The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 01, 2015

Fast-track, TPP, advance over labor's protests

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) - Seizing their most-prominent public chance to blast fast-track “free trade authority” for the president – any president – labor leaders denounced the plan, and the heavily corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) it would spawn, at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee on April 21.

Senators of both parties peppered AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka with polite but detailed questions, often showing their own stands.  But they then fast-tracked the legislation:  The panel, which handles trade laws, plowed through amendments, rejected pro-worker ones, and OK'd fast-track on April 22. It now goes to the House.

Fast-track would give the president unlimited authority to negotiate so-called “free trade” pacts behind closed doors, and then send legislation implementing them to Congress for limited debate, no changes and only one up-or-down vote per free trade pact. 

After the Senate panel’s vote, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard urged the House to sidetrack fast-track, but the trade-bill-writing Ways and Means Committee did not. The AFL-CIO listed public demonstrations, calls to lawmakers, protests and more against the legislation.

“We are calling on all working families” to urge senators and representatives “to reject the ‘Hatch-Wyden-Ryan Fast Track-2015’ bill…Most Democrats on the Senate committee supported amendments sought by the AFL-CIO, the USW and our progressive coalition, but the Republican majority controlled the outcome. A vote for fast track means more offshoring and outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs,” Gerard said.

“The misnamed Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act is a rubber stamp for current trade policies and negotiations that do not respond to mounting trade deficits, stagnating or declining wages, off-shored production, increased income inequality and lost jobs.”

Reiterating a point AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka made, Gerard said workers “would support a good trade agreement that passed Congress under normal rules of debate,” and with protections for workers.  “But we strongly oppose being stuck with a fast track yes-or-no vote on a rubber-stamped Trans-Pacific Partnership and other free trade deals for the next six years.”

Trumka was one of only two public witnesses before senators, and the only one to oppose fast-track and the TPP.  He frequently disagreed with the other witness, Thomas Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce president.  The panel called no other witnesses besides the two leaders and Obama administration officials.  They appeared the day before.

“For every billion dollars of our trade deficit, there’s 15,000 jobs that are lost,” Trumka told committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, fast-track’s prime Senate sponsor.  “And every trade agreement that we’ve signed takes jobs out of the country.”

That would happen again because the pact's fast-track would permit, especially the TPP, would let companies exploit foreign workers, he said. Those in Vietnam – a TPP nation – have a minimum wage of 60 cents an hour.  Those in Brunei and Mexico, also TPP nations, face repression for exercising their rights.  Firms would move their plants to TPP nations, he stated.

And the pacts lack worker rights.  Trumka said Obama trade officials have told the AFL-CIO that repression and killings of workers and union activists abroad would not open foreign nations, or firms operating in those countries, to U.S. trade sanctions.  “Murdering a trade unionist isn’t a violation!  Excuse me!  Excuse me!” an upset Trumka told Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va..

While Hatch and other Republicans unanimously and enthusiastically backed fast-track, Democrats split.  Warner backed it, as did the top panel Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.  Wyden claimed his sections of fast-track make the process and the TPP more open to the public.  And he claimed it has enforceable worker rights, which Trumka challenged.    

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Bob Casey, D-Pa., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, publically opposed fast-track at the session.

“This is about whether we’re exporting our products or our jobs,” Stabenow warned.  She described a conversation with a refrigerator manufacturer in Greenville, Mich., who had to close after one prior “free trade” pact. “I can’t compete with workers making a buck-fifty-seven an hour,” the manufacturer told Stabenow.

Enacting this fast-track bill would open the door to the TPP with 11 other Pacific Rim nations, to a “free trade” pact with the 28-nation European Union and to a pact covering trade in services, including government services.

None of those pacts have enforceable worker rights written into their texts, Trumka said.  Schumer pointed out that Obama’s U.S. trade representatives refused to even negotiate on another issue that costs U.S. jobs: Foreign nations’ currency manipulation. 

Unions and their allies in environmental movements, community groups, state and local officials and religious organizations are campaigning against fast-track. The Senate may be gone, but the GOP-run House, lawmakers say, is too close to call.

“Very few Americans know what happens in these countries to trade unionists – the intimidation, the threats, the failure of enforcement” of worker rights, Sen. Brown said.  “And what are we doing? Virtually nothing.”