Fight against fast track returns to the Senate

The US House of Representatives on June 18 revived fast track authority for trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and sent it back to the Senate for further consideration.

The Senate will vote on Tuesday on the bill that passed out of the House.

The vote came less than a week after the House voted down a version of fast authority that the Senate had sent to the House.

Fast track authority will make it more difficult for Congress to carefully review trade deals such as TPP, a trade pact being negotiated by the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries.

Opponents of fast track argue that past trade deals have resulted in the loss of good-paying jobs shipped overseas and lower wages for jobs that remained in the US. They also are concerned that TPP and other trade deals will make it more difficult to protect the environment, ensure food safety, and protect consumers.

Opponents of fast track criticized the House for not addressing the shortcomings of the original bill and vowed to continue fighting fast track authority when it reaches the Senate floor.

“Instead of addressing the massive failures of past trade agreements, the House and the President have doubled down on a disastrous strategy that will cost jobs, lower wages and worsen already record levels of income inequality,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the unions whose members have been actively opposing fast track. “Going forward, we will shift our focus to the Senate where multiple Senators have already expressed doubt about this latest and most frantic attempt to pass fast track.”

The website Stop Fast Track has posted an online petition addressed to eight Democratic senators who have not committed on how they will vote on Tuesday.

The petition reads simply, “If you vote yes on fast track, we pledge to vote against you next election.”

The eight senators are Michael Bennet (Colorado), Tom Carper (Delaware), Chris Coons (Delaware), Ben Cardin (Maryland), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Ron Wyden (Oregon), and Mark Warren (Virginia).

In order to keep fast track alive, the House leadership attached fast track authority to a non-controversial bill dealing with pensions for federal firefighters and other first responders.

The House fast track bill does not include some of the concessions that Senate Democrats won in the Senate version. For example, it does not contain any protections against human trafficking or currency manipulation. And the House version doesn’t include any assistance for workers whose jobs are shipped abroad.

That assistance is provided by a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), set to expire in September.

The original Senate version of fast track tethered fast track authorization to the reauthorization of TAA. The Republican Senate leadership did so to win the support of Democratic senators wavering on authorizing fast track.

Excluding TAA from the fast track bill will make it harder for Democrats to support the current House version, which must be passed in the exact form that it passed in the House before it can be sent to President Obama for his signature.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have promised Democrats that if they vote for fast track, they will get a chance to vote on TAA reauthorization at a later date.

But fast track opponents, which include labor, environmental, consumer protection, civil rights, and public interest groups warned Senators about taking such a promise in good faith.

“Any Democrat in Congress who trusts John Boehner or Mitch McConnell to pass trade adjustment assistance that will actually help working families deserves to lose their job,” said Jim Dean, chair Democracy for America to USA Today.

Fast track falters in the House, but it’s not dead yet

The day after fast track authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) faltered in the US House of Representatives, opponents of the corporate-friendly trade deal celebrated the victory but tempered their joy with a warning.

“The House of Representatives has done the right thing,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “But the fight is not over.”

The House on June 12 voted 302 to 126 to oppose the reauthorization of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a measure that was added to the Senate fast track bill in order to win support from wavering Democrats.

TAA reauthorization was the second piece of a two-bill package that the House needed to pass in order to send the Senate version of fast track authority for TPP to President Obama for his signature.

Supporters of fast track authority were disappointed in the June 12 vote but said that they would continue to seek fast track authority for TPP, a massive trade deal between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries that will further encourage the offshoring of US jobs and make it more difficult for countries that are part of the deal to regulate their environment, protect consumers, and guard the public interest.

House Speaker John Boehner said that another vote on  TAA reauthorization could be taken early this week.

Trumka said that he was proud of the grassroots effort organized by a broad coalition of labor, environmental, civil rights, consumer rights, faith, and social justice groups that made the June 12 vote possible and contrasted that effort to the usual way that business gets done in Washington.

“The debate over fast track so far has been a marvelous contrast to the corporate money and disillusionment that normally mark American politics today,” said Trumka. “This was truly democracy in action – millions of people exercising their free rights to inform their elected representatives.  We should all draw from this experience to help replenish our democracy at every level on every issue.”

The work toward building the coalition began in 2013 when diverse groups that saw the looming trade deal as threat to jobs, wages, the environment, consumer rights, civil rights, and the public interest decided that they couldn’t defeat the deal by working alone.

Since then, the coalition which includes hundreds of groups with millions of members, began educating and mobilizing their members.

