Nov 1 1997

‘Fast Track’ 1, Democracy 0

Trade policy isn't open for debate, say editorialists

The nation’s newspapers are incensed at the idea that President Bill Clinton might not get “fast track” authority to negotiate trade pacts that Congress can only approve or disapprove, but not amend.

Pointing to negative effects of NAFTA, a wide range of critics want future pacts to integrate protections for workers and the environment, and see fast track as an attempt to do an end-run around the political process. In editorial after heated editorial, virtually every major paper in the country denounced such critics and their concerns as “protectionist” (New York Times, 9/8/97), an “obstruction” (Baltimore Sun, 2/3/97), “silly” (Atlanta Journal & Constitution, 3/4/97) and “hypocritical” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 9/13/97). Their vehemence left one to wonder whether it was the substance of critics’ ideas that offended, or the very notion of public debate on an issue as crucial to corporate America as “free trade.”

“Grant Fast Track Authority Fast,” demanded the Chicago Tribune on August 26, 1997–the paper’s third such call in as many months (7/17/97, 6/2/97). The Washington Post (4/27/97, 9/12/97), New York Times (9/8/97), USA Today (5/6/97, 9/11/97), L.A. Times (2/28/97, 9/10/97) and Boston Globe (9/11/97) all came out in favor of what yet another booster, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (9/22/97), hailed as “The ‘Fast Track’ to Prosperity” (9/22/97).

Most striking about these editorials is their sameness: Expanding trade agreements will “keep the U.S. economy, jobs and stocks on the fast track” (USA Today, 9/11/97); “means more jobs” (L.A. Times, 2/28/97); “promises Americans new jobs and higher incomes” (Long Island Newsday, 3/6/97); “means jobs and opportunity” (Chicago Tribune, 8/26/97); “means lower prices . . . and the creation of more jobs.” (Houston Chronicle, 5/22/97)

Opponents are “Democratic factions fearful of trade” (USA Today, 9/11/97); are driven less by “altruism than a desire to force up foreign companies’ costs” (Sacramento Bee, 9/15/97) or have “hopes to kill the prospect of a hemispheric free-trade agreement . . . thus ensuring a protectionist market.” (Houston Chronicle, 5/22/97)

Finally, fast track itself is an “essential tool” (Chicago Tribune, 8/26/97), or gives the president “essential flexibility” (Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 7/15/97). Congress should grant it “quickly” (Houston Chronicle, 5/22/97), “as soon as possible,” (Newsday, 3/6/97, Atlanta Journal & Constitution 9/22/97)–“the sooner the better.” (Chicago Tribune, 2/11/97)

These cookie-cutter lectures don’t argue the merits of expanding the current trade system so much as simply assert them. That hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs have been lost to import competition under NAFTA, that the threat of factory relocation holds down wages for thousands more, that Mexican employment and wages have plummeted, are details unworthy of note for the country’s editorialists, who appear to find no claim too grandiose: “Free trade across the hemisphere can– and should–result in greater prosperity for all, North and South,” offered Long Island’s Newsday (3/6/97), but was topped by the Minneapolis Star Tribune (9/13/97), which contended: “Free trade makes poor countries richer, makes rich countries more efficient, and accelerates the creation of wealth, benefiting everyone.”

“Ignore labor demands”

As for the specific complaints of worker advocates and citizens groups, some newspapers are adamant. “Couched in noble sentiments about poor treatment of workers in other countries or abuse of the environment,” warned the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (9/22/97), such concerns are “really just labor-union protectionism.”

“The United States can work in countless venues for better worldwide labor conditions or for a cleaner environment,” the paper argued, without actually citing any such venues, but “trying to inject those issues into trade agreements is nothing more than an attempt to sabotage them.” Needless to say, Clinton should reject such “undermining efforts.”

The Houston Chronicle agreed (5/22/97). “Issues about workers’ rights and environmental safeguards have their place,” they sniffed, in an editorial headlined, “To Get Fast Track, Clinton Should Ignore Labor Demands.” “But they should not be used to stall free-trade negotiations, even with countries that are less concerned about the welfare of their workers or the environment.”

