Making Trade Work for Working Americans

04/30/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

Few decisions we make as a nation have as profound an impact on our economy, our wages, and our workers as international trade deals.

If you doubt it, just ask the paper workers I met last month who lost their jobs after subsidized Chinese competition forced many Oregon paper mills out of business, or any one of the displaced workers who filled the 5 million manufacturing jobs and more than 50,000 factories lost in the U.S. since 1998.

Trade legislation should make good jobs and rising living standards for American workers the priority. But too often they haven't, and the promised benefits haven't materialized. Since the Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement took effect three years ago, our trade deficit with South Korea has increased by 80 percent, to take the most recent example. Now Congress is being asked to grease the rails for a massive new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with no real evidence that things will be different.

It's time to do trade differently. We need major changes to the "fast-track" process and to future trade agreements if we're going to make trade work for working Americans.

First, since the proposed "fast-track" legislation is specifically designed to help pass TPP, the public should have a full month to see the details of this draft trade agreement before the Senate votes on fast track. Hundreds of powerful special interests have been given access to the details of this draft treaty. Shouldn't the public have the same right? As a nation founded to be of, by, and for the people, such secrecy in our public decision making is profoundly inappropriate, preventing the American people from giving their elected representatives feedback when it matters most.

Second, it is essential that any trade treaty contain provisions to address currency manipulation by our trading partners. When countries artificially manipulate currency exchange rates, it creates a subsidy for their exports and a tax on our products and services sold abroad.

For example, in recent years, Chinese currency manipulation produced the equivalent of a 25 percent tariff on U.S. products. Japan similarly has a history of manipulating its currency, as do a number of other Asian-Pacific countries.

We can negotiate reduced tariffs, but if our trading partners can simply replace those barriers with new ones borne of currency manipulation, America will still bleed jobs. Fast-track legislation should contain strong and enforceable provisions to ensure that our trade agreements put a stop to currency manipulation.

Next, the TPP would create tribunals that give foreign investors special rights to challenge our laws that even American companies don't have. These tribunals, run and staffed by corporate lawyers, would allow foreign companies to undermine laws that protect American consumers and keep workers safe.

Similar provisions in other trade agreements have been used by tobacco companies to challenge anti-smoking laws in Australia and anti-fracking laws in Canada. No trade agreement should be fast-tracked if it allows such attacks by foreign corporations on local, state, and federal laws.

Finally, we need a new approach to trade that prevents a race to the bottom. The incentive to move production to countries with low wages, little environmental protection, and poor working conditions is powerful.

Instead of accelerating that process, which undercuts American jobs and wages, trade deals should build in incentives for countries to implement and enforce meaningful minimum standards and improve them over time. Yet the fast-track bill asks only that our trading partners maintain the most basic standards, like barring involuntary servitude and child labor and allowing workers to form unions, but doesn't contain any provisions to actually raise wages or prevent a race to the bottom.

And good standards alone aren't enough. Without robust enforcement of labor and environmental standards, trade deals hurt instead of help American workers -- and too often, enforcement has not been a priority.

In recent years, for example, top administration officials have argued against enforcing currency manipulation and trade rules with China because of other geostrategic considerations in the region.

We will always have other geostrategic considerations to weigh. There appears to be no solution to this problem in either fast track or TPP. And U.S. workers lose jobs and wages when such provisions go unenforced.

Trade can have a massive impact on American workers, for better or for worse, depending on how the rules are written and how they're enforced. It's critical that we have the conversation now, before fast-tracking any trade deals, about what those rules need to be.

We need a global a race to the top that boosts American workers and creates good jobs, not a race to the bottom that will further erode jobs and living standards in the United States.

Let's learn the lessons of NAFTA and other deals that failed to deliver on their promise to American workers.

Let's end the era of trade deals that shutter our factories and ship our jobs overseas.

Let's ensure that we don't simply fast-track another trade deal with no assurances it will work for working Americans. Instead, let's seize this moment to make real, smart and meaningful changes to our trade policy.