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Labor Day Showdown: Can Activists Stop "NAFTA of the Pacific"?

On Monday, activists hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns.

This Labor Day, the Pacific Rim will wash into the Midwest’s flagship city, and activists will confront the tides of global commerce with a demand for global economic justice.

At trade talks in Chicago, the Obama administration will work with other officials to develop a trade agreement that will incorporate Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Peru. Labor, environmental and human rights groups will gather in the city to warn that the structure, and guiding ideology, of the emerging trade deal could expand a model of free-marketeering that has displaced masses of workers across the globe and granted multinationals unprecedented powers to flout national and international laws.

The provisions of the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement or Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are still under wraps. But the general outline seems to mimic the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and similar pacts that have brought political and economic turmoil to rich and poor countries alike. The new negotiations are also taking place amid political friction over pending trade deals with South Korea and Colombia, which have run into opposition over concerns about labor abuses abroad and offshoring of U.S. jobs. Yet the White House continues to push free trade as a path toward the country’s economic revitalization.

So on Monday, activists with Stand Up! Chicago and other groups hope to get ahead of political deal-making by demanding that any new trade deal give greater priority to environmental, labor, and health concerns. The ongoing trade talks offer a tiny opening for advocates to put forward ideas for making trade less hostile to ordinary people. In a way, they’re taking the Obama administration on its own word, because the TPP has been billed as a “21st century” trade pact that will presumably improve on previous trade agreements.

Of course, that could just be the tepidly liberal spin on a deal that is shaping up to be the “NAFTA of the Pacific,” as activists call it: a pact that coddles corporate interests like sweatshop manufacturers, pharmaceutical makers, and agribusinesses seeking to eliminate any barriers to profit.

Manuel Perez-Rocha, an analyst with the D.C.-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies, says that free trade deals tend to use “investment” and “growth” as a pretext for ruthless exploitation. The agreements “push wages lower and dislocate production with the ensuing loss of jobs,” says Perez-Rocha, adding that “the prospects for the TPP are very bleak and workers everywhere must resist it.”

Some Pacific Trade Partners seem to have no qualms about tying free markets with oppressive political systems. The Vietnamese government, for instance, has complemented U.S.-friendly development policies with measures to quash collective bargaining and independent labor organizing, along with general suppression of political dissent and organizing through Internet censorship, according to research by the International Trade Union Confederation.

The tiny, oil-rich regime of Brunei has faced wide criticism for failing to adhere to international labor rights conventions on unionization and non-discrimination, and for enabling the systematic abuse of foreign laborers, who fill many of Brunei’s lowest-paid low-skill jobs, like domestic work.

The very process of the trade negotiations, though, is structured to prevent basic issues, ranging from union rights to climate change, from even coming up for discussion. The Citizens Trade Campaign explains in its briefing on the TPP:

Executives from hundreds of corporations that have been named as official trade advisors have access to the texts and talks. Members of Congress, journalists and the people whose lives will be most affected, however, have no ability to see what our negotiators are bargaining for—and bargaining away—until a deal is done and it is effectively too late for changes.

What has so far come to public light from the negotiations doesn’t look promising. A recently leaked document on prospective intellectual-property provisions of the TPP suggested, to the outrage of health advocates, that the agreement could tighten patent restrictions and constrain access to critical HIV/AIDS medications in the Pacific region.

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