Our nation’s economy is experiencing a dramatic comeback.
In the three months before President Obama took office, we hemorrhaged two million jobs. Millions of Americans had lost their homes. American manufacturing was flat on its back.
But thanks to the president’s steady leadership, the ingenuity of American businesses and the resilience of our workers, we’ve made a remarkable turnaround. We’ve seen 58 consecutive months of private sector job growth – the longest streak on record – with over 11 million new jobs created.
Consumer confidence hasn’t been this strong in seven years. The manufacturing sector added 186,000 jobs last year. Exports are at an all-time high.
But the president knows this progress doesn’t mean the game’s over. Instead, he’s using the momentum to shore up and build on these successes. That’s why he’s proposing free community college for everyone willing to work for it. It’s why he wants to expand access to broadband. It’s why he’s pushing to provide paid leave for more working families.
And it’s why he wants to pursue trade agreements with the strongest labor and environmental standards in history. As he mentioned in the State of the Union, the president has asked Congress to give him trade promotion authority to “protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free but fair.”
Over the last five years, increased exports from the United States have contributed to nearly a third of the nation’s economic growth. In 2013, the nation exported an all-time high of $2.3 trillion of goods and services. Those exports help support more than 11 million American jobs – and export-related jobs pay, on average, 13 to 18 percent more than non-export jobs.
What’s true nationwide is especially true in Washington, the nation’s most trade-dependent state. Together, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle generated economic activity totaling $4.3 billion in 2013, helping to support tens of thousands of jobs. Four of ten jobs in Washington are directly or indirectly tied to trade. From apples to airplanes, Washington companies are sending their products all over the world.
New markets and increased exports is great news for companies like Northwest Door in Puyallup. Jeff Hohman leads this family-owned business that manufactures garage doors that are not only sold across the Puget Sound and throughout the United States, but that also make their way to markets around the world. From Australia and New Zealand to Japan and Canada, Northwest Door and its workers have realized that with 95 percent of the world’s customers outside of our borders, we need to capitalize on every chance we get to reach those markets with Made-in-America products.
Understandably, some are concerned about the impacts of new trade agreements. They raise valid questions about protecting jobs and wages, about workers’ rights and environmental protections. Recognizing that previous trade agreements have not always lived up to the hype, the president is deeply committed to raising the bar on these issues.
That means making sure our negotiating partners meet strong labor standards and that our trade agreements include enforcement mechanisms to hold them accountable to those commitments. The president is asking for support from Congress to help make this happen. This way, international trade not only reflects our national values, it also helps U.S. companies and workers to compete on a level playing field. As the president said in his State of the Union address, if we don’t establish tough, fair rules through trade agreements, countries like China will write those rules. That would threaten American jobs and workers – and our access to the fastest growing markets in the world.
A trade policy that’s good for the middle-class must also make sure that our workforce system and the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program can act quickly and flexibly to help transitioning workers access new skills and find new opportunities.
Increased trade tends to lead to increased productivity and supports higher-wage jobs on average, but we know more must be done to ensure that the gains from trade are broadly shared by middle-class families. That’s why we are taking steps to lift stagnant wages, for example by revising the rules that determine eligibility for overtime pay. It’s why we continue to push for an increase in the national minimum wage that will give a raise to millions of workers. Washington state has long had a minimum wage well above the current, outdated national level without sacrificing robust economic growth.
Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are important for our 21st century competitiveness. With trade promotion authority, we can use them to raise labor standards and improve working conditions around the world. And we can use them to grow our own economy and create new opportunities for Washington’s workers and businesses.
Thomas E. Perez is the nation's 26th secretary of labor. He wrote this for The News Tribune.