Do trade right for jobs and prosperity

Last month the Senate voted to give fast-track authority to the president to negotiate the largest trade deal in our nation’s history.

Despite the fact that more than 40 percent of the world’s economy is on the line, the Senate rushed through this debate at the last minute, with the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) still hidden from the public and the press. The last time Congress considered fast-track authority, 13 years ago, we spent three weeks — not three days — debating.

So why the rush and the secrecy?


Because the more we talk openly about our trade policy, the more Americans realize they don’t like it.\

But the fight is not over. The House must consider a number of critical amendments to the fast-track legislation, and if these amendments are not adopted, House members should vote against it.

I’m not against trade; we know that trade done right can create prosperity. I want trade that creates good-paying jobs here at home and lifts workers from poverty in the U.S. and around the world, not trade that leads to more shuttered plants and shattered communities. The right kind of trade can only happen when the rules aren’t rigged and we have a level playing field.

Unfortunately, our competitors often don’t follow the same rules that we do and ignore what rules are in place.

For example, in Vietnam, workers can only organize under the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, an arm of the Communist Party, which doesn’t allow for collective bargaining. If an independent union registration system isn’t established in Vietnam, no one can say with a straight face that the TPP has strong labor standards. We need an independent panel to monitor, investigate and enforce Vietnam’s compliance with TPP standards.

Or take a look at Mexico, with which we already have the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and which would be part of the TPP. Mexico is characterized by ongoing, serious violations of workers’ rights, which have to be addressed.

Mexico’s labor laws are already inconsistent with International Labor Organization standards. And labor laws in Malaysia and Brunei are no better. Wages in all of these countries are a fraction of what they are in the U.S.

Without strong enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure these countries clean up their acts, the TPP will continue the race to the bottom for international worker standards.

We also need strong currency provisions in any trade agreement to crack down on countries that manipulate their currencies, resulting in artificially cheap exports. Currency manipulation has already cost us as many as many as 5 million jobs, and addressing it could reduce our trade deficit by between $200 billion and $500 billion per year and create up to 5.8 million jobs.

We have to address these issues if we want a level playing field for American workers and manufacturers. We’ve seen what happens when our trading partners in these deals don’t follow the same labor laws. Despite promises of job growth, the growing trade deficit with Mexico under NAFTA have cost the U.S. more than 680,000 jobs.

The TPP also has the potential to exacerbate the growing problem of multinational corporations using trade agreements to get around democratically passed laws.

Big Tobacco has already turned to these trade deals as the most fertile field for defeating international public health efforts. It uses so-called “investor-state” provisions to challenge public health measures across the globe.

Right now, Big Tobacco and its supporters are suing Australia over its Tobacco Plain Packaging Act of 2011. The companies are challenging this law under both the Australia-Hong Kong bilateral investment treaty and a World Trade Organization dispute settlement proceeding. Even the simple threat of expensive corporate challenges has forced several countries — from New Zealand to Namibia — to reconsider or delay public health laws designed to curb tobacco use.

We should not be signing trade agreements that can be used as a basis for legal action to prevent democratically passed public health laws from taking effect.

This deal can still be salvaged, but it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to require us to get serious about holding our competitors to higher standards. But we owe that to the workers in this country who are playing by the rules and whose jobs are at risk through no fault of their own. We owe it to workers around the world who continue to be exploited.

The American middle class has been made too many empty promises on trade in the past. It’s my hope that the House will remember that and take the time to get this deal right.

Brown is Ohio’s senior senator, serving since 2007. He sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Finance; and the Veterans’ Affairs committees.