Mar. 19, 2007 – With two controversial trade deals awaiting ratification, Congress is taking stock of the White Houseâ€™s free-trade agenda, and activists are seizing the moment to call for policies that respond to the social needs of all countries involved.
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Lawmakers are considering trade deals with Colombia and Peru that encapsulate some of the most contentious aspects of so-called "free trade": rules that critics say elevate corporate privilege over human rights, promote exploitation of workers, and destabilize economies.
At the same time, President Bushâ€™s power to broker such deals with minimal congressional oversight comes up for renewal later this year.
Labor, environmental, and humanitarian groups are urging Congress to block the pending agreements and similar accords now under negotiation. And opponents outside government are also working to upend the ideology behind modern trade policies in both parties by articulating an alternative agenda â€“ one that treats global trade as a resource to raise living standards rather than as a vehicle for corporate profits.
"Trade is not any longer the province of government elites and investors," said Gary Hubbard, a spokesperson for the United Steelworkers union. "Everyone should benefit from trade â€“ not just global corporations and governments."
Public outcry over free-trade agreements is nothing new. But with a new Congress, following an election in which job security and trade were hot-button issues, advocates for "fair trade" see an opportunity to finally penetrate the political mainstream.
Groups are challenging free-trade policies that restrict governments from meeting basic social needs.
A first step, they say, is to reform the negotiation process that has long been dominated by the White House and business interests.
The Bush administrationâ€™s trade deals have been greased by "fast tracking" â€“ a special authority that enables the executive branch to broker and sign a trade agreement without direct congressional input. The deal then goes to a simple up-or-down vote; Congress cannot make amendments, and debate time is limited. Last renewed in 2002, the presidentâ€™s fast-track authority will expire on July 1 â€“ unless the Democrat-controlled Congress is persuaded to restore it.
Though the US Trade Representativeâ€™s Office, the agency that leads trade talks, does consult with outside "advisory committees," many of these are currently dominated by representatives of corporations like Boeing and Intel.
Yvette Pena Lopes, with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said that while union advocates realize that, inevitably, "trade is going to happen," their challenge now is to "begin to lay out what must be, and what cannot be, within trade agreements."
Earlier this month, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, a coalition of unions that includes the Teamsters, both issued policy statements calling for a more-transparent negotiation process to replace the current fast-track system. To check presidential power, they argued: Congress should design economic and social "readiness criteria" for deciding whether a trade deal with a country would be mutually beneficial. And lawmakers should establish stronger, binding labor and environmental standards that a country must meet before the president could finalize any deal.
Workers' advocates argue that the Colombia deal displays the administrationâ€™s indifference to the countryâ€™s ongoing human-rights crisis.
The organizations said trade deals should incorporate basic labor standards set by the United Nationsâ€™s International Labour Organization (ILO). These include the right to organize unions, prohibitions on child labor, protections against discrimination in employment opportunities, and the elimination of forced labor.
Unions and human-rights groups say the deals now awaiting congressional approval run counter to these goals.
The Peru agreement, for example, contains no explicit mandate to enforce ILO standards. It simply directs the Peruvian government to uphold its "existing labor laws" and discourages, but does not prohibit, the weakening of protections to serve commercial interests. Meanwhile, an investigation of Peru by the US State Department uncovered widespread child labor. And the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions has reported frequent suppression of union organizers by employers â€“ especially multinational companies.
The labor coalitions also join other activist organizations in opposing trade policies that could restrict governments from meeting basic social needs.
Controversial patent rules in the Peru and Colombia deals would expand pharmaceutical companiesâ€™ power to monopolize production of essential medicines and block lower-cost generic versions. The Health Ministry of Peru projected in 2005 that the Peru trade agreement would foreclose access to medicine for about 700,000 to 900,000 people annually in the first five years of implementation.
Despite the political buzz, a concrete alternative to the free-trade agenda has not yet materialized on Capitol Hill.
Critics of the trade deals say corporate privilege would be further bolstered by "dispute settlement" measures, which empower companies to sue governments over policies that supposedly impinge on their market access.
