Trade deals that work for workers

Chamberlain At The MikeBy Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president

For decades, Americans have been told that free trade is a wonderful thing that benefits everyone. Politicians have promised us that if other countries simply lower their tariffs, our products will be more affordable, our customer base will grow, and everybody will win.

But what does it mean when a country “wins?”  If employers take advantage of investment protections and move their offices overseas, Oregon workers aren’t winning. If other employers use trade deals to undermine American environmental and labor standards, Oregon workers aren’t winning.

For decades, the benefits of trade deals haven’t trickled down to working families.  They’ve been captured almost entirely by global corporations and their executives.  These companies have taken advantage of our bad trade policy to shift their supply chains from one country to the next to find the lowest wages and weakest regulations possible. In the process, they’ve laid off workers, suppressed wages, and devastated communities.

In an era of record income inequality, we need new rules for trade. We need rules that raise wages for working people. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

As I write this, our country is negotiating the biggest trade agreement ever: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP would cover the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam). The Obama Administration and the U.S. trade representative have said it’s the most progressive trade deal in history. Well, that’s like saying it’s more nutritious than sugar; it doesn’t mean much.

If a trade deal is actually going to benefit Oregon businesses and their workers by boosting exports and creating good-paying jobs, it will need to look very different than NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and every other trade agreement in existence. But it’s instead on track to benefit multinational corporations whose lobbyists have been given special seats at the table while the rest of us get thrown under the bus. Under NAFTA, Oregonians lost a net 8,700 jobs. Promising TPP will be different doesn’t make it so.

To ensure a bad trade deals’ chances of success, the Obama Administration is lobbying Oregon’s representatives in Congress to support Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast track. Fast Track is a legislative procedure that would force Congress to cede its constitutional authority over trade policy. It wouldn’t let our elected representatives offer amendments to improve any provision that’s bad for the environment, food safety or working people. Instead, within 90 days, Congress would be forced to give the TPP a simple up or down vote. You can bet corporations will be loudly weighing in during those 90 days.  After all, they have a lot of money at stake.

To get Congress behind the proposal, the Administration and Senate Republicans are leaning hard on Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).  Sen. Wyden is the ranking member of the Finance Committee, which puts him in a position to stand up for increased transparency and accountability in trade negotiations, which will lead to better trade rules or throw it all away by signing onto another old-style fast track bill.  Sen. Wyden hasn’t signed on to support fast track yet. While he makes up his mind, Oregonians need to urge him to stand against secrecy and for trade deals that work for working people.

Join me and call Sen. Wyden’s office and ask him to reject fast track. Tell him we need a trade deal that raises American living standards, not one that accelerates a race to the bottom.

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