NPR: Unions Remeber NAFTA; Hold Fast Against New Trade Deal

Thea Lee

Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO labor union, has had a front-row seat to the current TPP trade negotiations on Capitol Hill, writes NPR.

She opposes many of the provisions in the new trade deal, though, and she can’t discuss the details.

“We are sworn to secrecy, so we can’t talk about it — not to our colleagues, not to our members, not to the press, and so that’s frustrating,” she says. “If I talked to you specifically about what I think the shortcomings of the labor chapter are, I could lose my security clearance. I don’t know if I’d go to jail, but …”

So she’s left talking in generalities, states NPR.

“These deals make it easier for multinational corporations to move jobs overseas,” Lee says.

She – as well as other union leaders – point first and foremost to the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect 21 years ago, writes NPR.

Roland Zullo, a University of Michigan labor and employment policy researcher, says that for organized labor, NAFTA’s wounds are still there.

“Labor has enough of a institutional memory to know what happened with NAFTA,” he says. “There was a theory behind NAFTA; there was a theory that by integrating Canada, U.S. and Mexico, there would be a sort of overall net economic benefit.”

However, that didn’t happen for U.S. workers in sectors like manufacturing.  Michigan auto workers, for example, lost more than 100,000 jobs in the years that followed NAFTA’s passage, writes NPR.  Nationwide, sources claim that anywhere from 700,000 to 5 million jobs were lost due to NAFTA.

It’s not a clear case of cause and effect, though.

NPR writes that this is the period when Japanese automakers were setting up shop in the U.S. and taking market share away from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler (though this situation doesn’t exactly make the case for trade agreements, either.)

Matt Slaughter, associate dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, points out some of the difficulties labor faces in opposing the TPP trade deal.

He says labor should stop trying to kill the new trade pact, and instead push for a more robust 21st century social safety net for dislocated workers.

Again, though, if the trade agreements were so good for the U.S., why would we need to push for a more robust social safety net for dislocated workers?  Why would there be dislocated workers?  Isn’t that admitting that there will be job loss due to the trade pacts?

Tim Waters, the national political director for the United Steelworkers, disagrees with the idea that trade agreements cannot be stopped or changed.

“For us to just say, ‘Oh well, it’s inevitable, we shouldn’t try to stop it, we shouldn’t try to stand up, we should just try to get in there and cut some kind of deal that made it less sickening,’ doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

Waters says that unions aren’t anti-trade; they want fair trade. He says trade deals need to put the concerns of American workers first.

(Updated article)

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