Pacific trade fight makes for local discomfort

By Martha Baskin
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Port of Seattle

By Martha Baskin

This week, local fair trade advocates are lobbying members of Congress, who are home on a spring recess. Last week, the activists had cause for celebration at home: All nine members of the Seattle City Council passed a resolution in favor of a new kind of trade policy and more balanced trade agreements.

The idea of “fair trade” is an uphill fight in Congress, but it appears to have resonance in the state's largest port city. Language in the resolution favors trade policies and agreements that protect local jobs, respect domestic environmental laws and acknowledge the rights of cities and states to make “reasonable rules and regulations” without fear of being sued. The Bellingham City Council passed a similar resolution the week before.

The resolutions are largely symbolic. But both fair trade advocates and those satisfied with the current “free trade” model say the city's views can be significant, coming from a state that bills itself as the nation's most trade dependent.

Congress is expected to take up Obama's request for trade-promotion authority later this month. Commonly called “fast track,” the authority requires Congress take an up-or-down vote on trade pacts with no amendments or changes. The trade agreement of particular concern to those on the West Coast is the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a proposed pact the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries have been negotiating for the past five years.

Gillian Locascio of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition said, “There's absolutely no reason why a trade agreement that has been negotiated in complete secrecy and that civil society hasn't been involved should be fast-tracked through.” Civil society, in this case, refers to non-corporate players at both the local and national level., the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Food and Water Watch, the AFL-CIO and Washington State Labor Council and numerous faith and consumer watch dogs groups have been in full “battle mode,” said Locascio, since Obama reaffirmed his support for the TPP in his State of the Union address in January.

The TPP negotiations have drawn in 600 corporate trade advisers on the U.S. side. Only a small percentage of advisers represented civil society, according to Stan Sorscher of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, and their recommendations have not been taken into account. Last year, a more diverse “Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee” was set up to expand the range of advice, said Sorscher, but it never developed. “To the extent that the original public interest trade advisers from civil society were window dressing, then the diversity campaign is window dressing on the window dressing.”

Business groups and several state and congressional representatives see trade policy and trade agreement through a different lens. They called the Seattle City Council vote a huge step backward for global trade. Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, suggested that the council and public take their time forming judgments about the “fast-track” legislation, which is expected within weeks, and the final version of the TPP deal. “Let's read it. Let's see if it has some of these concerns about labor and the environment and regulating the public interest before we decide it's a terrible thing.” Schinfeld, whose members include Boeing, Microsoft, and SSA Marine, said 40 percent of all state jobs are tied to trade. “We benefit when good trade policies help our companies be more competitive in the international market place.”

He questioned whether the overwhelmingly support for the resolution at the Seattle City Council meeting indicated any public ground swell against the president's trade agenda just. Not everyone is free to attend midday City Council hearings, he noted. A poll by the Pew Research Center last year found 59 percent of Americans think free trade generally is good for the country.

If agreement on trade hinged on the top exports and imports moving through the Port of Seattle, it's likely the contentious camps would find common ground. Edible fruits and nuts, machinery and meat are among the top exports with electrical machinery, furniture and bedding, and apparel the top imports. True disagreement might be found over where the commodities are manufactured and the carbon footprint of exporting meat; but disputes over trade policy and the multiple trade agreements spawned over the last two decades don't really hinge on exports and imports.

Instead they revolve around the architecture of the agreements, who's negotiating them, outsourcing of jobs, the potential of unelected global tribunals to override domestic laws and the billions that nation states have been forced to pay when clean energy policies collide with expected profits of multinational fossil fuel companies. The agreements have been criticized for their lack of transparency by Democrats and Republicans alike. So far, members of Congress have been allowed to read the Trans Pacific Partnership but are not allowed to take notes, talk about what they read or make copies.

Much of what is known about the content of the TPP has been exposed through leaks. Wikileaks released the environmental chapter last year. In late March Wikileaks did the same with the controversial investment chapter, which gives broad rights to corporations to sue governments over laws they think will reduce profits. Environmental organizations are particularly concerned about the system set up to protect corporate rights, known as “Investor State Dispute Settlement” or ISDS. ISDS has been written into many trade agreements since the North American Free Trade Agreement/NAFTA was passed in 1994 and remains intact in the TPP.

Sierra Club Responsible Trade Director Ilana Solmon says there have been an estimated 600 cases of corporations challenging governments since NAFTA. The challenges are increasingly about clean energy and climate policy.

One example cited by Solomon is the EU's landmark climate policy or Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), which sought to set a target to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 6 percent by 2020. Canada, whose Alberta tar sands are the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world, threatened the EU with a World Trade Organization challenge. The U.S. oil industry, which refines Canadian tar sands for export and hopes to ship more if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, also lobbied against the Fuel Quality Directive. The threats, combined with leverage that trade negotiators enjoy, says Solomon, were taken seriously. “The EU commission issued a revised Fuel Quality Directive that is vastly weakened and is exactly what the oil industry wanted.”

At the same time the EU worked to use trade rules to strike down U.S. climate and energy policies. In 2014 a leaked trade document revealed the EU's attempt to strike down policies that would eliminate U.S. bans on exporting liquid natural gas and any bans on the contentious extraction process that goes with it, fracking.

In testimony before the Seattle City Council, Microsoft Government Affairs Director Irene Plenefisch acknowledged concern expressed by many over multinationals suing governments in unelected global courts via the Investor State Dispute Settlement process. Plenefisch told the council, “It's absolutely true, the U.S. has been a party to multiple cases using ISDS but has never lost one.”

She said the tech giant favored both “fast track” and the TPP. Trade agreements, in her words, provide more deterrents to piracy and new opportunities for digital content. In addition, she said, the TPP for the first time would address cross border data flows. “Thus far in the TPP negotiations,” she said, “there has been extensive engagement with Congress and a standing offer for every member of Congress to review it.”

It's uncertain how the majority of the state's Congressional delegation will cast their vote on fast track, the trade promotion authority needed by Obama to pass the TPP. After the Seattle City Council vote, Republicans Dan Newhouse, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dave Reichert issued a statement that called the Seattle vote “disheartening.”

Fair trade campaigners who are actively lobbying this week recess say no Democrats have agreed to take a public position on the TPP or on fast track. Last year Reps. Jim McDermott and Adam Smith signed what was considered a tough letter to the U.S. Trade Representatives office regarding labor rights. McDermott recently made critical remarks about the deal at a coffee with constituents. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have yet to take positions.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.