Trump’s election has killed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump made it one of his top campaign promises to end the TPP, and his election win was a signal to supporters of the TPP in both parties to back down. Even Obama has reportedly given up on passing this agreement, which was to have been the capstone of his Presidential legacy.
Despite the demise of the TPP, Trump’s protectionism does not mean that he will be able to turn his back on trade deals entirely. According to NPR, Trump plans to pursue bilateral trade deals with a number of Asian countries, including with Vietnam, which is also part of the TPP. Expect Trump’s trade deals to be even more damaging for people in the US and abroad than the TPP would be. That would not be a victory for progressives.
In this case, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend. Trump is opposed to the TPP--but his “solution” is based on his nationalistic politics. Trump has promised to step in and stop competition across borders, and to defend “real Americans” against the immigrants and foreigners whom are too often perceived as threats to their livelihood and their way of life. And in trade policy, Trump is a protectionist. The very name, “protectionism”, implies that jobs and investment in other countries are threats, and that we can and should “protect” the American economy against these threats. A protectionist like Trump would have us believe that if we throw up trade barriers and stop investment in foreign countries and force goods to be made in the US, then we can “bring back” jobs and factories from China and Mexico and return to the middle-class economy that flourished between WWII and the 1970s. This is what is captured in Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
But the slogan is a lie. You can’t “bring back” jobs that don’t exist anymore. Manufacturing jobs are on the decline around the world--including in China. Economist Joseph Stiglitz sums it up: “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.” Productivity is how much a worker can produce per hour. Demand measures the power of consumers to buy the goods that those workers produce. When productivity outpaces demand (due to advances in robotics and so on), job losses are eventually inevitable. Protectionism can’t solve this problem. The best it can do is fight for a larger slice of a shrinking pie, and this can only lead to disaster for people in all countries.
The question before us is, what is the progressive alternative, if we reject both the TPP and Trump’s agenda? What we need is what is sometimes called progressive internationalism: an agenda to pursue a progressive agenda across borders to create a more just and sustainable global society. And since, as progressives, we understand that the labor movement is central to all our struggles, this means that a core goal of progressive internationalism must be to increase the power and status of workers internationally.
Progressive trade agreements could play a powerful role here. The idea of progressive trade agreements has received increased attention recently, and internationalist perspectives have been put forward by Professor Leon Fink and by Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, among others. An important place to start is by writing legally binding wage standards into trade agreements, which would apply to all participating countries, backed up by effective enforcement mechanisms. This would be a step towards creating a global minimum wage system that would increase wages across all borders and thereby relieve the pressure of cross-border competition. This is the progressive internationalist solution to the global race to the bottom: to place a rising floor under all the workers of the world. And this is not as radical an idea as it might at first seem: even the New York Times editorial board has criticized the TPP for failing to set wage and workplace safety standards for all participating countries. It’s really just common sense.
It’s easy to see how international wage standards would help workers in lower-income countries like Vietnam. But it would also greatly benefit workers in the US. First, it would relieve the pressure that American workers feel due to competition with their lower-paid counterparts abroad, by raising the wages of those foreign workers. Second, as Sen. Sherrod Brown notes, international wage standards would help create the conditions for “workers to join the middle class everywhere.”
And here we find the solution to the problem described by Stiglitz, where jobs are lost worldwide because productivity outpaces demand. As these wage standards take effect in currently low-income countries, millions (or hundreds of millions) of people dealing with a very low standard of living in other countries would gain the purchasing power to access basic necessities and luxuries that we take for granted in the US. Ideally wages both in the US and abroad would be lifted quickly enough to keep pace with increasing productivity, solving the loss of manufacturing jobs. A lot of this new demand would feed into US manufacturing and exports.
This could also bring us into solidarity with workers and progressives in other countries. And we have worthy potential allies in many of the countries targeted by trade deals, or identified as threats by people like Trump. China, for example, has become “the epicenter of global labor unrest”, including a series of strikes by Chinese Walmart workers earlier this year (who also collaborated with OUR Walmart here in the US). Last year in Vietnam, an extended strike hit a factory where 80,000 workers make footwear for multinationals like Nike and Adidas. In general, in the “global south” workers are rising up in greater numbers than here in the US. Workers in the US and other countries have a shared interest in better wages and working conditions, and often have shared bosses in the same multinational corporations.
Together we can win a more just and sustainable future for us all, across borders. This will of course be difficult during the next four years of a Trump presidency. But as it’s written in Proverbs, “Without a vision, the people will perish.” This is an ambitious but realistic progressive vision that is worth fighting for on the crucial question of trade policy.
Tobita Chow is chair of The People’s Lobby, an independent political organization and an affiliate of People's Action based in Chicago, IL. He organizes a task force working towards a Global Minimum Wage and is co-founder of the “Moral Mondays Illinois” campaign against state budget cuts. He is currently pursuing his Masters of Divinity at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.