US Democrats and trade, a stark difference between candidates

by Jonathan Tasini 

Everyone seems to be focused on the back-and-forth between Sens. Clinton and Obama on…well, you figure it out. But, the most telling moments–and, I believe, the most important subject matter of the entire debate–came when Sen. Obama and John Edwards debated the question of the so-called “free trade” deal with Peru.

The first inkling of the issue of trade came when Edwards responded to a question about the economic stimulus. He said this:

There is one other issue that was mentioned in passing by the two of them, which is the issue of jobs. And there is a difference between myself and my colleagues on this issue of jobs, because they both supported the Peru trade deal.

My view is the Peru trade deal was similar to NAFTA. And this is crucial to the state of South Carolina…

BLITZER: But…

EDWARDS: … no, no — and crucial to the state of the South Carolina and jobs in South Carolina. South Carolina has been devastated by NAFTA and trade deals like NAFTA.

Sen. Obama, then, responded a but later:

But the only thing I want to differ on John is this whole notion of Peru. The Peru trade deal had labor and environmental agreements in it. Peru is an economy the size of New Hampshire. Over 90 percent of the goods coming from Peru already come in under various free trade agreements.

Edwards responded:

And the problem with Peru, Barack, is you are leaving the enforcement of environmental and labor regulations in the hands of George Bush.

I wouldn’t trust George Bush to enforce anything, certainly no trade obligations.

Sen. Obama:

Well, the only point I would make is that in a year’s time, it’ll be me who’s enforcing them.

Sen. Obama fundamentally misunderstands so-called “free trade” and this should be of great concern to voters.  Sen. Obama is wrong that the problem lies simply in not having a president who will “enforce” labor and environment provisions. He incorrectly gives the impression that it was just fine to vote for the so-called “free trade” deal with Peru. That is not correct. As the Citizens Trade Campaign pointed out:

The Peru Free Trade Agreement replicates many of the problems in NAFTA and CAFTA…
Some Members of Congress are operating under the mistaken impression that Labor supports the Peru deal, but it’s not true. While some unions have chosen not to actively oppose the Peru FTA, there is not ONE that supports it. Likewise, not one civil rights organization supports this agreement.

The so-called “free trade” deal with Peru, like the other similar agreements, is precisely like NAFTA. The deal with Peru includes NAFTA-style Chapter 11 foreign investor rights. These rights encourage U.S. companies to move offshore, as well as open up basic U.S. environmental, health, zoning and other laws to attack (they allow a company to argue that a pro-labor or pro-consumer law constitute an unfair trade barrier and, therefore, needs to be eliminated).

These deals still allow companies to attack prevailing wage laws, recycled content and renewable energy policy remain.
These deals still contain agriculture rules that displace millions of peasant farmers increasing hunger, social unrest, and desperate migration.
These deals still allow food safety limits that require us to import meat not meeting our safety standards.
These deals still allow drug companies to extend patent rights that undermine affordable access to medicine.
These deals still let U.S. firms, such as Citibank, demand compensation if, for example, Peru tries to reverse course and end its awful social security privatization.
There is also a fundamental misunderstanding about these labor and environment provisions–and we are being hoodwinked into believing that they mean much. If you have so-called “free trade” deals that include all the things I’ve mentioned above, it’s completely irrelevant whether there are labor and environment provisions because:

The fundamental premise of these deals is that the rights of capital and investors are paramount, and the concerns of communities–whether we are talking about labor or the environment–are issues that get shoe-horned in and are quite secondary.

Sen. Obama brought up Edwards’ vote for permanent trade relations with China. That is a legitimate point–though it is not clear, given Sen. Obama’s current positions on trade, that he would have opposed permanent trade relations with China had he been in the U.S. Senate when that vote occurred (to my knowledge, one can’t vote “present” in the U.S. Senate). But, as I’ve stated before in previous discussions about trade, I think we can, and should, view changes in candidates’ positions–and that applies to all of them–in the broader context of their overall campaign positions. The Iowa  Fair Trade Campaign tracked the positions of the Democratic candidates and you can judge for yourself. But, I would encourage you to read the broad outlinesof Edwards’ positions on trade which came out as part of his announced opposition to the so-called “free trade” agreement with Peru.

As a proud partisan for the right of workers, I see clearly that the bi-partisanship that has brought us so-called “free trade” deals is deadly for the living standards of working people, here and abroad. I don’t want bi-partisanship so we can pass more such deals, even if they include phony labor and environment provisions. I believe we have to push for fierce partisanship to kill these deals so that they never see the light of day again.

Voting for the so-called “free trade” deal with Peru was a bad vote for American workers, not to mention workers throughout the world. Period.

UPDATE: I should have pointed out that Sen. Clinton also voted for the Peru deal

links: Working Life
AP: Obama win shakes up labor
IPS: Under Siege, Unions Seek Int’l Support

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6 Responses to “US Democrats and trade, a stark difference between candidates”


  1. 1 Don Taylor January 24, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    This highlights a fundamental difference between the candidates, one that has been largely ignored by voters and even the labor movement in the United States. But then again, labor also supported Kerry in 2004, who never met a corporate trade deal he didn’t like. This exchange also illustrates how poor a “second choice” Obama is, given that Edwards isn’t performing well in the primaries. Many Edwards supporters are comfortable with the idea of Obama getting the nomination, but as Obama’s own words make clear, he fundamentally misunderstands these trade agreements. The “labor and environmental agreements” are negotiated by the same unelected, unaccountable corporate yes-men that negotiated the other parts of the agreement. Just as in other “free trade” agreements, the labor and environmental protections are largely meaningless, solely intended to give politicians like Obama plausible deniability for supporting these treaties. And yes, Hillary is just as bad, if not worse.

  2. 2 RoseNP January 24, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Don Taylor is right, US Democrats have benefited too much from trade unions and workers, but haven’t given back much so far.
    US is one of the worst antiunion countries in the western world. So I would suggest that instead of investing hundreds of millions of dollars of working people’s money in ads for Clinton or Obama that enrich Disney, GE, and Viacom, US labour movement should take this opportunity to claim for more.
    Instead of funding the corporate media, take all that money and create a people’s television network or media that actually reports the news and presents the labour situation and workers needs in US.

  3. 3 Brett January 25, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    I had taken my christmas off to campaign for Edwards in Iowa with the USW- I was put in des moines which as you’ll remember had the firestone strike which caused the merger of the URW and the USWA(we were based out of the Titan Tires local who also had a pretty rough strike) so I tried to incorporate that into my doorknocking, and what I found is many voters, although they’re concerned with these, have a sense of economic hopelessness when it comes to industrial production so even though they see these trade deals as harming them, they dont think candidates can actually REVERSE it, John talks alot about creating new green industry, but i think most people feel those are jobs for the highly educated which isn’t even close to true, but no ones really out there educating for it(apollo alliance is probably the best – http://www.apolloalliance.org/, but thats only niche and not the masses)

  4. 4 sandrar September 10, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


  1. 1 Election » Blog Archive » US election and trade, a stark difference between candidates Trackback on January 24, 2008 at 11:44 am
  2. 2 Election Candidates Trackback on January 26, 2008 at 5:14 am

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