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Congress, reject fast-track approach to trade

By Richard Trumka Congress should reject fast-track trade authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We need a national conversation on trade to rethink what we're doing and why before we give up our democratic voice.

By Richard Trumka

Congress should reject fast-track trade authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We need a national conversation on trade to rethink what we're doing and why before we give up our democratic voice.

I don't think anyone can credibly argue that America's trade policies are accomplishing our key national objectives - whether you point to our chronic current account trade deficits, our unsustainable net international debt, or the broader labor market data on wage stagnation and growing inequality.

The American labor movement is not against trade deals, but we're dead set against bad trade deals.

For more than 20 years, America has looked at international trade through a very narrow corporate lens. In truth, our trade deals have been investment deals. Instead of promoting America's exports and creating good American jobs, they made it easier for global corporations to move capital offshore and ship cheap stuff back. The logical outcome was trade deficits and falling wages - and that's what we got.

Instead of destroying good jobs, trade should create them, and we need to ditch the idea of trade as a corporate entitlement.

We live, shop, work, and play in a globalized economy. That's the way the world is. Yet that doesn't mean working people are destined to suffer. Our trade agreements should advance U.S. interests and at the same time contribute to the overall development of the world's economy and rising living standards.

One basic problem is that much of the trade debate is about whether Americans should even have the right to debate trade policy - or just accept what we are handed by unaccountable elites. That's how fast track works. And that's wrong.

Every single line in our trade deals should be openly discussed and subject to public oversight and the full legislative process. There should be no question about that. Fast track is undemocratic, it's a rotten process, and the American labor movement intends to kill it.

The TPP involves a dozen countries around the Pacific Ocean. It's a massive agreement, but no one I know has seen the whole deal. That's a problem in itself.

What we have seen is not good. The public portions of the trade deal fail to fix currency manipulation and have nothing meaningful to reduce carbon emissions. That's extremely shortsighted.

Instead, the draft trade deal offers corporations a secret tribunal called Investor-State Dispute Settlement to allow foreign investors to challenge any law or regulation they consider unfair - like requirements that cigarette packaging include graphic health warnings.

That's just one example of how these trade deals give special rights to corporate investors. Working people, by contrast, get a raw deal.

I'm not just talking theory here. A trade pact with Colombia was supposed to improve life for working people there, but the opposite has happened. Despite a special plan to protect workers' rights, 73 Colombian union organizers were murdered in three years, and no one has even been arrested. These are men and women just like you and me who were killed for exercising their rights under the law and speaking in a collective voice.

These killings are a human-rights catastrophe, but they are also driving down wages and workplace standards in Colombia - and in every country that trades with Colombia.

But here's the thing: Unlike the clunky labor provisions, which require workers to wait for government action, the secret tribunal for corporations can be used immediately by multinational firms to challenge laws passed by democratic governments to regulate their own economies.

Bad provisions like this continue to have life only because they remain largely unknown, hidden in the dark. In the sunlight, they'll vanish. That's why Congress should reject fast track.

Without fast track, our whole country can take a look at the full TPP. With that opportunity, we would have a fighting chance to remove many of the problematic sections and strengthen valuable labor and environmental provisions. Secret tribunals would be out, and strong language to end currency manipulation would be in.

And while the negotiators are at it, they could fix the weak rules of origin that China will exploit. They could add provisions to address climate change and rebalance the pro-Wall Street tilt in the financial services, procurement, and food safety chapters. If we keep at it, this could turn out to be a decent deal for us.

But that won't happen with fast track. We should only use a process like that when Congress has complete confidence that federal negotiators are pursuing the right policies. I don't think Congress or the American people have that kind of confidence today.

It's time to reject fast track. And then if we can't fix TPP, we should scrap that, too.