U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker brought the gospel of trade to Tacoma on Tuesday morning, meeting with business leaders and elected officials in part to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade agreement.
And at Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park on Tuesday afternoon, some five dozen union leaders and members, environmentalists and other residents heard speakers urge Congress to consider any proposed trade deal cautiously with an eye toward protecting American workers’ wages and benefits and ensuring the safety of goods imported into the United States.
“We’re not opposed to a trade agreement,” Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, told the assembled workers. “We just want to see wages rise, not fall, and see the safety of our food protected.”
TPP negotiations, begun in 2002, continue today among 12 countries: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.S., Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan.
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“America wins when we export our products and not our jobs,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, following a round table discussion and tour of South Tacoma manufacturer General Plastics on Tuesday morning.
“We want to see more American companies have access to markets around the world,” said Pritzker.
The agreement, she said, “will benefit businesses and our middle class.”
They will also, she said, enforce fairness and uphold American values worldwide.
Speakers at the Fireman’s Park gathering weren’t so sure.
Jon Holden, president of International Association of Machinists Local 751, which represent workers who assemble Boeing jetliners in Washington, said that while trade is important to his members and to Boeing, a proper trade agreement won’t put pressure on local workers to reduce their wages or their pension and health benefits.
Holden said that because the agreement has been negotiated in secret and because a proposed fast-track procedure won’t allow for amendments to the pact, the trade deal could wipe out more living wage jobs and move more production overseas.
“Skilled workers,” said the union local president, “have had no standing at the table.”
Part of the relief offered by the TPP will come from the removal of tariffs that increase the cost of American goods for international consumers, Pritzker said. She estimated that there are 570 million middle class consumers in Asia today, with the number expected to grow to 2.7 billion by 2030.
“A lot is at stake,” she said. “The time is now for us to act.”
Bruce Lind, president of the host General Plastics, said tariffs have stymied efforts to gain certain international customers.
He said he views the TPP “as an opportunity to let us compete, let us innovate.”
Some members of Congress have complained that there has been little transparency in the negotiations between nations.
However, Kilmer said, “I think the U.S. trade representative has done a good amount of outreach.”
Other observers have wondered why China has been excluded from participation.
“Let’s get it done with the first 12 countries,” said Pritzker.
“You’ve got to begin to live up to a global standard,” she said. “If the U.S. doesn’t act, other countries will. China would be the lead. We need to play a leadership role. It’s the right thing to happen.”
Business Roundtable, an advocacy group comprising corporate CEOs, has said the agreement would expand trade between Washington and existing free-trade agreement partners and “provide an opportunity to grow ... goods and services exports and address a range of important tariff and nontariff barriers that currently impede exports.”
The agreement would also open new markets and strengthen investment ties with all TPP countries, the group said.
Trade is one of the highest-profile issues in the new Congress, often cited as an area where the Republican majority may be able to find common ground with a Democratic president. But so far, the debate has moved slowly.
President Barack Obama set the stage in his State of the Union speech last month, when he asked Congress to pass special tradepromotion authority that would force Congress to take an up-or-down vote on trade pacts, with no amendments or filibusters allowed.
Key backers of the president’s plan, including U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, say it’s important to pass trade-promotion authority before Congress takes up Obama’s ambitious plan to expand trade throughout the Pacific Rim.
Reichert, the co-founder of the Friends for TPP Caucus, joins other Republicans who have been urging the president to get more aggressive in pushing his trade plans and to get more Democrats on board. Many Democrats are resisting the president’s proposals, fearful that they will send more jobs overseas.
Dean McGrath, president of Tacoma’s Longshore Union Local 23, said his members are eager to be loading more Washington- made goods onto ships at the Port of Tacoma.
“If that’s ever going to happen,” said McGrath in a prepared statement, “Congress needs to stop rubber-stamping business-as-usual trade deals that create a race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards.”
“We should be pushing to improve working standards overseas, not forcing people here to compete with sweatshop wages,” said the Longshore local president.
In the past, trade issues have united the Washington state delegation, drawing support from Republicans and Democrats alike, a reflection of the state’s dependence on foreign trade. That’s likely to be the case this time, too, though members have not indicated how they’d vote on any specific legislation.
Alongside Pritzker’s visit to Tacoma, the city also will host U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet, who will speak with a roundtable of business leaders Wednesday at Flex-A-Lite, a manufacturer of automotive fans and cooling systems.
With nearly half of workers nationwide employed by small businesses, Contreras-Sweet said Tuesday afternoon by phone from California that “we find that small busineses are now engaging in international commerce. We want the SBA to be ready to (help them) navigate through international commerce.”
The partnership agreement, she said, would allow small businesses to have “rules of engagement on how to deal with (trade) matters, including patents.”