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Trade Policy Hardly on Labor's Fast Track

Kate Ackley/CQ Roll Call
Union organizers and activists are protesting the Obama administration’s ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership because of concerns over how it will affect jobs at home.

Labor groups are responding to a yearslong shift of jobs from the United States, a movement labor leaders argue is being pushed along by trade pacts that allow companies to use cheaper labor to source goods abroad. The Commerce Department, for instance, said in a 2011 report that large multinational companies cut 2.9 million jobs in the U.S. in the 2000s while adding 2.4 million jobs overseas.

Such reports provide a hurdle to the administration’s efforts to win over trade skeptics in the labor movement.

Gerard said his union opposes granting Obama fast-track authority, a procedural action that is considered necessary to pass any trade agreement because it gives Congress only an up-or-down vote on a signed deal. And officials with other unions also appear to be leaning that way.

Mike Dolan, a legislative representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who focuses on trade policy, said his union hadn’t yet made up its mind on the TPP deal. But protesters wearing Teamsters T-shirts participated in last week’s rally at the USTR office, and Dolan said he believes the closed-door negotiations do not look to be trending labor’s way.

“The TPP is within a tradition of the last 20 years of what we feel is a flawed and failed model for so-called free trade,” Dolan said. “The basis from labor’s perspective is the sheer volume of jobs that have been lost under these agreements, beginning with NAFTA.”

Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist with the AFL-CIO, said her union has not taken an official position on TPP or fast track but isn’t overly optimistic that either will include the “reforms” her side is urging.

Still, the AFL-CIO isn’t giving up, she said.

Drake said she and other staffers remain in contact with the USTR and congressional aides and that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka “does speak to Ambassador Froman personally about trade issues.”

At last week’s demonstration, Kenneth Peres, chief economist for the Communications Workers of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, spoke out against the TPP and the labor conditions in countries participating in the talks. “Remember, they want to put our workers in competition with countries like Vietnam, who have a minimum wage of $2.23, that’s not an hour ... for a full day’s work,” he said.

Unions are interested not only in influencing the labor chapter of the sweeping TPP deal but in some of the other 29 chapters involving investment rules, country-of-origin standards for product labeling and other controversial matters.

If the AFL-CIO ends up opposing a TPP deal — if such an agreement is signed and sent to Congress for approval — Drake said it will mount a serious campaign against the pact. “At a time when we’re really trying to grow and see a resurgence of a strong American labor movement, that is not the time I see the affiliates laying down and saying we’ll accept a job-killing trade agreement,” she said.

Proponents of the TPP and of fast track, such as Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, argue that without new trade deals such as the TPP, Americans may lose existing and potential jobs.

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