Free trade has been sold to Americans on the assumption that all parties benefit equally from trade. If countries simply lower their tariffs, all goods will become cheaper; countries will then produce only what they are relatively better at producing, buy the products they do not produce at cheaper prices, and both countries win.
The problem is: What does it mean when a country “wins”? If all of the benefits are captured by the economic elites (global corporations and their CEOs), the rest of us are left to watch them pull up the ladder behind them. Why should America’s workers support trade agreements modeled on those that have trimmed our paychecks and shuttered our factories?
Under such trade agreements, global corporations shift whole supply chains from one country to another looking for locations where workers have few or no rights to organize and bargain for fair wages, health care, retirement benefits and safety conditions.
The modern corporate goal is to share the smallest amount of revenue possible with the workers. Few savings are passed on to the consumer. The middle class gets squeezed out, consumer demand falls, and the results become unsustainable. One need look no further than the global Great Recession we continue to face. This recession is the result of decades of this corporate-driven trade and tax policy that encourages a race to the bottom for working families around the globe.
When the entire world is consumed by low employment and low demand, the answer is to change course, not to double down on failed policy. That is why the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deserves our scrutiny.
The TPP is a trade agreement under negotiation between the U.S. and eight Pacific Rim countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam). Proponents argue that this agreement will increase U.S. exports and create much-needed jobs, but it will only achieve these goals if it looks very different than NAFTA, the WTO, and the other trade agreements already in existence.
Regardless of party affiliation, poll after poll confirms that Americans oppose more NAFTA-style deals. But we can do better. We can create people-centered trade.
The creation of well-paying American jobs — rather than increased profits for the largest corporations — must be the central goal of any trade agreements. To create such jobs, the needs of working families must be put front and center in every deliberation as the Trans-Pacific FTA takes shape.
We must ensure that workers in any country with which we trade can exercise workplace rights, like organizing for better conditions of work. And there must be swift, sure and effective enforcement tools to address allegations that U.S. trading partners are failing to protect these rights.
We have already seen how far certain employers will go to circumvent these rights. In Guatemala and Colombia (two of our most notorious trading partners), unscrupulous employers have engaged in campaigns of terror against workers who fight for fair wages and working conditions. It is no coincidence that in these countries, wages, working conditions and union representation are violently suppressed — a situation that harms not only Guatemalan and Colombian workers, but U.S. workers who are forced to unfairly compete with such substandard conditions.
We need to get back to making things in the United States, and it’s time for policies that give American workers a level playing field and our economy a real chance at recovery and prosperity.
Burga is president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. Ryan, a Democrat, represents Ohio’s 13th U.S House District.