Union and congressional leaders announced June 5 that they are backing a new trade bill that works for workers, not just for giant multinationals.

If it becomes law, the president will be required to review all existing trade deals against new criteria that address workers’ rights and environmental protection. The legislation was introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who does not expect it to pass this year.

If the bill passes next year, a possibility if Barack Obama becomes president and there are large Democratic majorities in Congress, any existing trade deals that fail to meet the criteria would have to be renegotiated. Any new trade pacts would have to meet the same criteria.

“Our nation can’t survive in a global economy without a different set of trade rules that protect workers here from the race to the bottom and workers abroad from exploitation by drug companies and energy companies,” Brown declared.

Backers of the bill, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment Act, also called the Trade Act, say it is designed both to set new trade policy for the United States and to remove control of the issue from the White House by returning it to Congress and the people.

Passage of the bill would mean a permanent end to “fast track” for trade pacts. Under “fast track,” presidents send proposed trade deals to Congress but legislators vote up or down only on implementing legislation. They have no right to change the deals, including making changes to guarantee workers’ rights are written into the pacts.

Under the new law, once passed, the new criteria that all trade bills will have to meet will be drafted by a joint congressional-White House commission. The bill requires that lawmakers on the commission must represent groups other than the financial and business interests that currently dominate congressional trade policy.

Brown said the practical effect of passage of the bill would be a two-year moratorium on all trade pacts.

He said he is hoping for an Obama victory in November because “McCain would have to be dragged by the public, kicking and screaming, into supporting a new trade policy.”

The entire labor movement is united behind the bill. Communications Workers President Larry Cohen and Teamsters President James Hoffa spoke in support of it at the Washington ,D.C., unveiling of the legislation June 5. The Steelworkers announced their support the same day as did the nation’s two labor federations — the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

“It’s time for fighting for our jobs, for a vision of the future of America,” Cohen said. “We can’t be the last country in the world to focus on what trade means for our workers.” Cohen pointed to the recent announcement by General Motors that it will close three plants in the U.S. and another in Mexico. “We need to do something to bring back our auto industry, not just watch it go down one plant at a time,” he said.

Hoffa said the new bill, unlike past trade pacts, will be pro-worker. “Investors got NAFTA, billionaires got CAFTA and workers got the SHAFTA,” he declared, describing treaties with Canada, Mexico and Central America signed by both GOP and Democratic presidents.

To illustrate the negative impact of trade deals on U.S. workers, Hoffa talked about Fig Newtons, cookies made by Nabisco. The company closed profitable U.S. plants that made the cookies and, except for one plant in Chicago, it now produces most Fig Newtons in Mexico. Hoffa warned that Peppermint Patties, now manufactured in York, Pa., may be next.

The Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union represents 9,000 Nabisco workers in the U.S. It had 1,000 more members, Nabisco workers, before the closing of the Fig Newton plants. Peppermint Pattie workers belong to the same union.

jwojcik @ pww.org