Partnership or Putsch?

EUGENE – In 2010, I sat across the table from Assistant US Trade Representative Barbara Weisel, who was responsible for negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the mega-regional free-trade treaty among Vietnam, Malaysia, and ten other Pacific Rim countries that President Barack Obama’s administration wants to conclude in the coming weeks. At the time, I was Senior Policy Adviser for the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor – a position that made me the top congressional staff member responsible for upholding labor standards in international trade treaties.

The purpose of the meeting was for Congress to understand what steps the Obama administration was taking to protect American workers from being forced into unfair competition with workers from low-wage trading partners. I asked Weisel what I thought was a simple question: “What is the White House’s position on democracy?” Weisel claimed not to understand, so I explained: A majority of congressional Democrats supported the principle that the United States should sign trade agreements only with countries that are democracies.

Other democracies feel the same way. For example, trade agreements negotiated by members of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) contain just such a provision. The logic is obvious: If we in developed democracies had lacked the right to protest, speak out, organize unions, and vote for representatives of our choosing, we would never have ended child labor or established the eight-hour workday. Having used these rights to raise our own living standards, we should not now put developed countries’ workers in direct competition with workers who lack the basic freedoms needed to improve their own conditions.

But my explanation did not help. Weisel stated simply that “we have no position” on democracy. I pressed her on how the White House planned to deal with, for example, Vietnam – a country where children as young as 14 are forced to work 12-hour days, and where there is no right to free speech, no right to protest, no right to strike, and no freedom of association. “Oh, you can have labor rights without democracy,” Weisel insisted. She demurred when asked to name an example.