Officials from the United States and 11 other nations will meet in Hawaii this week to try to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or “TPP”– a trade agreement that brings together a dozen countries along the Pacific Rim. Member countries will constitute the world’s largest free trade area if the treaty is enacted, accounting for 40 percent of the global economy.
President Obama has positioned the TPP as one of his Administration’s signature achievements. During his 2015 State of the Union address he stressed the importance of being economically dominant in the Asia Pacific, promising that the TPP would create more and better jobs and benefit small business.
The president also asked for increased executive authority. “I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers,” he said, “with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”
Last month, Congress granted his wish. It gave the president “fast-track” authority, which enables him to negotiate and sign the TPP without the possibility of congressional amendment.
There is general agreement among economists that tariffs for TPP countries are already low. In fact, some reports claim that only five of its 29 draft chapters actually address lower tariffs. The most protest-worthy portions of the deal involve the deregulation of market activity and the reduction of regulatory measures, like labor and environmental controls, said to standardize rules and lower costs.
Critics of the TPP often cite the failures of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), brokered by President Bill Clinton. NAFTA garnered bipartisan support in the runup to the 1992 election, but independent candidate Ross Perot warned that the nation would hear a “giant sucking sound” if NAFTA passed, and American jobs were drawn south.
Global Trade Watch’s assessment of NAFTA’s “20 year legacy” demonstrates just how right Perot was. An estimated one million jobs have been lost to NAFTA. It has put downward pressure on wages and exacerbated America’s income gap. Prior to NAFTA’s passage, the U.S carried a trade surplus with Mexico and was just $26 billion in the hole with Canada. As of 2014, however, we had a combined trade deficit with both countries of $177 billon.
The TPP repeats many of NAFTA’s mistakes and those of other bilateral trade treaties such as the Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, which cost an estimated 2.7 million U.S. jobs. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that under the TPP we stand to lose more than 130,000 jobs to Vietnam and Japan alone. American workers would have to compete for jobs with workers in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is only 56 cents an hour.
The TPP also threatens Internet freedoms and civil liberties, collective bargaining rights, public and environmental health, food safety, and financial stability in this country. It endangers American sovereignty, by reducing our own ability to pass consumer-oriented laws.
It even weakens American democracy. The closed-door nature of the negotiation process has positioned Congress and the American people as passive recipients of public policy, rather than as agents of it. It has excluded the public and its elected representatives from a process that will have broad and deep implications in our everyday lives — although more than 500 corporations have been active participants.
The good news is that some lawmakers, union leaders, and grassroots activists are voicing their opposition. Because of WikiLeaks, public advocates and journalists have been able to pinpoint some contradictions between what government statements about the TPP and what is actually in the draft agreement. Senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have written letters to the U.S. Trade Representative in protest, and Sanders is using his increased visibility as a presidential candidate to educate millions on its economically harmful effects.
What’s missing from the anti-TPP struggle, however, are widespread street protests. Demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the 1990s spawned a global movement against corporate-driven globalization and gave rise to demands for “fair” (as opposed to “free”) trade to address environmental, health, consumer and labor concerns.
It’s important to explore alternatives to these kinds of trade deals, which largely serve corporate interests. For example, Latin American leaders have forged a regional trade alliance in opposition to Bill Clinton’s Free Trade Area of the Americas. It’s called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. (The Spanish acronym is ALBA).
ALBA now accounts for over 10 percent of GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean. It involves a range of cooperative enterprises in banking, oil-trading, and telecom initiatives like TeleSur. It also helps to fund a range of social programs promoting literacy and hunger relief, as well as health and medical interventions.
ALBA’s emphasis on public over private ownership, domestic development over exports, and cooperation over competition shows us that trade agreements can favor people over profits. In the meantime we should reject deals like the TPP that fail to represent the public’s best interests.
Heather Gautney, PhD is the author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era and a professor of sociology at Fordham University. The views expressed here are the author’s.