Is the U.S. Serious About Trade and Economic Growth — Or About Currying Favor with Trade Unions?

Is the U.S. serious about trade or does the Obama administration just want to cater to union supporters and set up more obstacles for trade pacts? The latest of the delaying tactics is linking the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance — special aid for workers who purportedly lost their jobs because of international trade — with congressional consideration of the free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. When looking at the history of the three pending trade agreements, it seems obvious that U.S. trade unions are calling the shots.

The most egregious hold-ups relate to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which has been languishing for more than four years. In February 2006 the two countries announced that they had concluded their negotiations on the trade pact, and it was signed on November 22, 2006. Meanwhile, the other two trade agreements were progressing. Then what happened? The U.S. House of Representatives, under the leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, decided that those agreed-upon and signed trade agreements needed to have more stringent environmental and labor provisions — despite the fact that those non-trade issues had already been included in the trade pacts. The so-called bi-partisan trade deal was touted by Pelosi in a statement, but the AFL-CIO reacted “coolly” to the changes that they had been advocating. Not enough, seemed to be their response.

Negotiators went back to the drawing boards and the U.S. strong-armed those countries into including the new provisions. On June 28, 2007, the United States and Panama signed a trade promotion agreement, followed a few days later by the signing of the U.S.- South Korea FTA on June 30, 2007. But the U.S. said that more had to be negotiated.  In the case of the Korea agreement, issues relating to beef and autos required more high-level meetings; with Panama, tax transparency and labor issues were still the subject of talks; with the Colombia FTA, however, labor unions, not satisfied with the new labor provisions, still opposed that deal.

They were given fuel for their fight during the U.S. presidential primaries and campaigns, where every other candidate demagogued on trade issues and blamed job losses on trade agreements, particularly the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

After the elections the three trade pacts languished, with some continuing work on the Korea FTA, since it would provide the greatest economic value to the U.S., and seemed to have broader support.  But it wasn’t until after the 2010 congressional elections that moving the stalled trade agreements picked up support. Final agreement on the South Korea and Panama agreements seemed to be close. But labor unions continued to pillory the Colombia FTA and said more had to be done to ensure that union workers and leaders in Colombia were protected.

Then in April 2011 the U.S. came up with its demands — the “Colombian Action Plan relating to Labor Rights” — which some have called a blow to the sovereignty of that nation. But Colombia dutifully incorporated that far-reaching plan that will require it to change its Criminal Code, hire and fund 480 new “labor inspectors,” some of which will focus on specific industry sectors, and a host of other mandates with timetables, purportedly to protect union workers.

Those Draconian requirements should have silenced the critics and smoothed the passage of that FTA and those for Korea and Panama. But this new demand — that TAA is necessary to pass the FTAs — represents the height of U.S. arrogance toward those countries that have acted in good faith and have for years been jumping through the hoops that the U.S. has increasingly laid. If the Obama administration is sincere about creating economic growth and job creation, then it should cast aside the TAA ultimatum and push for the speedy consideration of the pending FTAs on their considerable merits.