Organized labor came out in force to praise Senate Democrats for their efforts Tuesday to successfully block a debate on whether to grant the president unilateral trade authority, before a second vote the next day with opposite results.
Trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as fast track, has created a wedge between President Barack Obama and much of his own party. Last month, Republicans Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Paul Ryan along with Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a bill that would have granted the president such authority.
But a growing opposition, primarily within Democrat ranks, was successful at blocking it from even coming up for debate Tuesday, before allowing the bill to move forward Wednesday.
“That’s good news for America’s working families, domestic producers, and communities,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared in a statement before the second vote. “We appreciate those senators who stood with working people today against a bill that would have led to undemocratic trade deals that lower wages and eliminate jobs. This vote sends a message loud and clear.”
Labor unions led much of the effort, from rallies and campaigns, to oppose fast track, despite the bill itself including provisions that would likely benefit organized labor. Their main concern is how it would allow the president to more easily pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an international trade deal that some claim will benefit corporations and special interests at the expense of working Americans.
“More importantly, this is what is possible when we all stand together and fight for what is right for our families, our jobs, and our nation,” Marc Perrone, the international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a statement. “While this battle is far from over, we can only hope that President Obama and every TPP supporter hears the voices of the American people and understands that this is a fight they cannot and should not win.”
Fast track authority would allow the president to submit a finalized trade deal to Congress which could not be amended or filibustered and would only need a straight up or down vote.
“Fast track would undermine the authority entrusted to Congress to make sure that trade agreements with other nations are fair and in the best interest of the American people,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa also said. “No trade agreement should ever be brought up in Congress for a simple up-or-down vote.”
Despite the adamant opposition among organized labor, Obama has promised the trade deal would include provisions that benefit unions. As Obama noted in a recent speech at Nike, the deal protect workers’ freedom to form unions in countries that previously did not have such protections.
“So when you look at a country like Vietnam, under this agreement, Vietnam would actually, for the first time, have to raise its labor standards,” Obama claimed. “It would even have to protect workers’ freedom to form unions — for the very first time.”
In the “Labor and the Environment” section, the TPA bill itself dictates that any trade deal that comes about through it, whether it’s TPP or not, must adopt and maintain measures implementing internationally recognized core labor standards. If true, and Obama is right in saying some of these labor agreements include the right to organize, current unions may very well be granted access to millions of new workers from countries they previously did not.
“American working families are tired of Washington politicians telling them what’s economically best,” Leo W. Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers, noted in a statement. “Working Americans don’t want their elected leaders using a rubber stamp for a trade deal that is hidden behind a veil of secrecy.”
“Senators should not give away their right to amend a trade deal that has been negotiated in secrecy,” the Communications Workers of America stated in a press release. “Voting for Fast Track authorization does exactly that, and Senators are right to reject it.”
Not everyone is happy with the decision to block debate. While some Republicans leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell condemned his colleagues for not even allowing a debate, some trade groups argue the passage of TPP, with assistance from fast track, would actually help the economy and working Americans despite claims by Democrats and union leaders.
“For the retail industry, trade agreements help lower costs for American families and businesses alike and open new investment opportunities for retailers at home and abroad,” the National Retail Federation said in the letter to Congress. “Family friendly trade agreements have the potential to reduce or eliminate high taxes now applied to U.S. imports of many basic consumer goods like food, clothing and shoes.”
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