A Competitive Race to the Lowest Wages

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

“Protecting a competitive race to the lowest wages is crucial,” said Tom Chamberlain, President of the Oregon AFL-CIO. After a confused pause, Chamberlain restated himself, replacing “protecting” with “preventing.” It was a slightly awkward moment at this strange gathering billed as a “Listening Session on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)”. Moderated and guided by Senator Ron Wyden, ten people from various sectors of Oregon’s business, political, environmental, and activist communities presented their points of view.

The TPP is one of a long line of erroneously labeled free trade agreements (FTAs) that history has shown function more as investors’ rights agendas that transnational corporations and the politicians for whom they have paid shove down the throats of the citizens of the United States as well as those of the other country or countries dragged along. As contemptuous of democracy as all FTAs before it, the difference is that the TPP could apply to many more nations, and it has also been kept under wraps. In fact, so little is known about the TPP outside of corporate boardrooms that Senator Wyden–despite his long support for free trade agreements, having not voted against one until the Oman Free Trade Agreement in 2007 that passed the Senate 60-34, making him the political equivalent of the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman–has expressed misgivings over it due to the lack of transparency.

This lack of transparency and Senator Wyden’s apparent distaste for it created an odd dynamic in the proceedings. When those opposed to various prospective aspects of the TPP, such as coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports spoke, Senator Wyden referred to the lack of transparency and appealed to Oregonians’ desire for more open government, while completely avoiding the heart of the panelists’ statements. For example, both Mosier City Councilor Kathy Fitzpatrick, and Columbia Riverkeeper Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel, expressed their desire for Senator Wyden to request a full environmental review of all coal export projects, not just separate studies of each individual project’s impact on the affected particular communities. Senator Wyden responded with the usual bromides of Oregonians having “an absolute right to know” what environmental impact coal imports will have on them, but stopped short of saying he supported a regional, cumulative study. This left more than a handful of audience members wondering if the right to know actually included the right to know.

Karla Chambers of Stahlbush Farms and Mark Powers of the Northwest Horticultural Council spoke on the importance of the TPP for increasing agricultural exports–a $5 billion dollar business for Oregon according to Senator Wyden–although the issue of dumping, a disaster for corn farmers in Mexico after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), was left unmentioned. At issue instead were clearly reasonable worries about sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS), which Powers later clarified as being standards regarding plant and human health. Whether standards of human health–including exposure to pesticides and fungicides, healthcare, and living wages–will apply to farmworkers in this country remains up in the air, but the history of our treatment of what has become a veritable and often persecuted underclass of our society points toward a grim prognosis.

The majority of the 250 people packed into the auditorium seemed focused on coal. VandenHeuvel closed his statement by asking everyone concerned about the coal and LNG exports to please stand, leaving only a handful of people seated. Although the question was not aimed at the panelists, it is clear that Morrow County Commissioner Leann Rea would have remained seated until the chair was pried from her grip with a crowbar. When she began her statement, which sounded more like the background story politicians like to give when opening a campaign or retooling a losing one, she mentioned growing up on the land homesteaded by her great-great-grandfather, whose portrait hangs in some political building in town and how she was once told “if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” and thus she has a deep interest in only doing what is good for “the county.”  If only Kate Smith was still alive and in the auditorium singing “God Bless America,” the moment would have been complete.

For reasons not entirely clear, Rea seemed shocked at the derisive laughter that followed her saying, because she is only interested in what is good for the county, that she supported coal exports through the region, particularly because it would be clean coal with “zero air emissions” shipped by a company, Ambre Energy, “committed to being a good neighbor.” After the laughter died down, someone behind me said, “The best neighbor is the one who makes it impossible to breathe.” Clearly, this man and his sarcasm had no interest in what was good for the county, and I felt like reporting him to the John Birch Society. Residents of Longview, Washington, who may remember Ambre Energy being forced to withdraw temporarily from negotiations because it lied about the amount of coal it would ship through the area, might also by Rea’s standards have no such breast-beating interest.

Immediately following Rea, Councilor Kathy Fitzpatrick took issue with the farce of clean coal. Mosier lies in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, and both tourism and agriculture are important to its economy. And in a forum where most of the panelists–certainly those supporting the TPP–spoke of jobs in abstract ways, as if they existed in a vacuum, Fitzpatrick posed serious worries about what these trade arrangements refer to as externalities, which is another way of saying those things that are effects of production, but do not affect profit, at least until the lawsuits start rolling in (which is why the TPP, like all FTAs, seeks to limit lawsuits save for those on the part of the corporations who feel their right to maximizing profits has been infringed upon by pesky citizens who don’t like polluted air and water). For example, Mosier has a railroad that will be used to ship the coal, that is less than 100 yards from a school. Despite Rea’s assurances, coal dust, which does exist, makes breathing difficult. One of the major orchards in Mosier is bisected by that railroad.  Anyone for Cherry Coke?  And in a bit of irony, a certified LEED development is less than 30 yards from the track. I suppose every parent can rest a little easier, after getting her daughter home from the emergency room after her latest asthma attack, knowing her home adheres to strict environmental standards.

