Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Holes In President's Trade Agenda

After reading the government’s new report, “The President’s Trade Agenda: Making Trade Work for American Families,” I asked myself: will President Obama be willing to go all-out to pass the Employee Free Choice Act? My hunch was that he won't be.

I may turn out to be wrong (I hope I am) , but the thrust of his trade policy statement suggests otherwise. Yes, it may seem strange to link domestic labor legislation to foreign trade issues, but there are many connections. Let me describe a few of them.

My overall impression of this agenda, prepared when most of Obama’s trade people were not yet on board, is that it is weak on worker rights. It makes no mention of the key worker right, the right to unionize. If the report truly reflects the President’s position, it seems to follow that President Obama will also be weak on restoring the American worker’s right to unionize.

The agenda is very strong on continuing U.S. support for a “rules-based system of global trade,” with the World Trade Organization institutionally at the top.. But it says nothing about a huge hole in the WTO’s rules. Those rules are now one-sided. They protect the rights of business people and their organizations in thousands of pages, but contain not one single page protecting the rights of labor and its organizations.

The agenda praises Congress for making progress in upgrading adjustment assistance to workers made jobless by globalization. But trade adjustment assistance, a favorite prescription of Larry Summers, is a palliative and no substitute for reorienting trade to make the international labor market less of a jungle that it now is for many millions of working men, women, and children.

The agenda promises to “build on the successful examples of labor provisions in some of our existing [bilateral, non-WTO] agreements.” But it leaves the successes unnamed. Under sunlight, not one of the labor provisions in existing agreements qualifies as amodel to emulated.

The agenda is eloquent in expressing the benefits of foreign trade, but says nothing about how it is built on a huge global production system where sweatshops flourish. Nor is there any recognition of the shameful role that American multinationals like Nike and Wal-Mart play in that system.

Apart from what this report says and doesn’t state, however, the crucial test for the Obama administration is in whether it will sign a pending free trade agreement with Colombia, the world’s deadliest place for unionists. For this holdover from Bush negotiators, the administration plans to “establish benchmarks for progress” that would clean it up it for Obama’s signature.

Benchmarks? What kind of benchmarks? A reduction of the union assassination rate to 50 or 60 percent?

Compromises are normal in foreign trade policy. The pressures from trade enthusiasts and business lobbyists are incredibly powerful. But at some point there comes a decision on an issue so noxious that you must have the guts to say NO. The Colombia FTA is that point.

In domestic policy, too, compromises are normal. Organized business, grown fat under the viciously anti-union policies of the Bush administration, is waging the campaign of campaigns to bury the Employee Free Choice Act, with mounds of cash to gain gravediggers in the Senate

President Obama will have to invest a large amount of his own political capital to persuade the Senate to restore freedom of association to American workers. Will he? Hoping won’t make it so.

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