CHICAGO - Jim Robinson has seen this before: Lousy trade deals that have benefited transnational corporations but resulted in 5 million lost jobs for U.S. workers and ruined communities across the globe.
That's why Robinson, president of the United Steelworkers of America District 7, joined his fellow steelworkers and 1,000 others to protest here on Labor Day against a new free trade agreement being negotiated for the Pacific Rim countries.
Negotiations are taking place in Chicago this week, with representatives of nine Pacific Rim countries involved. Negotiators hope to hammer out an agreement by November.
"Steelworkers know about unfair global trade agreements. We've been fighting them my entire adult life," said Robinson. "We have seen so many of our jobs and communities destroyed by conscious policies."
A coalition of labor, environmentalists, small farmers, immigrants, human rights activists and other groups sponsored the demonstration and are demanding a fair deal for working people and workplace and environmental protections no matter what country.
There is widespread anger that transnational corporations are ramrodding the negotiations, which are being carried out in secret, without any input from workers and their communities.
The rally was followed by a march around the Hilton Hotel where the negotiations are being held.
Sanya Reed Smith, a legal advisor for the Third World Network in Malaysia, blasted what she called "agreements that are a bill of rights for corporations to trample all over the environment and destroy indigenous rights."
Smith recounted numerous instances where corporations sued governments under NAFTA and other free trade agreements when those governments tried to ban dangerous chemicals, toxic waste dumps and stop corporate thievery of national resources. Invariably the companies won and forced the governments to pay millions in fines allowing the environmental destruction to move forward.
If agreed to, the new Trans Pacific trade pact will have similar provisions that raise corporate rights over sovereign governments.
"President Obama promised to fix these things during the campaign. We believed him and have faith in him. We need to help him fulfill his promise," said Reed Smith.
The demonstration also came as the nation anticipates President Obama's address to Congress on Thursday. With no new jobs growth in August and 28 million out of work or underemployed, the last thing needed is another trade deal that exports jobs.
"We face the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes. But it didn't start yesterday," said Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union Illinois State Council. "It started with Reaganomics when the gave the rich the money through tax cuts and eliminated regulations. We've been paying the price for those bad economic policies ever since."
The trade pact would also allow transnational pharmaceutical corporations to place the drive for profit over the life and death needs of millions of people. The pact would protect Big Pharma drug patents and prevent countries from purchasing and producing alternative cheaper generic drugs for life saving treatments.
Michael Tequila is one of 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS. He said he is lucky to be alive because he has access to lifesaving ARV drugs that combat the disease. The new trade pact would put millions at risk.
"We stand in solidarity with people from (the Pacific Rim countries) who stand at risk due to the new agreement. President Obama, you promised us you would break the stranglehold of Big Pharma on life saving drugs. But this trade agreement does just the opposite," he said.
The protesters were joined by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. They are on a national tour mobilizing opposition to the pact.
Ben and Jerry's represent the plight of small and medium businesses finding it increasingly difficult to compete in the globalized world economy dominated by transnational corporate greed. The company has a business model that relies on fair trade with local Vermont farmers and producers in developing countries.
Everyone enjoyed some free Ben and Jerry's ice cream before heading home.
Photo: John Bachtell/PW