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Labor Lost the Fight Over Fast Track. But the Fact That Unions Oppose the TPP at All Is a Big Deal.

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leon finkOrganized labor’s recent “victory” over President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, was short-lived, as “fast track” was passed by Congress shortly after it had been denied him earlier in the month. But labor’s strong opposition to the deal is worth examining a bit more closely, as the fight was more than an uncommon rift between the administration and one of the Democratic Party’s steadiest and most powerful constituency groups. Labor’s opposition to the TPP is a dramatic sign of the transformation of popular opinion on a vintage issue of American public policy since World War II.

That the TPP could so easily be linked by its critics to the job-killing, wage-reducing interests of the “one percent” reflects deep and changing understandings of how the global economy works (or rather all too often doesn’t) for ordinary Americans. On this issue, the AFL-CIO, rather than reflecting narrow, let alone petulant comeuppance, is speaking with the wizened voice of collective experience after two terms of relative presidential neglect.

No one was a bigger champion of free trade at the end of World War II than the AFL-CIO, along with New Deal Democrats to whom the labor federation attached its deepest political loyalties. From a critique of controlled trade and top-down economic manipulation most notoriously associated with Japanese zaibatsu and German cartels like the I.G. Farben chemical empire, American liberals stressed the importance of both the free flow of commerce and workers’ freedom to organize. Only unencumbered access to markets and raw materials, such a view suggested, could assure the continuing growth of the American as well as worldwide industrial order.

In fulsome support of the Marshall Plan and surrounding international capitalistic institutions like Bretton Woods, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the labor movement—having expelled its own Communist-linked affiliates by 1948—was often more anti-communist than the State Department itself during the Cold War years. In an era when strong unions claimed up to 80 percent of workforce representation in basic industries, it was not surprising that labor leaders would identify their own members’ welfare with that of the free-enterprise economy in which they were employed.  Indeed, Philip Kaiser, assistant secretary of labor for international affairs under President Truman, later recalled the suspicion that the American labor liberals originally faced in Europe among those who could not “[see] the difference between American competitive capitalism and their own national monopoly capitalism built on old feudal structures.”

More than mere freedom from government or employer control, open markets were linked to a period of economic growth and rising incomes that publicist Henry Luce anticipated as “the American Century” and that, in retrospect, also heralded a relatively egalitarian social structure. Thus for good reason—with the exception of garment and textile unions who first felt the sting of a new order of international wage competition—U.S. unions long endorsed “free-trade” unionism. Not until the NAFTA debates of 1993-1994, when the threat to American-sited factories from what maverick presidential candidate Ross Perot had popularized as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the U.S. and going to Mexico, did the labor federation first seriously reverse course, albeit ( in a standoff with another Democratic President, this time Bill Clinton) in a losing cause.

But changing attitudes came too late to effectively redirect social policy.  In an increasingly competitive world market, the link between corporate profit margins and worker welfare had become increasingly frayed. In the name of “social partnership” or “social dialogue,” America’s Cold War allies generally found ways to shield themselves from the worst of free-market competition and/or to blunt its impact for their own labor forces.

The European Common Market, for example, with stringent initial protections for European farmers and auto makers, was, according to historian Judith Stein, “really a customs union that violated [the core principles of] the GATT.” In addition, by various forms of “industrial policy,” or strategic subsidy of selected economic sectors and worker training, Japan and West Germany leaped ahead of the U.S. in key sectors of economic development, while even smaller states like Israel and Singapore blossomed thanks to outright state investment in the private sector or openly protectionist trade policy.

American workers realized little or none of such benefits, even when their preferred representatives presided over Congress and the White House. The unions watched, meanwhile, while their memberships dropped precipitously, from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to a paltry 11 percent today (including a mere 7 percent in the private sector). With the strike weapon now often a nearly suicidal non-option, American workers have watched their living standards decline, even as in the legislative realm, trade union rights, especially in the public sector, have become ever more restricted.

In an ever-more-expansive world economy, some Americans have prospered as never before, but the middle (where collective-bargaining contracts once reigned) has all but been wrung out of an hourglass economy. But for a few impotent side agreements to major free-trade treaties, workers have simply not been cut into the ‘deal’ of free trade.

All this is why American unions saying “Enough!” in the face of President Obama’s fast-track authority and attempt to pass the TPP and coming T-TIPP is such an important shift for American unions. The interesting question is not why they adopted the position they did, but what took them so long?

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leon Fink. Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.


