This is the second in the TPP Facts Project series, in which TPV aims to shed light on the Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation by the Obama administration with 11 countries on both sides of the Pacific. Little of the information available through mainstream channels on this is anything more than panic-glazed hyperventilating, and we intend to set the record straight.
Today's Concentration: Globalizing the rights of workers, and the question of jobs
During his campaign for president some 12 years ago, the current liberal hero Howard Dean became the darling of the progressives (including myself) by vehemently opposing the war in Iraq, being the first governor in the country to sign a civil union law, and adopting the following position on international trade: while globalization was here to stay, that it was only half-way complete as we had globalized the rights of labor but not the rights of labor and the environmental costs of polluting.
It should give us pause, then, when we hear about Leftist resistance to a trade pact under negotiation that gives shape to exactly those demands. It should make us wonder whether it isn't just crass grifting when an organization Dean founded features a cabinet member from the team that brought us NAFTA in its opposition to a trade pact that would incorporate those principles in an enforceable way. Howard Dean never became president, but someone with the view that Dean articulated on trade eventually did. His name is Barack Obama, and President Obama's record is important to review if we are to decide whether he can be trusted to protect the rights of working people.
The Obama Record: President Obama has made the rights of working people a centerpiece of his agenda, both here at home and abroad. The president has been a tireless advocate of raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave, and his administration has come down on the side of the right of workers to organize freely and bargain collectively again and again.
As I noted almost four years ago, the President has been just as aggressive in pursuing enforceable labor rights through the trade agreements he has guided. The free trade agreement with South Korea as well as that with Panama and Colombia, the Obama administration ensured the enforceable full right of labor to organize and bargain collectively, making workers' rights a cornerstone of American trade policy for the first time in history. The president was so successful - even though the initial agreements were signed by his predecessor, somewhat tying Obama's hands - that the agreements won accolades even from international labor rights NGOs who didn't fully agree with the deals.
The Obama administration hasn't simply been busy writing labor protections into international trade agreements, they have also enforced existing provisions. Early in Obama's first term, the office of US Trade Representative brought a labor rights enforcement case against Guatemala under CAFTA (not exactly easy, given CAFTA's relatively weak enforcement provisions on labor), forcing Guatemala to improve labor law enforcement. The United States has refused to withdraw the case, pushing Guatemala to make legislative changes in addition to enforcement ones, a move hailed by key labor leaders and Congressional labor allies just last September.
Given the mountain of evidence to the polar opposite, the idea that President Obama should negotiate or sign an agreement that would hurt workers should be preposterous on its face.
TPP's Labor Provisions: The President's commitment to the freedoms and rights of working people is not simply reflected in his administration's past work, but in its current negotations as well. The Obama administration, unconstrained by the previous administration's signage and previous trade deals' inadequacies, is charging ahead with an even more ambitious workers' rights agenda in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
At the outset, the Obama administration is seeking binding labor protection subject to the same arbitration procedures available to corporations.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) fundamental labor rights incorporate, inviolably, the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, elimination of forced and child labor, and a principle of nondiscrimination borader than anything currently on the books anywhere: the ILO fundamental rights enumerate eliminating discrimination based on anything other than the ability to do the job. Though this broadest of nondiscrimination principles is unlikely to have force of law, its mere inclusion is a big step in breaking down barriers.
"The more you know, the more you know you don't know." Keeping this old adage in mind, the Obama administration understands that however advanced TPP may be by today's standards and as diligent as President Obama and his administration is in ironing out the best possible deal for workers, the future may bring us issues worth considering. So in addition to strong, binding labor protections, the administration also seeks in the TPP:
The administration's goal is to incorporate into the agreement not just the freedom of speech of individuals and civic organizations to participate in the debate and watchdog enforcement but also the assurance that governments will find it hard to let it fall on deaf ears as they would be required to respond.
Now, the last piece, what about jobs - American jobs?
It is true that merely leveling the playing field does not ensure the success or protection of specific American jobs. "Asians and South Americans will simply do the same work for cheaper" even if labor rights are respected, the argument goes.
Let me say first here that I highly resent the idea that American workers cannot compete against foreign labor in a level playing field. Over and over, we have proven that we can - whether by bringing back the American auto industry to life and making it the world's envy again or whether by consistent innovations in technology some others have been busy copying (which, by the way, is why the much-dissed intellectual property rights are important in trade deals, but that's for another part of the series). There are factors at play other than simple wages: infrastructure and productivity, for example (just one reason the president wants to massively ramp up investment in infrastructure and education).
Let me also say that I find using the fear of foreign labor in a level playing field to effectively work against the expansion of what we should consider universal rights of the worker - no matter where they live - reprehensible.
But let's talk about American jobs and trade. We are familiar with the stunning economic turnaround that has taken place under President Obama's stewardship from the time of an economic catastrophe as the new president was sworn in on a cold January day in 2009. What many of us don't know is that American exports are responsible for fully a third of that recovery, according to unbiased data compiled in the President's 2015 trade agenda report.
US exports reached $2.35 trillion last year, a record high and an increase of 48% since 2009. Exports support 11.7 million American jobs, and those jobs pay up to 18% more than jobs not related to exports. American manufacturers, farmers and small business - yes, small business - are exporting at a record volume.
Between 2011 and 2014, US exports to Korea grew by more than $5 billion overall, and our auto and farm exports to Korea have been exploding. In 2014, the US turned the first trade surplus with Colombia since 1999, and at $2.1 billion, it was the largest on record.
Why is this relevant? Things are happening in the world. Today, 80% of the world's purchasing power resides outside our borders, and by 2030, two out of three middle class world citizens will be living in Asia, which at that time will also account for nearly 60% of the world's middle class consumption.
The question is not whether the purchasing power of the people outside the United States will rise, and it shouldn't even be whether it should. The growth of the middle classes elsewhere in the world should be something to celebrate, at least for liberals, as the middle class is the greatest engine both for economic growth and for the advancement of economic rights.
The only question is, will we be selling to those middle classes? We should. It's good for America. It's good for American jobs. It's good for American wages. It's good for American growth - and the expansion of the universal rights of the worker is good for both their middle classes, and ours.