Labor Wins First Round In Fast-Track Trade Battle

"If you look at the Crane bill, they couldn't get the votes before the August recess. There's people organizing across the country against this," exclaimed Ryan Hunter, trade organizer for the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. Hunter was talking about the "Fast-Track" bill authored by Rep. Philip Crane--which the Republican House leadership has had to shelve for lack of support.

ASJE, Jobs with Justice, and local trade coalitions led a wave of grassroots resistance to Fast-Track that led to this victory.

Back in April, when trade negotiators from across the hemisphere were meeting behind fortified walls in Quebec, demonstrations were held in over 50 cities across the U.S. in opposition to the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas--an expansion of NAFTA across the hemisphere). Fast-Track would allow President Bush to negotiate the FTAA without any discussion in Congress other than a yes or no vote.

Since then, this movement, largely ignored by the media, has organized rallies, community forums, union speakers bureaus, local union and city council resolutions, phone banks, letters, and even the occasional sit-in.

A sample:

  • In Oregon, Local to Global, an informal anti-FTAA coalition, has set up mobile phone banks on busy streets, setting up cell-phones for passers-by to call their congresspeople.

  • The Texas Fair Trade Coalition has set up phone banks to contact not only congressional reps but also union locals in swing districts. They have also gotten onto conservative radio talk shows to discuss sovereignty issues related to the FTAA.

  • Activists in California have set up a "Labor to Labor FTAA Speakers Bureau" through the L.A. County Fed that sends out union members to speak to unions throughout the region.

  • ASJE, according to Hunter, has "generated informal working groups" that bring together local labor, environmental, human rights, and church leaders who are willing to do much more than simply sign a resolution. They have developed a network of anti-FTAA activists in Oregon, Washington, and Ohio.


The AFL-CIO was largely caught off guard by the swiftness with which Republicans moved to introduce a Fast-Track bill in the House. In July, following a short debate over the need to reach out to moderates, the House leadership backed the hard-line bill introduced by Crane. The bill would have granted Fast-Track with no crumbs for labor or the environment. According to one union's regional political director, some officials were furious that the AFL-CIO had no Congressional target list until July. "People were apoplectic about the fact that the AFL-CIO was moving so slowly," he said.

The CWA and USWA, in contrast, had been mobilizing for some time. The CWA trained 600 field reps to lobby against the FTAA in early May, and the USWA has been active with groups such as ASJE and in actions such as the takeover of Crane's office.



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Organizers on the ground praised the AFL-CIO's current involvement, however. "They started a little slow, but they are very active," according to Hunter. Nancy Haque, JwJ field organizer, agreed: "The actual legislation came out faster than we thought. Since then [the AFL] has moved very fast." In early July, John Sweeney held a conference call for international and state AFL-CIO presidents about Fast-Track. The AFL-CIO set up a hotline (800-393-1082) for members to call their congresspeople, which had generated 12,000 calls by August 7, and the federation took out TV ads in about 20 districts before Congress adjourned, with promises of more in the fall. The federation pinpointed 71 wavering Congressional targets for activists to lobby during the August recess. And the AFL-CIO is helping to organize a September 30 rally in Washington, D.C. against the International Monetary Fund and wants anti-Fast-Track to be part of the focus.


In the fall, a different version of Fast-Track, this time with fig-leaf language on labor and the environment, will be introduced, and this will be the true test of anti-FTAA muscle. According to AFL-CIO trade lobbyist Scott Paul, speaking on an August 7 conference call with anti-Fast-Track activists, "We've lost about half of the Republicans who voted for us under Clinton, and we need to keep the Democratic losses under 30."

There appears to be little chance that anti-Fast-Track forces will compromise and accept a bill with weak language on labor and the environment like that in the NAFTA side agreements, which have proven useless. When NAFTA was debated, this language was somewhat of a face-saver for some Congress members who were pro-NAFTA but did not want to alienate voters.

Members of the anti-Fast-Track coalition have either taken the stand "no Fast-Track" or they have stated that they would accept no bill unless (1) it includes trade sanctions against any country that violates its own labor laws or the labor standards of the International Labor Organization of the UN and (2) it ensures equal treatment under the FTAA's dispute resolution mechanism. The latter means that any penalties against countries that violate labor or environmental laws must be on a par with penalties for other sorts of trade violations, such as intellectual property infractions. Such a provision would be light-years ahead of anything in the NAFTA side agreements. Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group and many local coalitions are pushing House members to sign on to a letter supporting these principles.

No one seems to believe such provisions stand the slightest chance of passing, however, so that the operable message remains, as the AFL-CIO's literature puts it, "Derail Fast Track!"


One area of concern as labor works with other groups is the fall-out from the AFL-CIO's decision to push wavering Democrats to vote in support of oil drilling in Alaska. "Folks are really upset about ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]," notes Hunter.

"Union members are upset about it. We have environmental organizations and unions working side by side, and the Teamsters' support for [oil-drilling] was a big blow to that momentum." He adds, however, "Everyone needs to realize that they are not going to win it alone. Our philosophy at ASJE is 'there are some issues we are going to disagree on. We build bridges where we can and do work together.'"

The frictions between labor and environmentalists did not begin or end with ANWR. Hunter explains: "We had a leaders briefing on the Oregon Coast and a shrimp catcher said, 'I don't think I can work with environmentalists.' We can come to other issues separately or together, but right now we want to do something about the trade agenda."

On the conference call, Paul predicted that "if Bush doesn't get Fast-Track before November, it will be dead for the next two years." For this to happen, the grassroots work of the last two months will need to intensify.

The Jobs With Justice site has links to over 50 anti-FTAA contacts from across the country, and a host of other resources. ASJE has sample letters and a calendar of events in the Northwest. The AFLCIO has printable flyers with space for local information. CWA, USWA, and UAW all have useful information and links, including a list of Congressional targets. Public Citizen has Fast-Track talking points, background information, and up-to-date news.