THE BLOG

The Middle Class Needs Help -- Not a Fast Track to Trade Deals

05/19/2015 10:16 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016

They say timing is everything in life. Well, if that's true, the timing of this legislation to approve fast-track trade authority could not be worse for middle-class families.

The middle class is having a terribly hard time -- perhaps the worst time in modern history. In California, a new study just found that our state's lowest paid workers have seen their real wages decline 12 percent since 1979.

Our middle class needs help -- not a fast track to trade deals that could threaten their jobs, their wages, their health and the environment.

The last time Congress debated such sweeping trade legislation was nearly 25 years ago when we took up the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Now, as the Congress considers Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) legislation and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), I am hearing the same arguments all over again.

Back then, supporters of NAFTA promised it would create jobs, raise wages and help our entire economy. Well, we know from history how NAFTA turned out. In fact, we're still living with the consequences.

• Instead of the million new jobs that were promised, the United States had lost nearly 700,000 jobs by 2010. Out of those 700,000 lost jobs, 86,500 were from my home state of California.

• Instead of improving pay for our workers, NAFTA has pushed down American wages. It empowered employers in the U.S. to say to their workers, "Either accept lower wages and benefits, or we will move to Mexico."

• Instead of strengthening our economy, it increased our trade deficit with Mexico. Last year the deficit hit $50 billion.

• Instead of lifting up our entire country, it has devastated too many communities and too many workers, who have seen their jobs shipped across the border.

Take Santa Ana, California. The city had worked hard to keep a Mitsubishi plant that assembled big-screen televisions - securing tax credits to help the plant stay competitive. And even after NAFTA passed, company officials promised that the Santa Ana plant would stay open.

But three years later, Mitsubishi closed the plant. Company officials said they had to cut costs so they were moving their operation to Mexico. In an instant, nearly 400 good-paying American jobs were lost.

Today, we have about 12.3 million manufacturing jobs in this country. Just think what could happen to those jobs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- the largest trade deal in history, covering nearly 40 percent of the world's economy.

Of the 12 countries in the TPP, three have minimum wages that are higher than ours: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. But most of the countries have far lower wages -- including Chile with a minimum wage of $1.91, Peru with a minimum wage of $1.15, and Vietnam with a minimum wage of 58 cents. Brunei and Singapore do not even have minimum wages.

And as Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out in a new staff report, despite more than two decades of promises of tougher standards in our free trade agreements, the United States has repeatedly failed to adequately enforce key protections for workers' rights, the environment and human rights -- even as some of our trading partners continue to produce goods using forced labor and child labor.

I am also extremely concerned about a provision in the TPP that creates an entirely new legal framework that would allow corporations to sue if they don't like our national and state labor laws or environmental laws.

Here's how it works: If a big polluter fears its interests or its profits are at risk because of a law or regulation, it could use this separate legal system -- called Investor-State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS -- to sue for unlimited money damages. Just think of what this could mean for our country: Polluters could use it to try to undo state and federal rules to reduce dangerous carbon pollution or to protect our children and families from toxic chemicals.

How do we know this could happen? Because we've seen special interests do it in the past. We've seen corporations use these same provisions to challenge laws to stop the export of PCBs, to protect local water and air quality from the impacts of fracking, and to stop the contamination of communities from lead poisoning.

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has warned, the consequences could be disastrous. That's why he called this new agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, "a Trojan horse in a global race to the bottom, giving big corporations and Wall Street banks a way to eliminate any and all laws and regulations that get in the way of their profits."

The American people might have more confidence in this trade deal if they could actually read it. But they can't -- it's being kept secret. As a member of Congress, I was only allowed to look at it in a secure room in the Capitol. I couldn't bring in any electronics. If I took any notes, I'd have to leave them in the room. Why should people trust that this is a good deal when they can't even see it?

We should immediately put this fast-track legislation aside and take up legislation that will actually help the middle class.

We should increase the minimum wage and give 38 million Americans a raise. We should pass comprehensive immigration reform and bring workers out of the shadows. We should invest in a large-scale infrastructure program that will create millions of jobs. We should make college more affordable for our students. We should help women and families by ensuring equal pay for equal work. And we should create a level playing field for America's workers and businesses by fighting for currency fairness.

Let's put the middle class first. Let's protect worker's rights, public health and our environment. Let's do the right thing and defeat this fast-track legislation.