Opinion Columns & Blogs

Free trade promises, but it’s failed to deliver

Re: “Trade efforts will boost Washington workers, businesses” (Viewpoint, 8-24).

We’ve heard these promises before: Trade agreements will level the playing field, create jobs and even promote world peace. So far, their track record has been the opposite.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman was in Washington recently, where he met with Northwest labor leaders and fair trade advocates, promoting new NAFTA-style trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on the Pacific Rim, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union and the Trade in Investments and Services Agreement (TISA). Froman repeated the promises of job creation and high global standards for labor and the environment.

We heard these promises in 1993, with NAFTA – promises of shared prosperity, millions of new good jobs and higher standards of living.

The NAFTA model goes far beyond cutting tariffs and quotas. It creates new privileges and protections for foreign investors; threatens local procurement and the popular Buy American program; and reduces regulations on trucking, banking and food safety.

Since implementation, NAFTA has destroyed millions of living-wage jobs in the US, displaced millions of farmers in Mexico and allowed special trade tribunals to challenge public interest laws.

Tacoma was particularly poised to benefit from increased trade but nevertheless suffered downward pressure on wages and benefits.

Labor leaders were unconvinced by Froman’s assurances. Angela Marshall, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46, responded, “Our members don’t export, but we are affected just like all workers. When workers in one part of the world are making 40 cents an hour, standards go down for all of us. We’ve performed this grand experiment, where we were promised that trade agreements will raise labor standards around the world, and it hasn’t worked.”

The unprecedented secrecy of these negotiations only stokes public distrust. While the Bush administration and the World Trade Organization regularly published trade negotiation draft texts for public review, draft texts for TPP, TTIP and TISA would not be available for public review until four to five years after the agreements come into force.

For now, we are reliant on USTR talking points, rumors and leaked documents to find out what the U.S. is proposing, while some 700 corporate lobbyists have access to the texts as “trade advisers.”

The leaked negotiation texts are not reassuring, pushing sweeping extensions of patent rights that could threaten Internet freedom and affordability of life-saving medicines, weakening countries’ ability to set prudent financial regulations and food safety standards, while including little enforceable language around environmental protections.

Two hundred and thirty members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to President Obama urging him to address currency manipulation, with no result. Members of the Labor Advisory Council on Trade Policy complain that few of their recommendations seem likely to make it into the final TPP agreement.

If these new trade agreements pass, they will set global standards for generations, shutting out further democratic political review or adjustment.

Despite public outcry, Congress is considering signing away it oversight of these trade agreements by giving them a Fast Track to approval. Since NAFTA, corporate interests have been writing the rules, and our families and communities are suffering for it.

In Tacoma and around the world, society is saying loud and clear: We need a new, accountable model for trade, one that balances public interests with investor interests.

Patty Rose is secretary treasurer of the Pierce County Central Labor Council; Gillian Locascio is coordinator for the Washington Fair Trade Coalition.