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As Trans-Pacific Partnership Falters, Opponents Go After Fence-Sitting Pols

A trade deal likely to harm environmental and labor protections may be losing momentum. But it's not dead yet.

DelBene provisional citation. Photo by Jeff Dunnicliff / Backbone campaign.

Linda Newton, Vandana Whitney, and Eiya Wolfe (l to r) deliver a "spineless citation" to the staff of House Democrat Suzan DelBene, who has not taken a public position on fast-track legislation for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Photo by Jeff Dunnicliff / Backbone Campaign.

Eric Ross spent much of the morning on Friday, January 31 standing on an overpass above Interstate 90 in Bellevue, Wash., holding a 30-foot-wide banner that read: "Stop Reichert's NAFTA. Flush the TPP. Vote No on Fast Track."

The "Reichert" called out in Ross' sign is Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Wash., and at issue is his active support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling deal that would change the way international trade is conducted in 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam, Peru, Australia, and Japan.

Overpass TPP banner. Photo by Backbone Campaign.

Volunteers with the Backbone Campaign hold a banner urging opposition to the TPP over Insterstate 90 in Bellevue, Wash. Photo by Jeff Dunnicliff / Backbone Campaign.

As opponents of the TPP frequently point out, the deal isn't just about trade: leaked sections of the text, which is not available to the public, reveal that the TPP would also lead to significant changes to policy areas such as intellectual property rights (especially on the Internet), the creation and enforcement of environmental protections, and the labeling and marketing of agricultural products.

Opponents of the deal say that the TPP would roll back the gains of almost every people's movement, especially those concerned with labor and the environment.

Ross says he received wide support for his banner, judging by the number of honks he heard from the vehicles passing beneath. An organizer with the Vashon Island-based organization Backbone Campaign, he says that illustrates that the work he and others have done to educate the public about the TPP over the past few years is starting to pay off.

"For the past 18 months, it was negotiated with essentially no media coverage, and activists had to teach their own representatives what the TPP was," Ross said. "But it isn't as secret as it used to be."

All eyes on fast track

On Friday, that secrecy took another hit as opponents gathered in more than 50 cities across North America in a noisy, colorful, continent-wide day of rallies, marches, and teach-ins. Events were held in New York, Toronto, and Mexico City, but smaller towns turned out as well. People marched and rallied in Red Deer, Alberta, held a press conference in Fresno, Calif., and protested in the downtown office of Republican Congressman Charlie Dent in Allentown, Pa.

Ross said he saw Friday's gathering in Seattle as more of a celebration than a protest.

The Allentown rally was intended to put pressure on Mr. Dent not to support Trade Promotion Authority. Also known as "fast track," this is special legislation that would allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership to move more quickly through the United States legislature. Lawmakers would get to vote yes or no on the deal, once it is approved by the trade representatives of the 12 negotiating countries, but would  be prevented from altering any of its specificities.

Critics of fast-track say that it harms democracy by putting unelected trade negotiators and corporate advisers in charge of trade policy, while specifically excluding input from elected representatives. Some call it unconstitutional, since the United States Constitution grants only Congress the right to make trade agreements.

Events on Friday showed a new focus on demanding that elected representatives commit to opposing fast-track legislation. The march and rally in San Francisco, for example, criticized California Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who has refused to state her position on the fast-track bill since it was introduced by Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., on Jan. 9.

In Washington state, volunteers with the Backbone Campaign entered the offices of  U.S. Representative Dave Reichert, a Republican who actively supports fast track through the "Friends of the TPP" caucus, and issued him a "spineless citation." Democrats Suzan DelBene, Dennis Heck, Derek Kilmer, and Rick Larsen also received "spineless citations" for taking no position on the issue, while fellow House Democrat Jim McDermott received a thank-you letter (with an illustration of a spine, of course). McDermott has pledged to oppose fast track.

Their positions matter because the TPP would almost certainly be approved if Senator Baucus' fast-track bill passes, Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer for the Washington State Labor Council, told the crowd gathered in Seattle on Friday.

"No trade deal has ever been defeated once it got to fast track," she said.

Cause for celebration

Eric Ross told YES! that he saw Friday's gathering in Seattle's Westlake Center as more of a celebration than a protest because, after years of hard work, the TPP’s momentum appears to be breaking down.

This vibrant movement seems likely to build on the victories it's already earned.

Two major chapters of the document's text were published by Wikileaks in December and January, resulting in renewed and largely critical media coverage of the deal.

Next, right on the heels of the second leak, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters on Jan. 29 that he opposes fast-track legislation and might refuse to bring the bill to a vote.

That led writer David Cay Johnston to wonder whether fast track was now "dead:" "If Reid stands firm," he wrote in Al Jazeera, "it means new trade deals are likely to be worked out in the open, where the people and their elected politicians can debate the merits."

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The TPP is also suffering from problems internal to its negotiations, which failed to meet the December 2013 deadline set for them by President Barack Obama. Talks in Singapore last December were bogged down over disputes about protections for agricultural products, among other issues, and no final agreement emerged.

In the wake of that failure, Japanese Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Akira Amari told reporters that negotiators should meet again this month.

"The upcoming meeting is very important," Amari said, "as it will be held before U.S. midterm congressional elections in November."

Amari's statements indicate that Japanese negotiators will push for a deal to be hammered out before stateside electioneering begins in the summer.

For opponents of the TPP, that means that the time to act is now. If Friday's events were any indication, this vibrant movement seems likely to build on the victories it's already earned.

Democracy and corporatocracy. Photo by Alex Garland.

Eiya Wolfe holds a sign at Seattle's rally against the TPP at Westlake Center. Photo by Alex Garland Photography.


James TrimarcoJames Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is web editor at YES! and you can follow him @JamesTrimarco.

Nur Lalji and Molly Rusk provided additional reporting for this story.

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