By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor
The AFL-CIO has begun an all-out campaign to defeat “fast track” in Congress, and a vote on it is expected within days or weeks.
Fast track, also referred to as trade promotion authority, is legislation that would make it easier for Congress to pass more NAFTA-style trade agreements — including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a super-secret agreement being negotiated with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Under fast track, when the president presents a trade agreement, Congress must hold an up-or-down vote within 90 days, with limited debate and no amendments.
If Congress passes fast track this time, the consequences could be enormous. TPP has been called “NAFTA on steroids” by its critics. It would cover almost 40 percent of the world’s economy, including Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam.
The Obama Administration has never publicly disclosed what it’s proposing to other nations in the closed-door TPP negotiations. Even members of Congress were prevented from seeing it initially. After U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) campaigned for TPP negotiations to be more transparent, the Administration let members of Congress see its proposals — in a special room, by appointment, with no cameras, smart phones, or paper allowed in. Yet as many as 600 corporate trade lawyers have full access to the negotiating texts.
Much of what the public does know about the TPP has come from leaked texts made available by the web site WikiLeaks. Those leaks show U.S. negotiators pushing the other countries to:
- Agree to an “Investor-State Dispute Resolution” process in which foreign investors can sue governments in special tribunals of trade lawyers — if new regulations reduce expected profits;
- Agree to extraordinarily long monopolies for copyrighted works — 70 years after the death of a copyright holder; and
- Expand drug company profits by giving them the right to extend drug patents for new uses, requiring generic manufacturers to re-run expensive tests to prove drug safety, and outlawing systems that price medicine according to clinical benefits.
For the AFL-CIO, TPP comes in a larger context of 20-plus years of trade agreements that have coincided with record trade deficits and the loss of millions of American manufacturing jobs.
“Today, the trade policies of the United States are undermining the interests of working people,” the national AFL-CIO Executive Council declared in an official statement adopted Feb. 23 in Atlanta. “When decisions about economic policy are made behind closed doors, those decisions tend to advance the policy preferences of political and economic elites, not the broad interests of the populace at large.… U.S. trade deals — from NAFTA and CAFTA to Korea and Colombia — form a mountain of broken promises made to workers. With NAFTA and Korea, we were promised more jobs and higher wages because the deals would make it easier to export U.S. products. Instead, the deals made it easier to export U.S. jobs.”
Both supporters and opponents of the TPP have stepped up their campaigns.
Obama cabinet officials are criss-crossing the country to stump for the TPP. Obama’s Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker — the billionaire Hyatt heiress — flew to Portland Feb. 17 to talk up the TPP with local execs at a nonunion Leatherman Group factory. And Obama trade czar Michael Froman — in magazine articles, TV interviews, and meetings with elected officials — has been selling the idea that the TPP will bring jobs back to America. [It’s already brought his predecessor a job: Ron Kirk, who started the TPP negotiations in 2009, left in 2013 to take a job as an international trade lawyer providing “strategic advice to companies with global interests.”]
On Feb. 26, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and seven other senators took to the Senate floor to speak in opposition to fast track and the TPP.
The same day, President Obama met in person with members of Congress, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), to seek support. Obama even invited a reporter from Portland’s KGW-TV to the White House for a two-minute interview in which he implied the TPP will have “tough protections for labor rights and the environment.”
Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), who voted against NAFTA and every agreement since, just laughed at that claim.
“These things can change at any time,” DeFazio told the Labor Press by phone, “but the last time I checked, the environmental provisions were meaningless and the labor provisions were non-binding, yet the ‘investor-state’ provisions are stronger than ever: Corporations can sue the United States of America for a loss of anticipated profits — to undermine environmental, labor or consumer protection laws.”
Elizabeth Swager, director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign, says DeFazio and Merkley are certain “no” votes on fast track. But other members of Congress from Oregon and Southwest Washington aren’t signaling how they’ll vote. And fast track’s fate may depend on Wyden, the most senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden voted for NAFTA in 1993, and most other trade agreements since then. But a disagreement between Wyden and Senate Finance Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) over the details is causing a delay in the fast track bill.
On March 4, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain flew to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of the Oregon delegation.
“I think we have a shot at stopping this one,” Chamberlain said. “But it’s going to take people calling their elected representatives.”