You might wonder why our local activists – more typically animated about banning fracking, reforming elections, and overturning RLUIPA, the law that allows any religious institution to supersede local zoning , are so exorcised about the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership and the Obama’s Administration push for Fast Track authority – I mean, that sounds so far, far away. We’re not even on the Pacific Coast.
But there is a litany of concerns being raised, that boils down to states and localities handing over the power of corporations to overturn public health, public safety, consumer financial and environmental protections – all the things that local activists are really concerned about – or risk being hauled into some international tribunal for diabolically expensive litigation by deep-pocketed, soulless companies.
“Trade deals like the TPP (or “NAFTA on steroids”) are known to hurt workers and our environment. Jobs would be sent overseas, more unsafe food would be imported and fracking would be promoted. And most troubling of all? Corporations could sue local governments for putting regulations in place that hurt their profits — and not even within our own court system. Secretive international trade tribunals could dictate whether or not we can ban fracking or label GMOs in our own communities,” said Sarah Alexander, Deputy Organizing Director of Food & Water Watch:
The trade rules of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and 11 Asian nations would cover nearly 40 percent of the world economy (a second treaty is being negotiated with the European Union) — but don’t ask what the terms are. Access to the text of the proposed deal is highly restricted.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy. It will also negatively impact some of the poorest people in the world,” asserted Senator Bernie Sanders.
“The TPP is a treaty that has been written behind closed doors by the corporate world. Incredibly, while Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry and major media companies have full knowledge as to what is in this treaty, the American people and members of Congress do not. They have been locked out of the process.
“Further, all Americans, regardless of political ideology, should be opposed to the ‘fast track’ process which would deny Congress the right to amend the treaty and represent their constituents’ interests.
“The TPP follows in the footsteps of other unfettered free trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA and the Permanent Normalized Trade Agreement with China (PNTR). These treaties have forced American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage labor around the world. The result has been massive job losses in the United States and the shutting down of tens of thousands of factories. These corporately backed trade agreements have significantly contributed to the race to the bottom, the collapse of the American middle class and increased wealth and income inequality. The TPP is more of the same, but even worse…
“Let’s be clear: the TPP is much more than a ‘free trade’ agreement. It is part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations and Wall Street by outsourcing jobs; undercutting worker rights; dismantling labor, environmental, health, food safety and financial laws; and allowing corporations to challenge our laws in international tribunals rather than our own court system. If TPP was such a good deal for America, the administration should have the courage to show the American people exactly what is in this deal, instead of keeping the content of the TPP a secret.” (Sanders offers specifics on “10 Ways the Trans-Pacific Partnership Would Hurt working Families” at his website.)
Not surprisingly, the White House – and the US Trade Representative – cast TPP in an entirely different light, basically insisting that this administration is well aware of the problems NAFTA caused and wouldn’t make the same mistakes, that TPP, rather than undermine our labor, environment, and consumer protections, would somehow embed our “values” and our “standards” to the signatory countries, and that the explosion in US exports by virtue of overturning the regulatory and tariff impediments will produce halcyon days of jobs creation, wage increases, economic prosperity and national security for Americans. And don’t worry that some international tribunal can preempt national, state and local law – that’s just an arbitration process.
This week, the White House stepped up its campaign for TPP – the President even made it the subject of his weekly address titled “We Should Make Sure the Future Is Written by Us” – presumably because if we don’t “write” the terms for the trade agreement, China will dictate terms.
“95% of the world’s potential customers live outside our borders,” the President said. “Many of them live in the Asia-Pacific – the world’s fastest-growing region. And as we speak, China is trying to write the rules for trade in the 21st century.
“That would put our workers and our businesses at a massive disadvantage. We can’t let that happen. We should write those rules.
“That’s why Congress should act on something called ‘trade promotion authority.’ This is bipartisan legislation that would protect American workers, and promote American businesses, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are fair. It would level the playing field for American workers. It would hold all countries to the same high labor and environmental standards to which we hold ourselves.”
How, exactly, is not specified.
Obama sweeps all of the aforementioned concerns aside, saying, “I’m the first to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype. And that’s why we’ve successfully gone after countries that break the rules at our workers’ expense.
“But that doesn’t mean we should close ourselves off from new opportunities, and sit on the sidelines while other countries write our future for us. We should seize those opportunities. We should make sure the future is written by us. And if we do, we won’t just keep creating good new jobs for decades to come – we’ll make sure that this century is another all-American century.”
When I ask for specifics – how exactly, would the US impose our standards and values on the rest of the world without American wages and protections being driven down? – the White House handed me a fact sheet and the USTR pointed me to a February 2014 speech by Ambassador Michael Froman, the Trade Representative:
“Our trade policy has evolved substantially from what it was twenty years ago, but many of the criticisms have not. Some of the criticisms I hear of our agenda describe the state of the trade policy in1994, not 2014.