When it became clear that President Obama would seek a vote on fast track this year, their mobilizing kicked into high gear.

Town hall meetings with lawmakers attended by thousands of activists were held; tens of thousands of phone calls to lawmakers were made; demonstrations took place at the Capitol, on Wall Street, and on Main Street.

That effort led to a narrower than expected vote in favor of fast track in the Senate.

In order to win that vote, the Senate Republican leadership had to agree to reauthorize TAA, which provides re-training and other support for workers whose jobs have been shipped abroad because of trade deals.

Democrats have been traditional supporters of TAA, which expires in September. Fast track supporters thought that including TAA reauthorization in the fast track package would help them win enough votes from House Democrats to pass fast track.

But the Senate TAA reauthorization bill was flawed.

Many if not most workers whose jobs are shipped abroad because of TPP won’t get any help because TAA funding is inadequate.

The bill also diverted  $700 million in Medicare funding to pay for TAA, which Medicare supporters feared could snowball and put the popular health care program in jeopardy.

“Using Medicare to fund unrelated programs is a relatively new yet growing trend in Congress that simply must stop,” said Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “Medicare isn’t Washington’s ATM.”

The TAA reauthorization bill also excluded public sector workers, a large sector of the workforce that may need help if TPP passes because it will encourage the privatization and possible offshoring of more public services.

In 2009, public sector employees were made eligible for TAA benefits after a study by the Congressional Research Service found that 12 percent of public sector jobs in the US are offshorable.

These weaknesses made it easier for opponents to convince enough Democrats to vote down the measure.

The defeat of TAA reauthorization, however, doesn’t mean that fast track is dead.

Fast track supporters may try for another vote in the House, or they may try to work out a compromise in a House-Senate conference committee that revives fast track.

Opponents of fast track are urging those who been active in the fight against fast track to be ready to respond in large numbers to whatever tactic supporters choose to take.

“I don’t think it’s over yet,” said Tim Waters, political director of the United Steelworkers to the Guardian. “They’re  trying to do everything they can to get this back on track.”

“We must fully defeat fast track, so that Congress can work for trade deals that give working families at least as much standing as corporations,” said Chris Shelton, the newly elected president of CWA. “Our broad coalition of Americans — representing millions of union members, environmental activists, immigrant rights advocates, people of faith, students, public health and consumer advocates, community leaders and so many more — will keep up the fight until fast track is defeated.”

Round one victory for coalition opposing fast track for TPP

A grassroots coalition of labor, environment, consumer rights, and other progressive groups won round one of the fight over fast track authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal when a cloture motion that would have limited debate on the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan Fast Track bill failed to pass in the US Senate.

Fast track authority would prevent Congress from thoroughly reviewing the final draft of the trade deal or offering amendments to it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had scheduled the cloture vote on May 12. It needed 60 votes to pass, but Sen. McConnell could muster only 52 votes. Forty-five senators voted to oppose his motion.

President Obama, who supports fast track authority, began meeting with senators who voted no in an attempt to salvage the legislation, and there is still the possibility that fast track in some form could be resurrected and brought before the Senate again for a vote.

But opponents of TPP, who had been written off by Washington DC pundits, were buoyed by the outcome of the vote.

“Just a few weeks ago, all of the pundits believed that fast track and the TPP were a lock to pass: they were wrong,” said Marc Perrone, international president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). “Our 1.3 million members, the entire labor movement, progressive Democrats, and conservative Republicans have all stood up and spoke out against this disastrous trade deal. 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.”

“The failure of the Senate to advance fast track legislation is not only a stinging defeat for supporters of the Trans Pacific Partnership; it makes clear that the American people will not be fooled into supporting another bad trade deal,” said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

Labor unions played an important role in organizing grassroots opposition to fast track authority for TPP by educating their members about how similar trade deals had cost workers’ jobs and lowered their wages and by mobilizing members to demonstrate widespread opposition to TPP.

The work of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) is illustrative of the organizing and mobilizing work done by UCFW, USW, Teamsters, and several other labor unions that made the May 12 vote possible.

In November, CWA President Larry Cohen announced that defeating fast track authority for TPP would be CWA’s number one priority.

“Starting today (the day after the November elections ended), CWA activists are turning their attention to stopping the Trans Pacific Partnership, a dangerous trade deal that threatens our jobs, communities and the environment. It could potentially give big business new powers to undermine important laws and regulations created to protect us from them,” said Cohen in a message to members.

CWA subsequently mobilized its local leaders to educate and mobilize local members.

