Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate who’s rising most quickly in the polls, answered this question in September’s Democratic debate by calling for stronger protections for labor and the environment in U.S. trade agreements with other countries. Our research suggests this approach is popular with the U.S. public. Americans like free-trade deals, but they want the deals to come with protections.
U.S. trade deals usually have protections built in
Free-trade deals reduce tariffs and other barriers to trade, but also usually end up protecting certain constituencies. For example, developed countries’ governments often include labor and environmental provisions in trade deals, which promote core international standards on collective bargaining, child labor and endangered species. Recent trade deals between developed countries (the global North) and developing countries (the global South) have included labor and environmental standards that are just as legally binding and enforceable as the other parts within the deals. Both labor and environmental provisions have been effective in improving living standards in developing countries that trade with the United States and the European Union.
Including labor and environmental protections in trade deals boosts popular support for free trade
These are the kinds of protections Warren wants more of. So what does the public think? Our latest article in the Review of International Organizations looks at survey evidence on what people think in the United States and other developed countries.
Our key finding is that the public in those countries is more likely to support free trade agreements when those pacts protect the environment and labor. That’s true among those who dislike free trade, either because they believe it makes them economically insecure or because they believe free trade is unethical, as it erodes human rights and harms the planet. Low-skilled workers, who see their jobs moved into lower-wage countries, like these provisions because they think the protections level economic competition. Highly skilled workers also like them because they think the provisions are fairer and help improve conditions for workers and the environment worldwide.
This suggests that politicians such as Warren may be able to sell new trade deals to the public in nations grappling with populist policymaking and economic nationalism. For example, boosting and promoting such provisions might help generate support for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which awaits congressional ratification.
More generally, trade deals may well be more attractive to skeptics in the global North if linked to such social protections. What’s more, such measures have a relatively low cost, as they require no changes domestically and aim instead to raise the standards in the global South. Expect other politicians besides Warren to turn to them to get trade agreements through.
Evgeny Postnikov is a lecturer in international political economy at the University of Melbourne. His book “Social Standards in EU and US Trade Agreements” is forthcoming from Routledge.