The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 19, 2014

Fast-track trade will harm workers

By Laura Askelin
The Mankato Free Press

---- — The Feb. 7 editorial in favor of fast track authority deserves a rebuttal. The Editorial Board’s argument in favor of what I believe would be suspending the Constitution to take Congress out of the trade negotiation process is a very naïve view of what trade policy actually covers, and completely forgets the history of what 20 years of free trade policies have done to our community and our country.

Trade negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement are classified. That’s because the United States trade representative has chosen to use his diplomatic privilege to classify them. That means for the last four years the public, the media and, up until recently, even members of Congress, couldn’t see what our own government was proposing in our names.

However, over 600 people, over 90 percent of whom represent multinational corporate interests, have lobbied the executive branch to be granted “cleared adviser” status, meaning they can read and help write the proposed deal. The agreements these negotiators come to are binding and override all federal, state and local laws that exist in the participating countries. That means we’ve literally set up a system of lawmaking where the lobbyists write the laws behind closed doors.

Trade negotiations used to deal exclusively with tariffs on goods coming across borders, and how much could be shipped. Now, however, the big push by multinational corporate interests is to address “non-tariff barriers to trade.”

What is a non-tariff barrier? It’s any law or regulation that could impede the profits of a company. It might be a minimum wage law, it might be a law saying you can’t pollute the water supply, it might be a law designed to curb youth smoking. You can imagine, and it’s been borne out in previous free trade agreements, that when lobbyists for corporations get to write the laws, the laws heavily favor the corporations, and not our quality of life in Minnesota.

Indeed, while these deals may have boosted corporate profits, they’ve been horrible for workers and the communities they live in. Minnesota has lost over 14,000 net jobs to NAFTA, including Midwest Electric, which just shifted production, and the 51 jobs that went with it, to Mexico last year.

Since we gave China most favored nation status under the WTO, our state has lost over 72,000 net jobs. Meanwhile, Minnesota alone has a trade deficit of over $12 billion annually. That’s money leaving our economy that boosts employment, but also generates revenue needed to fund schools and infrastructure. And it’s not just cheap plastic at Wal-Mart that’s being imported either. It’s cars, steel, grain, livestock and many of the other products that built our country in the 20th Century.

It should come as no surprise then that when the public finds out what is in these deals (like the ability of corporations to sue governments in extrajudicial trade court for “future expected profits”) they are wildly unpopular.

This is where fast-track comes in. The only way unpopular trade deals get approved is by taking Congress out of the picture. Fast-track means Congress gives up its constitutionally stated responsibility to oversee international trade, and instead agrees to an up or down vote with no amendments, limited debate and only 60 days to read through hundreds of thousands of pages of text. If you thought nobody bothered to read Obamacare before it passed, Nobody will read all of TPP.

We elect politicians to serve us and our interest. It’s their duty to make sure that every clause of every international agreement is in the best interest of working families in their district. Fast-track undermines that and undermines democracy.

It gives lobbyists for Wal-Mart and Vietnamese bureaucrats more power to determine the laws that affect us in Mankato than our own Rep. Tim Walz. That’s why I’m proud that Rep. Walz has joined with three quarters of Minnesota’s House delegation to join bipartisan efforts to oppose fast track.

Laura Askelin is president of the Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council and a member of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition.