Unions mobilize to stop trans-Pacific trade deal

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A ship at the Port of Seattle.

When it comes to issues of globalization, Washington State serves as a unique battleground.

It’s the most trade-dependent state in the country, according to the Department of Commerce, and the largest U.S. exporter on a per capita basis. As such, it is uniquely poised to benefit from deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the far-reaching international trade accord approved last month between the U.S. and 11 other countries, and currently being considered by Congress. The deal, which was eight years in the making, would boost exports by lowering or eliminating the tariffs on many domestic products.

However, Washington is also a stronghold for organized labor, which has grown extremely wary of such agreements, believing past deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have put American workers in a weaker negotiating position, and led to the mass displacement of jobs. According to a report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA led to a net loss of almost 700,000 U.S. jobs between its passage in 1994 and 2010. Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, connects the trade agreement to the rise of income inequality in the U.S., due to its effects on the manufacturing sector.

“Since NAFTA, U.S. trade policy has made it easier for companies to move jobs to low-wage countries, with no protections for either workers or the environment,” says Jon Holden, president of International Machinists Association District 751, a union representing over 35,000 current and retired workers from Boeing. “From what we’ve heard, TPP is no different.”

Before the details of TPP went public on November 5, organized labor was already fighting it, using social media campaigns and direct outreach to rally opposition. Now that the full text of the accord has been released – clocking in at over 2,700 pages – advocates of the deal and labor unions are both drawing battle lines, as Congress hunkers down for months of debate over its approval.

Eric Schinfeld, President of the Washington Council on International Trade, says organized labor’s opposition to the deal is misplaced, and the deal would lead to “historic gains” in worker standards, both in the U.S. and in TPP partner countries Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

“Globalization is absolutely having a negative impact” on labor standards, Schinfeld says. “But the issue is that we live in global economy and there’s no coming back from that. So what are the rules? Without TPP, we aren’t writing the rules. We’re playing by the rules set by other countries, like China.”

Schinfeld says the trans-Pacific agreement is a solution to globalization’s “race to the bottom” for workers, in which the citizens of affluent countries must compete for jobs against those who’d do the same work for a fraction of the cost. This agreement will improve standards in partner countries, he says, raising the bar worldwide.

Past trade agreements have made the same claims, says Dan Jacoby, a professor of economics and labor at the University of Washington, but reality didn't live up to the rhetoric. According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the labor standards laid out by past trade agreements haven't been subject to thorough enforcement.

“Ultimately, we do want to have global agreements that improve standards,” says Jacoby. “But unless there’s something in this deal that changes the competitive differential between local workers and those in low-wage countries, I don’t see why labor unions would be sanguine about this. What’s going to be promoting labor standards on the low end of the pay scale, and how will that be enforceable? I’m not sure why we’d expect to see anything different from TPP than what we’ve seen from agreements in the past.”

Put another way, the crux of the TPP debate isn't just the standards it lays out, but whether those standards will actually be enforced. Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of Congress’ most outspoken opponents of the deal, calls this the biggest issue at hand.

“Even if… rules strike the right balance among competing interests, the true impact of a trade deal will turn on how well those rules are enforced,” Warren wrote in a Boston Globe editorial. “And that is the fundamental problem: America’s current trade policy makes it nearly impossible to enforce rules that protect hard-working families, but very easy to enforce rules that favor multinational corporations.”

But Schinfeld says the agreement is “historically strong” on enforcement. He describes the labor standards in the agreement – which could make it easier for workers in partner countries to unionize, for example – as “fully enforceable.”

“What that means is that, for the first time ever, violations of the agreement in regard to labor standards will be treated as economic violations, and subject to sanctions,” says Schinfeld. “Previously we’ve only had the ability to raise flags about labor standards not being met. But that’s not what inspires action. You have to use economic sanctions and actions. I understand people in the labor community are poo-pooing it, but we’ll see historic gains in labor rights under this agreement.”

Whatever the case, IAM 751’s Holden says he sees little chance that unions will support the agreement. The Teamsters, for example, have launched a Twitter campaign against the deal, using the hashtag #TPPWorseThanWeThought.

“What experts see in this agreement is language heavily tilted toward big business and financial institutions,” says Holden. “Those are the parties who negotiated it in secret. I can’t point to any way we’d support it. Right now we’re discussing how to identify the areas where it’s lacking. And those areas are the same as other trade deals and where they failed to deliver.”

By opposing TPP, unions have rendered it toxic for some Democrats, despite a major push by President Obama in favor of the deal. It’s one likely reason that Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray were notably slow to support "fast track" approval of the deal, which would prevent amendments to it from being considered in Congress. Hillary Clinton, who was party to many TPP discussions as Secretary of State, also recently came out against the deal, likely to court labor support. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, called her opposition “a critical turning point” and “invaluable in our effort to defeat TPP.”

On the day Clinton’s opposition to the deal was announced, I had an opportunity to interview former Washington governor, U.S. Commerce Secretary, and ambassador to China Gary Locke, who has been one of TPP’s biggest champions. Asked to speak specifically to labor’s concerns with the agreement, and how it could affect organized labor at companies like Boeing, he refrained. Instead, he offered an over 400-word answer that only hinted at how American workers would fare under the agreement, made no mention of unions, and focused on arguments reminiscent of NAFTA proponents: that the accord will expand the market for U.S. products overseas (video of Locke's full comments here, at the 9:30 mark).

"So what this agreement is trying to do is raise the level and the expectations and the standards imposed on things grown or produced in other countries so that we’re not at such a disadvantage," Locke said. "When I was Commerce Secretary under President Obama, we had a model. We were really trying to encourage exports. Because there’s a huge demand for high quality, 'Made in the USA' goods and services....The more that American companies export, the more they produce. The more they produce, the more workers they need, and that means jobs. Good paying jobs."

The Washington Council on International Trade argues the same thing in a recent factsheet, pointing out that Washington exports have increased 141 percent with free trade agreement partners since 2004. "In trade agreements, the U.S. has very little to lose and a lot to gain," the factsheet says.

But TPP will need Democratic votes to pass, and labor has sway on that side of the aisle in Congress. While Republican legislators have been much more supportive, a poll shows overwhelming distrust toward the deal among GOP voters, with a large majority of Republicans believing it will have a negative effect on wages and salaries in the country. In his clear hesitancy to address how U.S. workers could be affected by TPP, Locke may have hinted at the issues that could ultimately scuttle the agreement.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.