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It’s time to stop the insanity of failed ‘free’ trade agreements

By Lynne Dodson and Kathleen Ridihalgh

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. This summer, insanity reigns over proposed U.S. trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

For more than 20 years, “free” trade agreements have systematically undermined the American economy and the middle class. The growing disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” is turning the American dream into a nightmare. It is a direct result of our failed trade policy, and it needs to stop now.

We need trade. We need trade that promotes enforceable labor rights, protection of natural resources, food security, self-determination and healthy, safe communities. Trade needs to work for people and our economy, not just for multinational corporations and investors.

Historically, multinational corporations have written trade rules to suit their shareholders, increasing profit on the backs of workers and the environment. The investment chapters of the proposed free-trade agreements give foreign investors and corporations expansive rights to directly challenge public-interest laws and regulations for compensation before international tribunals, bypassing domestic courts.

We have seen Mexico and Canada lose NAFTA challenges to environmental protection and the U.S. has spent millions defending itself against suits.

The South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement alone would increase our trade deficit by $16.7 billion and displace 159,000 U.S. jobs in the first 7 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In Washington state, the Washington Fair Trade Coalition estimates more than 59,000 jobs would be lost.

The agreement also bans “Buy Local” preferences designed to boost the economy while allowing products made in sweatshops in North Korea and China to be labeled “Made in Korea” and sold in the U.S. at reduced or no tariffs. So while the U.S. has sanctions on trade with North Korea, the South Korea-U.S. agreement would cause U.S. consumers to unwittingly contribute to the coffers of a regime that continues to abuse its people and the environment, while investing in nuclear capability. The director of National Intelligence has called for an investigation into the security implications of the decline of American manufacturing, caused by off-shoring through U.S. trade deals.

If ratified by Congress, the South Korea agreement would also trump most new measures designed to combat climate pollution. The Bush administration pressured South Korea to weaken its auto-emission standards as a prerequisite to any deal, and the agreement would lock in these weaker standards. This weakens U.S. standards by discouraging investment in cleaner technology and increasing support for lobbying efforts to drive down the standards where they want to do business.

Ratifying a trade agreement with Colombia that does not include meaningful and enforceable labor standards is particularly reprehensible. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. In 2010, 51 labor leaders were killed in Colombia, more than in the rest of the world combined. So far in 2011, another 17 have been killed and 98 percent of these murders are unsolved. If 51 CEOs were murdered in Colombia last year, would we be pursuing this without any safeguards to protect lives?

Trade agreements must promote domestic job growth, protect workers’ rights and ensure that provisions do not put domestic policy at risk. We need to invest in education, work-force training, infrastructure, research and development, and commit to trade-law enforcement.

These are the first trade agreements to come up for a vote since the global economic meltdown demonstrated that multinational corporations need oversight. It is time for the Washington congressional delegation to demand trade policies that reflect our values, build our economy, strengthen national sovereignty, and advance workers, the environment and civil society.

It’s not only fair. It’s smart.

Lynne Dodson is secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. Kathleen Ridihalgh is senior organizing manager of the Sierra Club in Washington and Oregon. This column appears in today’s edition of The Seattle Times and is crossposted here with the authors’ permission.

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