Labor Chief Warns Candidates to Oppose Trade Pact

Labor Chief Warns Candidates to Oppose Trade Pact
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A few blocks from the White House Tuesday, officials at the country’s largest labor federation privately worried the organization will soon be on the losing side of a trade debate that divides Democrats on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, its leader warned Oval Office aspirants “there will be no place to hide” if they don’t oppose fast-track trade authority.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, advised 2016 presidential candidates from both parties to deliver “on the side of working people” if they expect to earn union support.

Labor opposes trade promotion authority, which would permit President Obama and possibly his successors to negotiate trade pacts that Congress could approve or defeat, but not amend. Organized labor is working to defeat fast-track authority, while Obama on Tuesday confidently predicted its passage.

“There’s no middle ground” for those candidates who seek labor’s backing, Trumka said during a speech at the Washington headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton favored the free-trade pact Obama is working to complete with 11 other nations when she served as his secretary of state. But as an announced candidate, she’s been noncommittal as Congress debates the issues and the liberal wing of her party forcefully challenges Obama’s assurances that the trade pact will be good for workers, wages and the environment. 

If Clinton wins her party’s nomination in 2016 and she eventually supports the pact in the same way the Clinton administration backed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, organized labor’s red line will be tested.

After his speech, Trumka told RCP Clinton “will have to respond, like every other candidate.” He repeated his insistence that “no candidate can be silent on any issue that’s important to the people.”

Asked if he’s disappointed Clinton had not spoken while Congress moved ahead, he said, “I think she started off with what every candidate ought to do. They ought to listen to the American people. Find out what the American people want. I think that’s a good start. I think everybody should start that way.”

As reporters continued to pepper him with questions, Trumka walked out of the room, saying he had to catch a train. 

White House and Clinton campaign advisers believe fast-track authority will clear Congress this year with Obama’s endorsement and significant GOP support. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, seen by its backers as a counterweight to China’s dominance in the Pacific Rim, may be completed by the time organized labor weighs a presidential endorsement next year. 

During a Rose Garden news conference Tuesday, Obama said he was upbeat about the pending trade alliance.

“This will end up being the most progressive trade bill in history,” he declared. “It will have the kinds of labor and environmental and human rights protections that have been absent in previous agreements. It’s going to be enforceable. It’s going to open up markets that currently are not fully opened to U.S. businesses. It’s going to be good for the U.S. economy. And because I always believe that good policy ends up being good politics, I’m confident we’re going to end up getting the votes in Congress.” 

Standing in the bright sunshine with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during Abe’s state visit to the White House, the president sought to add momentum to lengthy negotiations among a dozen countries.

“Prime Minister Abe and I discussed how the United States and Japan, as the two largest economies in the TPP negotiations, will now work together to lead our TPP partners to swift and successful conclusions of the broader negotiations,” he said.

Trumka, who mentioned Obama just once in his morning speech, called labor’s anti-fast-track stance “a movement.” He said TPP, drafted by governments with representatives of specific industries and corporations seated at their elbows, threatened to depress U.S. wages, harm the environment and hasten the exodus of jobs offshore. 

“Since the 1980s, the growing political power of the wealthiest among us has rewritten our labor laws, our trade laws, our tax laws, our monetary policies, our fiscal policies, our financial regulations, all to push wages down and to increase corporate profits,” he said.

The AFL-CIO’s election-focused “agenda for shared prosperity” includes higher wages; paid family and sick leave; “fair” overtime pay; student debt relief; higher taxes on “Wall Street” to support investments, infrastructure and education; and collective bargaining “without retaliation.”

Trumka said the AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 unions with 12.5 million members, will host a “raising wages” summit in Iowa in May, to be repeated in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, to showcase the “standards” by which organized labor will judge candidates seeking the presidency. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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