WASHINGTON - Organized labor and other opponents of three pending free-trade deals are ramping up grass-roots campaigns intended to pressure lawmakers to oppose the agreements.
While the accords with South Korea, Colombia and Panama have broad support from the White House and Republican leaders, opponents are using the August recess to try to build up opposition.
They argue the deals will harm an economy still struggling to create jobs amid a fragile economic recovery.
“We'll be talking to every legislator out there about the trade deals,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Friday.
The AFL-CIO will hold more than 450 events across the country this month where the deals will be discussed, and it has started a petition “urging politicians to bring the same urgency to the jobs crisis that they brought to the politically manufactured crisis over the deficit,” Trumka said.
The fight over the agreements is splitting President Obama from unions and other liberal groups at a time when there is already tension between the White House and the left over the debt-ceiling deal.
Supporters of the trade deals in the administration, Congress and the business community argue they will create jobs and help the economy recover.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed back Wednesday against all of the trade deals, telling MSNBC it is “debatable” whether the agreements will create jobs.
Trumka, citing figures from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, argued the largest of the three trade pacts, with South Korea, will cost the U.S. 159,000 jobs. The deal with Colombia will cost 54,000 jobs, he said.
Trumka and other labor leaders are particularly fired up over the deal with Colombia, where the union leader said three trade unionists were killed last week. The Obama administration negotiated a labor plan intended to improve Colombia’s protections for unions, but Trumka said “it's obvious to us that labor plan isn't sufficient."
House Democrats want the action plan included in the Colombian agreement as an assurance that U.S. trade officials will take action if Colombia’s worker situation doesn't improve.
Lori Wallach, executive director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch group, said the deal the administration has reached with the Senate to move a workers assistance program in conjunction with the trade deals is far from sufficient.
“The agreement doesn't change the job-killing trade agreements," Wallach told The Hill.
She also cast doubt on whether the deal announced this week will allow the workers assistance program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) to move through Congress, suggesting it was more a matter of convincing South Korea’s government to hold a special legislative session this month to give its approval of the deal.
Congressional leaders haven't announced how they would push the trade agreements through both chambers although it appears certain that TAA will move separately and either just ahead of or in tandem with the three trade agreements.
The White House doesn’t want to send the trade agreements to Congress until it is sure TAA will get a vote.
Some opposition to the South Korea deal will come from lawmakers close to the U.S. textile industry, including Reps. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), co-chairmen of the House Textile Caucus.