Unions gear up for new fast track fight

WASHINGTON (PAI)-Unions are gearing up for yet another fight over so-called “fast track,” also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), which would let President Obama sign trade treaties with European and Asian nations even when those deals lack clauses to protect the rights of workers, citizens and consumers.

The calls to action come even before Obama includes fast track in his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 28. That’s because the leaders of the two congressional trade committees, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., dropped fast track legislation in the hopper on Jan. 9.

Their legislation shuts workers and their allies out of either negotiating or approving trade treaties, something workers and their allies say is unacceptable.

“We need to have trade policies that give American workers a fair chance, and that create jobs, rather than lose jobs, as in the past,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told a telephone press conference on Jan. 14.

“America lost nearly 700,000 jobs because of NAFTA,” to choose a harmful pact negotiated under fast track, 20 years ago, Teamsters president James Hoffa added. “Jobs have been shipped across borders, gutting the middle class. We can’t make that same mistake again. Corporate America loves to tout the growth in trade due to NAFTA. But those dollars have largely gone into the pockets of top executives.”

Baucus, Camp, and Obama want a fast track law to let the president’s trade representative negotiate trade pacts in secret. Obama would then sign them and then submit legislation implementing them to Congress for up-or-down majority votes with no amendments, no changes and limited debate on specifics within 90 days. Congress would vote on the legislation, but would be barred from voting on the pacts themselves.

Fast track would grandfather in two trade pacts Obama’s negotiating right now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Asian nations, including Japan but not China, and a pact with the European Union, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s TradeWatch, told the Women’s National Democratic Club on Jan. 14.

“Fast track allows transformation of trade treaties into a whole set of policies” on everything from workers’ rights to the environment to Buy American laws to regulating financial finagling, she said. And it’s set up so that citizens, workers and consumers could not fight back against its pro-corporate rulings.

Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen and Hoffa are taking the lead in mobilizing members against fast track.

“This is the wrong proposal at the wrong time,” Gerard said. “It is wrong for American workers and will only continue to take us further down the road in the wrong direction. Why on earth would we want to simply continue doing things the old way, when it’s resulted in rising trade deficits, more manufacturing job losses and greater income inequality?

“It’s time for a new approach to trade. Today’s trade policies have fueled historic trade deficits and left our trading partners with bags of U.S. dollars and millions of American jobs. More of the same will only yield more outsourced and off-shored jobs and shattered dreams.”

Organized labor and pro-worker congressional Democrats have an alternative to fast track, calling for fair trade, with U.S. bargaining objectives written into law as mandatory orders to trade negotiators, with ensuring worker rights among those objectives, and with congressional approval – in advance – of whom we negotiate with.

By contrast, Cohen says, fast track would let the U.S. negotiate and sign a trade pact – the TPP-with Vietnam, where the average hourly wage is 75 cents and the minimum wage is 28 cents.

“Fast track is the wrong track when it comes to a trade deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that will affect our laws, our jobs, our food and our environment,” Cohen added. “Fast track forces Congress to give up its constitutional right to amend and improve this trade deal, which now is reportedly more than 1,000 pages long.

“For nearly four years, the U.S. Trade Representative and TPP negotiators have purposely restricted participation and information, keeping Congress and citizen groups, unions, environmental and consumer organizations in the dark,” Cohen continued.

“There has been no opportunity for public interest groups to meaningfully participate in the negotiations, and under fast track, there will be no opportunity for our elected representatives to amend the deal and make it better for Americans.

“Fixing any one problem with fast track at this late date is not the solution. As important as workers’ rights, environmental standards, consumer issues, job loss or currency manipulation might be, fast track should be rejected, not tinkered with. None of us who focus on those issues had any input into this fast track legislation and this in itself is as serious as the glaring deficiencies.”

Baucus and Camp say they’re opening up the procedures slightly to input from lawmakers, but Gerard said they aren’t. “New procedures and greater transparency cannot undo the damage that is being done by trade policies” such as open trade with China and Korea, he retorted. 

“Our negotiators should not be able to pick and choose which negotiating objectives are important and which to ignore, and no trade agreement should be protected if it fails to achieve all of the objectives,” including protecting worker rights, he said.

While unions gear up their forces to stop fast track, a growing number of lawmakers have stepped forward against it. Marshaled by influential Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., three-fourths of the House Democratic Caucus – 151 lawmakers – already wrote to Obama opposing fast track. So have 28 Republicans, many of them Tea Party members who hate the president. And 10 Democrats on Camp’s committee, Ways and Means, sent an anti-fast-track letter, too.

Photo: Gregory Bull/AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.