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On Trade, Obama Faces a Tough Political Dance

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Trumka said the U.S. can’t afford another trade agreement modeled on NAFTA.

Earlier this year, Trumka complained in a letter to every member of Congress that despite the USTR’s assertions, unions had not been adequately consulted through the TPP negotiations, which Froman has said should conclude this year. That criticism likely prompted the USTR to create a Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee and to expand the Industry Trade Advisory Committees to better include labor and other interests.

“There was some pretty specific criticism by the labor union movement about the lack of consultation, and Ambassador Froman’s efforts ramped up,” said Scott Miller, a senior adviser and Scholl chair in international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Miller noted the administration has previously successfully won labor support in the trade arena. After the Obama administration modified the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, originally negotiated during the George W. Bush administration, the United Auto Workers gave its approval. “I think they’re building on that success,” Miller said.

Lori Wallach, who heads Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and is a frequent ally of unions on trade policy, said the Obama administration needs to do more to woo labor.

“If the Obama administration is sincere about getting support from Democratic base organizations, they’re going to need to change the content of the agreement, so they don’t undermine those organizations’ goals and agendas,” she said.

She said the TPP deal in its current, unfinished form includes investment rules that would promote off-shoring U.S. jobs, among other labor concerns.

But Froman and other cabinet officials argue the major trade deals could position the United States for jobs-fueling economic growth, especially in the manufacturing sector. That could lead to growth for unions, whose membership has been in decline for decades.

“I’ve been visited by several businesses, particularly from Europe, who’ve come and said the U.S. is a great market,” Froman told lawmakers last week. “When you complete these trade agreements — TPP and TTIP — the U.S. will have free trade, will have unfettered access to two-thirds of the global economy. That makes the U.S. the production platform of choice, it makes the U.S. the place where manufacturers want to put their next investment and produce stuff not just for this market but to send to Asia to Latin America to Europe.”

The administration’s trade agenda is unlikely to move on Capitol Hill before the midterm elections, largely because most congressional Democrats have no interest in taking on the highly charged issue in the run-up to November. But administration officials and trade proponents on Capitol Hill are teeing up potentially both fast-track and the TPP for movement in a lame-duck Congress or early in the next one.

Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan introduced a fast-track bill earlier this year. And Froman said recently that his office continues to work on the few remaining and difficult issues in the TPP deal.

But it makes for a difficult juggling act for the administration to press the issue against the wishes of labor unions, whose membership could make the difference in tight House and Senate races.

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