Fair Trade

This op-ed piece appeared first in the Tacoma Weekly on March 3, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.

Free people need fair trade, not TPP

By KC Golden and Dorothy Walker

When the long-secret text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was finally released to the public last November, it became clear why negotiators didn’t want communities and working families to know what’s in this “free trade” deal. TPP puts profits ahead of fair labor standards, basic health and environmental protections, and human rights. Corporate lobbyists were allowed to influence the text, but citizens were kept in the dark. So it’s no surprise that the substance of the TPP is also an affront to democracy – giving foreign corporations the legal right to challenge state and national laws protecting workers and communities.

Washington State’s economy relies on international trade. That fact is often cited as a reason why we should support “free trade” agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and TPP. The logic, it seems, is that because we are a trade-dependent economy, more trade – no matter the terms – is always good.

We see it very differently. The assumption that all trade agreements are good for a trade-oriented economy is like suggesting that if you depend on food, the healthiest diet is more food. That’s great if you sell food, but not if you eat it. Even businesses who want to expand trade need fair rules to ensure that trade works for people, not just investors. Without that basic commitment to fairness, there can be no broad, stable social consensus for policies that facilitate trade.

The most troublesome and anti-democratic feature of the TPP, as in NAFTA, is Investor-State Dispute Settlement.  ISDS gives foreign corporations the power to challenge policies that improve working conditions, protect public health, or otherwise protect the public interest. Transcanada Corporation – the company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline – is using this provision in NAFTA to try to force US taxpayers to pony up $15 billion to compensate the company for President Obama’s decision to deny the pipeline permit.

Worst of all, this “dispute settlement” occurs in private trade tribunals, with no accountability to any domestic legal system. The lawyers who rule in these cases are often the same ones who represent corporations that sue governments. 

What about the proposed methanol plant in Tacoma? It’s a big, controversial decision for this community –  made even more difficult by past trade pacts that “offshored” thousands of our state’s best manufacturing jobs, many of them to workers who experience horrific labor conditions. But once the decision on the methanol project is made by democratically accountable state and local officials, should foreign investors be entitled to compensation if they don’t like or didn’t “expect” the result?

In Washington State, we’re building strong, diverse coalitions to tackle the crises of income inequality and climate disruption. These challenges are linked – the best hope for real climate solutions is a clean energy economy that produces good jobs and broadly shared prosperity. To tackle them, we’ll need to work together, enacting policies that advance clean energy, limit dangerous climate pollution, and accelerate a just transition to a more sustainable and equitable future.

But what if a foreign corporation is betting that big oil’s political power will block this future? What if they’re expecting to profit from increased fossil fuel dependence or inadequate worker protections? Will they demand compensation for “damages” when we secure better working conditions or stronger clean energy policies? That’s exactly what Texas oil magnate T. Boone Pickens is doing in Ontario, where he’s using the ISDS provisions of NAFTA to challenge laws that incentivize local clean energy producers and jobs. Will the very threat of such legal action be used to intimidate our lawmakers and hold us back from winning our best future?

Working families, communities, and conservation groups are building a common vision for a healthy future in Washington. We don’t always agree on every project, but we’re moving forward together. And even when we disagree on a particular proposal, on this we stand united: we should be free to build our future together as a community, under fair rules for commerce and democratically accountable legal systems. The TPP would allow foreign corporations to stand between us and that vision. Congress should reject it.

KC Golden is senior policy advisor at Climate Solutions and Dorothy Walker is chair of the Tatoosh (Pierce County) Sierra Club Chapter.