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Tuesday, Mar 25, 2014, 6:23 pm

Rejecting TPP, AFL-CIO’s Trumka Calls for ‘Global New Deal’

BY Bruce Vail

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At a March 25 Center for American Progress event, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had sharp words about backroom trade deals such as the TPP.   (CAP)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today called for a “Global New Deal” to fundamentally rethink U.S. foreign trade policies, especially so-called “free trade agreements” such as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

These treaties in the works are examples of  “a failed model of global economic policies” based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of the mid-1990s, Trumka said. “We cannot enact new trade agreements modeled on NAFTA. ... NAFTA put corporations in charge of America’s economic strategy with the goal of shipping jobs off shore to lower labor costs,” he told an audience at the Washington, D.C., offices of the Center for America Progress, an advocacy group closely associated with the Democratic Party. Echoing common progressive criticisms of the trade deals, Trumka called NAFTA, TPP and TTIP “thinly disguised tools to increase corporate profits by poisoning workers, polluting the environment and hiding information from consumers.”

“The NAFTA model is not inevitable,” Trumka continued. “We have a choice, and we will choose between the world economy of today—with slow growth, high unemployment and obscene levels of inequality—and the world of tomorrow, of broadly shared prosperity. We will choose between a world of wealth for the 1%, with poverty for the rest of us, and a world in which all of us who work hard can enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

Taking a global view, Trumka made the broad point that workers in the United States and elsewhere “need new policies to spark a virtuous cycle where rising wages fuel demand, not flimsy debt-driven demand, but healthy demand, which would in turn spark business investment and more jobs and higher wages in a strong cycle of global growth that works for all our families, for the environment and our communities. We need a global New Deal: a worldwide program to bring the basic infrastructure of modern society—electricity, water, schools, roads, Internet access— to everyone on Earth,” he said. Renegotiated trade deals could be a means for establishing such a system, he suggested, but that would require an entirely new approach by government officials.

Speaking to a Democratic Party-friendly audience, Trumka avoided any direct attacks of President Barack Obama, although some criticism was implied in his remarks. He conceded that “TPP and TTIP are products of the Obama Administration,” and “our hope was that we would see a new template” from trade agreements negotiated by Obama appointees, but that has not come to pass. “So far, we see the same corporate-dominated processes, and, in too many respects, the same fundamental outdated framework for both agreements,” Trumka said. The TTIP and TPP have been negotiated behind closed doors by the governments of the participating countries and multinational corporations. Even Congress members have not been privy to the treaty drafts, though pieces have been leaked. Trumka added, however, that AFL-CIO would be willing to work with Obama to pass a revised version of TPP if such a major revision adequately addressed the complaints of organized labor and its progressive allies.

The AFL-CIO chief’s criticisms of the TTP and TIPP did not break new ground for labor, as a number of other union leaders have already spoken out forcefully against the proposed treaties. International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM) President Tom Buffenbarger, for example, denounced TPP in a December 2013 speech at the National Press Club. Likewise, Teamsters President James Hoffa has been publicly criticizing the treaties for months, specifically linking them to U.S. jobs lost as a result of NAFTA. And leaders of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) have been actively campaigning against TPP for more than a year.

Most recently, these labor organizations, including AFL-CIO, were among those lobbying to kill an Obama-endorsed proposal to place TPP on a “fast-track” to quick approval in the U.S. Senate. Unions and other opponents counted it as a victory when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced his opposition to fast track in late January, a development that will slow, or possibly kill, any chances that Congress will approve TPP this year.

As for specific changes in TPP and TIPP sought by AFL-CIO, Trumka said: “We know what we’re looking for in these agreements. We want trade agreements to contribute to democratic global economic governance and to promote good jobs, full employment and rising wages. A key element, of course, is strong labor rights protections so that every worker in every country can exercise fundamental human rights on the job—without fear. So we are looking for every trade agreement to require nations to adopt, maintain and enforce the core labor rights—as agreed by the International Labor Organization—and as set out in the ILO core conventions and their related jurisprudence. These include freedom of association and the right to organize, and bans on child labor, forced labor, and discrimination in employment.” Leaked portions of the TPP and TTIP have not included any mention of these rights.

But labor union rights are not the sole interest of AFL-CIO, Trumka continued. Environmental protection and consumer rights also need full consideration: “We live in a globalized economic environment, and one where the need for rules that protect people and the planet is growing.  We simply cannot afford trade rules that push in the other direction, that make the global economy a free fire zone for corporate power, or make it impossible to act effectively to address profound challenges like climate change,” he said. 

The AFL-CIO leader concluded by demanding that the United States “put our democratic rights at the center of our economic policies and our trade agreements.”

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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