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Senate Votes To Fast-Track Jobs Out, More Corporate Power In

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Isaiah J. PooleA majority in the Senate today took sides against working families and with Wall Street and the multinationals, voting 60-37 to grant the executive branch fast-track trade promotion authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and future trade deals.

“This is a day of celebration in the corporate suites to be sure,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on the floor immediately after the vote, “because they have another corporate-sponsored trade agreement that will mean more money in some investors’ pockets, that will mean more plant closings in Ohio and Arizona and Delaware and Rhode Island and West Virginia and Maine and all over this country.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) responded by noting that the fast-track legislation “was supported by virtually every major corporation in the country” while it was opposed by “every union in this country working for the best interests of working families, by almost every environmental group and many religious groups.

“In my view, this trade agreement will continue the policies of NAFTA, CAFTA (the North American and Central American free trade agreements), permanent normal trade relations with China, agreements that have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs,” Sanders said.

The fast-track legislation, which was narrowly passed by the House last week and now goes to President Obama’s desk for his signature, was passed with the support of these Senate Democrats: Michael Bennet (D-Colo), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

One of the Democrats who voted against fast-track gave an impassioned explanation of his vote afterward.

“I’ve said this –if I can’t explain it back home, I can’t vote for it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) “This is one, Mr. President, I could not explain back home. I could not make the people feel comfortable this was going to improve the quality of life and opportunities for them and their families.”

Manchin explained that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would lower trade barriers with countries such as Vietnam, where workers make as little as 50 cents an hour and “are not going to be as tough as we are in human rights [and] on environmental quality.”

In this debate, there were Orwellian big lies on both sides of the aisle.

Wyden argued that the trade deal represented a different frame from the NAFTA deal of the 1990s. That is in no sense true: the template that makes worker needs subordinate to interests of corporate and financial interests is essentially the same, the process of having corporate lobbyists dominate the negotiations is the same, and the people serving as trade representative come from and represent the same set of interests (corporate lawyer Mickey Kantor was the trade representative who negotiated NAFTA; former Citigroup executive Michael Froman is the trade representative leading the TPP talks).

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and other Republicans argued that the fast-track deal gives the United States a voice in international trade. How can that be, when in fact fast-track authorizes a process that gives away congressional power? Fast track explicitly says that Congress can only vote up or down, with no amendments and limited debate, on a trade agreement negotiated by the executive branch. The reality is that the process assures passage of a trade deal that is still being negotiated in secret and which virtually no lawmakers have seen.

Democratic votes in favor of fast track were secured with a promise of a vote later this week on trade adjustment assistance, a palliative at best. While that will help some workers who will lose their jobs one the Trans-Pacific Partnership goes into force, it will not help workers who lose wages and bargaining power when corporations threaten to move overseas, and it doesn’t help the workers hit by the ripple effects of plant closings and outsourcing. Even the workers who do get the aid more often than not don’t get back the wages and job security they lost in the first place because of unfair trade.

Robert Borosage, codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future, said that today’s vote “is a vote to continue the ruinous trade policies of the last decades that have racked up 11 trillion in trade deficits, shuttered tens of thousands of factories, and had direct and dramatic effect on undermining the middle class, and lowering wages and security for working people. Those who voted for it voted for more of the same. And they did so to serve the interests of special interests, not the common good; of contributors, not voters.”

Our allies at National People’s Action released a statement after the vote that perhaps captures best how to respond to this vote. “Coming out of this vote,” said executive director George Goehl, “we double our resolve to build an independent political movement to replace Wall Street Democrats” – and we would add corporate and anti-worker Republicans – “with politicians who put everyday people before corporate profits.”

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on June 23, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Isaiah J. Poole. Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.


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Politicians Keep Promising Free Trade Agreements Can Protect Workers. We Should Stop Believing Them.

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Leo GerardIt’s all the rage now for Republican presidential candidates to spurn the Royal Romney approach and, instead, to fawn over workers.

When former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum announced his presidential bid last week, he did it from a factory floor and called for increasing the minimum wage. Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who also launched his candidacy last week, named as his political inspiration Teddy Roosevelt, a corporate trust-buster and working class hero. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who entered the race in April, said that to win elections, “You’ve got to get the people who work for the people who own businesses.”

That is true—if the businesses are in America. There’s not much point in American candidates soliciting votes from workers at factories that U.S. corporations closed here and moved overseas with the help of free trade agreements (FTAs). Decade after decade of free trade, presidents promised workers that the deals set the highest standards for labor. And decade after decade, the federal government failed at enforcement, placing Americans in competition with child laborers, underpaid and overburdened foreign workers and victims of human trafficking.

