In the trenches of global trade

Greg Nash

Celeste Drake never imagined that she would be a voice for millions of workers, but she would not now trade her position for any other job. 

Drake, who is the lone trade policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, thrives on the daunting task of steering global trade policy for 56 unions and their 12.5 million workers.

For Drake, as she explained in a recent interview with The Hill, the AFL-CIO’s message on global trade is simple: protect workers here and around the world by ensuring that they are at least equal beneficiaries with multinational corporations on the world’s trading stage. 

“How do you set up the rules so that the success of the global corporation isn’t at the expense of the worker but in tandem with the worker?” she said. 

While there are winners and losers on the trade front, “our view is, let’s set up the rules a little bit differently so that the greatest number possible can benefit,” Drake said.

With trade a top priority for the Obama administration, Drake finds herself juggling critical details concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), happenings at the World Trade Organization, and just about every workplace violation issue that crops up around the world. 

Regarding the TPP, while some will benefit in all 12 participating countries, she said that “most likely, based on what we know about the direction the agreement is going, it will be the elites in each of the 12 countries that will receive the lion’s share of the benefits.” 

“We don’t know of anything in the agreement that’s going to try to make sure that workers who work hard and put in a fair day’s work can get a fair return on their effort.” 

But Drake’s aim isn’t to pit advocates for trade expansion against each other as negotiations continue on the two massive trade deals. 

In fact, labor and big business see eye-to-eye on some issues, including the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which, they collectively argue, helps U.S. exporters compete against foreign competitors and get their products to overseas markets. 

She said critics of her organization that deem it anti-trade and protectionist are stuck in their thinking that it is best to follow the current system of trade and investment rules or nothing at all. 

“They either really think in black and white, or it benefits them to portray the choices as black and white,” she said. 

So, she said, it is her job to open up the conversation “to say we want international trade … but we don’t think the current rules that govern all of that are the right set of rules.”

Drake’s concerns run deep about inking trade agreements that don’t have, at least, a certain level of standards for worker and environmental protections. 

She argues that a potential U.S.-European Union deal puts Europe’s workers in a better position to benefit because the union-organizing environment in the eurozone is better, their students don’t face pressures of college loans, their wage structures are stronger, and there are programs in place where they can get new skills training if they lose their job to trade. 

“If you look at how the world of trade agreements have played since NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] forward, what it’s done is, it has empowered the global corporations to squeeze workers and squeeze regulations,” she said. 

Drake is proving that advancing the agenda starts with getting the conversation off the ground.

“The whole idea if you’re on the minority side is, what haven’t we proposed yet, what haven’t we thought of yet that might address some of the challenges from the other side but advance our agenda,” she said. 

Yet, in the increasingly complex global trading landscape, successes are hard to measure and often difficult to come by.

While the AFL-CIO hasn’t stopped trade deals from passing Congress, it has managed to bulk up some of the deals, such as the one with Colombia in 2011, with its enhanced labor plan to better protect workers, including those who want to organize in unions. 

Still, that plan requires implementation, which is an ongoing struggle. 

“What I’ve learned more since being here is that it is such a tough nut to crack,” she said. 

She is working on improving workers’ lives in Bangladesh’s garment sector, where she argues that the “best defenders of workplace safety are workers themselves,” and pushing for fair wages and better working conditions, including the ability for workers to speak out when they notice problems.  

“We can set up a system where responsible behavior is the norm,” she said. 

But while Drake is at home in her job, it took her a while to reach this point in her career. 

Her interest in trade goes back to when she was a first-year high school teacher in the early 1990s. She used the NAFTA debate as a hook to try to motivate a classroom of 17-year-olds to take an interest in economics.

After five years of teaching, she headed to law school at UCLA, where she got her master’s degree in public policy before taking a year to clerk for a federal judge.

After that, she headed for Washington.  

In 2003, she arrived at Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s (D-Texas) office and got assigned to health policy instead of the labor, trade and environmental issues that piqued her interest. 

In late 2006, she jumped to California Rep. Linda Sánchez’s office after Democrats took over the House majority. 

After wrangling again with healthcare and education policy, she finally got her shot at focusing solely on trade, after working to oppose the Peru free trade agreement in 2007. 

Democratic lawmakers split on their support for the deal, which passed both chambers and was signed by President George W. Bush.

“The main message of the House trade working group at the time was, we can do better than this,” she said. “These agreements set up rules that are leaving American workers behind.”

“That was a powerful message on the Hill.”

In the next Congress, Sanchez landed a slot on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and it was then that Drake took over the entire trade portfolio and realized the complexity of the issue. 

“I found it fascinating, and I was constantly trying to learn more about it,” she said. 

But she got up to speed quickly, and three years ago, made the move to the AFL-CIO, where her horizons quickly expanded as the Obama administration grew its trade agenda. 

Her view on trade is that it affects every part of workers’ daily lives from the breakfast cereal they eat to the cars they buy. This also means that her reach goes well beyond union membership.

“You can’t really just look out for what’s good for these 12.5 million people without saying what’s good for the whole economy, what’s going to create jobs here, what’s going to help wages rise here,” she said. 

Clearly, Drake has made her mark as a trade expert. She admits that pushing the labor unions’ agenda is “an uphill battle” and doing it alone is a “daunting responsibility,” but she insists she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s great to feel like I have some influence, that the work that I’m doing is really important.”