April 20, 2007 Volume 108 Number 8

Portland union members tell Congress: ‘No new NAFTAs’

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

A week after Portland-headquartered Freightliner Corporation ended local manufacture of its most famous product line, Freightliner workers gathered five floors below an Oregon U.S. senator’s federal building office to tell him how they felt about it. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, made it easy for Freightliner to shift production, demonstrators said; trucks they made in Portland will be now made in Mexico by workers making less than one-fourth their wages.

In 1993, when NAFTA passed 234-200 in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ron Wyden was a congressman, one of the two-fifths of House Democrats to vote in favor. President George Herbert Walker Bush negotiated the treaty, but President Bill Clinton pushed it through Congress. The passage of NAFTA led many labor union members to feel the Democratic Party had turned its back on working people.

Since NAFTA, eight other “free- trade” agreements have passed Congress, including agreements with Jordan, Chile, Singapore, Australia, Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman, plus CAFTA — an agreement with the Dominican Republic and five Central American countries. Congress also voted to remove human-rights-related restrictions on trade with China and Vietnam.

Now, NAFTA-style treaties with four other countries are up for ratification: Peru, Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. Of the four treaties up for approval, the Korean agreement is most likely to impact the U.S. economy. South Korea has almost 50 million people. Its economy is the world’s 10th largest, and one-tenth the size of the U.S. economy. The AFL-CIO says the pact would hurt workers in autos, textiles and electronics. It’s also opposed by unions in Korea. One Korean worker opposed to the treaty set himself on fire in protest.

But some trade watchers think the winds have shifted in Congress. In 1993, NAFTA had the support of 102 House Democrats; CAFTA, in 2005, had just 15.

“The old Clintonite version of the Democratic position on trade is in retreat at this point,” said Larry Weiss, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign. “Many Democrats have come to recognize the agreements have not been good for American workers.”

“We’re kind of holding our breath right now,” said Thea Lee, trade policy expert for the national AFL-CIO. For the first time in years, Lee senses that one or more of these treaties may fail to be ratified.

Plus, the president’s ability to negotiate the treaties is up for debate. All the NAFTA-style agreements have been negotiated by presidents who were granted “fast-track” authority by Congress. Basically, Congress commits to vote trade treaties up or down without amendment two or three months after getting the text from the president.

“Fast-track abdicates Congress’ constitutional responsibility to regulate foreign commerce,” Weiss said, “and gives the executive branch the power to dictate the terms of trade policy.”

Presidents have argued that they can’t get trading partners to make concessions on complicated agreements like these if the agreements can later be modified by Congress. But in practice, “fast-track” has given presidents free rein to leave out binding commitments on workers’ rights or environmental protections. NAFTA-style treaties contain hundreds of pages of guarantees for foreign investors and tariff-enforceable trademark, copyright and patent monopolies, but only the flimsiest pledges on workers’ rights or the environment. Generally, the treaties say the countries agree to enforce their own labor and environmental laws, whatever they may be at a particular time. If they fail to do so, theoretically they would pay a fine to themselves to fund enforcement of the un-enforced laws.

The current fast-track authorization expires June 30. It would have to be renewed in order for President Bush to negotiate further treaties. But Weiss thinks it may not even get a vote.

New York Democrat Charles Rangel now chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, where trade bills originate. Rangel voted for about half the trade agreements, but voted against NAFTA, CAFTA, and fast- track in the past. On March 27, Rangel spelled out his approach to trade policy, saying future trade agreements must include enforceable commitments to internationally recognized labor standards. But it’s not clear how Rangel will approach the already-negotiated treaties. Oregon Third District U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer also now serves on Ways and Means, and its Trade Subcommittee. Blumenauer has a history of support for NAFTA-style treaties, but voted against CAFTA and the 2006 treaty with Oman. If they pass the committee, trade-related bills go to the House floor, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will determine if they get a vote. Pelosi voted for four NAFTA-style treaties, but against fast- track and the CAFTA and Oman treaties.

In the Senate, the bills must first go through the Finance Committee, which is now chaired by Montana Democrat Max Baucus. Baucus voted for NAFTA and every one of its follow-ups, but came out against CAFTA. Ron Wyden and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith are also on Senate Finance. Smith has voted for every NAFTA-style treaty to come before Congress; Wyden voted for every one except Chile, Singapore, and Oman. After the Finance Committee, trade bills must get a vote in the full Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid holds sway. Reid has voted against NAFTA and every subsequent trade treaty. So critics of the treaties will have multiple opportunities to stop them from passing this year.

Last month, the AFL-CIO Executive Council approved an all-out drive to stop President Bush’s renew “fast- track” trade authority.

In Portland, Machinists District Lodge 24 Business Representative Joe Kear says the Freightliner decision to shift production to Mexico didn’t have to happen.

“We need to look at the consequences of these trade deals,” Kear said. “The trade deals we have are specifically designed to move our jobs someplace else.”

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