Under similar provisions in the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Canada and Mexico, firms have launched legal attacks on anti-toxic-dumping regulations, protections for indigenous sacred sites, and domestic tax policies.
Touting trade liberalization as part of a regional strategy to "build democratic institutions and promote socio-economic development," the US Trade Representativeâ€™s Office has contended the pending trade deals would boost jobs and investment opportunities for the United States, while promoting long-term economic growth and combating drug trafficking in Peru and Colombia.
But Jessica Walker Beaumont, a trade and debt specialist with the Quaker activist group American Friends Service Committee, said current trade deals are based on "limiting the governmentâ€™s ability to make choices for itself" in economic policy â€“ such as establishing public ownership of utilities, or shielding local farms from foreign competition.
In an analysis of the Peru and Colombia trade agreements, the humanitarian group Oxfam International predicted the free-trade rules would displace small-scale farmers with an onslaught of imports of cheap, subsidized US crops. The group cited government data for nine primary crops in Colombia, including cotton and rice, showing that without protective import restrictions, in these sectors, the area of land farmed would shrink by one-fifth and employment would fall by over a third.
Human-rights groups warn that economic destabilization of Colombiaâ€™s rural sector would deepen existing strife by driving farmers into lucrative coca production or into the ranks of warring factions.
And workersâ€™ advocates argue that enacting the Colombia deal would display the administrationâ€™s indifference to the countryâ€™s ongoing human-rights crisis. US and Colombian rights groups point to scores of documented murders of trade unionists in recent years amid a ferocious civil war.
Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro, a member of the opposition party Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo, told The NewStandard the trade deal must be renegotiated to include "new clauses that protect the labor rights of Colombian workers" as well as land-distribution policies that protect smaller farmers.
"Undoubtedly," he said through an interpreter, under the current deal, "the ones who will benefit, at least in the rural places in Colombia, are the narco-traffickers."
Though fair-trade issues may be generating more political buzz, a concrete alternative to the free-trade agenda has not yet materialized on Capitol Hill.
More ambitious ideas have emerged on the grassroots level. One example is a far-ranging blueprint for "sustainable" international trade presented in 2002 by the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a coalition of advocacy groups across the Americas. That model envisioned trade pacts as mutual social contracts that would condition economic exchange on the promotion of global ethical standards.
Rather than focusing on pushing capital across borders, governments under these agreements would commit to policies like public investment in alternative energy sources, equal labor rights for migrants, and agricultural regulations based on securing an adequate regional food supply.
Stephanie Burgos, an advisor for Oxfam on trade policy, said more-comprehensive concepts of fair trade center on respect for the political and social integrity of other nations â€“ allowing economically poorer countries to "decide their own pace and level of market opening."
For now, activists seeking dramatic changes in the global trade system fear congressional Democrats might ultimately continue their general support for prevailing neo-liberal trade priorities.
In a speech earlier this month, Representative Sander Levin (Dâ€“Michigan), head of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, urged reforms to current trade policies, stressing protections for US workers and labor rights.
But in recent statements, Ways and Means Committee chair Charles Rangel (Dâ€“New York) has called for Congress and the White House to "be partners in promoting trade" and announced he is working with the Trade Representativeâ€™s Office on a compromise over labor provisions in the pending agreements.
Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, said activists should be wary that Congress "might cut a deal in name of these fair-trade activists but not actually go as far as we would like." In focusing on labor policies in the trade deals, she said, Democratic leaders could be trying to appease unions while glossing over more-nuanced issues involving the environment or expansive powers for investors.
But if broad consensus on how to restructure the global trade system has yet to emerge in Washington, some activists perceive at least a growing sense that the status quo is failing.
"Weâ€™re at a turning point," said Larry Weiss of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of labor, environmental and other activist groups. "We are currently demonstrating that the old NAFTA model is dead, that no more NAFTA-style trade deals can get through Congress. But we are not yet at the point of establishing a new model."