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Protests target trade pact talks

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A Labor Day rally [2] will kick off a week of action targetting negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement that critics fear will favor sweatshop manufacturers, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies at the expense of workers, farmers and consumers.

It’s yet another area where President Obama’s progressive supporters find themselves at odds with his administration’s policies, and it comes days before a major address on jobs in which the president may push for action on free trade deals.

Labor, environmental, community and health groups will rally Monday, September 5, at 11 a.m. in Grant Park at Columbus and Congress and march to the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, where talks start Tuesday.

The rally will “demand a fair deal — one that stops corporations from reaping big bucks by sending good manufacturing and service jobs overseas [and] depressing wages and benefits in Chicago and around the country,” according to Stand Up Chicago [3], a local labor-community coalition.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who recently announced [4] that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is becoming entirely fair-trade-sourced, will speak – and provide free ice cream.

Trade officials from eight countries – and hundreds of corporate executives involved as “official trade advisers” – will participate in ten days of talks at the Chicago Hilton, 720 S. Michigan, starting September 6.

As talks start Tuesday, Ben and Jerry will join fair trade advocates (11 a.m. outside the Hilton) delivering 10,000 postcards [5] to negotiators calling for protection of labor, environmental, and human rights standards. (See below for more activities.)

Exporting jobs

While President Obama is expected [6] to push a set of free trade deals as a “bipartisan solution” to the jobs crisis, a spokesperson for Stand Up Chicago argued that the U.S. trade deficit has steadily increased under the WTO and NAFTA-style agreements.

In Illinois, NAFTA resulted in a net loss of 35,000 jobs, many of them manufacturing jobs, with a particularly strong multiplier effect on local economies, according to the Citizens Trade Campaign [7].

Illinois has lost over 100,000 jobs as a result of China’s admission to the WTO, according to CTC.

The group points out that since individual trade agreements already exist with the Trans-Pacific nations that have significant consumer markets, the main impact of the current treaty will not be increased U.S. exports, but more jobs shifted to extremely low-wage countries.

In addition, the treaty is designed as a “docking agreement” so other countries can join later – possibly including Japan, India, and perhaps most threatening from a jobs perspective, China.

The rhetoric of “investment” and “growth” masks an agenda of “ruthless exploitation,” writes Michelle Chen in Colorlines [8].

Human rights and investor rights

Fair trade advocates argue that several of the participating nations have well-documented records of labor and human rights violations.  According to CTC, those nations are strongly opposed to including enforcement provisions in the treaty.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama criticized “investor-state” provisions that allow corporations to bypass domestic courts to challenge national laws and regulations as infringements on trade.  CTC reports that the administration is now “fully committed” to such provisions.  Such mechanisms have been used to challenge environmental and consumer safety rules.

Obama has “reversed his earlier commitments” and is currently pushing free trade agreements that feature “prohibitions on financial sector regulation and capital controls, foreign investment incentives that encourage off-shoring, separate legal regimes in which corporations can sue governments in specialized tribunals, weak environmental standards, vague and toothless labor standards, and intellectual property rules that monopolize knowledge needed for the public good,” according to the Institute for Policy Studies [9].

Civic groups have called for release of treaty drafts, noting that once finalized, they’re extremely hard to amend.  Currently multinational corporations are privy to the deal-making, but the press, public, and even members of Congress are in the dark.

Further actions:

On Wednesday, September 7, at 11:30 a.m., AIDS activists led by Health Global Access Project [10] plan a direct action at Van Buren and State to protest treaty provisions recently leaked [11] that would increase patent protection for pharmaceutical companies and raise the price of medications to prevent and treat AIDS/HIV.

On Thursday, September 8, at 6 p.m., AFL-CIO trade policy specialist Celeste Drake joins other experts in a teach-in at Roosevelt University [12], 430 S. Michigan.  Among the topics: how free trade agreements put the global economy at risk by deregulating the financial industry [13].

On Saturday, September 10, at 12:30 p.m., activists from Stand Up Chicago will picket outside the Hilton.