Arthur Stamoulis of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign (ORFTC) was the only panelist who spoke of the big picture moral implications of another trade agreement that would further consolidate the wealth and power of the 1% while being filled with strong language of labor and environmental rights that would not be enforced, and in some cases, would be actively opposed, such as in Colombia, where more union organizers are killed than anywhere else on Earth. He began by saying the standard to which the ORFTC held any trade agreement was whether it contributed to a “more just and sustainable global economy,” a line that drew loud cheers. Stamoulis answered his own question, suspecting the answer to be “no”–suspecting because even after 13 rounds of negotiations and requests from hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk refuses to “tell us what he’s been proposing in our names.” The recent Bush Administration was more transparent on these issues, and Stamoulis found it upsetting that “we seem to be moving backwards on transparency.”

Stamoulis’ words were a far cry from those of Intel’s Director of Global Trade, Greg Slater, who saw the TPP as something that will “embellish” older agreements, focusing his talk on issues of intellectual copyright protection, encryption, and protecting successful companies, such as Intel, Oregon’s largest employer, from “anti-competitive practices.” And, as has been the corporate line in all of these trade agreements–later echoed by Senator Wyden with the cliche that the TPP would work for all Oregonians, “lifting all boats”–the TPP will result in Intel’s dream of bringing more jobs to Oregon. Message for the captain: only the yachts are floating, and the low wage servants on them are getting restless.

To my mind, the most important aspect Stamoulis hit on was the philosophy behind trade agreements. He noted how they tend to devolve to “maximum” standards, that when labor and environmental standards make it into the text, they limit how far these standards can go. Why, if these trade arrangements are truly about making a better world, as their corporate sponsors and shills often say, then why not set these standards as minimums and allow for people to raise those standards as they desire? Stamoulis stated, “Insofar as the TPP is going to restrict governments’ policy space in some areas, we want to see it setting floors rather than ceilings when it comes to most regulations. In other words, this is a minimum food safety standard we all agree not to go below, but if a country wants to adopt a more protective standard, they’re free to do so–just so long as it’s applied equally to domestic and foreign businesses. We again suspect that USTR is doing the opposite of that, and I can tell you that the handful of TPP documents that have been leaked are extremely discouraging.”

Earlier, AFL-CIO’s Chamberlain spoke of the need for an agreement that is good for workers. It’s a familiar and proper line, but it is has also become stale because, frankly, if it is not going to be accompanied by some sort of pressure on Senator Wyden by the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, it might as well be tossed out in the garbage with the other moldy and decaying refuse. “Blah blah blah must include strong labor standards blah blah blah enforceable blah blah blah crucial we get this right…” Yes, these are important, but while the language is often included, it is almost never enforced, and I suspect those standards are the butt of jokes at corporate board meetings.  I don’t mean to pick on Chamberlain who has long been stalwart in fighting for workers and others getting the short end of the stick, and I get the feeling his duties put him between a rock and hard place when it comes to what those duties require him to say for the sake of what people above him believe are expedient politics.  But the fact remains I could more or less hear the same speech from my drunk uncle who at Thanksgiving complains about everything, but instead of doing something, grabs another beer and then heads to the corner of the basement, sits down, and eats some spiders and flies, emerging every so often to gripe some more and grab some cranberry sauce. At what point is labor going to stand up to Senator Wyden and his ilk and tell him he either votes against these toxic trade arrangements that ship jobs overseas and result in lower wages and benefits for workers whose jobs remain, or else they are going to work to put him out of office? At what point are people opposed to these terribly harmful arrangements, particularly those who are constantly getting screwed over by them, going to realize that Senator Wyden is not their friend and never will be?  This Stockholm Syndrome has got to stop.


In the final analysis, it seemed Senator Wyden held this gathering to burnish his credentials as someone who listens to all sides of an issue and then reaches a conclusion based upon the facts. However, in the past it has proven a charade, for despite all evidence showing these erroneously named free trade agreements prove beneficial to only a small segment of the population (since NAFTA the US trade deficit has increased almost fivefold, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates 3.5 million US jobs have been lost), Senator Wyden has almost always supported these arrangements. “It is comical that Wyden has been dissed by the corporate masters, because he has been carrying their water with vigor on trade and other issues,” said Laurie King, who attended the listening session.  “But the deal is so bad that he was left out. He is pissed about lack of transparency but is still an inveterate corporate free trader.”

Many years ago, a friend of mine was at a town hall held by Senator Wyden regarding the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). She asked him if free trade was so beneficial to us, then why were we losing jobs? He avoided the question, but she pinned him down. In the end, his stance was no different than that of his newspaper clone Thomas Friedman: Damn your facts–I don’t care about reality.

That would be fine if Senator Wyden was just some crank on the street corner, or my uncle. But he’s not–he’s Oregon’s senior senator, and he is chair of the Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness. Unless the Republicans recapture the Senate in November–a terribly grim prospect for workers–Wyden will wield tremendous influence on future trade negotiations, something that does not bode well for working people in this country and in the countries with whom we sign these trade arrangements.  Laurie King summed it up well: “Trade policy is fundamental.  The provisions adversely touch every aspect of our lives from food quality to environmental standards to procurement to banking regulation. Working and poor people in all signatory countries would suffer.”

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