Labor’s dead-end strategy against the TPP

June 3, 2015

Ruth Hurley, a union activist, argues that the fast-track fiasco shows unions must end their reliance on nationalism and the Democrats.

WHEN THE Senate agreed to give President Barack Obama "fast track" authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic agreement, it wasn't just a defeat for people who care about the planet and the rights of everyone who live on it. It was another sign that the strategy of U.S. unions of allying with U.S. bosses and the Democratic Party is an abject failure.

The TPP, which has been negotiated in total secrecy by a cabal of 600 corporate vultures, including the likes of Walmart and Verizon, would include 12 countries bordering the Pacific Rim. It is designed to be a counterweight to China's increased regional influence.

The only details we know about the agreement are those that have been published by Wikileaks. As SocialistWorker.org's Ashley Smith put it, the treaty is "a bonanza for American multinationals--and a disaster for workers, peasants and the environment throughout the Asia Pacific." Among other things, it extends patents for expensive but life-saving drugs, increases privatization, and allows corporations to sue governments over environmental laws and other regulations that can be construed as "obstacles to commerce."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters outside the White House
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters outside the White House

The AFL-CIO and many unions threw themselves into months of lobbying and member organizing against the deal. But their "allies" among the Senate Democrats offered only an elaborate show of resistance. Some refused to approve fast track if the authority didn't include a provision to block countries from devaluing their currency to make their exports cheaper. This blocked the Senate's consideration of the treaty--but only for 24 hours, when the Democrats caved and let the authority go through.

Former Clinton administration official Bill Curry ruthlessly but accurately deconstructed the charade in Salon:

On Tuesday [Senate Democrats] staged a pantomime of fast-track resistance that should have fooled no one but seemed to fool everyone. Forty-four of 46 Senate Democrats, three more than needed to sustain a filibuster, voted against a motion to let the bill go forward...

Politico called it a "stunning defeat" for Obama; the White House called it a snafu. It was neither. Democrats were just caught in their familiar bind of needing to send highly conflicting signals to their donors and their base. The next day, 10 free trade Dems who had stuck with their caucus met with Obama, who pretended to lean on them by releasing their names to the press, of all things. All 10 converted on the spot.

Hours later, Senate leaders agreed to a compromise that was little more than a fig leaf for Democrats. Amazingly enough, the press treated the whole business as if it were something other than mere shadow puppetry.


THERE ARE more problems with the labor movement's strategy against the TPP than its reliance on Democrats, however.

Billing the TPP as "NAFTA on steroids," much of its anti-TPP campaign has focused on job losses due to free trade agreements. By referencing the common-sense notion that manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have all gone overseas, the AFL feeds into economic nationalism--that "we" need to protect "our" jobs against foreign competitors.

This orientation misses some key points about where manufacturing jobs have gone and undercuts the necessity of building class solidarity across borders.

Following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, manufacturing in the U.S. did decline. Between 2000 and 2010, 5 million manufacturing jobs disappeared. Some jobs crossed the southern border as companies moved operations to Mexico. Others moved not-as-far south--to Tennessee, Alabama and other anti-union states where manufacturing continues to grow faster than elsewhere in the U.S.

But far more were moved out of existence through automation--a trend seen worldwide. A study of manufacturing jobs in the 20 largest economies by Joe Carson, director of economic research at Alliance Capital Management, in the period following NAFTA found nothing unique about the loss of jobs in the U.S.

Caroline Baum of Bloomberg News commented: "Some 22 million manufacturing jobs were lost globally between 1995 and 2002 as industrial output soared 30 percent... It seems that devilish productivity is wreaking havoc with jobs both at home and abroad."

As Robert Zeiler pointed out in an aptly titled article "Robots Are Taking Jobs from Every Sector of the Economy" that "increasingly sophisticated scheduling software has eliminated the need for many office assistants and secretaries; Labor Department statistics show a loss of 1.1 million such jobs in the decade between 2000 and 2010. Other job categories were hit just as hard. The number of bookkeepers fell 26 percent; word processors and typists, 63 percent; travel agents, 46 percent; and telephone operators, 64 percent."

Many of these white-collar jobs were never unionized and therefore lacked the protections won in the heavily unionized manufacturing sector, but this doesn't erase the fact that the labor movement failed to respond with any consistent success.

