Apr 28, 2015 - 10:15am

How the AFL-CIO Gets it Wrong on Trade


Senior Vice President for International Policy

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AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka testifies before the Senate Finance Committee on TPA with Tom Donohue in Washington, DC on April 21, 2015. Photo by Joshua Roberts / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Last Tuesday, U.S. Chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka testified before the Senate Finance Committee on the question of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

Trumka will continue that drumbeat in a “major address” today in Washington.

Because the labor federation is reportedly working hard to defeat TPA, we thought it might be worthwhile to spend a little more time digging into their statement from last week. A few key arguments stand out:

Trumka: “Far from being ‘opposed to trade on principle,’ we have supported trade deals when warranted, such as the U.S.-Jordan trade agreement and trade preference programs such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).”

Response: While this sounds reasonable, this statement underscores the sheer peculiarity of the AFL-CIO’s position on trade. Yes, organized labor has long supported AGOA and GSP, which date from 2000 and 1976, respectively. These programs eliminate U.S. duties on select goods from developing countries. The Chamber also supports these programs, which lower the cost of materials and inputs imported by U.S. manufacturers while also helping American families stretch their budgets.

But why would the AFL-CIO support trade policies that eliminate U.S. import duties but oppose those that also slash the foreign tariffs that shut out made-in-USA goods, including products made by union members? The U.S.-Jordan trade agreement, which entered into force in 2001, is the only bilateral agreement—eliminating trade barriers in a reciprocal fashion—that the AFL-CIO has supported in recent decades.

If you’re interested in helping America’s working men and women sell their products in global markets, this stance makes no sense. If you think American workers deserve a level playing field, you can’t be anti-TPA.

In fact, this peculiar position shows the AFL-CIO wants just one thing: To stop the TPA bill, despite the bipartisan support it has received from the White House, Congress, and workers, farmers and companies from across the country.

Trumka: “For too long, decisions about trade policy have been made behind closed doors, with excessive secrecy… Through fast track, past Congresses have ceded authority over trade policy to the executive branch, with virtually no strings attached.”

Response: For those seeking more transparency in trade negotiations and more congressional consultation, TPA isn’t the problem—it’s the solution. As the New York Times reports, “a hard-fought compromise on the trade promotion bill approved by the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees last week practically legislates better relations.”

It’s helpful to get the perspective of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), who said in January: “I’d no sooner trust this administration with more power than I’d trust the Patriots with the footballs at Lambeau.” Here’s how Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) put it recently in the Wall Street Journal:

Under TPA, Congress lays out three basic requirements for the administration. First, it must pursue nearly 150 specific negotiating objectives, like beefing up protections for U.S. intellectual property or eliminating kickbacks for government-owned firms. Second, the administration must consult regularly with Congress and meet high transparency standards.

And third, before anything becomes law, Congress gets the final say. The Constitution vests all legislative power in Congress. So TPA makes it clear that Congress—and only Congress—can change U.S. law. If the administration meets all the requirements, Congress will give the agreement an up-or-down vote. But if the administration fails, Congress can hit the brakes, cancel the vote and stop the agreement.

Trade-promotion authority will hold the administration accountable both to Congress and to the American people. Under TPA, any member of Congress will be able to read the negotiating text. Any member will be able to get a briefing from the U.S. trade representative’s office on the status of the negotiations—at any time. Any member will get to be a part of negotiating rounds. And most important, TPA will require the administration to post the full text of the agreement at least 60 days before completing the deal, so the American people can read it themselves.

Trumka: “The idea that fast track lets Congress set the standards and goals for the TPP is a fiction—the agreement has been under negotiation for more than five years and is essentially complete… Congress must not agree to fast track a fast track bill.”

Response: Plainly TPA should have been renewed years ago. Doing so would have led to enhanced executive-legislative collaboration on trade policy. However, the AFL-CIO is complaining about a situation it worked hard to achieve.

More importantly, and to the administration’s credit, officials have followed the consultation procedures in the expired TPA law carefully. There has been extensive consultation with the congressional committees with jurisdiction over trade, the Senate Committee on Finance and the House Committee on Ways and Means.

There is nothing “fast” about the manner in which this TPA bill was prepared, and it plainly reflects input from many quarters. It reflects many of the best ideas in contemporary trade policy. Negotiating objectives have been modernized to reflect our changing economy, and it will help produce trade agreements that protect intellectual property, safeguard digital trade, and eliminate favoritism for government-owned firms.

Deep down, the aim of these objections is to kill TPA and close the door to future trade agreements. But if we do that, American workers will be shut out of foreign markets, and we’ll all pay the price.

About the Author

About the Author

Senior Vice President for International Policy

Murphy directs the U.S. Chamber’s advocacy relating to international trade and investment policy.