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Why labor unions oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership

May 12, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership say the deal would bring greater prosperity by opening trade, but opponents say it fails to include labor protections and could cost jobs. In the first in a series of conversations about what’s at stake, Gwen Ifill talks to Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO about why he opposes the trade deal.
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GWEN IFILL: As battles sort itself out, we begin our own series of conversations at what’s at stake in the debate over trade.

First tonight, a leading voice for labor. Richard Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Its membership includes 56 unions representing more than 12 million workers in the United States.

Welcome, Mr. Trumka.

Your side won the day today, but you heard the White House is calling it a procedural snafu. Where do things stand tonight?

RICHARD TRUMKA, President, AFL-CIO: Well, I think it’s an indication that this agreement is not worthy of the American people and the American worker, that they do not want to pass this thing with an up-or-down vote, that members of Congress want to be able to say, this is where it needs to be fixed. Let us help you fix it.

So, I think we’re in the position where if the president would go along with that, we could fix this agreement and make everybody a winner, all the American public and everybody else.

GWEN IFILL: Was today’s vote really about the nuts and bolts of the deal itself, or was it just about this idea of fast tracking it, of greasing the skids?

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, the first vote was about fast track

And if you wouldn’t mind, I will elaborate on that just a bit. Congress has the constitutional authority to do trade deals. They can delegate that to the president. In this specific instance, it makes absolutely no sense, because the only way Congress has to control the agreement whenever it’s delegated is to give the president negotiating objectives and then come back and make sure he’s met them and voted up or down.

In this instance, the agreement’s almost totally negotiated before they give him any objectives, and they will come back with a bad agreement. We know a little bit about what’s in it, though it has been kept very secret. And they will have to vote it up or down. They won’t be able to change it. No one is willing to do that, in light of what’s happened and the history of all the other trade agreements that have cost us jobs and encouraged outsourcing.

GWEN IFILL: Your concerns are about transparency. Your concerns are about enforcement. Your concerns are about whether, as you just mentioned, jobs will go away. The president says the unions are stuck in the past, that this is an old fight that has already been won, in part because any of the jobs that were going to go to Asian nations already have.

RICHARD TRUMKA: With all due respect to the president, it’s he that’s stuck in the past.

This is a NAFTA-style agreement. What we wanted was what he promised. That’s a new type of trade agreement that would protect American jobs and grow the economy and let everybody win from a trade agreement, and not just Wall Street. This agreement is patterned after CAFTA and NAFTA, and, as a result, not us stuck in the past.

GWEN IFILL: Now, their argument, of course — I’m going to just be the devil’s advocate here — is that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the one you just referenced, that that was a different time and it was a different place and that this — our technology and where we are in the world now allows us to enforce the kinds of promises that maybe you feel were not kept at that time.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, first of all, the rules are the rules.

And if you use the same old rules that you did under NAFTA, you will get the same results now, regardless of a different period of time. Second of all, you’re right. They didn’t enforce those rights. And there’s nothing in this agreement that will give them more rights, more ways to enforce workers’ rights and environmental rights and to protect the American public, the American worker and the American environment.

In fact, this will encourage and give opportunity to foreign investors to attack our laws in ways that no U.S. citizen has. It’s specific to corporations and special secret tribunals that they get to access and no American does. That’s just not right. It’s not good for the country. It’s one of the old, tired features of NAFTA, and it’s something that should be changed to modernize it and bring it into today’s economy.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about who you represent now, which is very different than it used to be.

Less than 10 percent of your membership are in manufacturing, and that’s what you’re talking about here. Why such a fierce pushback?

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, because it’s a bad trade agreement. It will hurt everybody in the economy.

It doesn’t just hurt industrial workers. It hurts professional workers. It hurts teachers. It hurts public workers by doing away with the tax base. Look, since 2000, we have lost 60,000 factories. When a factory closes down in the community, the tax base goes away, the high-paying jobs go away. They’re replaced with either low-paying jobs or no jobs at all. That means there’s less revenue for government to operate on, less services for the general public, and the entire community loses.

That’s why this is so important. Look, Gwen, this is going to cover 40 percent of the world’s economy. And it has a docking provision where they’re going to be able to add other countries to this, which means it may be the last trade agreement ever negotiated by the United States.

That’s why it’s so important for us to get it right, to get those rules right, because those rules will decide who wins and who loses. Under NAFTA and CAFTA, workers lost. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

GWEN IFILL: Is it true the AFL-CIO felt so strongly about this that it threatened members of Congress to withhold congressional fund-raising or donations if they didn’t vote against this?

RICHARD TRUMKA: It’s simply not the case.

What we said is, we’re not going to give out any money. We’re going to use it to fight this fight, so that we can actually put on a real campaign to protect the American public and the American people and, quite frankly, some of the Democrats from themselves.

This is a bad deal. This will hurt our economy. This will hurt our communities. It will hurt our country, and it shouldn’t be done in a fast track manner, where you only get to vote it up or down after it was negotiated in secret.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re protecting Democrats from themselves by withholding support?

RICHARD TRUMKA: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear the last part.

GWEN IFILL: You’re protecting Democrats from themselves by withholding support?

RICHARD TRUMKA: We’re not withholding support.

We have closed our PACs to use the money that we have in them to be able to fight this fight. Whenever we’re done, we will open up things again and our friends will be our friends and things will go back to normal, but, right now, we need every resource that we have to fight this.

The president has all the business community behind him. He has Wall Street behind him. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t have the American public behind him. And so we’re using all of our resources to fight this fight, so that we can get a bill that really does help every American worker out there and not encourage low wages and outsourcing.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, thank you for joining us.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Gwen, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.

GWEN IFILL: We plan to have a conversation with a strong supporter of the trade pact later this week

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