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Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 8, 2010, 6:38 am

Fair Trade Policies and Positions Paid Off in Midterm Elections

BY Kari Lydersen

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Newly elected John Carney (D-Del.) will replace retiring nine-term "unfair" trader Rep. Mike Castle (R). Carney pledged to push for trade policies that will reduce the offshoring of jobs.   (Photo by MARK WILSON/Getty Images)

Thousands of working-class and middle-class people largely voted against their own interests in bringing a wave of Republican candidates, including many Tea Party members, to victory in last week's midterm elections.

But on at least one front, the American public seemed to vote in favor of positions that protect and maintain American jobs as well as decent living standards in other countries, according to a new report by Public Citizen analyzing 182 races.

Both Republican and Democratic candidates whose records, campaigns and positions opposed free trade, offshoring and government purchase of foreign-made goods – and those who actively supported fair trade – fared significantly better in the election than those who did not espouse these ideas, the study found.

Public Citizen’s press release says:

House Democrats that ran on fair trade platforms in competitive and open-seat races were three times as likely to survive the GOP tidal wave than Democrats who ran against fair trade…

The GOP tsunami obliterated many candidate-specific features of the midterm contests, but trade, job offshoring and/or government purchases of foreign-made goods were a stunningly persistent national focus of midterm election campaigns, with 205 candidates campaigning on these issues. A record number of 75 Republicans adopted some fair trade messaging as well, 43 of whom won their races.

Public Citizen says that more than 60 races “became ‘fair trade-offs’ with either party campaigning largely on a fair trade platform.” Fair trade, the antithesis to “free trade,” emphasizes cutting out the middleman and making sure producers in developing countries are paid justly and treated with dignity in the course of their work. The report says only 37 candidates actively advocated in favor of NAFTA-style free trade pacts, and half of those candidates lost.

This is good news for labor rights worldwide. Fair trade creates decent jobs and economic independence, at least on local scales, in the developing world; while curbing free-trade pacts is of course a key tenet for organized labor in the U.S. in terms of avoiding the outsourcing of jobs to other countries where workers can be paid pennies an hour and labor protections are few.

Republicans have of course attacked the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, ot "the stimulus") as part of their assault on all things related to President Obama. These attacks took on an anti-offshoring component for at least 33 of the Republicans who claimed seats formerly held by Democrats, according to Public Citizen, as they made an issue of stimulus spending going to offshore operations.

Public Citizen also found a huge uptick in ads featuring fair trade themes, with 220 this year, compared to only 25 in 2006 and 138 in 2008. The tenor of these ads isn’t necessarily always about workers or their rights; for example Tea Party candidate Rand Paul, who won the Senate seat in Kentucky, slammed the World Trade Organization as a violation of national sovereignty.

Public Citizen cites a survey showing Americans identify offshoring of jobs -- more than the subprime crisis or other banking issues – as the main cause of economic woes. This election showed politicians responding to such public opinion. For example Washington Senator Patty Murray has been a reliable supporter of free trade in all 13 major trade-related votes since she cast her vote for NAFTA in 1993. But this cycle she led the pack in number of separate fair trade-related ads, with seven.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach noted the results should encourage U.S. legislators to push domestic production and fair trade in the future, and more importantly to oppose any efforts to revive Bush-era fair trade pacts with Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Public Citizen is pushing the passage of the TRADE Act (for Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment), originally introduced in 2008 and since reintroduced by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Me). The AFL-CIO, Change to Win and various individual unions all support the act. It would require the reviewing of and potentially renegotiating existing trade agreements, including NAFTA. It would also set forth requirements for future trade pacts and replace the Fast Track mechanism often used to push through unpopular agreements. Wallach said their recent study shows it is in the self-interest of politicians on both sides of the aisle to support the TRADE Act and other curbs in unfettered free trade in the future.

Freshmen GOP congressmen being asked by their leadership to support trade agreements most Americans consider job-killers undoubtedly will have the foreseeable 2012 Democratic attack ads in mind. The co-sponsors of the TRADE Act will represent a growing share of the party, and many of the leaders from the House Trade Working Group campaigned on trade and won their re-election races.

Public Citizen chided Democrats who failed to leverage the anti-fair trade records of their opponents in contentious races. For example, Republican Roy Blunt hammered at Democratic opponent Robin Carnahan’s history as a trade official during the Clinton administration to help him win the Missouri Senate seat, even though Blunt himself was a key backer of the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Public Citizen also notes that despite these political winds, the White House is still pushing for passage of the unpopular free trade agreement with Korea, drafted under President Bush. Public Citizen’s press release says opponents of the Korean FTA:

…hope the administration will seize the opportunity offered to them by the opportunity to renegotiate this pact to start implementing Obama's promised reforms, gain support for a new model of trade expansion from the majority of Americans opposed to the NAFTA model, and re-energize union members, environmentalists and other progressives who are key to the Democrats' political success.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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