Worker Anxiety and Congress

By Chris Slevin

In the third and final presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry, moderator Bob Schieffer asked each candidate what he would say to "someone in this country who has lost his job to someone overseas who's being paid a fraction of what that job paid here in the United States."

President Bush answered first, offering little substance but at least sticking to the common line about directing displaced workers to Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), the Labor Department program that (even when it's been funded) does little to train mid- and late-career workers when stable jobs with health benefits are eliminated due to trade deals. But TAA is essentially an acronym that comes in handy for just these moments when Bush, Bill Clinton and other proponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization are confronted with these kinds of questions.

But it was candidate Kerry's answer to Schieffer's question that left American workers shaking their heads:

"I want you to notice how the president switched away from jobs and started talking about education -- let me come back in one moment to that, but I want to speak for a second about fiscal responsibility."

But Kerry didn't actually come back to that very important question about trade and globalization, and with that, continued walking aimlessly down a well-worn path of Democratic leadership disengaged from hard-nosed economic issues of the day.

Oh, and Kerry also lost the state of Ohio.

While the Massachusetts senator could have recognized the failures of corporate-managed global-trade deals manifest in NAFTA and WTO, his silence was nothing less than consent for the status-quo trade policy that is leaving American families and communities broken.

Strong candidates in the 2006 congressional elections are proving smarter than Kerry on this question. The 2005 congressional battle over the expansion of NAFTA to Central America, CAFTA, proved that there is emerging political strength in fair-trade movement and that being for NAFTA and CAFTA is being for a status-quo trade policy that has eliminated more than 3 million manufacturing jobs, kept wages stagnant and accelerated farm crisis to the point that the United States imports more food than it exports.

Polls back this up: A June Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans personally know someone who has been laid off in the past six months while a Greenberg poll the same month revealed that three-fourths of registered voters favor candidates committed to a new trade policy with enforceable labor and environmental regulations.

And it is no longer manufacturing jobs but service jobs (like the ones TAA is designed to create). In the Spring 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, pro-free trade economist Alan Blinder wrote that American worker anxiety over trade has reached the tipping point: The projection of 3 million service-sector jobs offshored underestimates the full impact of offshoring. "The total number of service-sector jobs that eventually will be vulnerable to electronic competition from abroad will exceed the total number of manufacturing jobs," writes Blinder. He estimates the total number of jobs to be offshored in the near future as closer to 60 million.

The first step toward fixing this is publicly recognizing the failures of the status quo, and congressional candidates challenging pro-CAFTA incumbents are onboard. This summer in Pennsylvania's 8th district, Democrat Patrick Murphy challenged Mike Fitzpatrick, one of the last Republicans to fold to Bush and Tom DeLay and vote for CAFTA, to vote against the Oman Free Trade Agreement. In Indiana, Joe Donnelly has run on fair trade against incumbent Chris Chocola, highlighting the manufacturing and farm deterioration around Indiana. In North Carolina and upstate New York, several key races for Democrat chances in taking back Congress are coming down to trade issues.

Citizens Trade Campaign and its new political action committee are uniting several of these candidates around a fair-trade message that sends a signal to Democrats and Republicans alike that NAFTA/CAFTA is a relic that's failed workers here and abroad. A new fair-trade Congress can halt the status quo and begin to write a trade policy that better reflects values and holds accountable multinational corporations, beginning with replacing the Fast Track or "Trade Promotion Authority" mechanism that diminishes constitutional congressional oversight over commerce and trade.

While House candidates are separating themselves from incumbents on economic and trade issues, it's also the fight for the Senate that has free traders shaking in their wingtips. Democrats running statewide in Ohio, Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut are campaigning on fair trade, targeting their opponent incumbents' support for job-exporting trade agreements, with many running television commercials on NAFTA and CAFTA.

Ohio is ground zero in the fight between status-quo trade and demand for change. Rep. Sherrod Brown, running for the Senate in Ohio, led the fight against CAFTA in the House of Representatives and has emerged as one of the most articulate internationalist opponents of NAFTA/CAFTA-style trade deals. Brown has also become the number-one target of the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable. Rep. Bill Thomas, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, put it bluntly in a March speech at the American Enterprise Institute: Anyone who wants to see NAFTA expansion around the world needs to go to Ohio and stop Sherrod Brown from becoming the next senator from Ohio. As such, fair traders across the country should consider Brown their champion.

The American fair-trade movement's emergence is in the same tradition of economic populism that challenges the corporate values that define modern American culture. In the NAFTA/WTO era, the breadth of its critics has grown steadily -- not surprising when you consider the results of corporate-managed trade deals; the majority of people in both rich and poor countries are not better off because of them. The tactics for changing course on this front are multiple, from corporate campaigning to grassroots lobbying to immense legislative campaigns against Fast Track and CAFTA. An electoral step is being taken in 2006 that will lay the groundwork for a broader national discussion in 2008.

Chris Slevin is director of the Citizens Trade PAC, a project of the Citizens Trade Campaign (

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2006

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