Headline News

Trade Is Good When It’s Fair

By James P. Hoffa, General President, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
and Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club
Published in The Hill on September 20, 2013

It's been almost 20 years since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and families and communities are still reeling from its consequences. Among the many flawed aspects of this trade pact, it gave weak protections for American jobs and for U.S. safeguards on air, water and the environment.

Now President Obama has taken the lead in negotiating what would be the largest trade pact in history. For nearly three years, the United States has been engaged in trade talks regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

As leaders in the environmentalist and labor movements, we're all for trade – as long as it's fair. That's why it's more important now than ever to make sure this trade pact is done right – or it shouldn't be done at all. To ensure the safety and health of all Americans, trade negotiators must put the interests of the people – not big corporations – at the forefront of the trade talks.

Back in his first term, when President Obama proclaimed that America would join the TPP talks, we welcomed his commitment to deliver a “high-standard, 21st-century” trade agreement, with strong protections for workers and the environment.  Environmentalists and labor unions alike have been eager to see a 21st-century trade pact that includes protections for working families and protections for our environment—not just the profit of transnational corporations.

Unfortunately, from what we understand about the direction of the TPP negotiations, the final deal will probably replicate the same flawed model of NAFTA, throwing workers and whole communities under the bus and letting foreign corporations take the wheel.

As the trade representatives from the United States and the 11 other countries meet in Washington this week, we wish to once again express our demands for this pact. Specifically, we expect that the final TPP text will require all 12 countries to respect the fundamental labor rights we take for granted in this country – freedoms of speech and assembly and the right to organize – and prohibit child and forced labor.  Further, the TPP must ensure that all countries uphold and strengthen their domestic environmental policies and obligations under multilateral environmental agreements to protect communities and our climate. These obligations must be enforceable by trade sanctions, through rigorous dispute settlement mechanisms.

Countries that have fought hard for their protections – environmental, labor or otherwise – should not feel threatened by big corporations. Unfortunately, we expect the TPP will include provisions that allow foreign corporations to sue governments over just these types of laws and policies – if the corporation feels the law undercuts its bottom line. Such investor protections are not only a fundamental threat to our democracy, but also to workers and the environment.

With our jobs, our access to clean air and water and our environment at stake, we deserve a say in the way these trade rules are being written. But relatively few, mainly corporate executives and trade representatives from member nations, have access to texts of the pact, leaving the public largely in the dark.

Making matters worse, the U.S. Trade Representative has requested "fast track" for this trade deal.  Fast track is an outdated mechanism that would limit the role of Congress to casting “yes” or “no” votes on adoption of the trade pact, limit debate on important provisions and forbid amendments.  With fast track, Congress cannot do its job effectively to oversee trade negotiations and ensure the contents of our trade pacts promote the public interest. Congress should oppose fast track, especially for a trade pact as expansive as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Free trade agreements like NAFTA have only led to the outsourcing of American jobs, downsizing of our wages and loss of environmental protections. The Sierra Club, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and hundreds of other organizations and allies want to make sure that, this time, trade negotiators put people before corporate interests while writing this deal. It's time to stop letting big corporations ship our jobs overseas and dump our wages, benefits and protections overboard along the way. We don't need any more free trade agreements; we need fair trade agreements.

To read archived articles from General President Hoffa, click here.