Robert Kuttner, Co-founder and co-editor, 'The American Prospect'
The Real Meaning of Obama's Trade Defeat
THE LABOR movement won big in the defeat of the trade package Friday.
But a lot of the commentators are somewhat mystified.
After all, the labor movement is a smaller fraction of the workforce
than it was when NAFTA was approved over labor's opposition in 1993.
And the industrial workforce today is a much smaller percentage of the
total. How could this have happened?
Noam Scheiber, writing (an excellent piece) in the New York Times
quotes a puzzled John Murphy, senior vice president of the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, which suffered a big loss when the trade deal
went down. Murphy wondered why service sector unions were part of the
opposition. "None of these workers are in any way negatively affected
by competition with imports," said he. "Yet SEIU will be there,
Well, he was right about the solidarity. But if inside players and
media commentators are a little confused about the deeper dynamics of
failed deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the surprising
strength of the labor movement, consider this:
The TPP was never primarily a trade deal. The Administration marketed
it as a trade deal; and for the most part, the press bought the
The Washington Post editorial page, which has long repeated the
official line about trade, explaining the tactical vote by Democrats
against Trade Adjustment Assistance,opined: "Apparently opponents
despise free trade even more than they like helping its purported
Obviously, if this was about free trade, and industrial workers get
hurt by low-wage imports, it logically follows that the labor movement
opposes "free trade" in its role as a narrow interest group. And if
the Democrats in Congress deserted their president, it must because
they got strong-armed by union bosses.
As Politico wrote, "Labor won. It wrote letters. It froze donations.
It rallied in the districts of undecideds. It did everything in its
power to thwart the trade agenda of a White House with which it's
Yes, Labor went all out. Except, that's not quite the whole story.
The proposed TPP was the latest in a series of deals that are mostly
about the use of "trade" agreements to allow corporations to do end
runs around national regulation. This is basically special interest
legislation for elites. TPP, like NAFTA, included measures, such as
sweetheart patent deals, that never could have won passage as separate
legislation. The real interest group here is the corporate elite.
TPP is part of a broad ideology and set of ploys that reflects
corporate dominance of the agenda. Public employees, such as those
represented by SEIU, care about this, not just out of solidarity
(though that's important), but because "trade" deals have been used to
promote privatization schemes and weaken financial regulation and
create corporate hegemony sponsored by presidents from both parties.
TPP is emblematic of the political domination by the one percent.
The labor movement is not motivated just by the loss of factory jobs
but by the entire ideological assault on the security of ordinary wage
earners and consumers. The picture of labor as a narrow interest group
makes sense only if you buy the propaganda that TPP is mainly a trade
The unions were in high gear on trade -- but it's preposterous to
think that the labor movement could browbeat a majority of House
Democrats if most Democrats in Congress were not already sick of being
strong-armed by corporate elites and Democratic presidents in thrall
The real story here is a deep and principled split between the
Congressional wing of the Democratic Party, most of whose members are
still fairly progressive, and a presidential wing that has been in bed
with Wall Street at least since Bill Clinton and Bob Rubin (who among
his many other roles is the mentor and patron of Obama's top trade
official, Mike Froman.)
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, for one, has loyally backed
President Obama despite White House missteps on financial reform,
Medicare, and a disastrous embrace of austerity economics via the 2010
Bowles Simpson Commission (at the expense of a second stimulus package
pushed by Pelosi that the White House sabotaged.)
Going against the wishes of her closest allies, Pelosi gamely tried to
bridge differences between Obama and the Democratic Caucus on the
trade deal, until it was clear that the differences were just not
bridgeable. Only then did she side with a large majority of her
The unions only "made" most House Democrats do what they were itching
to do anyway. And God bless the unions for providing a David-and
Goliath counterweight to a far more potent corporate elite.
There is a slight chance that the White House may yet cut some kind of
a deal with the Republicans -- the main Congressional supporters of
special interest corporate deals disguised as free trade. But as much
as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may want the TPP to pass, the
Republicans are thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of Obama brought low
by members of his own party.
It's about time that the Democratic rank and file rebelled against the
corporate domination of the Democratic presidential party. Last week's
events should ring down the curtain on the era of "trade" deals like
NAFTA and TPP.
It's fine for Republicans and their corporate allies to promote this
stuff. We expect it of them. But the 99 percent deserve a party of our
own. If a Democratic White House doesn't get that, this steamrolling
is well-deserved. Maybe now we can have a debate in which we discuss
how globalization might be used to raise social standards rather than
do favors for elites.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting
professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is
Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.