As a result, thousands of CWA members participated in efforts to oppose TPP fast track including attending town hall meetings with lawmakers, making constituent visits to lawmakers, making phone calls to lawmakers, and writing them letters and e-mails.

To make the public aware of the dangers that TPP posed for the working class, the environment, and consumer protection, CWA members hit the streets to leaflet, demonstrate, and rally against fast track for TPP.

Recognizing that labor unions alone couldn’t win the fight to stop TPP, CWA sought out alliances with environmentalists, consumer rights activists, immigrant support groups, and other progressive groups concerned about the damage that TPP could in their particular area of interest.

“Our broad coalition–workers, environmental activists, immigrant rights activists, students, public health and consumer groups and so many others–remains strongly opposed to fast track and the TPP that would be a disaster for US jobs, workers and communities,” said Cohen in a statement issued after the cloture motion failed.

The coalition opposing TPP was even broader than the one that Cohen talked about.

More than 2,000 groups signed an April 27 letter drafted by the Citizens Trade Campaign, a public interest group that has been leading the fight against TPP, urging lawmakers to reject fast track authority for TPP.

The letter concluded with these two paragraphs:

After decades of massive trade deficits, devastating job loss, downward pressure on Americans’ wages, attacks on environmental and health laws and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements.

Fast track is an abrogation of not only Congress’ constitutional authority, but of its responsibility to the American people. We oppose this bill, and urge you to do so as well.

Union makes stopping TPP fast track its priority

Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen told members during a nationwide union hall meeting that defeating fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty is now the union’s number one priority.

Cohen also said that it will take a broad-based coalition that includes Republicans to stop TPP.

Those listening in to union hall meeting held by teleconference also heard about the work local leaders are doing to mobilize members and allies to oppose the latest so-called free trade deal.

“(TPP) is not about free trade,” said Cohen. “It’s about protecting the profits of multi-national corporations.”

Thousands of good-paying jobs are at stake because TPP will make it easier for corporations to ship US jobs abroad, continued Cohen.

Trade representatives from the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries have been negotiating in secret the terms of the proposed TPP.

In addition to official government trade representatives, corporations also are involved in the negotiations.

“Six hundred corporate advisers have a seat at the table during negotiations,” said Robert Longer, executive vice-president of CWA Local 9421 during the union hall meeting.

The working class has no representatives at the table.

President Obama is urging Congress to grant itself fast track authority for ratifying TPP once the final version has been agreed upon by all parties involved in the negotiations.

If Congress votes for fast track authority, it will vote on TPP without reviewing the details of the treaty or being able to amend it.

President Obama wants Congress to vote on fast track authority for TPP early next year.

The purpose of the CWA union hall meeting was to share strategies for defeating TPP fast track authority.

Mahalia Corley, executive vice president of CWA Local 3680 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, described her local’s on-the-job work at an AT&T Mobility call center in Fayetteville.

“On the heels of our voter registration drive, we segued into educating our 400-person call center about the TPP,” said Corley. “Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for the last two weeks, CWA officers and stewards went up and down the call center aisles asking workers to talk to them about TPP during the workers’ breaks.”

We told them that if TPP passes, our jobs would become expendable because it would be cheaper for the company to outsource our jobs overseas, Corley said.

We also told them about the impact that TPP would have on our community, continued Corley. If the company lays us off, there will be less money for spending in our local stores and less tax money to support our schools, hospitals, and other public services.

As a result of Local 3680’s work, 217 call center workers signed postcards urging Congress to oppose TPP and fast track.

Corley also said that many workers said that they would talk to their friends and family about why they should oppose TPP and fast track.

In Northern California, CWA members who belong to Local 9421 in Sacramento are working with a coalition to urge Rep. Doris Matsui to oppose TPP.

Matsui, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a stand yet on TPP.

In addition to Local 9421, the coalition includes Citizens Trade Campaign, Food and Water Watch, Alliance for Democracy, Global Exchange, SEIU Local 1000, CWA District 9, and the Sacramento Central Labor Council.

The coalition held a town hall meeting and invited Rep. Matsui to attend. She didn’t attend, but and an aide did.

Those who spoke at the meeting said that TPP would endanger local water supplies, encourage corporations to send jobs abroad, and give corporations the right to sue governments in secret tribunals if a government passes laws or enact regulations that endanger future profits.

“As a result of another trade deal similar to TPP, Phillip Morris is suing the government of Australia for requiring tobacco companies to put health warnings on its cigarette packages,” said Longer.

