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Tuesday Talk: Why keep an international trade deal secret?

July 02, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Right now the world’s richest and most powerful corporations are heavily influencing how governments are writing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal involving at least 11 Pacific Rim nations. It’s described by some as NAFTA on steroids.

This policy is being negotiated in secret, with details mainly coming out through leaked documents. Provisions ban governments from setting buy local standards for their purchasing, put big-pharma and insurance executives in charge of Minnesotan’s health care, and could ship more middle-class jobs overseas.

Today between 9:00–10:30 am Josh Wise from Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition joins Minnesota 2020 fellows Steve Fletcher and Lee Egerstrom to discuss and answer your questions about this international trade agreement. 

Here’s our latest blog on the deal.

What are your thoughts on this mega-deal?

If you can’t join the discussion, leave a question for our experts. 

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.

25 Comments:

  • William Pappas says:

    July 2, 2013 at 7:12 am

    There is nothing that has changed our economy for the worse than NAFTA and other trade laws that allow corporations to build factoreis overseas and then import cheap goods back into the US without penalty.  With oppressive wage rates, virtually no environmental laws or building codes and communal responsibiltiy these corporations can produce goods at an incredible price, freeze out US labor, force downard pressure on US wages, pensions and benefits and often hid their profits in offshore banks to avoid further taxes.  The lost production in the US economy couled with tax revenue has virtually changed the face of the US economy with a declining middle class leading the way.  The only defense against such greed and destructive policy is to go the other way.  Let’s erect trade barriers to protect our own valued industries and impose revenue generating taxes on money made from good in other countries by US corporations.  We should also be taxing the accumulation of off shore profits to encourage their banking in the boundaries of the US.  Everything has gone wrong with the US economy as it impacts the middle class.  If this is not changed we will, in time, resemble the function of a thrid world country with declining wages, poorly maintained infrastructure and an economy that produces very rich people and hundreds of millions of poor ones.

  • Charles Zea says:

    July 2, 2013 at 8:22 am

    The Trans-Pacific Partnership has to be slanted in favor of the big corporations, why else would the negotiations be held in secret.

    Where is our congressional delegation on this issue?

    • Josh Wise says:

      July 2, 2013 at 9:10 am

      You’re absolutely right Charles. It’s basically the stated position of the United States Trade Representative in response to questions of transparency, that if they released the text, there is no way the TPP would get finished because it would trigger so much backlash amongst the people in all of the participating countries. It’s pretty amazing that our own government is telling us that they can’t show us the laws they are writing because if they did, we wouldn’t like them.

      As far as our congressional delegation is concerned, Rep. Ellison is going to be a leader in fighting the TPP. He hosted a forum last night on the issue. While we have other strong advocates in Minnesoat, we need to be bird dogging all of our members of Congress to take strong positions and to make a big ruckus about the need for transparency, so that we as citizens have the same rights as the “cleared advisors,” 90% of whom represent corporations, and can see the draft text.

      • Charles says:

        July 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm

        I contacted Congressman Walz’s congressional office in Mankato this AM.  I was hoping to talk to Rep Walz as he is in the district on the Forth of July break but he was out-and-about.  The staff worker that fielded my call said he would ask the Congressman to contact me.

        Has anyone heard if there is a military chapter in this trade agreement?

  • Josh Wise says:

    July 2, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Hi, Josh Wise here. I’m the director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition. MNFTC brings together over 70 organizational members as well as individuals to advocate for a global economy that protects the high quality of life in Minnesota and extend that around the globe. We are coordinating the effort in Minnesota to fight the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

    As it stands right now, the TPP comprises 12 countries - US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan - which account for nearly 40% of the entire world’s economy. The TPP includes what is called a docking provision so that other countries with borders on the Pacific Rim, such as China and Russia, could join on during the negotiations. If all eligible countries joined, the TPP would encompass over 60% of the global economy.

    Not only is the scale of the TPP the largest ever of its kind. The scope is also the broadest yet. The TPP is the first major US free trade agreement to include intellectual property provisions, giving corporations greater power to control our medicine, privacy on the internet, and the types of food we can grow and eat.

    Thank you to MN2020 for having me in, and I’m looking forward to answering as many questions as I can.

  • Steve Fletcher says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:03 am

    Hi, Josh.  Thanks for joining us this morning.  One of the big takeaways from the forum you and Congressman Ellison hosted last night was how fast things are likely to move on this deal.  Can you tell people how Fast Track legislation works, and the latest you’ve heard about when we’re likely to see things start moving in Congress?

    • Josh Wise says:

      July 2, 2013 at 9:17 am

      Fast Track is the only way the TPP will pass. It’s how NAFTA, CAFTA and every other trade agreement but one has passed. Under the Constitution, the Senate is charged with ratifying treaties by 2/3 majority. What a fast track bill does is suspend the rules of the Constitution by giving the president broad authority to negotiate trade treaties like the TPP, and then gives an up or down vote in both houses within 90 days of the treaty being submitted. It’s just one more way of making sure that the TPP remains secret. Likely the treaty will be thousands of pages long, and there’s absolutely no way for Congress, let alone the public to get any sort of meaningful understanding of how the TPP will affect the American people in such a short period of time. Max Baucus who chairs the Senate Finance Committee has indicated that he will be introducing a fast track bill this summer, and the USTR has said that they are aiming to finish the TPP negotiations by the end of the year. That means we have a lot of work to do in a short period of time to get the word out that this is happening and that it will only accelerate the race to the bottom for wages, product safety, and the environment.

