Secret agreements and fast-track voting do not inspire confidence

Newton B. Jones, International President

In May, the Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House announced they had reached an historic agreement on trade. Democrats announced that they had won guarantees to protect labor rights in all future trade deals, starting with Peru, Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. The specific labor rights protected include the right to organize, bargain collectively, as well as bans on the use of child labor and workplace discrimination.

In and of itself, that announcement is good news. This union and others in the AFL-CIO have long supported the inclusion of labor rights protection in all trade agreements. We are cautiously encouraged that after nearly 20 years, we may begin to see language that protects workers in future trade agreements.

But this single announcement does not allay our concerns regarding the trade policy of the current administration. Nor did the manner of this announcement give us great confidence that our issues will be promoted vigorously by the Democratic leadership.

The negotiations were conducted in near secrecy, and we still have not seen the full text of the trade agreement. Based on comments to the press, it may be a significant step forward, or merely a token gesture.

Congressman Charles Rangel, the Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds the first view. He told Lou Dobbs in an interview that the agreement means that “When they [U.S. negotiators] sit at that table . . . they have to consider the impact that it’s going to have on American jobs, American communities, and American industry.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue is reported to be telling his audiences that “the labor provisions cannot be read to require compliance with [International Labor Organization] Conventions.”

Poorly considered trade agreements have resulted in the loss of millions of good-paying U.S. jobs in the past two decades.

Which is it? I believe that as long as the current administration is in power, Donohue’s position is more likely to be accurate. After all, this administration has repeatedly ignored trade violations by China. It seems unlikely they will be vigilant in enforcing provisions that they have fought on all levels until now.

And there is the matter of fast-track authorization, which continues to be the way trade agreements go through Congress. Fast-track limits the role Congress has in the acceptance of a trade agreement. As its name implies, votes are undertaken very quickly, with little time to debate the complexities of the agreement and its ramifications. When Congress votes, they are limited to a “yes” or a “no.” They cannot require changes to the agreement.

Trade agreements are typically long, complex documents full of provisions that really should be examined and discussed in public, not merely agreed to by negotiators in private. One reason we prefer true scrutiny by our elected representatives is that trade agreements often end up undermining laws passed by Congress, for example, “Buy American” laws. These laws require that certain items purchased with tax monies must be made in America. To us, that only seems reasonable.

But once a free-trade agreement is in place, all companies in any of the countries signatory to the agreement must be treated equally. In other words, “Buy America” laws would not apply to companies in those countries. A company in Peru, for instance, would have to be treated the same as a company in Kansas. To us, that does not seem reasonable.

And that is but one problem we have with trade agreements. Poorly considered trade agreements have resulted in the loss of millions of good-paying U.S. jobs in the past two decades. Our trade imbalance with the rest of the world — accelerated to some extent by these trade agreements — has lowered the standard of living for millions of American working families and contributed to the growing income gap between the richest Americans and the poorest.

I am grateful to Chairman Rangel — who has been a good friend to the Boilermakers — for his work in adding labor guarantees to the Peru and Panama Free Trade Agreements. However, I have difficulty sharing his optimism regarding the impact of this language on future trade deals.

Trade deals are still negotiated in secret, fast-tracked through Congress, and promoted in the press weeks before the actual language of agreements is made public. Corporate representatives are at the bargaining table. Labor representatives are not. Those facts do not inspire trust among working people.