Even with the most protectionist and isolationist policies, the imperatives of capital push toward greater technological advance, replacing workers with machines and organizing work around the tempo and ability of machines, not people. As Dana Frank, author of the book Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, commented on resistance to the proliferation of trade deals and institutions like the World Trade Organization:

We have to be wary of nationalism, particularly economic nationalism, as the alternative to global free trade, because I think that sets us up with a partnership with nation-based capital that overlooks the fact that business is still going to follow the same logic of profit-making domestically. Some idea of a nationalist team with domestic capital sends us right into the same problems that we're trying to solve. It sets us up with partnerships with domestic union busters and the kind of "us" versus "them" policies that [Pat] Buchanan is all about--it's terrifying.


INSTEAD OF hoping that closing borders to imports and foreign investment will force corporations to act responsibly in the U.S. and restore the postwar "good old days," the labor movement should look more deeply at the profound hatred that U.S. dominance has generated within countries targeted by the TPP.

As Bernadette Ellorin of the Filipino coalition BAYAN-USA said in an interview with Common Dreams:

People in the Asia-Pacific have been struggling for decades against U.S. intervention. This is nothing new to people in the region. In the Philippines, we have been fighting the U.S. presence for 114 years. Other countries have been fighting for decades. Those struggles and movements still exist, and they are intensifying now.

These movements in the region continue to frustrate the U.S. geopolitical agenda in the region and have endured countless U.S. counter-insurgency campaigns. The U.S. Pacific Command is the largest and oldest of the U.S. global commands. As long as U.S. intervention is present, people's resistance will not only persist, but grow.

Rather than build the type of street protests that rallied sentiment against the TPP in other countries around the Pacific Rim, the AFL-CIO limited itself to joining the heads of seven union federations from five other countries (New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Chile and Singapore) for a strongly worded letter--asking for transparency and a seat at the table for labor.

In fact, much of the U.S. labor movement strategy against this international corporate juggernaut can be summed up by the phrase "letter-writing."

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) boasted about having delivered 14,500 handwritten letters urging legislators to oppose TPP. Instruction sheets for the letter-writing campaign offered multiple reasons to choose from for why union members opposed the deal.

Suggestions ranged from the protectionist fear that "good American jobs" will be outsourced, to nervous claims that the TPP would undermine "Buy American" statutes, to the outright racist and Islamophobic charge that it's wrong to do trade deals with Muslim countries where Christians are unwelcome.

Missing from the list were any calls for international solidarity--or exercising workers' ability to disrupt production and trade. Given the central role of shipping and ground transportation in an international system of production and delivery, it seems obvious the labor movement would want to orient on this weakness in capital's armor.

Currently, dockworkers in Callao, Peru, are striking over the use of automation. South Korean port truckers have struck twice recently, in 2008 and 2014--and port truckers in Southern California just walked out for four days in April.

Yet labor's official line wasn't to confront the U.S. ruling class, but to work with the wing of it represented by the Democratic Party. As usual, this approach was a failure.


EMBEDDED IN much of the rhetoric of the anti-TPP campaign is the idea that the key victim of trade deals is the U.S., or at least U.S. workers. This gets sympathy from working people, who feel the very real downward pressure on wages and conditions: Since 1980, the income of U.S. workers has flatlined, and their share of national income has shrunk, especially since 2008.

Yet American workers are the victims, not of immigrants or 16-year-old Chinese workers, but of American capitalists. The reality is that when the U.S. enters into a trade agreement where sovereignty is compromised, it's the other nation that loses out. Ashley Smith offered a typical example:

The U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum successfully sued Ecuador for ending its contract allowing the U.S.-based multinational to drill and pump oil. Even though the Ecuadoran government was well within its right in the country's constitution to do so, the ISDS court awarded Occidental a $2.3 billion settlement.

As former Secretary of State and war criminal Henry Kissinger said back in 1999, "What is called globalization is really another name for the dominant role of the United States."

The racist blame game of who is "stealing good American jobs" is more than a dead end for labor--it is sending us into reverse.

Tragically, this is a departure from the trend that emerged at the turn of the century when labor participated in the anti-globalization movement that disrupted meetings of global institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

It's been 15 years since the "Battle in Seattle," when union members famously joined young anti-globalization activists to shut down a meeting of some of the most powerful financial players in the world--in a coalition dubbed "Turtles and Teamsters." We need to dust off the tenets of global worker solidarity and embrace the disruptive power of labor--both against our "own" capitalists and the system that keeps them in place.

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