In January 2014, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, responding to the introduction of the latest “Fast Track” legislation, said, “It is past time for the United States to get off the corporate hamster wheel on trade.”
On the issue of trade, investment and global economic rules, America’s workers—and our brothers and sisters overseas—certainly are on a hamster wheel.
Every few years or so, whoever’s sitting in the White House decides that the thing a very smart president (VSP) would do is to pursue Fast Track and trade deals.
And so, that VSP starts negotiating, for instance, with Mexico and Canada (the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]), or with Central America (Central America Free Trade Agreement), or a random group of 11 other Pacific Rim countries (Trans-Pacific Partnership). The VSP tells the American people that the new trade deal will create jobs. That it will be “cost-free stimulus.” That it will “open foreign markets to U.S. exports.”
The VSP also tells America’s small businesses not to worry about most of the benefits going to giant conglomerates. And America’s patients not to worry that drug prices will increase. And America’s parents that food and product safety won’t be diminished.
Then the VSP asks Congress for Fast Track trade negotiating authority and mocks efforts to label Fast Track as undemocratic or to fix its numerous flaws.
Finally, the VSP says to America’s pundits, “See how business-friendly I am?”
The problem with all of this is that, in terms of trade policy, we really are on a hamster wheel. Don’t they define insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”?
Well, that’s what we have been dealing with for 20 years—very similar trade agreements, with very similar provisions—in many cases, copied word for word from the prior deal. Negotiated under very similar Fast Track rules. And each one fails to live up to its promises—to working families, to small businesses, to family farms, to communities.
Workers were promised new jobs under NAFTA but saw nearly 700,000 disappear. We were promised new jobs under the Korea Free Trade Agreement but saw 60,000 disappear. We were promised jobs when the United States gave China permanent normal trade relations (so that China could enjoy the full benefits of World Trade Organization membership), but we have lost 2.7 million jobs to China since then. Workers simply do not trust such promises anymore.
But these failures are not really due to flaws in the deals—these deals are largely doing what they are designed to do: to strengthen corporate influence, to deregulate the economy, to undermine union bargaining power and to push down wages.
Wait, what? NAFTA was designed to push down wages? Absolutely.