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October 01, 2014
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MESSAGE FROM SECRETARY-TREASURER
Steven P. Vairma

Steve Vairma's Column:

"Trade agreements must contain labor rights"

This year is the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but it isn't time for a birthday celebration, at least not for a million U.S. workers who have lost jobs since the trade agreement was enacted two decades ago.

That's why American unions are working to kill so-called "fast track" legislation that eliminates the Constitutional authority of Congress to ensure that provisions of trade agreements are in the best interest of American workers and their families.

Fast track would allow Congress to pass with no debate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest and possibly most destructive internantional trade agreement ever.  In the past, such legislation has sometimes been crafted in secret with "help" from corporate lobbyists.

The World Trade Organization (WTO), a group of trade ministers and heads of state, enforces trade rules.  When NAFTA was implemented by the U.S. Canada and Mexico in 1994, it included side agreements on workers' rights and environmental issues.  They were never enforced by the WTO, and to this day labor, environmental and certain agricultural rights issues have never been addressed in global trade agreements.

And that has become a huge problem for American workers.

"By establishing the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell back into the United States, NAFTA undercut the bargaining power of American workers, which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II," says Jeff Faux, founding president of the Economic Policy Institute, a respected Washington think tank on political and economic issues facing working people.

"The result has been 20 years of stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income, wealth and political power."

Faux says that in addition to killing nearly a million U.S. manufacturing jobs, NAFTA also gave American employers the capability to force workers to accept lower wages by threatening to move operations to Mexico if labor costs weren't lowered.

He also points out that NAFTA has become the template for rules of the emerging global economy, in which benefits flow to capital and the costs to labor, a "doctrine of socialism for capital and free markets for labor."

Union leaders realize that global trade agreements will not go away.  Like it or not, we know America will be involved in the world economy for the foreseeable future, if not forever.

But so-called free trade agreements ought also to be fair trade agreements.  There is nothing fair about the agreements that have been "negotiated" by the United States.

Because workers' rights aren't included in WTO rules, countries are not permitted to withdraw trade preferences from WTO members, even for egregious violations of workers' rights.

If the current congressional debate over fast track broadens the discourse on international trade into the public sector, the WTO may eventually be forced to confront these issues.  It has already been broadened as many disparate groups - including some Tea Party politicans - have joined in opposing fast track.

Nothing is more effective than the glare of public scrutiny in ensuring the interests of all parties - not just the multi national corporations are considered when trade agreements are negotiated.

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