Years ago, a labor leader explained to us why his union opposed free-trade pacts. “You have to understand,” he said, “we only represent workers who have jobs now. We don’t represent workers who might get jobs in the future.”
Those views are understandable but destructive. In today’s dynamic global economy, change has to be embraced, not rejected. That’s why Democratic leaders cannot afford to listen to the labor movement as the country approaches a major debate over trade policy.
That debate was triggered by a “historic bipartisan breakthrough,” in the words of U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. As announced last week by the Bush administration and key Democrats, the agreement says that future trade pacts have to protect workers’ rights and promote the environment.
Organized labor has long demanded this development, but they refused to take yes for an answer. Clearly, they don’t want any new trade pacts of any kind. James P. Hoffa, head of the Teamsters, ranted that the deal “sells out American workers (and) does nothing to protect American jobs or help create more jobs at home.”
That’s exactly the kind of reactionary, head-in-the-sand view expressed by the labor leader we quoted above. And that’s exactly why Democratic leaders have to stand up to their old friends in the labor movement and tell them the truth: trade is vital to American prosperity and security, and you don’t get a veto here.
As ardent free traders, we have long been skeptical of including labor and environmental rules in trade deals. They smacked too much of protectionism, and seemed to have one aim: Raising costs for foreign firms and making their products less competitive in the world market.
But the Democrats’ triumph last fall created a new reality. No new trade pacts will now clear Congress without labor and environmental standards included. So the Bush administration (which shared our skepticism) was right to show flexibility and take the deal.
Now that framework has to be implemented by specific legislation. Four pending bilateral agreements – with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea – have to be renegotiated and resubmitted to Congress. But the much larger question is this: should Congress renew the president’s authority to conclude future trade deals and send them to Congress for an up or down vote? Called “fast track,” that authority runs out at the end of June, and if it dies, so does any hope for reviving long-stalled international trade talks.
Those talks will be tough under the best of circumstances. The biggest obstacle: European governments have refused to lower subsidies that protect their domestic farmers. China, too, has proven to be an ornery trading partner, flooding world markets with cheap goods while blocking foreign competition at home.
But even in the face of these frustrations, the figures are clear. Freer trade is good for American businesses, American workers and American consumers.
In a major study released last February, the Business Roundtable (yes, they favor trade but their research is sound) reported that in 2004 (the last year available), more than 31 million American jobs, nearly one in five, were “positively linked to exports and imports of goods and services.” Twelve years before, only 1-in-10 workers, or 14 million, directly benefited from trade.
In other words, all the fear mongering about globalization destroying the American economy – heard frequently from Democratic candidates last fall – is wrong. In fact, the opposite is true.
As The New York Times reported recently: “American companies have been doing business abroad for a long time, but never before has it been so important. This year, for the first time, Standard & Poor’s expects the 500 companies in its benchmark stock index to generate more than half of their sales in foreign countries.”
Add another point that labor leaders never mention: their members, like all American consumers, can buy more goods more cheaply, from sweaters to softballs, when they are made abroad.
So do trade deals “sell out American workers”? Absolutely not. But there are losers as well as winners, and any free trader must also support better education, smarter midcareer training and more generous benefits for workers who do lose their jobs to international competition.
However, those losers, and their labor bosses, should not be allowed to dictate trade policy. Democrats despise and distrust George Bush, but for the next 18 months, he’s the only president we have. Congress should shelve its feelings and renew his authority to negotiate more trade deals. America’s economic future depends on it.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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