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Labor Unions Remain Steadfastly Opposed To Trans-Pacific Trade Measure

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here in the U.S., we're tracking a divide in the Democratic Party. President Obama favors a trade deal with Pacific nations. Democratic-leaning labor unions are deeply skeptical, and, last week, House Democrats helped to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a key vote. If it's not revived, labor unions will have a major victory, and NPR's Jason Margolis reports on what that would mean for them.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: Thea Lee had a front-row seat to the trade negotiations on Capitol Hill. She's deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO. She opposes many of the provisions in the new trade deal, but she can't tell you exactly which.

THEA LEE: We are sworn to secrecy, so we can't talk about it - not to our colleagues, not to our members, not to the press - and so that's frustrating.

MARGOLIS: Are there some things you would like to say to me, for example, right now that you can't tell me?

LEE: There are a lot of things I'd like to. If I talk to you specifically about what I think the shortcomings of the labor chapter are, I could lose my security clearance. I don't know if I'd go to jail but...

MARGOLIS: So she's left talking in generalities like this.

LEE: These deals make it easier for multi-national corporations to move jobs overseas.

MARGOLIS: She, as well as other union leaders, point first and foremost to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. That took effect 21 years ago. Labor and employment policy researcher Roland Zullo at the University of Michigan says for organized labor, NAFTA's wounds still linger.

ROLAND ZULLO: Labor has enough of an institutional memory to know what happened with NAFTA. There was a theory behind NAFTA. There was a theory that by integrating Canada, U.S. and Mexico, there'd be sort of an overall net economic benefit.

MARGOLIS: But that didn't happen for American workers in sectors like manufacturing. Michigan auto workers, for example, lost more than 100,000 jobs in the years that followed NAFTA's passage, but it's not a clear case of cause and effect. This is the period when Japanese automakers were setting up shop in the U.S. and taking market share away from GM, Ford and Chrysler, and keep in mind, other industries and consumers did benefit from NAFTA. Matt Slaughter, the Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, says he understands labor's concerns about a new trade deal, but he adds labor faces a paradox in opposing the TPP.

MATT SLAUGHTER: And the paradox is a lot of the academic research in policy work shows companies and their workers that are connected to the dynamism and global economy, they tend to pay higher wages and create better jobs than do the purely domestic companies.

MARGOLIS: Slaughter says labor should stop trying to kill the new trade pact and instead push for a more robust 21st century social safety net for dislocated workers. That idea was torpedoed last week by House Democrats who ironically support the idea. It was a political maneuver to scuttle the entire bill. Slaughter also questions what kind of victory labor would gain by torpedoing the TPP. After all, the U.S. already has free trade agreements with a handful of countries in the TPP talks.

SLAUGHTER: Even for countries in the TPP negotiations with whom we don't have a free trade agreement already, we are already relatively open to those countries for bringing in imports of almost all of their goods and services.

MARGOLIS: Tim Waters, the national political director for the United Steel Workers, strongly disagrees with talk like this.

TIM WATERS: For us to just say, oh, well, it's inevitable; we shouldn't try to stop it; we shouldn't try to stand up; we should just try to get in there and cut some kind of deal that made it less sickening doesn't make any sense.

MARGOLIS: Waters adds that unions aren't anti-trade, they want fair trade. He says trade deals need to put the concerns of American workers first, and he says this new agreement yet again doesn't do that. Jason Margolis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 19, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
We've prematurely promoted Matt Slaughter to dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Slaughter is an associate dean until July 1, when his promotion actually takes effect.