“They are criticisms of a trade policy this President has explicitly rejected.
“The reality is this: Trade, done right, is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
“Through negotiations we are able to create new opportunities. Through enforcement actions we are able to stand up for our rights and fight for our people.”
And here’s the essence of how all the good will unfold: “Once these agreements are in place, firms in the U.S. will enjoy unfettered access to markets representing two-thirds of the global economy.
“That has the potential to make the U.S. the production platform of choice, the place where firms want to make things, not just for this market, but to send all over the world.
“In this sense, our trade policy is a major lever for encouraging investment here at home –in manufacturing, agriculture and services – creating more high-paying jobs and combating wage stagnation and income inequality.”
Why am I not comforted?
As for secrecy and the charge that business interests have a seat at the table, but Congressmen, labor and environmentalists do not, the White House says, “The Obama Administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency and diversify the voices involved in America’s trade policy. Those steps have resulted in more public dialogue and outreach on trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) than on any other free trade agreements in history”.
Asked for specifics, I was referred to Froman’s speech from a year ago:
“That included a new practice of opening the door to stakeholders – hundreds of them from the private sector, the labor community, NGO’s, academia – during negotiating rounds and providing them with a platform for conveying their views directly to the negotiators – not just from the U.S. but from all of our trading partners.
“We have strengthened our partnership with Congress, working with expert staff and interested Members through nearly every decision and challenge..”
He said that USTR upgraded its advisory system, was creating a new Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee (PITAC) to join the Labor Advisory Committee and Trade and Environment Policy Advisory committees “to provide a cross-cutting platform for input in the negotiations” and “new steps to broaden public information on the progress of negotiations.”
But if there is a seat at the table, it’s news to labor and environmentalists.
“That is patently false,” said Patrick Woodall, research director and senior policy advocate for Food & Water Watch, Washington. “The USTR operates a series of trade advisory committees, largely made up of largest transnational corporations- also a labor committee, environmental – but most of the dozens of committees are big business. They have access to the text, to the negotiators, but the rest of America, including Congress, is out of the process.” And this is unusual for Congress not to be able to see the negotiating documents. ” The hurdles that have been set up have made it harder for even our elected officials to witness what is going on, is unusual.”
In fact, over 600 corporations have already weighed in on the details of the proposed agreements, while the public has been left out of the conversation,
What about the claim that American interests would be protected because of enforcement?
“There is no example of the US ever using trade deals to improve the environmental or worker protection standards in other countries,” said Woodall. “The reality is all the trade deals to date, and we expect the TPP, put greater protections for the business sector than for labor or environmental concerns – if you run afoul of business rules on intellectual property or investment, there would be automatic penalties, but if you ran afoul of the ‘window dressing’ – the environmental or worker protections – you wouldn’t be able to apply penalties.”
You can look at the frustration the US has had with countries that artificially devalue their currency in order to make their exports cheaper, or countries that illegally subsidize their flag carriers so that US airlines can’t compete.
Froman, for example, claims that TPP will open the way for cheaper generic drugs – but opponents say what it will do is force the higher prices that Americans pay, based on intellectual property claims, on drugs in countries where they are now substantially less money than the US, where they justify the higher costs to “recoup research costs.”
As for how the US would enforce labor law (does the agreement quantify a “living wage” or safety standards?) or environmental law, I am referred to Froman’s speech, in which he says opening the markets to US trade will give the US “influence.”
“We see TPP as the mechanism most likely to incentivize these countries to make progress in reforming their labor system and upholding worker rights,” Froman stated.
But let’s consider the premise of TPP, and what it’s designed to do: level the playing field that will open the floodgates to US exports.
In the first place, those “unfair obstacles” and tariffs they place in front of US companies? Well, the proper response is to return the favor and impose the same regulations and tariffs on those countries and impose tariffs to compensate for the wage differentials, for the lack of worker and environmental protections – that would level the playing field for American producers.
Instead, US tax law gives incentives for US companies to off-shore jobs and profits – the TPP does nothing to address that. And if 95% of the world’s population is located abroad, so are 95% of workers, and 40% of the world earns less than $2 a day.
I would suggest that American “influence” comes from the US still being (at least for now) the world’s largest economy. It would seem to me that by virtue of our market size, we would be able to enforce our values that way – as the brand-name US manufacturers, under pressure from horrified American consumers, did to force Bangladesh to act after a factory collapse killed 1100 people.
In fact, the ability to sell abroad is why companies can be so callous about the lack of a living wage here, that otherwise would boost consumer spending – they don’t care if the US economy is robust or not, if Americans can afford their products because, as they said, in Asia, alone, the number of middle class consumers will increase from 550 million to 2.7 billion people by 2030. (How ironic that the US middle class is shrinking). Companies don’t have to produce goods in the US to sell to Asian middle class consumers.