      • Josh Wise says:

        July 2, 2013 at 9:24 am

        I should add that not only is it too quick a process, but Congress also agrees not to amend the treaty, which is another of their consitutional responsibilities.

  • Steve Fletcher says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:14 am

    In thinking about this trade deal, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much grassroots activists are focusing their efforts on local points of leverage that would be taken away by this trade agreement.  In Minnesota, we have the biggest racial employment gap, and have often attempted to address this by attaching requirements for local minority hiring to government spending bills like the stadium deal and light rail construction.  The new procurement rules would take away those important local levers that progressives have been trying to use to address racial injustice in our state.  This is going to make it very difficult to target funding to historically disadvantaged populations and work toward regional racial equity goals.

    • Josh Wise says:

      July 2, 2013 at 9:31 am

      That’s right. Treaties like the TPP have the potential to override state and local laws. That includes how we spend our tax dollars in Minnesota. We use buy local provisions, prevailing wage laws, etc to ensure that public projects create local economic development. Corporations have unsuccessfully tried in the past to bind state and local governments to what are called the procurement chapters of free trade agreements, and are rumored to be at it again in the TPP, so that the lowest bidder gets the contract, regardless of the materials they’re using, the labor they may be importing or paying substandard wages to or the environmental impact the may cause.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:16 am

    The world’s most powerful corporations aren’t just “influencing” the TPP, they are in essence writing it, in ways that enhance profits, without regard to the rights of workers, patients, consumers and environmental protection.

    Congress’s constitutional power to regulate trade will be most likely be over-ridden by the president’s use of fast-tracking, after which the Congress may vote to accept or reject the TPP but may not debate or discuss it first.

    I hope everyone will visit Mr. Wise’s site and Public Citizen’s Trade Blog to keep themselves informed (www.citizen.org/trade), will urge their reps in Washington to loudly oppose it and vote against it, and will urge the media to report the truth.

    • Josh Wise says:

      July 2, 2013 at 9:23 am

      Again, absolutely right. Many people are unaware that a treaty changes the laws of the countries who write it. Treaty negotiation has been going on for thousands of years, but the process has remained largely unchanged since the times of emperors and kings. The USTR is a diplomat, and his office meets with other diplomats, often at very fancy hotels around the world, and the craft the language. Those who lobby for it can become “cleared advisers” and have access to the negotiations. For the TPP there are over 600 advisers, over 90% of whom represent corporate interests. So quite literally we have a system of lawmaking where the lobbyists write the laws behind closed doors, and the public and our elected representatives cannot see what is being proposed until it is finished.

      Also, our site in Minnesota is www.mnfairtradecoalition.org.

      • Steve Fletcher says:

        July 2, 2013 at 10:14 am

        It’s totally unclear what the criteria are for becoming “cleared advisors,” but we know that even some elected members of Congress have been denied.  Congressman Alan Grayson was allowed to view the document, but he wasn’t allowed to take notes or keep a copy, and since it is “classified,” he’d be committing treason if he revealed details of the contents. Bernice is absolutely right that Public Citizen and the MN Fair Trade Coalition have been among the most effective voices shedding light on this secretive document.

  • Josh Wise says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I should also mention that in NAFTA and subsequent agreements, corporations are given the power to sue governments if they believe there is a “barrier to trade” that impedes their profits. The cases are heard not by normal courts but by tribunals of trade lawyers who work for corporations when they are not on the tribunal. The corporations are able to sue for “future expected profits,” which means money they think they’d make in the future if there was no regulation in place. Corporations have used trade tribunals to challenge everything from Universal Healthcare in Canada, to obesity prevention in Mexico, to protecting potable water in El Salvador. Right now Lone Pine resources is challenging Quebec’s ban on fracking. This could have serious implications for regulating sand mining in Minnesota.

  • Josh Wise says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Some fast facts on how unfair trade agreements have impacted Minnesota. Figures from the Economic Policy Institute and Census Bureau:

    Job loss to NAFTA: ~14,000
    Job loss to PNTR with China: ~73,000
    Minnesota’s trade deficit last year: $12 billion
    Deficit to China alone: $7.5 billion

  • Josh Wise says:

    July 2, 2013 at 9:47 am

    A lot of the argument in favor of these so called agreements is centered around the need to take down barriers to trade in order to increase marked access for US exports. The fact of the matter is that exports to countries where we don’t have free trade agreements is 46% higher than countries that we do have agreements with. The only real difference is the standards by which corporations doing business across borders have to abide by, and as the data shows, abiding by high standards works perfectly well for creating export markets.

    • Joe says:

      July 2, 2013 at 9:56 am

      What are some examples of this?

