Last week, two dozen House Democrats attended a classified briefing with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to seek reassurance on a core concern about the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership: What is the guarantee that countries like Vietnam will have to fully implement higher standards for the country’s workers as a condition for gaining the benefits of participating in the trade deal?
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan — the ranking Dem on the House Ways and Means Committee and a respected lawmaker on trade and labor issues — tells me he came away from that briefing less confident that the deal will impose meaningfully enforceable labor standards on Vietnam. He remains unpersuaded that Vietnam has agreed to the sort of changes, as a condition for participating in TPP, that Dems are hoping for.
“There’s been no commitment and nothing has been agreed to in terms of changes in their laws and practices,” Levin told me. “At this point Vietnam doesn’t begin to conform with basic international standards on worker rights. At this point, there are no commitments from Vietnam to take any steps…At this point, I have no confidence that it will be done before we vote.”
This goes to the crux of one the administration’s most important arguments in defense of the TPP. President Obama and administration officials — pushing back on those who fear that TPP will lead to more job loss — have argued that TPP will reverse some of the legacy of NAFTA, by including enforceable improvements in the labor standards of participating countries, which will then put their workers on a more even playing field in the global competition with American workers.
There are lingering questions, however, about how the TPP’s labor standards would work. How compliant would a country like Vietnam have to be with those standards before enjoying the benefits of participation in the TPP? And will enforcement of those standards work in practice down the road when, say, Vietnam is accused of violating them?
In fairness, Obama and his administration have repeatedly stressed that they will not accept any final deal that does not significantly improve on the status quo in terms of labor standards in participating countries. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez recently told me the details as to compliance requirements for countries like Vietnam are still being negotiated. And so, it’s possible this argument can’t really be settled until we see what the final deal contains.
But Rep. Levin and other Democrats are hoping to gain reassurance on these points before voting to give Obama Fast Track authority to negotiate the deal, which would require only an up or down majority vote on it later. While Congress could repeal Fast Track if the deal is not to Members’ liking, that would require 60 Senate votes, versus only 51 to approve the final deal, which Democrats worry in practice would tilt the field dramatically towards passage before the final deal is public. (In the House, not many Dems will ultimately back the deal, but every one could count, given that a number of Republicans may oppose it.)
After meeting with Froman, Levin says he is not reassured. While Members of Congress have had access to much of the TPP, Levin says they have not yet been shown the portions fortifying labor standards. Levin’s primary concern is whether they will meaningfully hew to International Labor Standards on freedom of association, collective bargaining, protections against child labor, and other safeguards for workers, particularly when it comes to Vietnam and Mexico, a concern that is now being raised by Elizabeth Warren.
“The administration likes to say that they are going to remedy NAFTA through TPP,” Levin says. “At this point, there’s no confidence that there will be a meaningful standard as to Vietnam or Mexico…We must not give up our leverage until they get it right. I’m in favor of a TPP. It needs to be a TPP that gets it right. My confidence went down after the Vietnam briefing.”
Along these lines, a key bit of historical context deserves a mention. One thing that irritates House Dems about administration officials’ push-back against them — that they are reflexively opposed to trade deals because of bad memories of NAFTA — is that many of those same Democrats were actually in the middle of the creation of another trade deal that did have enforceable labor standards: The 2007 free trade agreement with Peru. At the time, many pro-labor House Dems explicitly argued for this free trade deal on the grounds that it did take steps to rectify NAFTA’s lack of enforceable labor standards. So they aren’t unwilling to accept any free trade deals.
“House Democrats built the progressive foundation for trade agreements,” Levin says. “Now we want to make sure they are built upon, and not eroded. To say that we’re opposed to trade agreements — we’re the authors of the true free trade agreement.”
UPDATE: The President responded to concerns about the TPP’s labor standards in a recent speech, in which he said:
“It’s the highest-standard, most progressive trade deal in history. It’s got strong, enforceable provisions for workers, preventing things like child labor. It’s got strong, enforceable provisions on the environment, helping us to do things that haven’t been done before, to prevent wildlife trafficking, or deforestation, or dealing with our oceans. And these are enforceable in the agreement….
“So when you look at a country like Vietnam, under this agreement, Vietnam would actually, for the first time, have to raise its labor standards. It would have to set a minimum wage. It would have to pass safe workplace laws to protect its workers. It would even have to protect workers’ freedom to form unions — for the very first time. That would make a difference. That helps to level the playing field, and it would be good for the workers in Vietnam, even as it helps make sure that they’re not undercutting competition here in the United States.”