When Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the podium last week at the end of hours of debate over “fast track” trade legislation, looking uncharacteristically strained, she must have been feeling a degree of deja vu.
Nearly 22 years earlier, Pelosi had been in a similar predicament: The target of labor and environmental activists determined to turn her vote against the biggest trade deal of its time, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Greenpeace members set up a portable kitchen outside her office serving up waffles, amidst tape designating the area a “no-waffle zone.” During a town hall, self-proclaimed “Artists against NAFTA” handed out a poster depicting her on a fence with corporate interests offering her checks on one side, and small children on the other.
That time, the activists were out of luck. Pelosi decided to vote for the deal, earning her the temporary ire of labor unions. But during the fast track vote last week, after months of intense lobbying both by the White House and a broad coalition of groups opposing it, she came down strongly on the other side — striking a serious blow to President Obama’s legacy-building push to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 countries on the Pacific Rim, nicknamed “NAFTA on steroids” by those who sought to kill it.
The difference between success and failure by the anti-trade agreement camp tells us a lot about what’s changed in American politics and economics over two decades of trade liberalization.
To figure that out, it helps at first to realize just how much about the anti-NAFTA and the anti-TPP efforts looked alike.
The core coalitions had the same players: The AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, the National Farmers Union, and assorted religious and immigrant advocacy groups. In the early 1990s, union members and environmentalists had been horrified by the growth of the maquiladoras on the Mexican border -- factories in zones with with lax environmental and labor rules -- and argued NAFTA would allow them to operate on a much larger scale.
Then as now, the opponents put millions of dollars into radio, television, and newspaper ads opposing the deal. And unlike the business coalition supporting NAFTA, the anti-trade deal camp also had people confronting legislators in their districts to urge a “no” vote.
“This was not an inside the beltway deal,” remembers Mark Anderson, who directed the AFL-CIO’s Task Force on Trade during the NAFTA fight. “This was at the time the biggest, national grassroots campaign that labor had ever run to date on a public policy issue.”
Lots of the arguments were the same, as well. Although labor groups talked about the jobs that NAFTA would send south of the border, they argued that the main problem was the way in which the agreement changed investment rules to favor corporations over working people, weakening the leverage they had to both organize and negotiate with their employers. Unemployment was still elevated after spiking to 7.5 percent in 1992, and working people mapped their economic insecurity onto an agreement that they felt would make things worse.
The job loss argument “was true when you were the guy who lost your job,” says Anderson, who recently retired as a consultant after working for the AFL-CIO for 30 years. “But the systemic problem had more to do with wage suppression, one, and two, the inability of workers in the US to exercise their right to collectively bargain.”
The groundswell was so large that, days before the vote, press reports predicted that President Clinton wouldn’t have the votes to push the trade deal through. So, why did the anti-TPP effort succeed — probably — while the anti-NAFTA push failed?
First of all, it’s important to recognize a key procedural difference. In 1993, “fast track” authority had passed years earlier, so Congress would be voting to ratify NAFTA itself, and the text was open for review. The fact that the treaty itself was finalized and made public meant that legislators knew better how it would affect their districts. Since earmarks were still allowed, Republican leadership could hand out sweeteners to those who might face labor’s wrath if they voted against the accord. President Clinton, too, bargained members off the fence with side deals, like protection for certain crops, and even a North American Development Bank for one lawmaker from California.
This time around, Congress is voting on fast track at a time when the Trans-Pacific Partnership is all but done — which makes some lawmakers feel like they’re being asked to rubber stamp a deal when its details haven’t yet been made public. That keeps debate on an ideological level, rather than allowing for practical bargaining.
"This is the base of the Democratic party. And the Democrats that we targeted, that made the difference. They see what it means to have a movement.”
— CWA Chief Economist Kenneth Peres
In addition, arguing over fast track is different than arguing over a trade deal because conservatives object to ceding some authority to a Democratic president. That’s largely what has animated the present Tea Party opposition, which is stronger now than when Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan were leading it.
The overall political climate also plays a role. Although both sides during the two fights had polls to support their positions, today’s fast-track fight has played out against the backdrop of higher awareness of economic inequality, and some evidence that trade deals exacerbate it. An ascendant populist wing led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has emboldened Democrats to resist a president they’ve long supported.
And at the end of the day, the NAFTA fight didn’t have NAFTA itself as a bogeyman — previous trade deals, like with Israel and Canada, had been much more limited in their scope. "We weren’t fond of either of them, for the same philosophical reasons that exist today,” Anderson says. “But they didn’t, in our judgment, pose any severe economic threat.” (The environmental community is also much more united in its opposition to this deal, while it was severely divided over NAFTA.)
Of course, in the six weeks that the White House and Republican leadership now have to right their fast track ship, it’s possible that they’ll pull off a NAFTA-style reversal. But at the moment, it seems like the story will have a different ending.
And here’s the question that comes next: What will labor do with the momentum from its triumph? After the NAFTA defeat, unions went on to lose many things that they wanted, like health care reform and labor law changes that would ease organizing. In 2015 and 2016, labor has plenty on its wish list, including another package of labor law reforms, a robust infrastructure bill, and comprehensive immigration reform.
A trade win was more than just a win on trade — for the unions that pushed hardest, this year’s fast track fight was a dry run for collective efforts in the future.
“It has such a meta reach that this can unite an entire progressive movement, and that’s what we need. We need more working together, so we can build trust,” says Kenneth Peres, chief economist of the Communications Workers of America. "This is the base of the Democratic party. And the Democrats that we targeted, that made the difference. They see what it means to have a movement.”