      • Josh Wise says:

        July 2, 2013 at 10:06 am

        Here’s a link to the report Basically, FTA’s have served to balloon our trade deficit with the trading partners, because corporations are moving production to the other countries, where labor standards are lower or not enforced. The exceptions are Canada and Australia which both have major mining and extractive industries, so opening our markets has increased our deficit by letting them flood our market with their natural resources.

  • Steve Fletcher says:

    July 2, 2013 at 10:06 am

    One of the most striking parts of the trade deal from what has leaked so far has to do with food safety.  At last night’s forum, Jim Harkness from IATP shared details that a lot of people find very upsetting.  The deal calls for signatory countries to accept each other’s food safety inspections as their own, meaning that if food is inspected in Vietnam or Malaysia under their food inspection standards, the US is expected to accept that food as safe and allow it to market without inspecting it ourselves, and vice versa.  The deal also bans country of origin labelling, so consumers will not be able to make decisions to avoid food they believe was inadequately inspected.  Countries would have incentives to lower their inspection standards to shift food industry business their way and create jobs in their country, so the race to the bottom on food safety could be fast and dangerous.

    • Josh Wise says:

      July 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

      The technical term for this is “regulatory harmonization” which if you’re a musician you know harmony means not the same, but they go together. That means if a country has significantly lower standards, but the language looks somewhat similar to our own, then it would be accepted as the same, even though it is by its own terminology, not the same.

  • Marita Bujold says:

    July 2, 2013 at 10:20 am

    In a democracy,any and all economic arrangements that impact community life need to be determined in environments designed to ensure authentic dialogue. These trade arrangements are being made in secret under the direction of the executive branch of the government. We need to ask the president if this approach to determining our local economies aligns with his vision for community life in the United States. (Does he have a vision for community life? Does that vision empower local communities to thrive over the long term while ensuring that earth’s natural resources are protected? With the urgent need to organize economies that will address the impact of climate change, does his vision take this into account?)
    Who is determining these deals?
    The people who are directly impacted by previous trade deals as NAFTA illustrates with breathtaking clarity are not at the table. In terms of the food economy, the communities which feed 70 % of the world’s food -peasant farmers growing on a small scale-are standing on the sidelines protesting because they are not invited to attend. They are the leaders in generating vital genetic diversity of seeds and plants (and animals). Their approach is designed to protect ecosystems and cultivate local ecological knowledge. Transglobal corporations see them as potential customers for their products not as the custodians of the biodiversity essential to food security.
    I believe that we need to direct our attention to the president. This will be his legacy. Does he want to continue and increase the impact of arrangements designed to ensure corporate control and profits while disenfranchising local communities on a global scale?
    On more than one occasion the president has claimed that he is willing to ‘address the problem at its source’. We need to hold him accountable to this claim and then have his back. Trade arrangements that shape our economies should never be made behind closed doors by a handful of far too wealthy corporations. 

  • Steve Fletcher says:

    July 2, 2013 at 10:38 am

    One surprising overreach in the trade agreement is the definition of investors, and agreements on banking restrictions.  Obviously, the United States is still recovering from a failed experiment in banking deregulation that very nearly crashed our entire economy.  We’ve since added restrictions preventing the kind of over-leveraging that threatened our system.  They’re insufficient, but they’re providing the American economy with some level of protection. 

    The investments chapter of the TPP could limit our ability to regulate our own banking industry.  This is one section that has leaked, so you can read it for yourself: http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/tppinvestment.pdf

    There’s also a helpful writeup to help understand the implications of this here: http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/gtwtppinvestmentanalysis.pdf

    • Bernice Vetsch says:

      July 2, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Might it be possible to recruit enough senators & reps who understand the agreement’s potential harm to threaten the president with impeachment if he fast-tracks or in any way deliberately fosters the imposition of that harm onto the American people? 

      His loyalty should be to us and his work on our behalf, not to the world’s mega-corporations.

      • Lee Egerstrom says:

        July 2, 2013 at 11:10 am

        I suspect Bernice knows the answer to her own question. No, we can’t put together the coalition she desires from the same lawmakers who were elected with the funds raised from these same multinational corporations.

    • Lee Egerstrom says:

      July 2, 2013 at 11:26 am

      At the risk of opening a whole new round of concerns, Steve’s comments on regulating banking above and Bernice’s comments below on political will bring up questions I’ve pondered with friends since the early GATT talks in the 1980s. How far do we go in bargaining away rights to regulate and stimulate our economies through trade? A Dutch economist friend, looking ahead, worries there will be international restraints imposed on the NL’s education system because its high school-equivalent students enter the workforce with mastery of from three to five languages. That explains why so many multinational companies - including many from Minnesota - have major offices, factories and regional European headquarters in Holland. My friend only partially jokes that this is an unfair advantage over countries that do less to educate local people and thus attract international business. My friend’s point, however, is consistent with the ILO and other units of the United Nations that should be openly resisting more expansive trade agreements that do not contain chapters providing for fair labor standards, environmental protection and other health and safety safeguards for workers and consumers on both ends of the trade chain.