Trumka argues trade policy needs to focus on benefiting workers

Greg Nash

A top labor leader said Wednesday that U.S. trade policy isn’t helping workers and that a broader discussion is needed to design a better approach.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said global trade agreements must provide benefits to American workers and reach beyond what he views as a boost to corporations.  

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“Trade needs to work for all of us, every one of us, and that’s why we need a real debate in America about what we are trying to do when we make trade deals,” Trumka said on Wednesday at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

With two major trade deals in the mix and a handful of other global agreements in the offing, Trumka said that "it’s time to adopt a broader lens that prompts a national conversation, rather than one that pushes trade as a corporate entitlement."

"After this country’s experience with corporate-dominated trade policies — the millions of lost jobs, the massive structural trade deficits, decades of falling wages — neither Congress nor the American people have that kind of confidence in those who lead our trade policy," he said.

"It’s time to change the paradigm."

President Obama and his Cabinet, including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, has said that backing trade agreements, including trade promotion authority (TPA), will help provide more and better-paying jobs for the middle-class Americans. 

Labor unions and House Democrats who are opposing TPA say the Obama administration's trade agenda, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), will hurt American workers and subdue their wages while providing an economic lift to big business.

But Trumka pushed back on the notion that labor is anti-trade.

"Don’t let anyone tell you the labor movement is opposed to trade agreements," he said.

"The labor movement is opposed to bad trade agreements."

He said the so-called fast-track process — which doesn't give Congress a chance to amend trade deals — "should be used only when Congress has complete confidence that our government is pursuing the right policies."

"Fast track is wrong and undemocratic, it’s a rotten process, and the American labor movement intends to kill it," he said.

Trumka argued that the U.S. labor movement has long argued that "good trade agreements must improve wages and working conditions for workers around the globe, not just here in the United States."

He countered White House arguments that without the TPP, which involves 12 nations from the Asia-Pacific to Latin America, China will write global trade rules and leave the United States behind.

"The TPP as described by USTR just isn’t consistent with the promises being made about how it will solve our problems with China," he said.

"If anything, TPP gives China improved access to our market (via weak rules of origin), undermines existing understandings with China in the area of carbon emissions and paves the way for China to enjoy the full benefits of TPP without addressing its use of currency policies to subsidize its exports."

He said that implementing TPP would be a step backward but that there is still time to address the issues that labor and others have with the pending deal, which could be completed this spring.

TPP needs to address currency manipulation, labor rights and investor-state dispute resolution that Trumka said could help make the agreement more agreeable for labor, he said.

"One basic problem is that much of the trade debate is actually a debate about whether we should debate trade policy — or just accept what we are handed by unaccountable elites," Trumka said.

"That’s plain wrong. Every single thing in our trade deals should be openly discussed and subject to public oversight and the full legislative process. There should be no question about that."