Drawing a line in the sand on TPP is a mistake

I am opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, as well as the enabling legislation being debated in Congress. But defeating it will not put a dime in anyone’s pocket, and I am opposed to making it a litmus test for for Democratic candidates, as some are considering. I note that the Republicans are focusing most of their energy on smearing Hillary Clinton from every direction, including the phony left, thinking that will give them the presidency. Hillary needs to measure up to the challenge, and I trust that she will. Indeed, she must. And we must help her, like Bernie Sanders is doing, even if she does not oppose the TPP. The reality is that defeating the right in 2016 will require a tremendous exertion that must include the Clintons, and President Obama.

The problem with trade deals, including the TPP, like the problem of other aspects of too-big-to-fail latter-day capitalism, is that these deals aggravate inequality in the U.S. Even if one agrees with the administration that there could be national gains from such trade pacts, those gains will go to the 1% and the “middle class” will keep receding into the rear view mirror, if the past decades of globalization are any guide.

Yet defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership will not slow down globalization. And no one will be writing to newspapers noting “saved jobs” that are purportedly at stake. Those jobs will continue to be under global pressure.

Thomas Piketty has noted in commentary around his now classic work “Capital in the 21st Century” that transnational corporations and financial institutions now have the ability to play off all nations against each other in a race to zero corporate taxation; that they will likely be successful at this because every country in the world is now inextricably entangled in international commerce and its infrastructures; and that this entanglement is an objective and, short of world war, irreversible feature of technological civilization. The transnational corporations will be successful, that is, until there is a means to impose a global tax on wealth, a process that begins with transparency.

Consider this: If inequality is addressed socially and politically – not just in reference to a trade deal – then there is no downside to trade. Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all countries heavily oriented on trade, education and technological infrastructures, and almost universal union density, with many income, health care, education and retirement protections for working people. If every job and all wealth gained from trade has equivalent bargaining power and shared wealth protections, then the growth from trade becomes the worker’s friend, not his or her enemy.

Under the current repressive U.S. labor law system, which violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s almost guaranteed that jobs lost will be disproportionately union jobs, and jobs gained will certainly be non-union jobs. Because of our retrograde labor laws, and our pervasive inequality trends, trade deals act as an existential force against the labor movement in the U.S., no matter what their terms, and unions are thus nearly compelled to oppose every agreement.

But while inequality curses trade deals, this cannot be fixed by a protectionist trade posture either. Indeed, it will always be difficult to isolate the billionaires and transnationals in trade controversies, because while jobs may be undermined by entering volatile markets abroad, they can certainly also be lost or threatened by staying out of markets.  

Further, the corporate-led tribunals that the TPP would set up to resolve problems are an inevitable consequence of the vastly expanded global trade networks. These networks do need conflict resolution mechanisms. There is no international governing body to “impartially or neutrally” render judgments on trade disputes. And yes, the TPP tribunals will undoubtedly trample over local laws that obstruct unfettered commerce, until and unless the day arrives where workers and peoples of the world demand and win global governance and global protection and enforcement of human rights.

In today’s turbulent global environment, aggravated inequality is stressing class tensions to breaking points. It is sharply undermining peace and prospects for democracy on both domestic and international fronts.

A disproportionate and rising concentration of wealth appropriated by a tiny minority of the population has been the case for most of the years since Ronald Reagan entered the White House. His presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980 officially championed the corporate assault on social, democratic and civil rights legislation enacted in the New Deal and in the 1960s “war on poverty.” All the achievements of the “Greatest Generation” and their children? Wipe them out in order to accumulate the wealth needed to “re-capitalize the capitalist system.” That was the view of the Business Roundtable and General Electric’s Reginald Jones in 1975, just as Reagan, previously a scab against actors in Hollywood, and former PR employee of GE, launched his first presidential campaign.

Reaganism has become religion for the billionaires who now threaten to completely capture all three branches of the U.S. government.

By one means or another, reform or revolution, we need a return to the policy originally enunciated in the Wagner Act of 1935, legalizing labor organization in workplaces:

“It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self- organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”

This policy has been attacked and eroded by the Republicans since Reagan’s famous destruction of the air traffic controllers’ union PATCO. If this policy is restored then trade becomes a non-issue. If it is not, then nothing will save us.

It is simply impossible to ignore the enormous impact the loss of this policy has had on the overall bargaining power of U.S. working people. Alternatives such as trying to raise the minimum wage through congressional action are positive – but this is far too clumsy and weak a tool to reverse or even stop current trends. Full employment? A government “employer of last resort” program? Certainly, but how does that happen without a widespread, diverse labor movement?

A change from 1937 is: we need a broader corporate reform than just labor law reform. Enormous political, environmental, economic, war-and-peace crises created by the behavior of giant corporations show that while worker representation is an essential part of curbing corporate power, it is not the only missing ingredient.

But, revive the Wagner Act and pass a progressive transaction tax on the financial sector, and I will become a champion of the TPP – and fast track too.

The job is to organize bigger and better around these bottom-line issues.

Photo: Countries participating in the TPP negotiations. Wikimedia Commons


John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.