U.S. Multinationals Revive NAFTA-Style Trade Deals on Capitol Hill

From the food industry to tea party benefactor David Koch, corporatists are hammering lawmakers to move pacts that have been stalled since the Bush era.

By Michelle Chen May 03, 2011

The construction giant Caterpillar is reportedly planning to treat its workers to steaming cups of Colombian coffee in the coming weeks, to warm them to the benefits of doing business with their "partners" in Latin America. While employees enjoy their break, lobbyists will be working hard, in their name, to peddle so-called "open markets" in Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Lobbyists for U.S. multinationals in industries ranging from agriculture to retail are returning to Capitol Hill after the congressional recess determined to finally ink the three so-called free trade pacts. Fair trade advocates have been fighting each of the deals since the Bush administration.

The corporate lobbying blitz extends to state legislatures, as well. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing, anti-government think tank that has helped pen SB 1070 copycat bills around the country, has crafted boilerplate state resolutions calling on Congress to approve the free-trade deals, according to labor activists. Among ALEC’s funders are the oil magnate David Koch, the tea party movement benefactors who helped fund the war against public sector unions in Wisconsin.

In March, the Washington State Labor Council celebrated the defeat of a pro-FTA resolution in its state legislature. In the wake of the labor advocates’ hard-fought victory, Washington Fair Trade Coalition Director Kristin Beifus had a simple warning for her colleagues around the country: "Watch out for similar bills coming to your state!"

Back in Washington, D.C., the Panama deal is likely to be the first on congressional lawmakers’ calendar. Corporate lobbyists are banking on that agreement to grease the skids for the similar (and similarly controversial) agreements with Korea and Colombia. That’s a good bet, because the Panama agreement’s proponents have friends in high places. 

Roll Call reported last December that House Speaker John Boehner and some colleagues traveled in a congressional delegation to Panama to explore free-trade prospects. A former aide to Boehner, Demetrio Papadimitriu, now works for Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. And of course, the Panama agreement would just be gravy for a historical partnership that has long allowed U.S. tax cheaters to exploit Panama as a personal financial fiefdom.

Agricultural lobby groups also seem to see Panama as a congressional bellwether. American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and National Pork Producers Council are all lobbying for the pact. Food trading giant Cargill claims the deal will support recovery and job growth. The company has about 61,000 U.S. workers and 131,000 employees worldwide. Within U.S. borders, it has fattened itself off of an industrial farming system that profits from rampant exploitation of immigrant labor. Appealing to fears of America’s declining position as an economic superpower, the company argues that if the U.S. doesn’t sweep in to control these markets, other countries will.

But whatever nation wins in the neocolonial land grab, multinational agribusinesses will come out on top. As we saw with the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico’s designated rural sector, big agriculture’s gain is the small indigenous farmer’s loss.

Other losers may include families in Seoul, who’ll find it a little harder to breathe thanks to a flood of imported U.S. gas guzzlers. And labor organizers in Colombia may feel again betrayed by the trade proposal’s failure to meaningfully address anti-union violence.

The word "global trade" evokes images of cars, toys, and container vessels zooming back and forth across oceans. But oddly enough, the corporations pushing free trade deals are keenly interested in markets that have little to do with what they actually produce. Perhaps the most stunning display of the disconnect between free-trade profiteering and productive international commerce is the way the current trade agreement framework frees Wall Street from regulation.

A group of more than 250 economists from around the world recently sent a letter to the Obama administration warning that U.S. trade deals have left developing countries vulnerable to investors who exploit and cripple overseas capital markets. The U.S. trade agreements, unlike those of other countries, prevent regulations that have proven to slow down the sudden flow of "hot money" into developing countries, a trend that causes artificial financial bubbles like the one that led to the global economic collapse. 

An opposing letter soon followed, signed by trade groups represented brands that dominate our society: Retail Industry Leaders Association (which lobbies for big box stores like Wal-Mart), the American Petroleum Institute (which despite the BP disaster is pushing for more drilling off U.S. coastlines), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which equates legal protections against union busting with the demise of constitutional democracy). They came together to oppose reforms that would keep financial moguls from plunging the world into another economic crisis.

The capital control issue is one obscure piece of the neoliberal trade puzzle, but it’s a telling example of how the concept of free trade has been perverted into a byword for any policy that extends corporate power–by subordinating labor, environmental and human rights to a high-stakes game of economic arbitrage, and trading campaign cash for a favorable floor vote.

While campaigning in 2008, many politicians, including the president, claimed they would make trade deals fairer. Now in office, those politicians’ opposition to the NAFTA model has dissipated. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s bill, the TRADE Act, is the only initiative to start a dialogue on a more equitable, pro-worker trade policy. But as the free trade pacts have been revived in Congress, alternatives like Brown’s have remained stuck in neutral.

"The TRADE Act is unlikely to pass this session–just as climate legislation or comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to pass. That doesn’t mean we stop fighting for it and organizing the base we need to eventually get these types of measures through," says Arthur Stamoulis of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. "Just as NAFTA-style trade agreements hurt working people on both sides of the border, comprehensive trade reform would help working people on both sides of the border."

On this side of the border, the workers who thought 2008 would shake up the Washington consensus on trade agreements are once again being served three raw deals, warmed over. That courtesy Colombian coffee break is a poor substitute for the political wake-up call that workers could really use right now.