Labor urges Congress to pump the brakes on fast track

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan host a field hearing on trade at Richfield City Hall.

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan host a field hearing on trade at Richfield City Hall.

Unions are joining a national day of action to stop fast track March 4, and two members of Congress from Minnesota got an earful as to why last week at a field hearing in Richfield.

DFL Reps. Keith Ellison and Rick Nolan heard testimony from trade experts, union leaders, business owners and advocates for family farmers, who passionately exhorted the representatives to resist President Obama’s push for fast-track authority to enter trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The Obama administration, looking for ever-elusive common ground with Republicans who took over Congress this year, has moved fast track and the TPP to the top of its agenda. And the president has plenty of powerful allies in that effort, Nolan warned.

“Not only the administration, but the multinational (corporations) are putting a full-court press on this thing,” the 8th District Congressman said. “Every member is getting collared and called and pushed and urged.”

Ellison wryly noted that White House representatives reached out to him as he was leaving Washington to return to the 5th District, letting him know they were aware of the field hearing – and less than pleased with it.

But testimony at the hearing raised several concerns with fast track and the TPP, a looming NAFTA-style trade agreement among 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

An undemocratic notion

By passing fast track, also known as “trade promotion authority,” Congress would limit its own ability to influence trade policy, forcing members to take an up-or-down votes on 1,000-page trade agreements like TPP without offering amendments.

“That’s clearly an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Congress of the United States,” Nolan said.

Worse, members of Congress are severely limited in their ability to monitor or influence the TPP negotiations, Nolan added. Draft agreements and transcripts of the talks are shielded from the media.

“We’re not allowed to even sit in on the negotiations,” Nolan said. “Now, finally, they’re saying they’ll let us look at some of the transcripts, but all the names and all the essential elements are eliminated. It’s kind of like reading the newspaper with a third of every article being eliminated. So it’s not really time very well spent.”

Machinists union representative Rick Ryan (R) testified before a field hearing on fast track and the Trans Pacific Partnership last month. Ryan appeared on a panel with CWA Minnesota State Council President Mona Meyer and Bob Ryan of the United Steelworkers.

Machinists union representative Rick Ryan (R) testifies before a field hearing on fast track and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Ryan appeared on a panel with CWA Minnesota State Council President Mona Meyer and Bob Ryan of the United Steelworkers.

Profits over people

Leaked drafts of the TPP hint at why Obama’s trade negotiators and hundreds of cleared “advisors” – most of whom represent multinational corporations – might not want the public to see their proposals. Like NAFTA and other free-trade agreements of the last 20 years, TPP appears to give corporations more power over the global economy.

These multinationals have dictated U.S. trade policies at the expense of middle-class wages and jobs for too long, said Mona Meyer, president of the Communications Workers of America’s Minnesota State Council. Look no further than the annual trade deficit of $476 billion.

“The promoters of TPP are again promising job gains,” Meyer said. “But we can do the math, and any job growth with be dwarfed by the flood of jobs that go offshore.”

Trade agreements put manufacturing jobs, in particular, at risk. About 6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs and 60,000 factories have been lost since 2001.

Nilfisk, a company that manufactures industrial floor-cleaning equipment, employed 500 members of the Machinists union at a facility in Plymouth before NAFTA passed. After several rounds of outsourcing, Machinists District 77 representative Rick Ryan said, about 70 workers are left at the plant.

But Ryan warned the TPP goes beyond tariffs and trade.

‘Why are we not at the table?’

“It will affect all sectors of our economy, our courts, our intellectual property rights, labor standards, environmental standards and more – done at the bidding of the world’s largest multinational corporations, further benefiting the 0.1 percent at the expense of the 99.9 percent worldwide,” Ryan said.

How? Dave Levine, CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, said TPP language could empower corporations to sue local governments that pass “buy local” laws – a school district looking to serve food from area farmers at lunch, for example. It’s one reason the council’s 225,000 member companies oppose fast track and the TPP.

“None of them got a call to be at the table,” he said. “If it’s good for business, why are we not at the table to bring our interests to the proceedings?”

Josh Wise, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, noted that the TPP and other trade agreements create extrajudicial trade tribunals, presided over by judges with deep ties to multinationals, that have jurisdiction over local courts.

Lone Pine Resources, an energy company suing the government of Quebec over its ban on fracking, maintains its headquarters outside Canada “for the sole purpose of being able to challenge the fracking ban via the trade court rather than the judicial system,” Wise said.

Fair trade, not free trade

Ellison and Nolan entered the hearing already opposed to fast track and the TPP. Both insisted they were not against trade, but favored trade policies that strengthen labor and human rights, protect U.S. families us from unsafe imports and promote the export of goods instead of jobs.

“We built this economy with rules and regulations on health and safety, wages and benefits,” Nolan said. “To say that we’re going to allow anyone and everyone to come in here and dump their products on us without any countervailing measures … is to really destroy the essence of who we are and what we’re all about.”

Ellison added, “I believe American workers can compete with any workers in the world” if given a level playing field.

“I know that you guys will fight for democracy,” Wise told the members of Congress. “I wish you the best of luck in convincing your colleagues to do the same.”


  1. […] Upping the ante in its campaign to stop trade agreements that give corporations more power over the global economy, the AFL-CIO announced today it would freeze all contributions to federal lawmakers’ Political Action Committees and focus, instead, on a ground battle against fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. […]

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