When he was a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama led union audiences to believe he was critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement and that he opposed a threesome of NAFTA-style trade agreements that President George W. Bush had negotiated with Korea, Colombia and Panama. Then last year, Obama announced he would ask Congress to ratify the Korea agreement after all. Now it appears he will submit all three treaties to Congress for an up-or-down vote without the possibility of amendment. Depending on the outcome of behind-the-scenes negotiations with House and Senate leaders, the treaties could be voted on this month before Congress leaves town for its August recess.
If so, time is running out for working people to tell members of Congress what they think. The AFL-CIO opposes all three agreements, both in general and for specific reasons. Labor leaders blame NAFTA-style trade policies for America’s disastrous de-industrialization and resultant trade deficit, because the treaties make it easier for U.S. corporations to outsource manufacturing and services to low-wage countries and to import foreign-made goods.
The trade treaties are based on the model of NAFTA, the trade agreement that has covered the United States, Mexico, and Canada since 1994. NAFTA gives powerful rights to multinational corporations and foreign investors, while doing nothing meaningful to protect workers’ rights or the natural environment. Chiefly, NAFTA-style trade treaties expand patent, trademark, and copyright monopolies; give foreign investors the right to challenge domestic regulations via unaccountable trade panels; and cut or eliminate import tariffs. [Import tariffs are taxes on imported goods; they shield domestic industries from direct competition with foreign competitors, and give domestic workers some protection from their own companies’ desire to offshore production.]
Of the three, the Korea agreement will have the biggest impact, because South Korea has a large, advanced economy, and a very competitive automotive manufacturing industry. The Panama agreement is objectionable for other reasons: The country is a hub of offshore finance and shipping, a site of low-wage manufacturing, and a source of drug money laundering and tax evasion.
But it’s the Colombia agreement that may be the most offensive to organized labor. Colombia is the most dangerous nation in the world for trade union activists. In the past 25 years, more than 2,850 trade unionists have been murdered — mostly by right-wing paramilitary gunmen working with employers to oppose union activity. Last year, 51 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia, more than in the rest of the world combined.
“We have no doubt that if 51 CEOs had been murdered in Colombia last year, this deal would be on a very slow track indeed,” declared AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in an April 6 press statement.
In a 12-foot by 15-foot office in the historic Board of Trade office building in downtown Portland, Arthur Stamoulis has his hands full. Stamoulis is the executive director of Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of unions and human rights groups that since 2004 has worked to oppose NAFTA-style trade agreements, hold elected officials accountable for their votes, and promote a vision of trade that benefits workers and protects the environment. The group is an affiliate of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a national group.
Two years ago, Stamoulis says, the situation looked bright. The three Bush-negotiated agreements were stalled in Congress, with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing to allow a vote. And there was some momentum behind a bill known as the TRADE Act, which calls for renegotiation of NAFTA. But “fair trade” activists have gone back on the defensive in the last year, Stamoulis said.
It started when Obama announced June 2010 that he wanted the Korea treaty ratified. After House Republicans swept into the majority in November, they upped the ante, pledging not to allow a vote on the Korea deal unless the other two also get a vote. When the White House balked at that, Republican leaders refused to re-authorize a package of benefits known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA).
In certain cases where the government certifies that foreign trade has caused job loss, the TAA program pays for workers to get some limited retraining, relocation, COBRA health insurance coverage, and extended unemployment benefits. TAA had been expanded in the February 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in that service workers who lost jobs due to trade also got benefits, not just manufacturing workers.
Initially, the White House demanded that TAA be re-authorized for two years in its expanded form. As this issue went to press, that demand was dropped, and the White House was reportedly prepared to submit all three treaties to Congress in exchange for a one-year reauthorization of regular TAA benefits.
“The White House wants [TAA reauthorization] as cover for Democrats voting for job-killing trade agreements,” Stamoulis said, “but the Republicans have been outmaneuvering them at every turn.”
If the treaties get a vote in Congress, Stamoulis says, they may be close votes. Accordingly, Oregon Fair Trade Campaign has been “bird-dogging” local members of Congress who favor the treaties or are undecided.
Here’s how Oregon representatives stand:
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden hasn’t said how he will vote; a spokesperson failed to follow up with the Labor Press about Wyden’s positions.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley opposed the agreements during his 2008 campaign, but since then has been quiet about them; his staff have reportedly said he is “reviewing” the agreements. His spokesperson failed to respond to two messages from the Labor Press.
U.S. Rep. David Wu opposes all three agreements on human rights and jobs grounds and issued this statement to the Labor Press: “So long as we neglect to incorporate civil liberties and human rights criteria in our trade agreements, we fail to meet our responsibility to stand up for the rights of workers everywhere to organize, environmental groups to protect natural diversity, and those struggling for self-determination to realize their aspiration.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden’s spokes-person failed to respond to two messages from the Labor Press. Walden has voted consistently in favor of the NAFTA-style trade agreements.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer is reportedly in favor of the Korea agreement and undecided on the other two.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio vehemently opposes all three agreements. The Korea agreement will finish off the U.S. auto parts industry, he told Labor Press in a phone interview. It will also provide a tariff-free back door for Chinese-made products, he said, because products need only have 35 percent Korean content to get the tariff-free treatment. The Panama agreement, meanwhile, “makes the world safer for drug dealers and people who want to evade taxes,” DeFazio said. And the Colombia agreement rewards some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.
“Any sane person,” DeFazio said, “would look at this hemorrhaging of industrial capacity and the international debt we’ve run up over the last 20 years and say, ‘This is not sustainable.’”
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader has said he’s leaning toward voting for the Korea agreement, will definitely vote against the Colombia agreement, and is undecided on Panama.
And according to her spokesperson, Southwest Washington Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler is “still reviewing the upcoming trade agreements to understand their potential impact on Southwest Washington.”