Obama'€™s base mobilizes against president's free trade agenda

Labor and environmental groups protest fast-tracking of Trans-Pacific Partnership

When President Barack Obama outlined the priorities for his final years in office during last week’s State of the Union address, members of his progressive base reacted warmly, for the most part. But when it came to international trade, labor unions, environmental groups and others were left unsatisfied. In the speech, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to passing new free trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a move long opposed by a substantial portion of his base.

One week later, the White House, Congress and progressive activist groups are preparing to resume a long fight over the TPP — an umbrella treaty between the U.S. and 11 other countries covering everything from regulation, agriculture to intellectual property. While the administration’s U.S. trade representative testified to the Senate Finance Committee in favor of TPP, labor unions and environmentalists made clear they intend to continue lobbying against the deal.

“For us trade is not a matter of numbers,” said Leo Gerard, president of the labor union United Steelworkers, on a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “It’s a matter of lives, and jobs, and lost opportunity."

The conference call was sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance, a confederation of labor unions and environmental groups.

Labor unions are still stung by their experience with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a pact to liberalize trade between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Groups such as the labor federation AFL-CIO says NAFTA has cost the United States hundreds of thousands of jobs by making it easier for companies to outsource to Mexico, where labor costs are lower.

Labor’s concerns regarding TPP are similar, but amplified by other provisions of the proposed agreement. Much of the negotiations over the deal have been shrouded in secrecy, but leaked details suggest that corporations in member states would be able to challenge the laws of other countries in an international court. Green groups have also lined up against TPP because they say it lacks sufficient environmental protections.

“This is nothing more than NAFTA on steroids,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., also on Tuesday’s call. “This is nothing more than what we’ve seen in the past, and, in some cases, slippage."

The main objective for opponents of TPP is not defeating the proposal outright, but preventing it from being fast-tracked, a process that would shorten the time that Congress has to debate a trade agreement and prevents members of Congress from adding amendments. If Congress does fast-track the legislation, it would limit any possibility of labor and the green movement’s allies on the Hill making modifications.

“We need to put fast track on the slow track to ensure that the TPP is done right,” said BlueGreen Alliance executive director Kim Glas. She called for “fair, transparent trade that doesn’t engage the U.S. in a race to the bottom."

Protesters also briefly interrupted Tuesday’s Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on U.S. trade policy. During the hearing, Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he hopes to prioritize passage of a bill renewing the president’s fast-track authority known as trade promotion authority or TPA.

"Let me be clear here: It would be a grave mistake for the administration to close TPP before Congress enacts TPA,” he said. "Doing so may lead to doubt as to whether the U.S. could have gotten a better agreement, ultimately eroding support for TPP and jeopardizing its prospects for passage in Congress."

TPA legislation is expected to move forward in the coming month.

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