Despite agreeing to oppose President Barack Obama on trade, Democratic leaders are expressing concern with how rambunctious unions have been in their fight against the deal.
“Labor is going a little overboard and I think there is some potential backlash for how far they are going,” Democrat Rep. Cedric Richmond told CNN.
The issue has already created a divide on the left, with unions and Democratic lawmakers adamantly opposing the president on his massive trade agenda known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Opponents claim TPP will benefit corporations and special interests at the expense of working Americans and the environment.
“We’ve always known the history of trade debates and local politics can be pretty tough,” Rep. Ron Kind, another Democrat, noted to CNN. “This time is no different.”
“I just hope that they are not losing the forest to the tree here,” Kind continued. “A lot of issues affect the causes that labor stands for, and Democrats, by and large, are extremely supportive of that. To isolate this one issue and make that the end-all, be-all, I think, is a bad strategy.”
Some on the left are arguing that TPP and fast-track would have much more support among Democrats if it weren’t for unions. From the beginning, unions have utilized their considerable political influence to target supporters on the left through ad campaigns and threats to unseat them.
“If you just look at this from a rational view, you’d have a lot more yeses,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley told CNN.
Unions are some of the most generous contributors during campaigns, and they give mostly to Democrats. As such, a Democratic candidate is likely to struggle without their support.
Unions and many Democrats also oppose the president getting fast-track. Also known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), if passed by Congress the deal would allow the president to submit a finalized trade deal to Congress that could neither be amended nor filibustered, and would only need a straight up- or down-vote.
Back in April, Republicans Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Paul Ryan, along with Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, introduced a fast-track bill. After some back and forth, the bill was able to pass and go onto the House, where it has yet to be decided. The president will likely sign it into law if it is passed by the House.
In opposing both TPP and fast-track, unions have gone all-out, including protesting, canvassing, ambushing elected officials at the U.S. Capital, and even threatening to freeze political contributions.
“The AFL-CIO announced that the federation and its affiliated unions are freezing all Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions to federal candidates until further notice in order to conserve resources for the historic legislative battle around fast track (trade promotion authority) and the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP),” the AFL-CIO wrote in a press release from March.
Democrats have the most to lose by a political contribution freeze. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the AFL-CIO Workers’ Voices PAC alone spent $1.1 million dollars in support of Democrats during the 2014 elections, while also spending $1 million opposing Republicans.
In March, 64 different unions all signed a letter to pressure lawmakers in Congress to oppose the president on trade.
“Fast track trade deals mean fewer jobs, lower wages, and a declining middle class,” the letter states. “Fast track has been used since the Nixon administration to advance deals, like NAFTA, that are sold to the American people as job creation measures.”
Even presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton found herself in the union cross-hairs for not taking a firm stance against the trade deal, which she backed as secretary of State.
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 argued. “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 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, current unions may very well be granted access to millions of new workers from countries they previously could not access.
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