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Activists Urge Congress To Oppose Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement

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Environmental and labor groups are rallying this afternoon to urge members of Congress to oppose a trade agreement President Obama has yet to completely outline. And Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal has become a target for activist groups.During January’s State of the Union, President Obama called on both Democrats and Republicans to do “the right thing” and give him trade promotion authority over deals with 10 Asia-Pacific countries and Canada. The so-called fast track authority is not sitting well with Matt Barron, a Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist and opposition research specialist.

“It basically is saying that Congress will only get an up or down vote on the negotiated agreement,” Barron said. “There are a lot of people in Congress that have a problem with that. They don’t want to cede legislative authority to the executive. We feel that that’s an un-Democratic procedure.”

Unlike most of his fellow Democrats, Congressman Richard Neal of Springfield has yet to voice his stance on the authority. Speaking after the State of the Union he said there is a ways to go before concrete details are reached on the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is focusing mainly on manufacturing and agricultural exports.

“I’m in the midst of being one of the participants of trying to negotiate the agreement and that does not mean that you’re for it or against it at this stage,” Neal said. “What is does mean is that you have an opportunity to shape the events, particularly on currency manipulation, that’s been a long time interest of mine.”

Congressman Jim McGovern, a fellow Massachusetts Democrat, has come out against fast track authority and the agreement warning of American job losses. A 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute found a net loss of more than 680,000 American jobs following the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA reached in 1994.

“I think people ought to know what’s in a trade agreement before they vote on it,” McGovern said. “Under fast track everything is done in secret and Congress is presented with a trade bill, take it over leave it. I’ve seen too many trade agreements that have passed that have hurt American workers. That have literally drained cities and towns of certain industries. I’m not a protectionist, I believe that it’s important to have a trade policy, but I want a trade policy that’s fair and that puts American workers first.”

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, expanding current trade with countries in the TPP could generate an additional $123 billion in U.S. exports by 2025. Like Congressman McGovern, Barron has concerns about American companies competing with lower wages in other parts of the world.

“In Vietnam you’re talking about people that make 56 cents an hour and a lot of child labor is involved,” Barron said. “So for example if TPP goes into effect, jobs that exist in Massachusetts like New Balance, which is one of the last domestic sneaker makers in this country that has factories in Massachusetts and Maine, they are not going to be able to compete with that.”

Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty is a Democrat from Connecticut. She says 40 percent of the state’s economy is driven by exports.

“So when we open foreign markets to U.S. goods that’s a good thing,” Esty said. “But it’s got to be done the right way. I think that’s where the discussion is. Is it being done the right way? And details matter. That’s what I’m going to be looking for. Are we insuring that we are observing environmental, fair labor and safety standards? All of those matter because otherwise it’s isn’t a level playing field.”

Members in both parties are mixed on their support for the trade agreement and how the Obama administration is conducting the negotiations, claiming Congress and the public cannot see the detailed plans. The website of the Office of the United States Trade Representative has a dedicated page explaining transparency measures the administration has taken like public comments and what it calls detailed negotiation summaries. Among those rallying against the fast track authority and the trade agreement are Progressive Democrats for America, regional AFL-CIO councils and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Pat Fiero is with MoveOn.org.

"Unions understand that this kind of trade deal cost Americans good jobs, “Fiero said. “It has historically with NAFTA and CAFTA and it will with this one.”

Rallies at Congressman Neal’s Washington office and district locations in Springfield and Pittsfield were scheduled from noon to 1 Wednesday.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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