On trade, Sen. Paul got it right for working people. He opposed Fast Tracking approval of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. He was on the losing side of that vote, though. So the Fast Track plan for Congress to relinquish its responsibility to review and amend trade agreements awaits action this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. House Republicans who believe in supporting American workers, not just pandering to them, should join Sen. Paul in voting no on Fast Track.

From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Republican and Democratic presidents have pledged to workers that some new free trade scheme would protect Americans from unfair and immoral foreign competition.

Clinton claimed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the first deal ever containing teeth to enforce labor standards. George W. Bush’s U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) contended the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) had the strongest labor provisions ever negotiated. Obama administration officials assured Americans that the Peru, Colombia and Panama agreements, and now the TPP, have the greatest worker protections of all time.

They all swore the standards would be strictly enforced. But none of it was true. The deals did not protect American workers. And they didn’t protect foreign workers either.

Now American workers overwhelmingly oppose the free trade brand of globalization. They’ve seen its terrible results for them. They’ve suffered as corporations closed American factories, destroyed American jobs and communities, and shipped that work overseas.

Americans have found themselves competing with children coerced to work in foreign factories, trafficked and forced labor, and foreign workers so mistreated that they jump to their deaths from factory buildings. American consumers find themselves buying products made in unsafe buildings that collapse or burn, killing thousands of foreign workers.

The USTR, who is supposed to enforce the labor provisions of trade agreements, along with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of State, has failed. That’s according to two reviews by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). After a damning GAO report in 2009, the USTR promised action. A second GAO analysis in 2014 reported little change.

Here’s the bottom line from that report: “Since 2009, USTR and DOL, with State’s assistance, have taken steps intended to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of FTA partners’ compliance with FTA labor provisions, but their monitoring and enforcement remains limited.”

In other words, no matter what those agreements say about labor, it’s not being enforced.

For example, five years after Guatemala entered CAFTA, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. That’s because of the large number of union activists murdered, tortured, kidnapped and threatened there.

This was a startling development because Colombia had a lock on the inglorious title of most dangerous for years. Colombia dropped from first place even while murders of trade unionists continued there.

Since Colombia finalized a free trade agreement with the U.S. in 2011, two dozen Colombians trying to improve the lives and wages of workers through collective bargaining have been murdered every year. And these murders are committed with impunity. There are virtually never arrests or convictions for killing trade unionists in Colombia. Colombia’s trade deal with the U.S. and its “enforcement” by the USTR, DOL and the State Department have done nothing to change that.

And as in Guatemala, trade union activists in Colombia continue to be threatened, tortured and kidnapped. The free trade agreement is no shield for them. For example, a paramilitary group threatened the daughters of Martha Cecilia Suarez, the president of the Santander public servants association.

In 2013, the paramilitary group Comando Urbano de los Rastrojos sent her two dolls marked with her daughters’ names. They were covered in red paint, one missing a leg, the other an arm.

The 14 free trade agreements that the United States has signed with 20 countries contain provisions allowing groups or individuals to file complaints about such violations of the labor standards. The 2014 evaluation by the GAO suggests that only a tiny number of complaints have been filed because the Labor Department has failed to inform stakeholders of this process and few within the foreign countries know about it.

The GAO also found that the Labor Department has failed to meet its own deadlines for investigating and resolving the complaints it has accepted. Serious allegations, including human trafficking and child labor, remain unsettled for years.

In addition to the critical 2014 GAO report, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren detailed the failure of the United States to implement FTA labor provisions in a report issued by her office late last month titled Broken Promises. It says, “the United States repeatedly fails to enforce or adopts unenforceable labor standards in free trade agreements.”

Admittedly, this is a titanic challenge. What the United States is trying to do is tell other countries, often ones far less wealthy, how their businesses should treat workers. The United States hardly would take kindly to Guatemala telling it that the U.S. minimum wage is so low that it amounts to forced labor.

But president after president has promised American workers that the United States will compel foreign nations to meet high labor standards established in FTAs.

They haven’t accomplished that. They probably can’t. They should stop saying it. And American workers and politicians should stop buying it. The United States can sign trade agreements with countries after they stop murdering trade unionists and countenancing child labor. Entering agreements with countries that permit these grotesque practices demeans American workers and consumers.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 2, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leo Gerard. Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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