Democratic flip-floppers let Senate start debating fast-track

WASHINGTON (PAI) – It was a one-day victory.

Following arm-twisting from President Obama, 10 Senate Democrats who had voted May 12 against starting debate on controversial presidential fast-track trade promotion authority – providing the key margin for that debate ban-changed their positions the next day and voted to open debate. The Senate started debating fast-track on May 14.

The Democrats also yielded to majority Republicans’ demands to open debate on TPA and the so-called “free trade” pacts it would produce, especially the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Obama, big business, and GOP leaders all strongly push fast-track.

The Democrats’ price: Separate legislation to aid workers who lose their jobs to imports, which Obama backs, and to declare deliberate currency manipulation is an unfair trade practice that costs jobs. That passed 78-20, but Obama plans to veto it.

In a twitter feed, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka summed up his view of Obama’s arguments: “Unadulterated horse waste.” He also predicted Obama’s move and the Democrats’ fold would cost the party politically at the polls next year and for years afterwards.

The flip-flop came after senators voted 52-45 on May 12 to start debate on fast-track. The Republicans needed 60 votes to open debate. Fast-track would let Obama and his successor jam legislation implementing job-losing so-called “free trade” agreements, without worker rights and protections, through Congress on up-or-down votes with no changes.

They failed on that vote, but mustered 65 on the rerun, including 52 of the 54 GOP’ers. Obama called the balking Dems to the White House, along with Delaware’s Tom Carper, the lone Democrat who voted with the GOP before. Obama’s pressure and the flip-flops angered unions and workers, who lead the mass progressive campaign against fast-track and the TPP.

“Those who want to get trade right must demand that fast-track doesn’t move unless currency and other enforcement tools are in the package,” Trumka said in a more-official statement. “Anything less leaves workers, domestic producers and communities behind.”

U.S. workers “lost millions of jobs and billions in wages over the last two decades as a result of currency manipulation, all with little to no response other than talk from various administrations, regardless of party,” he added. “If Congress is serious about ‘trade done right,’ enforceable currency provisions, both in U.S. law and in our trade deals, are needed. Currency legislation, and indeed the entire enforcement bill, cannot be left behind as Senate Republicans attempt to advance fast-track.”

His official comment was one of the milder reactions.

“This is not free trade; it’s fake trade. We have fake trade,” said Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley.

“These elected officials are turning their backs on their constituents,” said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa. “A simple up-or-down vote on a trade deal of this magnitude” – the TPP – “is not in the best interest” of the middle class. Workers and families “have seen firsthand the real impact of unfair, unbalanced trade agreements over the past 20 years.” He urged lawmakers to beat fast- track and “protect our country from another bad trade agreement.”

“Our coalition will continue to call out senators who support fast-track for giving away their right to amend this trade deal – that has been negotiated in secrecy – and any other trade deal negotiated through 2021,” the Communications Workers said in a statement. “We’ll step up our work focusing on House members who are the real key to winning this battle, and make sure that they hear us loud and clear: No fast-track for the TPP!!”
The earlier vote cheered union leaders, as it appeared to push the Senate debate into June, giving workers and their allies more time to lobby lawmakers. That prospect vanished.

“It’s like David and Goliath. We’re David and we have a slingshot,” CWA President Larry Cohen told Press Associates Union News Service in a walk-and-talk after a rally to unveil a progressive agenda. “We get at least two more weeks to mobilize.”

Despite the flip-flops, a heavy majority of congressional Democrats, in both the House and the Senate, oppose fast-track. “The TPP threatens jobs,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., its leading House foe. The House vote, so far, is too close to call.

“I challenge any member of Congress to show us a trade deal that gave us a net increase in jobs and a net increase in wages,” Steelworkers President Leo Gerard declared at the progressive agenda rally on May 12. “They can’t find it.”

The TPP is the worst of three trade pacts Obama wants to implement before he leaves office. Another is with Europe, while the third opens trade in services – including government services – to foreign firms. Fast-track would let Obama and his successor push pacts through.

The TPP doesn’t write worker rights into its text. And it lets multinationals export U.S. jobs to nations with extremely low wages and massive worker repression.

“We shouldn’t engage in trade agreements that put our manufacturing workers in direct competition with workers earning 60 cents an hour,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told the progressive agenda rally. The agenda includes opposition to fast track. Merkley didn’t flip-flop, but his Democratic colleague, Ron Wyden, co-author of the Senate fast-track bill, did.

“It is time to change the country’s playbook on trade,” Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain stated on the state fed’s website. “Fast-track does nothing to protect working people or keep jobs” in the U.S.

The TPP also includes a secret trade court, called Investor State Dispute Settlement, to let corporations challenge federal, state and local laws that might harm present or future

profits. ISDS would threaten everything from Buy American laws to job safety and health laws.

Labor mobilized its members to sidetrack fast-track in the Senate and to continue its lobbying in the House. The Steelworkers have activated their Rapid Response network for weeks, and Cohen predicted that if CWA had 10,000 activists working against fast-track before the Senate balloting, it’ll have 20,000 now.

“Working families are tired of Washington politicians telling them what’s economically best. We are all living today’s reality of trade policies that have accelerated offshoring and outsourcing of good jobs. Working Americans don’t want their elected leaders using a rubber stamp for a trade deal that is hidden behind a veil of secrecy,” Gerard said in a statement, separate from his speech at the rally.

Before the Senate votes, Trumka made it clear that labor isn’t reflexively opposed to trade – but that it is opposed to trade pacts that hurt workers. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, entitled “Let’s see a TPP that respects workers’ rights,” he said unions and workers had, for five years, submitted and lobbied for pro-worker changes to the TPP.

“The AFL-CIO, working with union federations from the other TPP countries” sought to improve the pact’s labor chapter “and address the failures of prior trade deals,” he explained.

It proposed the right to submit “a single egregious violation” of worker rights – such as a mass firing – to the trade courts, “clear rules and deadlines for action on meritorious cases,” a ban on child labor, protection for migrant workers and new standards for labor inspections and decent work. All would be enforced by “an independent secretariat.”

The administration’s response: Silence. “We don’t know” the fate of labor’s proposals, Trumka said. Therefore, workers cannot support the TPP – or fast-track to permit it.

Photo: United Steelworkers (USW) Facebook


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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).