“We are at a crossroads,” according to a labor union official.
The fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement lies in the hands of the Democratic-controlled House, whose approval President Donald Trump will need to enact a revised version of the 25-year-old accord.
Now organized labor, an influential foe of free trade agreements, wants to make sure a trusted friend shepherds that process in the House so that its voice is fully heard.
Several major labor unions are pressing Democratic House leaders to make Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey ― who had been the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee on trade when Republicans ruled the House in the last Congress ― the new chairman of that subcommittee.
Pascrell, a union ally, is keen to ensure Trump ratifies a fundamentally pro-worker North American trade agreement. Labor leaders consider the current revisions an improvement on the status quo, but believe it can still be toughened to help workers.
But Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Ron Kind (D-Wis.), both of whom are seen as friendlier to recent international trade agreements, are also vying for the top post.
Blumenauer and Kind declined the ranking member position in the last Congress, but they have slightly more seniority than Pascrell.
“Pascrell’s done a great job as ranking member. He’s attuned with our concerns in our approach to trade,” said Shane Larson, legislative director for the Communications Workers of America.
CWA, which represents over 100,000 call center and manufacturing workers whose jobs are vulnerable to offshoring, is coordinating its push for Pascrell with other manufacturing unions. These include the United Steel Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the United Auto Workers and the International Association of Machinists, according to a union official familiar with the effort. (Aside from CWA, none of the individual unions agreed to comment about their efforts.)
“There is a consensus in general that Pascrell would be a better chair of the subcommittee,” said the union official, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“Putting a free trader as chair of the subcommittee sends a very bad message to the main constituency on [trade] reform: the labor movement,” the official said.
A particular concern for organized labor and like-minded experts at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a consumer group skeptical of past trade policies, is Blumenauer and Kind’s support for the fast-track authority ensuring an up-or-down vote in Congress on any trade deal negotiated by the president.
The GOP-controlled House approved the fast-track power, known as Trade Promotion Authority, in 2015 over the objections of the overwhelming majority of the House
Democratic Caucus and its leadership.
Critics of TPA argue that it deprives Congress of the essential right to debate and amend trade agreements before an up-or-down floor vote.
Many Democrats also viewed the vote on TPA as a de-facto referendum on then-President Barack Obama’s 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, since Obama planned to eventually use TPA to pass the TPP.
Obama and other proponents of the TPP insisted it would be a net benefit for the U.S. economy by opening markets for U.S. exports. They also argued that the deal would provide a key check on Chinese power in the Pacific Rim.
But labor unions, as well as many public health, consumer and environmental groups, opposed the mammoth trade deal on the grounds it would provide lopsided benefits to corporations at the expense of workers, consumers and the environment.
With organized labor’s blessing, House Democrats had the votes to block the 2015 consideration of TPA in the chamber. But against the wishes of Democratic leaders, a group of eight Democrats ― including Blumenauer and Kind ― backed a congressional “rule” clearing the way for a vote on fast-track authority. The rule passed by five votes, making the support from those eight Democrats essential.
Trump, of course, immediately shelved the Trans-Pacific Partnership upon taking office and named as U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, known for his tough stance of trade issues. That has given skeptics of international trade deals in both parties a chance to beat back a decades-long bipartisan consensus in favor of agreements that they consider unduly deferential to corporate interests.
Trump’s renegotiation of NAFTA virtually dissolves the controversial international arbitration system enabling corporations to challenge domestic laws in signatory countries. The deal would also require 40 percent of cars and 45 percent of trucks to be made by workers earning $16 an hour in order for those vehicles to be imported into the U.S. without tariffs.
But unions and their Democratic allies fear that another provision protecting the right of Mexican workers to unionize, which they see as essential to boosting Mexican wages, is not likely to be enforced.
“For us, underlying all of this is the outsourcing of jobs,” Pascrell told HuffPost in a recent interview.
If a new deal strengthens labor protections in Mexico, he added, “then we’ll keep jobs here.”
By contrast, naming Blumenauer or Kind to head the subcommittee would turn the clock back to the time when multinational corporations had more influence over trade policy in both parties, according to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“The corporate trade agenda is under threat in a way that the corporate lobbies hope a Blumenauer or a Kind could try and … change,” Wallach said.
Kind is unlikely to be tapped for the top trade position ― it likely didn’t help that last week he voted against California Democrat Nancy Pelosi becoming House speaker.
But organized labor and other critics of free trade deals worry that Blumenauer has a fighting chance at getting the nod.
In a Tuesday interview with HuffPost, Blumenauer vehemently defended his record on trade. He noted his votes against the Colombia and Central America free trade agreements, and his successful efforts to ramp up enforcement of trade deals, including a crackdown against illegal logging.
“I have no intention of picking a fight with Bill Pascrell. But if you look at our records … [mine is] much more in line with what much more of the Ways and Means Democrats and… the caucus as a whole [supports],” Blumenauer said. He later acknowledged that his support for TPA broke with most of the caucus.
Although Blumenauer teamed up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in 2015 to promote a TPP-style agreement to expand export markets for U.S. goods and services, he insisted that he never came out in support of the text of the TPP as it finally stood.
Organized labor is attempting to flex its muscle on trade policy at a time when the Congressional Progressive Caucus and outside progressive activist groups are engaged in a more public bid to shape the assignments for powerful House committees.
The co-chairs of the CPC leveraged their endorsement of Pelosi’s speakership for a promise that they would receive proportional representation ― 40 percent of seats ― on five top committees: Ways and Means; Energy and Commerce; Appropriations; Financial Services; and Intelligence.
But unlike the CPC and its allies, who have openly marshaled grassroots support for their efforts, the unions have limited their lobbying for Pascrell to closed-door discussions with leadership.
In 2016, Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania ― three states that cost Hillary Clinton the election ― at least partly thanks to his opposition to trade deals. Democrats now have an opportunity to seize the populist high ground as they debate the NAFTA revisions and seek to improve them, according to CWA’s Larson.
“We are at a crossroads. This is an opportunity for Democrats to say, ‘We’re for trade, but we’re for responsible trade,’ against Trump’s knee-jerk rhetoric,” Larson said. “Blind opposition to Trump shouldn’t lead them to be suddenly quote-unquote pro-trade … because those voters are still looking for someone to protect their jobs.”