Stop secrecy in new trade negotiations

The controversy still raging over the National Security Agency’s surveillance of domestic phone calls is overshadowing an abuse of privacy that could undermine our nation’s democracy in ways the NSA spying never could.

Opposition is building to the Obama administration’s mostly secret negotiations over a new trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement would govern trade between the U.S. and 11 other countries: Japan, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

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A growing group of activists and political leaders are concerned that the deal will not only put American jobs in jeopardy like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did, but also take power out of the hands of average citizens and give it to corporations.

Leaked copies of the TPP contain clauses that would enhance corporations’ ability to successfully sue state and municipal governments over regulations in areas like food and workplace safety and environmental health, even when they demand reasonable actions by companies in return for tax breaks and other incentives.

Last month, 36 freshman House Democrats sent a letter to Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, opposing granting President Obama (or any president) “fast track” authority to negotiate trade agreements. Fast track, which leaves Congress only with an up or down vote, has been commonly granted for years going back to the Nixon administration.

Obama says the trade agreement will bolster our nation’s ability to compete with China.

We have our doubts about how good a deal could come from a secret negotiation that excludes average citizens, but includes 600 so-called “trade advisers” who overwhelmingly represent big business.

An old saying advises that experience enables you to recognize a mistake every time you repeat it. Nearly 20 years after NAFTA, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members in Sparta, Tenn., joined that trade pact’s grim statistics with the 2011 shutdown of Philips’ lighting fixture plant in the small town.

Philips sent production to Mexico. The Sparta plant joined a list of more than 100 other manufacturing plants that have shut down in the surrounding region with production outsourced to Mexico and Asia, leaving a legacy of joblessness, poverty and meth labs.

The pain is no less severe in Mexico, as some factories move from there to Asia for even cheaper labor, and the drug wars pile up bodies.

Polls show broad consensus among Americans of all political persuasions who are opposed to unfair trade agreements.

With NAFTA’s tragedy still fresh, isn’t it time — for once in our lives — to see a fair trade agreement that truly lifts up the standard of living in participating nations?

Isn’t it time to negotiate an agreement that would support collective bargaining rights and prevent countries from joining the TPP until they have met certain human rights and labor standards?

Only five of 29 sections in TPP actually focus on trade. Leaked sections would further weaken regulation of Wall Street financial firms and pharmaceutical companies and make it even harder to keep more U.S. companies from outsourcing their production. How does that help us compete?

In El Salvador, citizens rose up and opposed a Canadian mining firm that was planning to mine gold and dump toxic water into the public water supply. The mining firm sued the government for $315 million for violating the terms of a trade agreement.

Even if the mining company loses the case, we all lose when free trade agreements conceived by corporate interests lead to a vicious global race to the bottom. Citizens who cherish our right to influence public policy will be defeated by corporations using the terms of free trade agreements and piles of cash to stop us.

Corporations file 500 such lawsuits every year. Jim Shultz, executive director of the Democracy Center, says the legal actions have expanded a new derivatives market where investors are being asked to help finance lawsuits in return for a percentage of the settlements.

If we want to see a long-lasting economic recovery in the U.S., if we truly want to defend our national sovereignty from the tribunals of the World Trade Organization, Americans of all political persuasions need to speak up.

Hill is international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Buffenbarger is international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Both serve on the president’s Labor Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and Trade Policy.