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BTL Q&A: Fighting Fast Track/Trade Promotion Bill

from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine
"Between The Lines"

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in major media
For release Oct. 22, 2001


Labor and Environmental Groups Fight
GOP-Sponsored Fast Track Trade Bill

* Labor leaders and others condemn the Republican attempt to link passage of Fast Track to the fight against terrorism.

Before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Bush administration's drive to pass the "Trade Promotion Authority" bill was in trouble. The legislation, formerly known as "Fast Track," would grant the president authority to negotiate future international trade deals with minimal debate in Congress and no chance for legislators to propose corrective amendments. But in the days following the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Bush administration trade representative Robert Zoellick renewed the fight on Fast Track by tying support for free trade with the fight against terrorism. Labor leaders, including AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumpka, condemned the attempt to link passage of Fast Track to patriotism.

Fast Track was defeated by a progressive coalition led by the AFL-CIO when president Clinton tried to win Congressional approval in 1997. Then, as now, a broad coalition of groups including family farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists have joined with labor to oppose Fast Track. If approved, the Fast Track process would enable the White House to expedite approval of the proposed hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas treaty or FTAA. FTAA, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been criticized for the lack of labor or environmental standards and the power it surrenders to corporations.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Thea Lee, chief international economist with the AFL-CIO, who discusses the campaign to defeat Fast Track trade legislation now being considered in the House of Representatives.

Thea Lee: Fast Track, or trade negotiating authority, is something Congress needs to grant to the president, because under our Constitution, Congress actually has the right to make trade policy. But for the last couple of decades, Congress has passed that over to the president, along with a set of negotiating objectives. The trade debate has really heated up over the last decade in the United States, and trade policy is more controversial than it's ever been. So this grant of trade negotiating authority has become very problematic and very difficult with Congress being unwilling to give over to the president the ability to bring back trade agreements for an up or down vote when so many important domestic policies might be affected. So, this vote is very important; I think Congress sees it that way and the president does too.

Between The Lines: Now, the House Republican leadership brought Fast Track into the thick of things right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and, I've heard it described that they've "wrapped the legislation in the flag," basically saying that Fast Track was part of the fight against terrorism and a patriotic duty. Can you describe some of your reaction and the reaction of the folks at the AFL-CIO to this strategy on the part of proponents of Fast Track?

Thea Lee: It's just unconscionable that the U.S. trade representative (Robert Zoellick) or Congressman Bill Thomas would somehow try to take advantage of the national tragedy in order to ram through a very divisive trade bill that's going to have a big impact on working people both in this country and around the world for many, many years to come.

They didn't have the votes to pass Fast Track before Sept. 11, and the idea that they would use this tragedy and use the so-called fight against terrorism or the need for economic stimulus to try to pass a Fast Track bill through at this point is actually maddening to a lot of Democrats and some Republicans as well and it may actually backfire on them. What we're seeing in the House of Representatives is that Democrats are so insulted by this tactic that they are not jumping on board with the Fast Track fight and so we're hoping that it will ultimately backfire and will end without the ability to move forward.

Between The Lines: Is there any truth at all that this Fast Track negotiating authority is in any way a part, an element in the fight against terrorism? How do they justify that statement?

Thea Lee: Well, it's absurd. In fact, I think the opposite is true. To the extent that Fast Track will facilitate more trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and extend that to the entire hemisphere (FTAA) and will facilitate , or make easier a new round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization -- these are policies that have actually been very bad for developing countries, certainly bad for working, poor people in developing countries. So we're not likely to gain a lot of supporters around the world in the fight against terrorism simply by ramming through more flawed trade policies that have the same problems as in the past.

In terms of the other argument they've made, which is that somehow Fast Track is necessary to get the world economy going again -- this is a ridiculous argument, absurd when you look at the United States. Here we are, we've been in a manufacturing recession for over a year now, we've lost over a million manufacturing jobs just in the last 14 months. The idea that what the U.S. economy needs right now is Fast T-rack authority so that we can have more NAFTAs, more negotiations with the WTO, and let our trade deficits -- the excess of imports over exports -- go through the roof with even more countries, I think is just ridiculous.

Between The Lines: Thea Lee, would you comment on some of the environmental and labor rights provisions in this latest Republican-sponsored Fast Track bill. Does this do anything to allay the fears of many in the labor and the global justice movement that Fast Track authority would sell out workers and the environment?

Thea Lee: No, the bill that 's under consideration now is HR 3005 introduced by Congressman Bill Thomas, a Republican from California. Even though this bill is being sold as some sort of bipartisan compromise on labor and environment, the truth is, it's not bipartisan, and it's not a compromise. There are a tiny handful of Democrats who were roped into working with Rep. Thomas on this and they were not a representative group and they certainly were not leaders in the Congress. In terms of the content of the bill, this bill has very little differences from all the Fast Track bills we've had in the past. It has more words about labor and environment than we've had in the past, but the outcome -- the actual results are going to be no different.

All this is, in the Thomas bill, is a negotiating objective. That is, all we're doing is asking our negotiators to go and ask for some very moderate and weak labor provisions, but there's nothing in the bill that would require the negotiators to actually succeed.

Contact the AFL-CIO by calling (202) 637-5000 or visit their Web site at

See related links and listen to an excerpt of this interview in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: for the week ending 10/26/01.


Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending Oct. 26, 2001.

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