Senate Democrats Block Obama’s Fast-track Authority for Trade Pacts
Longtime union activist Frank Hammer says the 52-45 vote may eliminate the secrecy behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its potential effects on workers.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
Senate says no to holding a vote on fast-tracking authority. This was a procedural vote and it was defeated 52-45. All but one democrat voted against letting President Obama introduce fast-tracking authority. This authority would have given him the right to bypass full-blown debate on trade deals like TPP.
Now joining me to talk about all of this is Frank Hammer. He’s joining us from Detroit, Michigan. Frank is a retired General Motors employee and former president and chairperson of Local 909 in Warren, Michigan. He now organizes with Autoworker Caravan, an association of active and retired auto workers who advocate for workers’ demands in Washington.
Thank you for joining us.
FRANK HAMMER, CO-FOUNDER, AUTOWORKER CARAVAN: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: And Frank, tell us what this means. What does stopping fast-tracking authority mean to all of us?
HAMMER: I think that–it put a big smile on my face when I heard the news. I think this is a great day for workers, and certainly for UAW members. It means that there is a serious–the upsurge in opposition from labor, from environmental groups and consumer groups is making its way into the halls of Congress. And I think that the Congress is getting a little timid about going forward with the TPP.
There were three objections that were cited for why they didn’t want to have, go ahead with the vote on the fast-track authority. I don’t expect that it’s going to be the end of everything, I think that we will see this come up again and that we will have to address it. So we should not let our guard down. But I think that this a day for jubilation, and you know, breaking open the champagne bottles and having a toast.
PERIES: So what does this mean in terms of TPP? Now, TPP is being promoted as the 21th century trade agreement that will boost U.S. economic growth and support American jobs, and grow made-in-America type exports to different parts of the world. What does this mean, really, for American workers?
HAMMER: Well, my focus has been on what it would mean for workers overseas. As a way of saying, what is happening to the workers overseas will have a definite impact on workers here at home. So I’ve taken, I’ve looked and focused at the question of the labor rights, and Obama has said that the–yes, the old trade agreements there was a lot of hype. And yeah, they didn’t really deliver.
And so in your introduction, it sounds like we’re getting just a little more hype. He makes a comparison with NAFTA. He said, oh, he was still in law school when NAFTA passed. He dissociates himself with the devastation brought on by NAFTA. Here in the United States it’s estimated that we lost 800,000 manufacturing jobs as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We know that in Mexico it cost them millions, small farmers, their livelihoods. So he’s distanced himself from the North American Free Trade Agreement. So we have to ask ourselves well, what should we–we don’t know, we can’t find out the details of the TPP, because they’re being negotiated in secret. So what should we go by?
I go to the old ad that used to sell Packards. For people as old as I am, you know what a Packard was. And the ad used to say, ask the man who owns one. So a good way to find out what the TPP might represent for labor is to go to not NAFTA, but to go to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. And the reason I think it’s important is because the Colombia Free Trade Agreement has got Obama’s signature on it before he ran for president back in 2008. He vociferously opposed the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. He said it did not have enough labor protection. And sure enough, once he was in office, he turned around and became a vociferous advocate of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
The Congress, in order to pass this legislation, added something called the Labor Action Plan. And this was supposed to be the protections that would guarantee labor rights and fulfill the hype that had previously attended the North American Free Trade Agreement. Well, the Labor Action Plan in Colombia has been in effect now for about three years. And we can look back and say, okay Obama, what did you accomplish with your labor protections in Colombia?
And what’s clear is that not much was accomplished. On the contrary, we’ve had report after report from Colombia, from U.S. visitors to Colombia, indicating that the Labor Action Plan was actually a failure. And in fact, the two congressional representatives, George Miller and Jim McGovern, who are part of the Congressional Monitoring Group of the performance of the Labor Action Plan, came back and said that the agreement was actually a failure, and conducting extensive interviews in Colombia learned that many Colombians said that things actually got worse in Colombia after the Colombia Free Trade Agreement passed, even with the attendant Labor Action Plan. Which, by the way, had no enforcement mechanisms whatsoever.
