When it comes to trade policy, President Barack Obama is mimicking the same policies he criticized when he served in the Senate.
As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), recognizing the enormous loss of domestic jobs caused by its passage 20 years ago.
He sure hasn’t done that. Instead, he has appointed pro-billionaire, anti-worker, anti-environmental trade negotiators — right out of Bush-era central casting.
And instead of fixing the problems in NAFTA, they’re working to expand that flawed model through two massive new trade agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 governments in Asia and Latin America and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
These NAFTA retreads will do nothing to strengthen enforcement of international labor rights. And because they lower tariffs on U.S. imports, they’ll make it even more profitable for U.S. companies to shift production abroad.
Worse still, Obama’s Trade Representative insists that the new pacts continue to give global corporations the right to bypass local courts and sue governments in international tribunals. Under NAFTA and other international trade and investment agreements, corporations have filed dozens of such lawsuits, demanding compensation over public interest regulations that cut into their profits.
Knowing how controversial these deals would be, Obama is seeking what’s called “fast-track” authority. This means Congress must give the details a straight up or down vote, with limited time for debate.
Instead of expanding anti-worker trade deals, Obama should take strong action to support workers at home and abroad. In this golden age of cutthroat capitalism, corporate profits are at an all-time high while the rest of us watch our incomes decline or stagnate. It’s equal-opportunity suffering for ordinary people.
The misery hits hard overseas as well as here at home. Last April, 1,100 workers died when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. And just this month, the Cambodian military opened fire on protesting garment workers who earn barely $3 a day. Other examples abound.
Democrats in Congress rightly want Walmart, Gap Inc., and Target to take responsibility for the miserable wages and deadly working conditions in overseas sweatshops. But we can’t put the entire burden on big business.
A recent New York Times investigation exposed the U.S. government and our military exchanges as among the largest importers of sweatshop garments in the world. Yes, we should ask big-box chains to mend their ways. But when it comes to federal workers’ uniforms and garments destined for stores on military bases, we must also insist that the government stop sourcing from manufacturers that exploit children, prisoners or workers paid only pennies. In fact, the Obama administration could correct much of this with executive orders that don’t require congressional consent.
Is the Democrats’ call for action genuine, or are they just playing politics? Can we realistically hope they will stir Obama to put our economy, our own workforce and our commitment to social responsibility above corporate mega-profits?
Members of Congress from both parties should respond to the Obama administration’s “fast track” request with a fast, bipartisan “nay.” Otherwise, prepare to say goodbye to more jobs here at home, while creating greater misery for millions of workers around the world.
By Ron Carver