fresh voices from the front lines of change







At last week's New Populism conference, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talked about how the multinational corporations rig the game against working people. "Why are trade deals secret? ... because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed."


For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public. Because it's a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. We've seen what happens here at home when our trading partners around the world are allowed to ignore workers rights and environmental rules. From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor.

Why are trade deals secret? I've heard the supporters of these deals actually say that they have to be secret because if the American people knew what was going on, they would be opposed. Think about that. Real people – people whose jobs are at stake, small business owners who don't want to compete with overseas companies that dump their waste in rivers and hire workers for a dollar a day – those people, those people without an army of lobbyists – would be opposed. I believe that if people across this country would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.

Thea Lee, AFL-CIO: "What Is The Point Of These Trade Agreements?"

Thea Lee, Deputy Chief of Staff, AFL-CIO spoke at length on trade. She said that politicians hope the public doesn't notice how the multinationals are rigging the game. She said, "Our jobs is to notice" and "Our job is to turn up the heat."

Lee said she has to do "battle too often with my own government both Democrats and Republicans around what the goals of trade policy are. Is the whole point to have more trade agreements, lower trade barriers, more trade volume? Or is it to use the US engagement in the global economy to create good jobs, to protect workers rights here or in other countries, to figure out how we can use the dynamism of global trade and investment to protect the global environment?"

"The people who are in charge of this policy have done a crappy job."

"The truth is we cannot build a strong domestic economy here in the united states if we don’t change/fix/reform the way we engage in the global economy. Not if we engage in a way that gives all the power to the multinational corporations and none of the power to working people."

Trade Deficits Kill The Virtuous Cycle

Lee said that as the economy begins to recover people go to the store to buy things, which usually drives further recovery. Today, instead they are too often buying stuff made elsewhere. (This is measured by the huge trade deficit.) So instead of having the virtuous cycle, the trade deficit sucks away the vigor and momentum of recovery.

We have assumed that if giant multinational corporations are happy and making money the economy will be OK. But their ability to make money isn’t about producing stuff in America, their ability to make money is about taking jobs offshore to a less regulated environment where workers don't have the right to organize a union, the environment isn't protected, where they pay low wages, and then they bring the things made there back to sell to the consumer here. That’s why we have this enormous trade deficit.

Our Government Doesn't Even Talk About Balanced Trade

Lee said our government doesn't even talk about balanced trade, it’s not even a goal.

Progressives, populists, labor unions and others concerned about trade don't want to stop trade -- trade isn't bad, of course we should import and export. But we need better rules that govern trade so we can have a reciprocal relationship.

There has been an intellectual shift about how we understand trade deals. When NAFTA came along people who advocated for balanced trade deals were isolated. Economists approved NAFTA because it was called "free trade" and economists thought that all trade was good and more trade was better. Now there is an intellectual understanding of how these trade deals have hurt America's economy.

Our Job Is To Notice, To Turn Up The Heat

But too many Democrats want campaign contributions from the big corporations, and hope their base doesn’t notice. Lee said, "Our job is to notice."

Celinda Lake's presentation at the conference showed that the Republican base agrees with us and says that we need a different trade policy. But Republicans in Congress pay no price for their robotic votes year after year. Our job is to turn up the heat and make them pay a price.

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