Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

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.

In pursuing its lofty international trade agenda, the Obama administration has been courting labor unions, long the strongest supporters of the president but also perhaps the strongest skeptics of expanded free trade.

That makes the courting of labor on trade issues a tough political balancing act for the White House as it seeks a signature economic achievement for President Barack Obama’s second term: The administration must defuse labor’s fierce opposition to bring congressional Democrats on board. ut in pressing for new free trade deals the White House doesn’t want to drain enthusiasm, and depress voter turnout, from a major Democratic bloc in the upcoming midterm elections.

At stake are two trade pacts, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, as well as fast-track trade authority, the congressionally-granted power that would help speed completed trade agreements through Congress.

Despite the outreach to unions, labor leaders don’t seem assuaged.

“The American labor movement continues to engage in a dialogue with the Obama administration,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a recent speech about trade policy. “But make no mistake about it, old-style trade deals that put Wall Street first and workers last are goners, no matter what kind of rhetoric their advocates toss around.”

Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative and a former White House economic aide, is highlighting labor’s role in the ongoing negotiations over TPP and TTIP and has launched new advisory committees to give unions a bigger role in the process.

“Labor is a critical group of stakeholders for us in these negotiations,” Froman told the House Ways and Means Committee last week.

He noted 23 union presidents serve on the USTR’s labor advisory committee, and four union leaders serve on the president’s advisory committee on trade policy. “And they’ve had tremendous input from the beginning, not only on the labor chapter but on other chapters: state-owned enterprise chapter, rules of origin, market access issues,” Froman said. “And we’re still in the midst of negotiating many of those issues, but we have tried very hard to take into serious consideration and to negotiate successfully on behalf of those issues.”

Advising the negotiators and having a deeper impact on any final agreements are two different things, however.

Froman, traveling in Japan this week, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did several unions, including the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters union declined comment.

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