Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, has been an outspoken opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that will cover trade from 12 countries as diverse as Japan, New Zealand and Chile, which account for roughly 26 percent of world trade. Trumka opposes the deal because he feels it will strip jobs and rights from workers and give foreign corporations too much influence in domestic policy.
Trumka is a member of the Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy (LAC), which serves as labor’s representative body in TPP negotiations. On April 13, the LAC authored an “Interim Report” on the United States Trade Representative (USTR)’s “failure to meaningfully engage with labor unions” in the crafting of the TPP. Their intended audience was members of Congress who were set to vote on the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015. The bill, more commonly known as “fast-track,” strips Congress of the authority to amend or address specific provisions of trade deals for the next six years.
Trumka filed the report more than five weeks beforehand, on April 16, with the USTR. According to government procedure, as an official LAC document, the report had to go through the USTR and the Department of Labor (DOL) before reaching the hands of Congress. However the USTR delayed the report’s release; as a result, no one in the Senate saw it. On May 22, the Senate passed fast track by 62 to 37, with 14 Democrats voting in favor.
On June 2, Trumka’s office released the 16-page report, 11 pages of which were entirely redacted by the USTR, with the remainder heavily edited and in some places redacted, as well as an accompanying letter that protested the delay and outlined precisely how it happened.
The letter details a timeline spanning from the day the report was filed to the day the Senate passed the fast track legislation, during which the USTR and the DOL apparently tried to drown the report in bureaucratic procedure and government ineptitude. According to Trumka, the report intended to serve as “a reading guide to senators and members of Congress to highlight the numerous places in which the TPP fails to adopt recommended working-family friendly provisions” as well as to persuade the USTR to adopt the LAC’s recommendations into the trade agreement.
The DOL’s explanation for blocking the report is an incredible lesson in seemingly pointless bureaucratic reasoning. The department explained on May 7 — three weeks after its initial filing —that the report could not be accepted as an LAC document because it hadn’t been created in a way that was compliant with the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The USTR and DOL said that because of this, they couldn’t share the report with members of Congress who requested it. However, a letter and annex dated September 3, 2014, which made up 11 pages of the report, were FACA-compliant and the LAC members asked whether these could be released to Congress.
As of May 22, the AFL-CIO had received very little feedback. As Trumka explained in the second page of his letter, they were permitted to publicly release the first five pages of the Interim Report if they edited and redacted specific portions. The USTR and DOL “failed to review” the remaining 11 pages (the letter and annex) due to time constraints — most of their lawyers were negotiating in Guam. The content of those pages therefore had to be blacked out. And neither the USTR nor the DOL provided an answer regarding whether any of the report would be released to Congress until June 5, when they finally made it available in the secure reading room as the LAC had requested nearly two months before.
The less-redacted five pages of the report outline a lack of transparency from the USTR and Obama Administration regarding the TPP, as well as severely restrictive and silencing regulations in providing any comment about it, an unwillingness to hear the LAC’s requests and demands, and serious concerns about the trade agreement.
Despite being “cleared advisors,” the members of the LAC maintain that they had been given outdated information — if any — on which to base their oft-ignored recommendations. The most recent version of the labor chapter of the TPP available to all cleared advisors was posted on their secure website on December 15, 2011.
As well, cleared advisors are, as a condition of their becoming such advisors, prohibited by USTR policy from disclosing any specific information about the deal to the public, meaning that their criticisms can only come off as vague and are unable to combat the Obama Administration’s unsupported promises.
By keeping the public and the public’s representatives — from members of Congress to union presidents — in the dark about the TPP, the Obama Administration is crafting a deal that appears to only benefits corporate interests. Among other things, the agreement will allow foreign corporations to sue governments for regulations that impinge on their profit margin, in the same way that Philip Morris International is suing Uruguay for tightening its smoking laws.
Through secrecy, incompetence and bureaucracy, the USTR and the Administration are turning a deaf ear to the American people. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the five publicly-released pages of the Interim Report on the TPP conclude that “based on the totality of information currently available, [… the agreement] will, on balance, have a negative impact on jobs, wages and other issues important to America’s working people.”
The fast-track legislation that was pushed through the Senate will make challenging the TPP in Congress much more difficult. Though it passed by a large margin in the Senate, the bill is facing steeper odds in the House, where it will be debated this month.