So Obama may want to distance himself from the NAFTA, but he can’t separate himself from Colombia Free Trade Agreement because he was part of it, and his signature is all over it. The consequence is that while the Labor Action Plan was supposed to stop the assassination of labor organizers, it slowed down some, but they continued nevertheless. The threats against labor organizers has increased. The labor participation in unions in Colombia remains at a dismal low, 4 percent. The formation of illegal unions, called collective pacts, has continued unabated. Many other labor violations have continued even though we have these alleged labor protections.
So when we hear Obama talking about the TPP having these wonderful labor standards and labor protections, I think we all have to look at it and say, really?
PERIES: Frank, one of the things that even the World Bank is saying is that labor protection, labor unionization is necessary if we are to try, try to address inequality. Not only here in the United States, but throughout the world where the growing gap between the rich and the poor is widening every single day. Now you’re saying that TPP really would actually not help in terms of organizing and strengthening labor. It will only diminish labor standards. Why are you saying that? What makes–besides having the NAFTA experience, what is it specific about TPP that’s setting off alarm bells for you?
HAMMER: Well, the first thing that’s sending alarm bells for me is that the TPP is negotiated in secrecy, right? So we actually don’t–we have not set our eyes on what labor protections may be contained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So that’s the first thing that’s alarming. We don’t really know.
The second thing that alarms me is that we know that lawyers, representatives of 600 corporations have been engaged in these secret negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And I don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling from corporate lawyers negotiating labor rights. I just have a hard time understanding that that would result in anything good for labor. So that’s the second thing that alarms me.
And the third thing, and my emphasis here has been about, well, if we don’t know what is contained in this agreement, we know who’s negotiating it, what might we expect from the past record? And the past record that I’m referring to is not so much NAFTA, which Obama has distanced himself from, but really more about Colombia. Which he has to take ownership of, because he’s the one that got it passed.
And based on the experience with Colombia, that’s what sets off the alarm bells. That the labor conditions in Colombia did not improve, have actually worsened. And you know, I’ve had a personal connection with GM workers in Bogotá who are now into their fourth year of struggle for justice with the U.S. embassy and General Motors. And I can know from their situation that the Labor Action Plan has not facilitated justice for workers that are working for GM, for a U.S. company, in Colombia.
So those are the things that set the alarm bells. If the U.S. government, through the Labor Action Plan, can’t mandate that General Motors respect Colombian labor rights, then what chances are there that the TPP is going to enforce rights for labor in Vietnam or in Chile, or anywhere, including here in the U.S.?
PERIES: And one of the things, Frank, that keeps happening is that resistance to the TPP and TTIP is mounting. I mean, labor has, has joined the fight against TPP, and social movements, environmental movements. It’s a growing movement. But President Obama and the Democratic leadership seems to be paying no attention to the contestations out there. Why do you think that’s happening?
HAMMER: I think that, I think that the TPP and the other trade agreement for the Atlantic are the prize plums that Wall Street was seeking to get Obama’s success. And I think that they try to ignore the rising opposition here in the U.S. by many, many, many groups and unions and organizations. And I think it’s gotten to the point where they could not ignore it anymore, and now Obama has taken a different tack. And he’s taken a tack of attacking the people that have been his base. Going so far as to attack Elizabeth Warren as acting more as a politician and someone who didn’t know what she was talking about.
And I think that they’re, whatever effort they made to try to ignore what the masses of people in this country are saying is failing. And I think that’s why Obama has had to go on the defensive. And in fact, go on the attack, I should say. And attack the folks who he has most relied on for his two election victories. And I think it’s a really pitiful ending to his administration, those last two years that he’s separated himself from his base, and he’s joined with all these Republicans in a quest for what Wall Street really wanted. The TPP.
PERIES: Frank Hammer, thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you’re back very soon. We’re going to keep covering this.
HAMMER: Thank you so much, and thanks for The Real News.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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