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Labor's So-Called "Seat at the Table" at TPP Negotiations

For the average citizen, the negotiating process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is anything but transparent. The negotiators for the United States and the other 11 TPP countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) meet in private. The negotiating texts are not public. Even Members of Congress do not have unlimited access and cannot seek advice from outside experts.

The TPP, like many of the failed trade agreements that came before it, will cover issues including health, food safety, conservation and environmental protections, Wall Street regulations, labor rights, and a whole host of other issues that, under our system of government, would have to be debated publicly in Congress before becoming law. But because the U.S. government treats trade deals differently than all other policies—it is allowed to negotiate rules that affect our lives in these areas behind closed doors. This is undemocratic.

I’ve heard “labor” has a seat at the table and gets to see the TPP texts. Is this true?
No. Under U.S. law, there are several trade advisers—private citizens appointed by the President—who advise on trade policies. Of these advisers, the vast majority
(85% according to the Washington Post) represent businesses. About 5% of the advisers represent labor. The other 10% represent local and state government officials, academics, think tanks and non-governmental organizations. Labor advisers are allowed to review and advise on draft U.S. proposals—advice that the United States Trade Representative (USTR) can freely ignore. But we are locked out of the negotiating room and cannot see the actual negotiating texts, which combine the proposals from all 12 countries and evolve over time as negotiations progress. Nor can we share what we learn with members without violating national security laws.

I’ve heard USTR say the AFL-CIO is satisfied with the level of transparency in the TPP negotiations. Is this true?
No. We have been pushing not just for more transparency, but for a more democratic and participatory process since the beginning. The USTR has quoted selectively from AFL-CIO testimony about the TPP provided to Congress three years ago, when the TPP was still taking shape. At that time, we were very hopeful that our ideas for a more progressive trade agenda would be adopted into the TPP. Here is the entire quote in context:


The AFL-CIO has commented numerous times on the shortcomings of past trade agreements and the need for specific, achievable changes that would help domestic workers and producers who are competing in a global marketplace. I will not reiterate all of our specific concerns here, but suffice it to say that past agreements have failed to address our concerns regarding jobs, investment, services (including public and financial services), government procurement, intellectual property protection, worker rights, environmental safeguards, food and product safety, rules of origin and other issues important to working families.

Without addressing the still-secret text of the TPP, I will discuss a few of our concerns and recommendations with regard to some of the most pressing topics of the agreement. Before I do, I would note that this Administration deserves to be commended for the outreach in which it has engaged. The cleared advisers for the AFL-CIO and its affiliates have spent dozens of hours discussing with administration negotiators the specific issues that are involved in the TPP talks and offering concrete recommendations. We have appreciated the spirit of cooperation and dialogue exhibited by the Administration at all levels. Of course, access does not equal influence, and it remains to be seen just how many of our suggestions will be incorporated into the final text. Moreover, the AFL-CIO has concerns about the overall secrecy of trade negotiations in general and would recommend broader sharing of USTR’s negotiating goals and proposals beyond the cleared adviser community. However, the level of engagement has been noteworthy—particularly when compared to the prior administration.


This quote can be summed up as follows: “The current administration is more responsive to meeting requests from labor representatives than the prior administration. However, having an open door is not the same as having an open mind.”

By February 2014, it was becoming clear that labor's discussions with trade negotiators were not making the TPP a more progressive trade deal. However, members of Congress were under the mistaken impression that labor unions were very influential in the process. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wrote to policymakers to set the record straight, emphasizing that mere "access" is not meaningful participation:


More important than quantity of access, however, is quality of access. A seat on the LAC [Labor Advisory Committee] is not a seat at the negotiating table, much less an assurance that labor’s policy proposals will be incorporated into either the U.S. proposal or the final agreement. Because LAC members do not have access to the full negotiating texts, or to information regarding USTR priorities and choices, we cannot effectively influence the inevitable trade-offs in ways that would build the middle class and protect our democratic systems. And because we cannot share what little we do know with our membership or the larger public, we cannot use the traditional tools that civil society uses to offset the power of economic elites: education, organization and mobilization of the public.

Perhaps the best proof, however, that the LAC has not been a valuable tool in creating people-centered trade agreements is the actual content of the final agreements. The AFL-CIO has criticized the vast majority of trade agreements since NAFTA. If these trade agreements worked to create good jobs for workers, the AFL-CIO would be fighting for them as hard as or harder than Wall Street and the global corporations do. The tragic fact is that—despite some marginal progress over the years in some chapters—the model hasn’t changed. This flawed model has led to many trade agreements that skew their benefits toward the 1% and have exacerbated trade deficits, wage suppression, the dismantling of our manufacturing sector and income inequality.


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