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Will Big Labor Pick Fight Over Obama's Corporate-Friendly Trade Deals?

AFL-CIO and Teamsters talk big when it comes to so-called "free trade" agreements, but will they put their political muscle into fighting back against corporate globalization?

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Before concluding its national convention in Los Angeles this week, the membership of the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution calling for a new approach to global trade and summoned a collective threat that it might actively oppose the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that has been pushed by President Obama and will soon be put before Congress.

Is Richard Trumka’s AFL-CIO willing to stand its ground against the TPP and fight President Obama's corporate-friendly trade agenda. (Photo: AP) Describing the global trade regime represented by secretive trade deals like the TPP as a system that promotes the "rise in corporate power at the expense of working people," the union resolution argues the history of so-called "free trade" agreements (FTAs) shows that regional agreements like NAFTA and various bilateral deals have fueled the profits of companies who "outsource and offshore" jobs while suppressing the "wages and standard of living" of average workers.

"So long as the TPP appears poised to promote the rights of the 1%—rather than shared gains from trade—we, along with our international labor movement and civil society partners, will oppose its adoption and implementation, devoting resources to create a national campaign," reads the resolution.

However, even though that language stands as a strong statement against the status quo concerning international trade, it does not go so far as to declare the AFL-CIO will necessarily launch a full blown campaign to block the deal in Washington.

As Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist with the AFL-CIO, told Politico in an interview, the resolution cannot be construed as an official and complete “statement in opposition — yet.”

According to Politico:

[Drake] said AFL-CIO leadership does not have a date certain for deciding if or when to launch an opposition campaign and the organization is still in touch with the administration “to try to push issues that are beneficial to workers.”

But even if it moves forward with an all-out assault on TPP, it is unclear whether the labor movement has enough sway to actually stop an agreement. The unions failed to muster enough opposition in Congress two years ago to torpedo a trade deal with Colombia, which they vehemently opposed because of reports of widespread violence against labor leaders there.

And speaking of Colombia, it was union leader James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, this week who voiced admiration for trade unionists, farmers, and other Colombian workers for marching against the devastating economic impacts that the implemented Colombia/US FTA has created in their country in recent years.

"For weeks," wrote Hoffa in Detroit Free Press op-ed on Wednesday, "Colombian farmers, truck drivers, health workers, miners and students have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demand changes in their government’s economic policies. The unrest has led to at least two deaths and more than 250 arrests."

Why?

Hoffa explains:

Well, Colombians are rising up against their government for its implementation of a “free” trade agreement with America that has made it impossible for farmers there to compete with the crops and livestock imported under the deal. Others are complaining about an increase in fuel, transportation and production costs.

Protesters there are calling for the Colombian government to suspend and renegotiate its trade agreement with the U.S. and to grant support for agricultural production and access to land. They also want the ability to practice small-scale mining and additional investment in rural communities that includes education, health care and infrastructure.

One question that now appears before big labor organizations in the US is whether or not they will seize on the dissatisfaction of their rank-and-file members and synch that with a broader economic narrative that exposes the rampant inequality that pervades in the U.S.

Beyond that, one of the key questions posed at the AFL-CIO convention was the future organizing strategy of the larger unions and whether or not they can leverage their size, resources, and political operations to foment a wider movement for economic justice and human rights that extends beyond their core membership.

As Hoffa concludes, "There’s one common factor to all of these trade deals: Workers on both sides of the deal get screwed while corporations rake in record profits. Like low-wage workers in the fast food and retail industries, workers must join together to let Congress know that the TPP is not the right path for the U.S."

"Deals like the TPP will destroy local manufacturing," he said. "And as the Colombia protests show, workers on both sides of these deals are getting the raw end of the bargain."

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