFazio and David Wu. During Congressional debate on the bill, Blumenauer said he strongly supported the legislation, adding that imports from Vietnam are important to two companies with a big presence in Oregon: Nike and Intel.

In a press statement reacting to the vote, Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., said the bill would only benefit multinational companies that are in Vietnam to take advantage of “dismal labor conditions” and low pay. “Vietnam is a Communist country,” Hoffa said. “There is no freedom of association, and if you speak out against the government or its businesses, you will be imprisoned .… It is shameful that some members of Congress see a benefit in this.”

The Vietnam PNTR bill hasn’t gotten a vote by the full Senate yet. It passed the Senate Finance Committee July 31 with support from Oregon U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D) and Gordon Smith (R).

The most recent trade treaty negotiations to conclude are with Colombia — the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. Colombia accounts for more assassinations than the rest of the world combined: Last year, 70 trade unionists were assassinated, and so far this year at least 56 have been killed. President Bush signed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement Nov. 22, but it appears unlikely to win Congressional ratification.

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