A Corporate Coup of a Different Order: The Growing Resistance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Transparency was supposed to be a White House priority from the very start. In his first inaugural address, when the world celebrated an historic and improbable election, Barack Obama made the case for how an open government was necessary to earn the trust of the people.[1] The next day, he issued a memo that asserted his commitment to creating an “unprecedented level of openness.”[2] And in February, more than four years later, President Obama claimed his to be “the most transparent administration in history.”[3]

Perhaps the least publicized example of that statement’s dishonesty is the White House’s efforts to negotiate the biggest trade agreement since the mid 1990s in near-total secrecy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, has been in negotiations since 2007. In November 2009 the Obama administration made it a centerpiece of the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) work.[4] The 12 countries currently negotiating the deal, which include Australia, Chile, Japan, and Singapore, account for nearly 40% of the global economy and one-third of international trade.[5] Yet to characterize the TPP as a trade deal is imprecise, if not disingenuous. The agreement has less to do with the exchange of goods than with altering regulations covering medicine, agriculture, finance, intellectual property, and labor and environmental standards. For example, under the TPP, if a U.S. law conflicted with the pact’s mandates, foreign investors could sue through an independent tribunal to re-coup their so-called “expected future profits.” The TPP stands as a threat to sovereignty at the federal, state and local level.

Prying at the Text

Despite its claims to the contrary, the Obama administration has been far less transparent on trade-related deals than its predecessors. In 2001, during negotiations over the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), George W. Bush’s trade representative made the deal’s working text public, with some redactions so as to preserve anonymity. The current administration has so far refused demands to release the text. What little is known about the deal is based on the generalized testimony of those who have seen the text and on portions that have been anonymously leaked.

Frustration and outrage have been building. In March of this year, 400 civil society groups, including the Sierra Club and Global Exchange, signed a letter deploring the administration’s secrecy and demanding a public debate around the deal.[6] Even members of Congress have been denied access to the text, and those who have seen parts of it have been unable to share it with their assistants because of its classified status. In June, two-thirds of Democratic freshmen in the House of Representatives signed a letter to party leadership about the lack of debate.[7] Shortly thereafter, in response to a wave of citizen comments, the USTR gave Representative Alan Grayson access to the TPP’s text. In an email to supporters, he wrote that the TPP “hands the sovereignty of our country over to corporate interests.”[8]

Around the same time, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote a letter to then-nominee for Trade Representative Michael Froman, challenging the rationale for keeping the agreement private. “If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States,” Warren wrote.[9] Less than a week later, Warren voted against Froman’s confirmation.

A Boon for Workers?

In the absence of public debate, the administration has sought to drum up political support for the TPP by making grand projections for economic growth and job creation. American labor groups have apparently not been impressed. At the AFL-CIO’s 2013 convention, held September 8th to 11th, the nation’s largest labor federation reached a resolution that, in a nod to the Occupy movement, read, “So long as the TPP appears poised to promote the rights of the 1%—rather than shared gains from trade—we, along with our international labor movement and civil society partners, will oppose its adoption and implementation.”[10] On September 10 the Center for Economic and Policy Research published an analysis that found the overall economic gains from the deal would be negligible, while only the highest-paid workers would gain if it became law.[11]

Given that the TPP follows in the model of previous treaties such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and various bilateral trade pacts, its projected effects on employment and inequality are unsurprising. President Clinton, who championed the model of corporate globalization, had famously promised that NAFTA would bring 200,000 new high-wage jobs to the U.S. What actually happened was the opposite. The year before NAFTA was signed, the U.S. trade balance with Mexico was a $1.6 billion surplus. In 2011, it had become a $64.5 billion deficit, representing hundreds of thousands of lost jobs.

More recently, in October 2011, President Obama signed bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. The administration’s main promotional pitch was, again, the promise of jobs. According to the White House, the deal with Korea would support 70,000 jobs in the U.S. and boost economic growth by $11 billion.[12] Yet after just one year, the Economic Policy Institute found that the U.S. trade deficit with Korea increased by nearly $6 billion, representing a net loss of more than 40,000 U.S. jobs, many of them in manufacturing.

Resisting a Threat

If the TPP only concerned trade—imports tariffs and exports quotas, for example—perhaps citizens and elected officials would not be so alarmed by the lack of transparency. But as Sharon Treat, a member of Maine’s House of Representatives, explains to Toward Freedom, “These agreements cover soup to nuts: you’re talking about everything from financial regulations to environmental regulations to labor policies to, well, everything.” Treat is a member of one of 28 committees that are granted access to portions of the TPP’s negotiating text, ostensibly as a way for officials to receive public input; however, the vast majority of those who sit on the committees, more than 600 individuals, are corporate executives and lobbyists.[13] She went on, saying, “I know more about this sort of thing than the average person, yet I’ve been taken aback by some of what I’ve learned in terms of how these agreements reach into everything and could potentially overturn many of the laws and regulations that protect public health and the environment.”

