Despite campaign promises to reform trade deals, President Obama has asked Congress to approve three NAFTA-style deals - negotiated by former President George W. Bush - with Panama, Korea and Colombia. The House and Senate are expected to vote on these deals on Wednesday.
Tim Robertson, director of the San Francisco-based California Fair Trade Coalition, says the deals, which continue to ignore labor and environmental rights, have barely changed under the Obama administration.
"They're now running the campaign, along with GOP leaders, to get them passed," he says.
Last Tuesday, Public Citizen kicked off a National Call-in Day urging citizens to tell their Representatives to "stop the job-killing trade deals."
"President Barack Obama has completely flip-flopped on his campaign promises to fix America's failed trade policy and has cast his lot against the majority of the American people who oppose more of these job-killing deals," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, in a statement. "At a time of nine percent unemployment and broad public opposition to more NAFTA-style trade agreements, it's a fairly shocking shift away from the president's job-creation message to suddenly call on Congress to pass three old Bush trade deals that the federal government's own studies say will increase the U.S. trade deficit."
"The last thing American workers and our economy needs is more NAFTA-style free trade agreements," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in a statement.
When President Obama announced the US-Korea agreement in December, he said the tariff reductions alone would boost annual exports of American goods by up to $11 billion, but what he failed to say is that, according to a report by the US International Trade Commission, an independent government agency, imports from Korea would be even higher. According to the report, imports would include dairy products, apparel, footwear, textiles and motor vehicles and parts.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the agreement with Korea, which is expected to be the largest trade deal since NAFTA, will increase the US trade deficit by $16.7 billion and displace 159,000 US jobs within the first seven years after it takes effect.
The deal with Korea is 1,200 pages long. Approximately 88 pages focus on traditional trade issues like quotas and tariffs, while the rest focus on regulations, intellectual property, investment and dispute settlements. Many of these trade deals allow multinational corporations to sue local, state and national governments for introducing new laws or regulations that they say will undermine profits.
"Opening markets only means more intense competition and downward pressure on worker wages. The experience of past decades of trade liberalization should be proof enough," writes Christine Ahn, senior fellow at the Korea Policy Institute, and Martin Hart-Landsberg, professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College.
The administration wants the deals passed before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's state visit to the White House on Thursday.
Then there's Colombia. According to the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. In 2010, 51 trade unionists were assassinated in Colombia - more than in the rest of the world combined. Despite Colombia's heralded "Labor Action Plan," another 22 have been killed this year. The AFL-CIO asks, "Why would we reward a country where 51 CEOs were killed last year?"
And Panama, with a history of failing to protect workers' rights, is known as a tax haven for money launderers and tax dodgers.
Since 2000, the US has lost six million manufacturing jobs and 42,4000 factories have closed, according to Manufacturing & Technology News.
"That was the worst decade on record for manufacturing in our country, even worse than the great depression," says Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonpartisan, nonprofit partnership forged to strengthen manufacturing in the US. "We lost fully one-third of our manufacturing employment over the last decade and we were on a steep downward trend even before the recession. That only exacerbated the situation."
Paul says automation and technology, globalization and the systems that are put into place by free trade agreements, are responsible for the sad state of manufacturing in the US today. "The onset of China was probably the nail in the coffin," he says.
And, yet, with 14 million people out of work and another nine million part-time workers looking for full-time work, free trade deals are rarely mentioned in the national dialog. The print media tend to cover these deals with the predictable "he said, she said," narrative, and they're rarely mentioned on the cable shows.
Just last month, on Labor Day, over 500 activists took to the streets of Chicago to speak out against US free trade agreements with Pacific Rim countries, including Singapore, Chile, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam. Advocates from labor, environmental, public health and consumer rights groups took part to demand a "Fair Deal or No Deal."
The march ended at the Hilton Chicago, where trade negotiators held a ten-day meeting to hammer out an agreement. According to Public Citizen, the talks took place behind closed doors. Even though the details are kept secret, leaked documents show that these agreements follow the blue print of previous deals. A decision on whether to move this deal forward is expected any day now. Because these deals are so large, some are calling them the "NAFTA of the Pacific."
"This agreement and its investment chapter in particular, must not be based on the NAFTA model," said Bill Waren, trade policy analyst with Friends of the Earth. "Big oil, mining multinationals and giant agri-business are demanding NAFTA-style investment provisions. They don't want to be held accountable by legislatures or courts for the environmental destruction and social injustice wrought by their investment projects around the Pacific Rim. No NAFTA for the Pacific."
"These trade deals replicate the mistakes of the past, not the way to win the future and thus pose serious policy and political perils," said Public Citizen's Wallach in a statement. "Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of the American public - across stunningly diverse demographics - is opposed to more of these NAFTA-style trade deals and that members of Congress vote for them at their peril."
Listen to "Your Call" discuss free trade deals and what we've learned since former President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993.
Tim Robertson, director of the California Fair Trade Coalition.
Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.