Warren disputes Obama’s promises on trade deal

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is taking another swing at President Obama on trade, this time arguing the president’s promises to protect workers are mostly talk.

The liberal lawmaker issued a staff report on Monday morning contending that while policymakers frequently argue that trade agreements come packed with robust worker protections, the reality does not live up to the rhetoric.

The criticism comes amid an aggressive push by the president and his Cabinet to sell congressional lawmakers, especially wary liberal Democrats, on the far-reaching importance of a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal.

The president has been touting the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the “most progressive trade deal in history,” while Warren argues that, despite similar claims from Democratic and Republican administrations over the years, enforcement of labor standards has been lax, driving down working conditions across the globe and dragging American workers down as well.

“Again and again, proponents of free trade agreements claim that this time, a new trade agreement has strong and meaningful protections,” the Warren report states. “Again and again, those protections prove unable to stop the worst abuses.”

The report marks the latest rally as Obama and Warren go publicly and bitingly back and forth on the issue of trade.

The president is pushing hard for Congress to pass legislation that would give the White House trade promotion authority, also known as fast-track, to negotiate agreements with other nations while preventing congressional amendments.

But liberals like Warren, alongside labor unions, have fiercely pushed back against the president. Both sides have been accusing the other of playing fast and loose with the facts or of being wrong on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday that he expects fast-track legislation to pass the Senate this week before Congress leaves for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.

The bill’s chances in the House are murkier with the vast majority of liberal Democrats already lined up against it.

The House is aiming to take up the measure in June.

In her new report, Warren claims that the U.S. repeatedly fails to fully enforce worker protections included in previous free trade agreements, finding that before 2008, the U.S. had not accepted a single formal complaint about worker mistreatment under a trade agreement.

Since then, the Labor Department has accepted only five claims from trade partners.

Warren’s office also said that the U.S. government does not have a system in place to determine if other countries are adhering to previously agreed upon worker protections, leaving it up to trade partners to police themselves.

And those nations oftentimes fail to protect workers, Warren argued. The U.S. reached a free trade agreement with Colombia in 2011, but since that time, 105 union activists have been killed and 1,337 others have received death threats, according to Warren.

But the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) refutes those criticisms, pointing to a report from February that details the extensive efforts being made by the Obama administration to improve labor standards around the world.

The USTR report highlights the first-ever labor case filed under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement last year, against Guatemela for failure to enforce labor laws such as the right to organize and bargain collectively.

“The Obama administration is taking unprecedented actions to promote and protect fundamental labor rights and ensure acceptable conditions of work,” the report says.

The report focuses on U.S. efforts in countries such as Colombia, Jordan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Swaziland, Haiti and Burma.

“With both American values and interests at stake, the administration is committed to maintaining the effort to ensure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared and to supporting a growing and vibrant middle class around the world,” the report said.

The United States and Colombia have “worked closely on implementation of the [labor action] plan, drawing on strong engagement by stakeholders in both countries,” the report said.  

“Important progress has been made but much more work remains and the United States will continue to work closely with Colombia in this process.”

The report also points out that under North American Free Trade Agreement labor provisions were part of a side agreement and weren’t a central goal.

They said TPP goes well beyond that.

The administration is seeking rules that require countries to provide workers with fundamental rights “as well as new protections for importing goods made with forced labor, adopting laws on acceptable conditions of work and upholding labor standards in export processing zones,” the report said.

“The Obama administration has insisted that labor provisions be at the core of the agreement, subject to full dispute settlement and the full range of trade sanctions.”

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