Making Trade Work for Everyone

Article excerpt

Voters aren't happy with the reality of free trade-and Democrats are starting to listen

THE MAJORITY OF AMERICANS want their elected leaders to know that globalization isn't working for them. Democratic politicians have heard the message and are now taking a few first steps to better regulate America's integration into the global economy.

The November elections-when 37 House and Senate seats changed from "free trade" to "fair trade"-created a Democratic majority that needed to stake out a new position on trade. Globalization and offshoring of jobs ranked among the electorate's top issues, according to polls by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Agenda. Results in key races indicate that Democrats could have picked up even more seats with a stronger message on global economic issues, according to an analysis by Chris Slevin and Todd Tucker of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, an organization critical of corporate-backed free trade.

Recent public opinion surveys reveal that Americans often support globalization in theory but criticize the reality. Steelworkers President Leo Gerard put it this way: "I don't know any worker or trade unionist who is against trade, but we're against exploitative trade that pits worker against worker, and country against country, and that's what this current round of globalization has brought."

In a March Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Americans agreed, by a margin of 46 percent to 28 percent, that trade deals have harmed the United States. And late last year, a Pew Research Center poll found that nearly 44 percent of the people surveyed thought free trade had lowered wages, compared to 11 percent who thought it had raised wages.

The majority of House Democrats have opposed most previous trade deals, even more so under Bush than Clinton. But key leaders-including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel-have often supported free trade deals in the past. And the party's influential business-financial supporters have largely embraced the same free trade agenda as the Republicans.

However, in March, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with a mixed voting record on trade issues, proposed a "New Trade Policy for America" that sets conditions for the administration to win Democratic support for recently negotiated trade agreements with Panama, Peru, Colombia and South Korea.

Rangel would make all trade agreements require enforcement of core International Labor Organization (ILO) rights-such as the right to organize and prohibitions on child labor, forced labor and discrimination in employment-through the same dispute settlement mechanisms used to enforce business interests, like intellectual property rights. His proposal, hastily endorsed by the House Democratic Caucus, also insisted on enforcing multilateral environmental agreements, establishing a fair balance between poor countries' access to drugs and pharmaceutical company patents, ensuring that government procurement promotes worker rights and guaranteeing that foreign investors in the United States are not granted greater rights than American investors (reversing one of NAFTA's most controversial provisions).

Rangel's proposal also called for more strictly enforcing existing trade laws, pressuring China to revalue its currency, opening markets for U.S. exports, increasing assistance for retraining displaced workers and expanding help to the world's poorest countries.

Bush administration officials did not dismiss the proposal out of hand, but they are unlikely to accept it without modifications, which would then lose crucial Democratic support. Fair trade advocates were cautiously optimistic. "It's a good step trying to fix what's awful," says Slevin, deputy director of Global Trade Watch. The AFL-CIO did not immediately endorse the deal, but Policy Director Thea Lee says, "This is a good step forward, but if there's any weakening, all bets are off. …