Laboring over Obama’s trade deal

For those who came in late, President Obama has forged a rare alliance with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and congressional Republicans to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed regional free trade agreement among the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

The deal has been developed in secret so the American public is on the outside looking in. Based on what has been leaked, there are apparently 29 chapters in the TPP, but only five deal with traditional trade issues such as tariffs. The rest are about intellectual property, financial regulations, labor laws, and rules for health, safety and the environment.

Sen. McConnell said that: “By passing this legislation we can show we’re serious about advancing new opportunities for bigger American paychecks, better jobs, and a strong economy.” But in fact it is the TPP’ s labor law provisions that may be particularly problematic for American workers and, by extension, our country’s economy.

While many people believe free trade is generally a fine idea, some have escaped its gravitational pull. Opposition to this deal comes primarily from the president’s own party, many of whom contend that “better American jobs” is a fatigued phrase with a truth quotient somewhere near zero.

Nothing will blind them to the fact that the United States has run consistently high trade deficits for more than three decades, ranging from of $35.1 billion in 1983 to $505.5 billion in 2014. The cumulative deficit over this period is in the trillions, even as American wages have been flat or declining. This is the trading profile of an 18th century British colony.

They argue that growing trade deficits have been a drag on economic growth; that putting the United States in direct competition with low-wage countries has slowed job creation and put downward pressure on wages.

According to the office of the United States Trade Representative, “The president has always made clear that he will only support trade agreements that include fully enforceable labor standards, which we are pursuing in TPP”.

But Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is among those who believe this is utter nonsense. She has forcefully raised the question of whether what is proposed in the agreement is in fact achievable. Her ISĀ­ page report, “Broken Promises,” reviews labor standards over two decades of free trade agreements and documents in detail the use of child and forced labor, intimidation of union activists, restrictions on free speech and assembly, discrimination against women and other deplorable working conditions. The report plainly states that: “The United States does not enforce the labor protections in its trade agreements.”

A 2014 Government Accounting Office report also detailed the failure to enforce labor provisions in free trade agreements. Based on these reports, assurances that it will be different this time are hardly persuasive.

This reality cannot be ignored. Labor abuses are not waiting to be found, like eggs at an Easter egg hunt. Who is going to police labor standards in other TPP countries, especially those with weak judicial systems? Are the “best and the brightest” in the federal government going to ensure workplace compliance in foreign countries when they can’t even control the number of undocumented immigrants who overstay their visas here in the United States?

The TPP’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism enables foreign corporations to sue governments for lost profits using special tribunals of private attorneys in secretive proceedings, yet workers don’t have a comparable tool to address labor standard violations.

Free trade only works when the exchange is an equal one, when all the players operate under the same rules, including labor policies. If they don’t, American workers face unfair competition, and domestic jobs and industries are sacrificed to trading partners with pools of exploitable labor.

originally published: June 6, 2015