The recent passage of "fast track" in the House of Representatives is a devastating blow to American workers, the environment, and our public health and safety. This legislation gives the President blanket authority to expedite and expand our failed trade policies with no meaningful checks and balances from Congress. In short, fast track removes Congress from its Constitutionally-mandated role in approving trade deals. I voted against it, and am disappointed that it passed in the House by a vote of 215-214. This legislation has now been sent to the Senate where it is expected to pass.
In terms of the American economy, our current trade policy has resulted in a record-breaking trade deficit in goods of over $400 billion in 2000, including a trade deficit with China of over $80 billion. An outflow from our economy of $400 billion dollars each year is a disaster. The result has been the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs as companies go abroad in search of cheap labor, or are forced to shut down because they can't compete against companies who set up shop in developing countries so they can pay starvation wages.
It is an outrage that Americans are forced to "compete" against desperate workers in China, Mexico and elsewhere who earn as little as 20 or 30 cents an hour. Unfortunately, Vermont workers at Ethan Allen, Johnson Controls, Bogner, Sheftex, and other companies have lost their jobs due to this unfair competition. Just last week, the plant manager of Sheftex in St. Johnsbury, which used to employ 80 workers but is now shutting down, said; "Imports are absolutely killing us. It's hurting me, and it's hurting to see my people go."
Our "free trade" policies have not only resulted in the loss of good jobs, but they have also pushed down wages for workers. Today, the average American worker is working longer hours for lower wages than 28 years ago - before the explosion of "free trade." This wage crisis is especially acute for young, entry-level workers without a college education. For men with less than six years in the workforce and no college education, average real wages fell about 28% between 1979 and 1997. There was a time when these workers were able to find decent-paying jobs with good benefits in factories and manufacturing facilities. Now they are employed, often part-time, in the service industry for low wages and minimal benefits.
In addressing this issue, I believe it is very important to know who supports Fast Track and who opposes it. The fact is that virtually every major multinational corporation and CEO wants Fast Track passed. These corporate interests have been successful in pushing their trade position because of the huge amounts of money that they have contributed to the Republican Party and to candidates of both major parties. To a significant degree, they are buying American trade policy.
On the other side, in opposing "fast track," I am pleased to be joined by trade unions representing millions of American workers, and virtually every environmental organization in the country. These environmental groups know that unfettered "free trade" has resulted in ecological horrors in many impoverished countries. Also opposing "fast track" are a number of grassroots farm organizations that are fighting to protect the family farm against the power of international agri-business conglomerates.
Not only is U.S. trade policy bad for American workers, but it has also been detrimental to workers around the globe. NAFTA, for example, has actually worsened the plight of Mexican workers. Over one million more Mexicans work for less than the minimum wage of $3.40 per day today in their country than before NAFTA, and during the NAFTA period, eight million Mexicans have fallen from the middle class into poverty.
"Free trade" is often accompanied in the developing world with programs that are destructive for the poor such as the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) "structural adjustment" which forces countries to make cuts in education, health care and food subsidies. These and other factors have caused a significant decline in the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia over the last ten "free trade" years. That is why almost every non-profit organization working to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries, including Oxfam, Jubilee USA and Fifty Years Is Enough, is strongly opposed to "fast track."
In fighting for a new direction in trade policy, my goal is to pursue economic initiatives that create a win-win situation -- that support American workers and the poor people of the developing world. "Fast Track" does neither. It simply encourages a "race to the bottom," pushing wages down here and exploiting poor people abroad so that multi-national corporations can expand their profits.
Editors Note: Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has the best web site of any member of Congress - http://bernie.house.gov/