Franken takes the lead in Senate effort to sway Trans-Pacific trade negotiations


As negotiations on the latest U.S.-backed free-trade agreement resumed in Australia, U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota led a bipartisan appeal to President Obama, urging his administration to craft an deal that protects American jobs and workers’ rights worldwide. Franken, a DFLer, joined Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine in authoring a letter to Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade agreement currently encompassing 11 countries and reaching all corners of the Pacific Ocean.

The senators want Obama to ensure the new free-trade agreement is “crafted to maximize good job creation and market expansion while minimizing the incentives for further off-shoring of middle class jobs,” according to the letter.

Twenty-two other senators, including Minnesota DFLer Amy Klobuchar, signed onto the letter.

The senators voice specific concern in the letter about including enforceable protections for labor rights in the TPP – a provision that has been lacking in previous free-trade agreements entered into by the U.S.

“A country that denies these rights to workers is providing a hidden subsidy that keeps wages artificially lower than they otherwise would be if workers were free to organize and bargain – a subsidy that makes U.S.-based producers less cost-competitive,” the letter says. “The free exercise of fundamental labor rights is key to improving the standards of living and expanding export markets while labor suppression merely ensures that middle classes – and export markets – will be smaller than they otherwise would be.”

Congress has been mostly shut out of TPP negotiations, now in their 15th round. As a result, letters like Franken’s are as close as federal lawmakers can come to influencing the talks before the TPP lands in Congress for a ratification vote.

Josh Wise, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, which is closely monitoring TPP negotiations, equated the senators’ letter to the committee hearing that takes place before a bill reaches the Senate floor.

Wise praised Minnesota’s senators for taking a “strong stand for the rights of workers in Minnesota and around the globe.”

Countries currently engaged in TPP talks with the U.S. are Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei.

Although members of Congress – and the media – have been shut out of negotiations, a handful of multinational corporations like Cargill have been included in the talks – a big reason why it is critical for lawmakers like Franken and Klobuchar to speak out, Wise added.

“With countries such as Vietnam, which has been referred to as the ‘low cost labor alternative to China,’ being party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is vitally important that our elected officials do everything in their power to ensure that this massive free-trade deal does not repeat the results of NAFTA and create a race to the bottom for wages and working conditions,” Wise said.