While negotiators met at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative late last week in their latest bid to thrash out the many details in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a boisterous collection of union organizers and other activists made clear there is only one detail that matters to them: jobs.
It was a loud and colorful display of the difficulty the Obama administration faces in selling one of its most important constituencies on one of its stated trade goals in the president’s second term.
Labor unions may have helped elect President Barack Obama, but questions over international trade pit many in the movement against the president. Many are lining up against the ambitious TPP negotiations that are the centerpiece of the administration’s trade goals, and they’re looking to block the fast-track trade authority that the White House needs to advance any trade plan through Congress.
“No TPP and no fast track,” the protesters chanted from the street as international officials met inside.
The Obama administration has said it wants to conclude the ambitious Pacific trade pact by year’s end, and it has urged Congress to grant Obama fast-track trade authority to help ease the pact’s passage through the legislative branch.
Unions point to a record they say shows that free-trade agreements have led to U.S. job losses and wage stagnation, and even those labor leaders not protesting TPP and other trade initiatives have been pressuring the administration to do more on labor issues in trade deals.
“We’re not against trade, we’re just against trade that keeps costing us jobs,” said Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, who was not at the labor rally.
Gerard said that since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, the U.S. manufacturing sector has taken a beating. Such pacts, he said, “are investment deals that allow multinational corporations to play labor arbitrage.”
The administration bristles at such charges. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman says the president and his aides have always made it clear any new trade deals must meet high standards, especially for workers and their wages, promoting jobs and serving as a vehicle to strengthen the middle class.
“We have engaged extensively with the labor movement,” said Froman, who won Senate confirmation in June. “If you look across everything we’re doing, there is a long arc toward greater labor protections in trade agreements.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.