Other outlets eschewed the direct attack on critics’ motives in favor of the contention that labor’s concerns about fast track should be ignored in the interest of, well, labor’s concerns. Representing this approach was the Washington Post (9/12/97): “Many overseas workers are exploited, it’s true,” the editorial admitted. But the solution is not to challenge, but to expand pacts like NAFTA, since “economies that are open to trade and foreign investment grow more quickly and lift their populations out of poverty more quickly than economies that are closed.”

It’s a real stretch to say that excluding labor and environmental issues from trade negotiations is the best way to ensure attention to labor and environmental concerns. To make it more plausible, media must depict those who have any quarrel with fast track as wanting to “shut down” global trade completely, placing them not just on the wrong side of the debate, but of history.

In fact, labor and citizen advocates acknowledge that ever wider trade pacts will likely be negotiated; that, they say, is precisely why it matters who is at the table when decisions are made. Critics also note what papers ignore: that while pacts like GATT leave out worker rights, they contain extensive protections for property rights.

Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach (press release, 10/8/97) adds that what are termed “trade” pacts today “cover issues from food safety to the size of trucks to how local tax dollars can be used.” Given that such agreements “now rewrite wide swaths of domestic law, their approval process must maintain a meaningful role for Congress.”

Their obvious contempt for unions and environmentalists aside, there is something frankly eerie in the establishment media’s demand that “congressional dithering” (USA Today, 9/11/97)–what the Chicago Tribune called “the threat of second guessing” (2/11/97)–on no account be allowed to impede free trade’s onward march. The not-so-subtle message is that an open debate over trade would be an inappropriate intrusion of “political” concerns in what should be an “economic” decision. “Test of leadership”

The cynicism in mainstream dailies’ treatment of fast track is not limited to its explicit anti-democratic tone. While they refer to trade policy’s far reaching effect, newspapers also tend to stress the “congressional issue” angle above all. Whatever trade policies may mean for millions of displaced workers, it’s all really a “test of leadership” for Rep. Dick Gephardt (Washington Post, 4/27/97), a chance for Clinton to seek “credit in history books as the leader who jump-started hemispheric trade” (Christian Science Monitor, 8/29/97), or proof that Vice President Al Gore is “only too happy to woo the union vote by playing the anti-NAFTA card.” (Chicago Tribune, 6/2/97)

But the press corps’ search for ulterior motives doesn’t extend to examining certain sources of influence on the debate. Alternative press outlets (e.g., National News Reporter, 9/97) reported on the Business Roundtable’s pro-fast track fundraising efforts, which aim to raise a minimum of $3 million from corporate C.E.O.s “to insure that the voice of the business community is heard.”

Big business’ huge behind-the-scenes effort didn’t interest a press corps purportedly fascinated by the influence of money on politics. One account (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/22/97) dismissed the whole affair in the statement that “while pro-trade groups promise a major ad campaign, labor is running one, too.”

And only the New York-based Journal of Commerce (9/15/97) reported on the sudden generosity of NAFTA’s North American Development Bank–which funds worker dislocation, environmental and other development projects to mitigate free trade’s fallout–apparently synchronized to the PR push for fast track.

Delusions of job loss

When the general public managed to get a mention in editorial paeans to free trade, it was in the occasional acknowledgment of polls showing them opposed to both NAFTA and its extension, and references to the “perception among many Americans that NAFTA . . . is not working to U.S. benefit.” (L.A. Times, 2/28/96) These people, we are told (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 9/22/97), are inexplicably benighted, “wrongly believing free trade costs jobs.” The Washington Post (9/14/97) wrote dismissively of fast-track critic Gephardt for having “cast his lot with those who think they are being victimized by the multinational corporations that shift jobs to low-wage countries.”

The shift of jobs to low-wage countries, of course, is not a delusion; it is a reality measured by the soaring trade deficit that the U.S. faces with Mexico, up to $16 billion a year since NAFTA’s signing. Also real are the downward pressure on U.S. workers’ wages and benefits, and the country’s deepening income inequality. But rather than investigating and explaining the actual effect that trade has on workers’ lives, the nation’s papers rally to say: Don’t try to understand, just get out of the way.

Labor Media Watch is a joint project of FAIR and the Labor Resource Center at Queens College.