Free trade — a litmus test for labor

Tom Chamberlain-2015By Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain

After 20 years of NAFTA, CAFTA and a host of other free trade agreements, none of which have fulfilled their promise of new jobs, the data shows that American workers have paid for free trade with lower wages and cuts to benefits.  America has lost millions of good-paying, middle class jobs.

The American labor movement, spearheaded by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, has been very clear about our position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Fast Track. We will not support any trade agreement that costs jobs, undermines the sovereignty of our nation, and ignores labor and environmental standards.

Our answer from President Obama is to trust him. But the little we know about the TPP does nothing to convince us that it will be any different than the previous free trade agreements.

The labor movement has been united—and we have been clear with Congress: Trade Promotion Authority, also known as Fast Track,  forces an up or down vote on the TPP. Organized labor will hold those who side with corporate America accountable. The TPP is potentially the largest free trade agreement in history, representing 40 percent of the world’s economy. It will be the last trade agreement to allow nations to simply sign on.

On June 4, Roll Call magazine ran an article entitled “Democrats Frustrated by Unions’ Cash Freeze over Fast Track.” The article speaks to how upset some members of Congress are that organized labor will not make political contributions until after the vote on Fast Track and the TPP, and evaluating whether to find more worker-oriented candidates to challenge supporters of corporate-driven free trade agreements.

What is upsetting about the article is the backlash the labor movement is receiving from those members of the Democratic House Caucus, who labor is holding accountable for their support of Fast Track and the TPP.  They’re even going so far as referring to President Trumka as a “bully.”

I wonder if the named and unnamed members of the U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Caucus members who spoke out in the article understand that their vote for Fast Track and for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the biggest labor vote of their careers.  By taking issue with how unions hold Congressional Democrats accountable defines the growing fissure between workers and some politicians, and is based on the belief that unions have no place to go but the Democratic Party.  In reality, we do have a place to go: It’s to sit out elections or to find better candidates who understand that workers need help.

The endorsement of any labor organization, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, is earned through voting records, candidate questionnaires, and how candidates actively support workers. Do they support cuts to social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to balance the federal budget? Or do they ensure that business and the one-percenters pay their fair share? Do they go to union events and glad-hand? Or do they walk the picket line and send letters to CEOs in support of workers?

Labor’s endorsements and political contributions aren’t a right. They’re an honor.

1 Comment

  1. Tom, one small disagreement,these are not, and have never been, free trade agreements. NAFTA was a “free” trade agreement. The TPP is a “free” so-called trade agreement.

    Other than that, I’m totally with you. 😉

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