As for enforcement, Froman alludes to a case brought against Guatemala, noting this was the first time in history! But isn’t that the point? For more than 200 years, no administration pursued recourse against infractions – even the Bangladesh factory disaster prompted a threat to remove special trading partner status. What about the day to day misery, danger to workers, and the loss of American jobs to lower-cost regions before “infractions” can be addressed?
And what about future Presidents? Would future administrations bother to pursue, or would they simply take campaign contributions, as Congressman Tom DeLay did from the Tan family in the Mariana Islands, so that they could continue to keep workers in near-slave conditions and even force women to have abortions.
More likely, the way the TPP is constructed, it will result in enforcement by corporations against citizenry.
Lisa Oldendorp, from Moveon.org, is also mystified. “I can’t understand why Obama is pushing this so hard. His advisors must have painted a beautiful, rosy picture of America’s economic future. ‘We the people’ have so much to lose with this agreement, especially with the Investor State tribunals. So much is jeopardized with this agreement–environmental protections, labor protections, ANY laws we have passed that a foreign corporation deems to have interfered with their right to make a profit, including ‘future potential profit’–and that’s just the little we know about it.
“Domestic corporations have and will set up dummy subsidiaries in other countries so they can sue in the U.S. (and vice-versa). It has already happened under NAFTA and WTO. We’ll be paying the corporations for lawsuits with our hard-earned dollars while the corporate CEO’s laugh at us from their Caribbean hideaways! Our democracy will be a sham, since any laws we make will be subject to challenge by corporations in foreign tribunals–with no appeal! Working people in other countries will fare much worse, as the U.S. transnational corporations will be fighting for more access to foreign markets for their cheap labor. Global corporations will continue to trample on the people’s rights (as they have under NAFTA, WTO, and smaller agreements) to clean air and water, GMO-free food, a living wage, internet access, affordable medicine, and so much more.”
In fact, John Oliver, the political satirist (“Last Week Tonight” on HBO) made this plain in his take-down of Big Tobacco and specifically, Philip Morris International, which has been on a rampage suing whole countries – Australia, Uruguay, Togo – in order to stop the implementation of public health warnings designed to cut down on smoking.
Togo, Oliver noted, is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, with a total GDP of $4 billion, and was threatened by PMI, with $80 billion, with crippling legal actions. Consider for a moment the fact that these are among the poorest people on the planet who are being subjected to an expensive addiction, let alone one that causes all sorts of health problems and premature death, all with attendant costs. Under fear of costly litigation, Togo withdrew the public health regulations.
As Oliver showed, Philip Morris of Australia, drawing on a 1973 trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong, upped and moved its Australia company to Hong Kong, in order to sue.
Philip Morris justified its litigiousness saying, “And, like any other company with a responsibility to its business partners, shareholders and employees, we ask only that laws protecting investments, including trademarks, be equally applied to us.”
In another example, after Quebec put a moratorium on fracking. The fracking company, Lone Pine sued Quebec for $250 million to compensate for their lost profits, claiming the moratorium violates its “right to frack” under Canada’s trade agreement.
“The worst part is, under trade deals like this, it’s nearly impossible for Quebec to defend its laws. We’d be facing similar assaults on our ability to protect communities from threats like fracking if these new trade deals go through,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director, Food & Water Watch. “The TPP and TTIP are a huge threat to American jobs, local fracking bans, food safety rules, GMO labeling laws and renewable energy.”
One can easily imagine companies that would otherwise be subject to US law setting up Pacific ownership so they could defy laws (and taxes), and bully localities into submission.
I could understand a President Romney pushing for TPP – the guy who shuttered local factories and outsourced thousands of jobs and boasted that of course he avoided paying taxes, because Americans wouldn’t respect a President who didn’t. In fact, McConnell, representing the corporatists in the party, cited the trade agreement as one of two areas (the other is lowering corporate taxes) he felt the Republicans could work with the President.
But I still don’t understand why Obama, who, as Senator and as a candidate railed against NAFTA and in every other way has championed worker rights, a living wage, addressing climate change (the fact he doesn’t get any of this is not the point), would engineer this if it would do what we all fear.
“I can’t explain the motivation of the White House or the president,” reflected Woodall, of Food & Water Watch. “It certainly runs directly contrary to the things he said during campaign and as senator about the downside of free trade, the problems with fast track, the problems with NAFTA. And rather than promoting a more open, democratic, transparent process, he is upping the ante and pushing one of the biggest deals under the most secret conditions ever.
“The reality is, it isn’t a question of Romney or Obama or Bush or Clinton – the people inside the White House drink the free trade Kool Aid and push the same deals that are bad for people, workers, environment, consumer protection, and it’s happening that American people are standing up to this and demanding more transparent trade negotiating regime, i stead of just benefiting big business.”
There are many places to get involved – Public Citizen, Moveon.org, Food & Water Watch. One of the sites is stopthetpp.org organized by the CWA (Communications Workers of America) union. But you can start by contacting your representatives in Congress.
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