Labor, environmental leaders challenge Fast Track trade deals

WASHINGTON — The labor movement and its environmental allies are voicing major concerns about trade promotion authority – also known as Fast Track legislation – which President Obama is seeking from Congress. The Fast Track bills (S. 1900 and H.R. 3830) would establish a process that disallows amendments to – and curtails debate on – trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. During a teleconference hosted today by the BlueGreen Alliance, leaders got together to ask the necessary tough questions regarding the president’s support of Fast Track.

Labor leaders continue to see good jobs disappearing as a result of the big trade deals and the environmentalists have jumped into the fight for fear that politicians might be trading away the nation’s clean air and water.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, spoke during the call, and noted that Fast Track mirrors the destructive impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “Close to 700,000 jobs were lost to NAFTA,” he said, referring to the fact that increased U.S. trade with Mexico resulted in many manufacturing jobs moving down there. “But this is not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of lives, jobs, and lost opportunities.” With trade promotion authority, “history will repeat itself and we will continue to lose jobs.”

If Fast Track is implemented, legislators can agree to harmful provisions that will send jobs overseas, interfere with workers’ ability to collectively bargain, and reduce safety regulations. And who stands to gain the most from this?

“The biggest engines behind these kinds of trade deals are the multinational corporations,” Gerard clarified. “They want to be able to move [potential U.S.] jobs into any country based on a capitalist’s whim. They don’t play by the rules, and our trade laws are antiquated. More of the same will only yield more outsourced and offshored jobs and shattered dreams.”

Of NAFTA, the AFL-CIO explained, “Fast Track legislation allowed the North American Free Trade Agreement to be rammed through Congress with weak labor and environmental side deals. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, North American workers have experienced downward pressure on wages and a tougher organizing environment. Twenty years later, we find an unbalanced system in which profits soar even as workers take home a diminishing share of the national income.”

Larry Cohen, President of the Communication Workers of America, was also on the call, and said, “We find a lack of real oversight and enforcement in these types of trade deals. We need to know what’s in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and what that means for jobs and the climate. We need transparency, and that means that if this thing is as good as they say, we say ‘show us.’ We want a thoroughly reviewed process. But so far this is looking like NAFTA on steroids. It will lead to more lost jobs, closed factories, and depleted industries. The president himself recognizes this, so what is he afraid of? His own party opposes him on Fast Track. There’s not one good argument for doing it.”

Gerard noted, for example, that imports of tires into the U.S. from South Korea and China continue to increase, and shipping jobs like U.S. tiremaking overseas will worsen if the Fast Track bills are passed.

Referring now to the trouble his own union could face, he added, “And in China, they have over 400 million tons of overcapacity in steel. With fast track, they’ll keep eating into our market. We’ll lose market share, and the ability to defend our union members, instead of making net job gains and a level playing field.”

Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club’s Federal Campaign Director, spoke of the environmental impact this could have, remarking, “These trade deals will be trading away our clean air and water, bringing unsafe food to our dinner tables, and affecting our very communities.”

Environmentalists entering the fray over Fast Track is a more recent development, compared with labor, which has long opposed the legislation. But now they’re joining the fight in earnest.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Sease continued. “And that’s why more than 40 environmental groups have sent a joint letter to Congress urging them not to grant the president trade promotion authority. Rushing trade agreements through Congress without accountability will be a recipe for disaster.”

And the threat goes beyond the environment. Under “free trade” pacts, the low wages and lack of worker rights in Latin America will encourage mass migration to the U.S. from those nations, as happened before, to Latin American farmers, when the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) took effect. In that instance, farmworkers there were unable to compete with American factory farms and their cheap goods, and were thrown off their land and forced to migrate to the U.S.

Under CAFTA, said Cohen, workers in Honduras, for instance, endured “constant violations of organizing rights. This included everything from the murder of union leaders to the collapse of bargaining rights where they once existed. But our AFL-CIO complaint [about these conditions] sat at the Labor Department for more than two years, just as the complaint about widespread abuse in Guatemala was held for six years before the U.S. Trade Representative finally raised it with the government there.”

Loretta Johnson, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, added, “Fast Track will undermine our democracy. That’s why a public sector union like us are advocating for openness, with greater Congressional input. Transparency is required by such 21st century agreements, but Fast Track is trying to turn back the clock. To do this behind a veil of secrecy sets a bad precedent. And the truth is, this will mean open season on U.S. jobs.”




Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his cat. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a novel.