The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), for the moment, is faltering. The so-called free trade agreement (FTA) would dwarf all other FTAs that came before it. Trade negotiators and the multi-national corporations for whom they shill have been working in secret to hammer out the details, but so far they have not been able to reach an agreement with the would-be partner countries. That inability to find consensus has largely been due to the work of people opposed to the TPP demanding their governments work for them, not corporations.
On Saturday December 7th, a forum on the TPP was held at the Unitarian Church. Covering many angles of the detrimental aspects of the TPP, panelists explained why opposition to the TPP and all similar FTAs must continue growing.
Since their inception, FTAs, while creating enormous corporate profits, have otherwise been a disaster. The reason is simple: they have almost nothing to do with free trade. For that matter, they are not agreements, at least not within in the framework of the most rudimentary understanding of democracy. FTAs are largely rules that allow capital to freely cross borders in search of maximum profit. Pesky issues such as labor rights and environmental impact only stand in the way of those profits, and while given lip service, are regarded as “externalities”.
The most insidious aspect of the TPP is its exposure of the clear contempt for democracy held by its authors and supporters. David Delk of the Alliance for Democracy began by noting the unprecedented level of secrecy that has surrounded TPP negotiations. Delk stated that while over 600 corporate lobbyists have been granted status to comment on TPP proposals, negotiators and congresspeople have been sworn to secrecy. Despite being involved with TPP negotiations for four years, the Obama Administration, which often claims the mantel of transparency, has not released any of its proposals for the TPP for public scrutiny.
Delk, who described FTAs as “corporate coups against democratic decision making by we the people,” said that in some ways government has come full circle since the American Revolution. The colonists who threw off the yoke of the British king and those who followed them fought to expand the idea of government by the people; however, wealthy elites have largely opposed this egalitarian viewpoint–seeking instead to expand the rights of monied institutions such as corporations. As an example, Delk noted that the Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution was created as an FTA within the United States, and since then numerous laws and Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have expanded the power of corporations at the expense of people.
One blatantly anti-democratic feature of FTAs is their insistence that corporations can sue governments for loss of future profits should a government pass legislation curtailing that profit. Recently, Infinito Gold, a Canadian mining company, announced they are planning to sue Costa Rica–a signatory to the Central America Free Trade Agreement–for $1 billion because the country–the people of Costa Rica–chose to protect its rainforests rather than allow Infinito Gold to build an open-pit gold mine in the middle of one.
A more concrete example of how the TPP works against people lies in the rules pushed for by large pharmaceutical companies. Those rules would change medicine patent and pricing rules that literally will kill people. As an example Delk cites the usual drug regimen for people with AIDS, which costs about $31,000 a year in the US. For people who do not have insurance and cannot afford the cost, India, which produces generic versions, has been a godsend. The TPP would erect barriers to these generics by extending the length of patent protections, making it easier to get new patents on already patented medicines (as an example, if a company has patented a medicine that is in tablet form, it can renew the patent by changing it to a capsule), and not sharing data on drugs which would require companies making generic forms to do tests on those drugs again. With these restrictions, one has to wonder how–to apply the mantra of the supporters of FTAs–this raises all boats.
After Delk, Mike Losier of Portland Rising Tide and Dr. Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, Professor of Sociology at the University of Portland, talked about the effects the TPP would have on climate change. Francisco-Menchavez, who is from the Philippines, spoke movingly about the recent typhoon and its connection to capitalism’s insatiable appetite for natural resources regardless of environmental impact. The catastrophe left in the wake of the typhoon, she said, could not solely be blamed on climate change. “The disaster is both about climate,” she said, “and these agreements that undermine people’s right to life and land.”
The Philippines, said Francisco-Menchavez, produces the second largest amount of gold and third largest amount of copper of any country. Mining of these metals necessarily results in deforestation and a loss of bio-diversity, but with neoliberal reforms such as the 1995 mining act that promoted large scale mining, those losses began accelerating and created large numbers of displaced people.
Down the line, deforestation, as well as the accumulation of silt in rivers from mining, results in an unbalanced ecosystem, one incapable of absorbing the rains it did before. Those who till the land find that with the loss of valuable soil comes a decrease in arability. In the drive to privatize the public sector, the government does not respond to the needs of its people, abandoning its responsibilities to the public interest. That lack of response has been apparent in the aftermath of the typhoon and, should the Philippines sign on to the TPP, the privatization which led to such an anemic response on the part of the government would be increased manifold.
Losier’s piece dovetailed well with Francisco-Menchavez’s as he dealt with how FTAs such as the TPP remove barriers to the mining and movement of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the TPP would likely make it even more difficult for nations to enact and enforce laws that intrude on corporate profits. Losier also noted how the TPP was part of an “evolving legal landscape” in which “the more laws and rules work, the more corporations seek to undermine them”.
Losier also said people must not look to government to solve the problems, because it is government that has authorized numerous FTAs. Rather, Losier said, people must “mobilize resistance in the opposite direction,” using tactics such as direct action and civil disobedience.
Greg Pallesen, Vice President of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, focused on the basic contradiction at the heart of FTAs. On the one hand, our government passes relatively strong laws that regulate business (while these laws are often weak, they are stronger than in many other nations), but then passes FTAs that encourage businesses to leave the country.
Furthermore, when companies say they can’t compete with overseas competition, they are often given tax breaks to keep jobs in the US, but then, Pallesen said, they ship their factories overseas. Pallesen noted how few paper mills remain in the US, most of them having gone to China where both wages and environmental standards are low. But now China is feeling the heat as India is able to provide even cheaper labor and its government is apparently willing to debase its environment as much or more than China.
The final speaker was Elizabeth Swager of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. Swager went right to the heart of defeating the TPP. Its lynchpin, she said, is Fast Track. Fast Track–officially known as Trade Promotion Authority–is a process that allows the President to craft trade agreements and then allows Congress only an up or down vote. There can be no reviews, debates, or amendments. Members of Congress either approve it or do not, abdicating their constitutional responsibility both to their constituents and to their mandate to craft trade agreements. The upshot is that people will only find out what is in the TPP when it comes to the floor for a vote.
Swager said, “If we stop Fast Track, it will be hard to get the TPP approved. Conversely, if Fast Track passes, it will be hard to stop the TPP.” Currently, 151 Democrats and 27 Republicans in the House of Representatives oppose giving the President Fast Track authority. That is a large number, but is still shy of the 218 needed to strike Fast Track down. According to Swager, it is almost certain that Fast Track will be introduced for approval when Congress returns in January, and thus it is important that people continue organizing against it over the late December holidays.
All speakers noted the need for solidarity, both within the US and across borders. As Swager stated, a no-borders sense of connection between people has led to many victories, such as the shut-down of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas over the course of a large swath of the 2000s. These victories were clear signs that most of the world’s population rejects these arrangements that almost exclusively benefit the already wealthy. The fact that the TPP negotiators feel the need to keep their work secret also points to this rejection, as well as their fear of the strength of solidarity among the people.
“For the last 20 years communities have suffered the devastating consequences of NAFTA-style trade policies,” said Swager, “wreeking havoc on the lives of working families, small farmers, indigenous peoples, and our environment. Enough is enough. It’s time we stand together and demand trade policy that puts people over profits.”
For more information and to get involved in stopping Fast Track and the Trans Pacific Partnership, see the websites for the Citizens Trade Campaign (http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/), Public Citizen (https://www.citizen.org/TPP).
To call your senators and representative, contact the Capitol Switchboard at: (202) 224-3121.