There are 500 similar suits being pursed around the world thanks to language in trade deals like TPP, added Cohen. “Governments are being sued for passing minimum wage legislation and laws to protect the environment.”

Longer said that the Sacramento coalition will mobilize people to phone, email, and use social media to urge Rep. Matsui to meet face-to-face with coalition members and to oppose TPP.

Cohen ended the union hall meeting by saying that stopping TPP fast track will mean reaching out to Republicans.

He urged CWA members and leaders who know or have working relationships with Republican lawmakers to volunteer to contact them.

“We’re going to help our Republican leaders in CWA reach out to Republican lawmakers because we need them if we’re going to stop TPP,” said Cohen.

Cohen said that 170 Democrats have committed to opposing TPP, and 25 Republicans have done so.

“To get the number of votes needed to block fast track, we need about 25 more Republicans,” said Cohen.

By the end of the meeting, 45 CWA members and leaders had volunteered to contact Republican lawmakers and seek their support in opposing fast track for TPP.

“Building coalitions is key to stopping TPP and fast track,” said Cohen. “We’ve stopped fast track twice before and we can do it again, but we can’t do it by ourselves.”

Demonstrations to stop TPP fast track on tap for Friday, Jan. 31

Demonstrations around the world are being held on January 31 to protest a bill before the US Congress that would expedite passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated in secret, by granting it Trade Promotion (Fast Track) Authority.

(One of those January 31 demonstrations will be held in Austin at 5:30 P.M. at the south gate of the Capitol on 11th Street.)

Supporters of TPP, including President Obama, are hoping that Congress will soon take action on granting fast track authority for TPP.

The US is negotiating the TPP with 11 other Pacific Rim countries.

It’s the latest in a series of international trade agreements negotiated by the US government. These trade deals have cost workers jobs, stagnated wages, degraded the environment, eroded local economies, and hurt small businesses.

TPP has been negotiated in secret, but leaked excerpts of the agreement suggest that if the trade deal goes through, domestic regulations affecting labor relations, banking, consumer protection, and the environment would be undermined.

“Trade agreements (like TPP) are no longer just about tariffs and quotas,” said Larry Cohen, president of CWA. “They are about the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the jobs we hold. We cannot abdicate this process to non-elected representatives. We cannot let foreign policy objectives trump domestic concerns and in the process unravel our own democracy instead of strengthening others.”

But Congress will abdicate its authority, if it passes the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus(D-Montana); Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan).

This so-called fast track bill would limit congressional debate and review of the TPP treaty once it is finalized.

During a January 23 nationwide CWA union hall meeting, Cohen described some of the actions that CWA members in conjunction other union, environment, consumer, and progressive activists have taken to stop fast track authority for TPP.

Since the fast track bill was introduced, union members and their partners have flooded congressional offices with letters and visited dozens of local and Washington DC congressional offices to express their opposition to the bill.

During the union hall meeting, Cohen called on CWA locals to continue pressuring elected representatives to oppose fast track, and he told members that this fight can’t be won without building alliances with groups outside the labor movement.

He pointed to the coalition that CWA is working with to build a grassroots campaign against fast track. The coalition includes other labor unions, environmental, consumer protection, and public interest groups.

More recently, more than 550 organizations have signed a letter from the Citizens Trade Campaign opposing the fast track bill.

The letter concludes by saying,

After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws, and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements. Critically, such a new procedure must ensure that Congress is satisfied with a trade agreement’s contents before a pact can be signed and subjected to any expedited procedures.

Back in November, 151 Democratic Members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Obama stating their opposition to fast track authority. Twenty-one Republicans did the same.

President Obama had hoped that a fast track vote and the passage of TPP would take place sometime in 2014, but those plans received a setback on January 29 when Senate Leader Harry Reid announced that he was opposed to TPP fast track authority.

“I’m against fast track,” said Reid to reporters. “I think everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”

Friday’s demonstrations will attempt to keep the pressure on Congress to vote against fast tracking TPP by emphasizing the damage that has been done by trade agreements since NAFTA was approved 20 years ago.

According to David Bacon writing in Truthout, NAFTA’s impact on the working class in Mexico, Canada, and the US has been devastating.

Twenty years (after the passage of NAFTA), workers have a scorecard,” writes Bacon. “The promises of profits from increased investment and freer markets were kept. But the promises of jobs and benefits for working people were not.  .   . NAFTA (led) to increasing unemployment, displacement, and poverty. Workers in all three countries are still living with these devastating consequences, while the predicted long-range benefits never materialized.