On Saturday, September 21nd, while TPP negotiators were wrapping up meetings in Washington D.C., people from environmental and social justice groups including Veterans for Peace, CODEPINK, and Earth First! were busy planning demonstrations against the deal. Two days later, protesters successfully scaled the Office of the USTR and dropped a series of yellow banners that read, in red and black text, “Transparency: Release the Text” and “Corporate Coup against the People and the Planet.” The next day, activists formed a train they called a “Fast Track Express” which they rode through the streets of the capital, ending at the Chamber of Congress. Their aim was to bring attention to Obama’s request to have Congress grant him Trade Promotion Authority, more commonly referred to as “fast track.” This provision would allow White House negotiators to agree to a deal before presenting it to Congress, which would then hold an up or down vote, without the opportunity to alter or substantively debate the agreement.

Bill Moyer, a musician and activist who leads the Washington state-based Backbone Campaign and who helped organize the actions as part of a campaign called Flush the TPP, explains: “If the progressive story is one of expanding a sense of rights and dignity and stewardship, this is the direct threat to that.” He also recognizes the difficulty of organizing against something that is not only incredibly secretive, but also convoluted and dry. “I think people are disempowered by a culture that makes them feel like they have to be an expert before they have the authority to say anything,” Moyer says. “It’s really important that we get to the underlying values of the issue. I think social movements are built around the things we love, the things we can connect to on an intimate basis.”

According to one organizer of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s two-year anniversary actions, it was relatively easy to agree to focus on the TPP and the economic model it embodies. “The TPP has been described as the anti-Occupy bill,” says Adam Weissman, a member of the Occupy Wall Street Trade Justice working group. “If you can find an issue that Occupy is working on, the TPP is going to undermine that work. It really is a 1% power grab,” Weissman adds.

Actions on September 17th included a rally in Washington Square Park, a street theater performance in Times Square, and a march through the financial district. Reflecting on the events, Weissman says that, on the day that also marked the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, “it seemed entirely appropriate to stand on the steps of Federal Hall, the birthplace of the Bill of Rights, directly across the street form the Stock Exchange, and talk about how we want to defend the Constitution.”

As the Obama administration ramps up its negotiations and its pursuit of “fast-track” authority, opposition from lawmakers and activists has similarly escalated. Representative Treat, whose state legislature this year unanimously passed a joint resolution opposing “fast-track,” sees potential for a broad coalition to challenge the TPP. “One of the things about this issue that has been kind of remarkable is that it is completely bipartisan,” she says. One group involved in planning the actions in Washington points to 14 trade agreements that have been stopped in past years due to public pressure, including the FTAA and the U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement.[14] Moyer offers his own rationale for resisting the TPP: “The illusion of inevitability is a weapon of our opponent. When our opponent says we’re almost done, this is a done deal—that’s bullshit. Now is the time to engage.”

To learn more about the TPP and how to take action, visit Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, the Citizens Trade Campaign, and the Backbone Campaign.

Arthur Phillips is a writer and researcher based in New York.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/politics/20text-obama.html?pagewanted=all

[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/TransparencyandOpenGovernment

[3] http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/283335-obama-this-is-the-most-transparent-administration-in-history

[4] http://www.ustr.gov/about-us/press-office/fact-sheets/2009/december/tpp-statements-and-actions-date

[5] http://www.ustr.gov/about-us/press-office/press-releases/2013/april/joint-statement-tpp-ministers

[6] http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/CivilSocietyLetteronFastTrackandTPP_030413.pdf

[7] http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/blog/2013/06/11/democratic-revolt-against-tpp-and-fast-track/

[8] http://alangraysonemails.tumblr.com/post/53325968066/i-saw-the-secret-trade-deal

[9] http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/EWFromanLetter.pdf

[10] http://www.aflcio.org/About/Exec-Council/Conventions/2013/Resolutions-and-Amendments/Resolution-12-America-and-the-World-Need-a-New-Approach-to-Trade-and-Globalization

[11] http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/net-effect-of-the-tpp-on-us-wages

[12] http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/10/21/president-obama-signs-historic-legislation-signaling-progress-trade-and-jobs

[13] http://www.ustr.gov/about-us/intergovernmental-affairs/advisory-committees

[14] http://www.flushthetpp.org/list-of-trade-agreements-that-have-been-stopped/