Labor Makes Trade a Line in the Sand for 2016. But What If Hillary Clinton Crosses It?

The AFL-CIO is adamant about political candidates opposing the Trade Promotion Authority and Trans-Pacific Partnership. But they have limited options.

President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Richard Trumka speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
National Journal
Eric Garcia
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Eric Garcia
April 28, 2015, 9:05 a.m.

One of Amer­ica’s most in­flu­en­tial labor or­gan­iz­a­tions is try­ing to en­sure that the polit­ic­al can­did­ates it would sup­port will op­pose free-trade deals. But if Hil­lary Clin­ton comes out in sup­port of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, labor doesn’t have many oth­er op­tions.

In a speech Tues­day morn­ing, AFL-CIO Pres­id­ent Richard Trumka cri­ti­cized the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a pro­posed 12-na­tion free-trade deal sup­por­ted by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, as well as Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity, also known as “fast-track au­thor­ity,” which would make trade deals like the TPP sub­ject to an up-or-down vote in Con­gress without the abil­ity to amend the deal.

“We ex­pect those who seek to lead our na­tion for­ward to op­pose fast-track,” Trumka said. “There is no middle ground, and the time for de­lib­er­a­tions is draw­ing to a close.”

(RE­LATED: Here Are All Sev­en Me­dia Ques­tions Hil­lary Clin­ton Has Answered Dur­ing Her Cam­paign)

The AFL-CIO is already put­ting its money where its mouth is. The or­gan­iz­a­tion had pre­vi­ously frozen dona­tions to fed­er­al can­did­ates to fo­cus on stop­ping TPA and TPP, and last week, after the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee voted to ap­prove TPA, the AFL-CIO began run­ning on­line ads against Fin­ance Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Mi­chael Ben­net, both Demo­crats, for vot­ing in fa­vor of the le­gis­la­tion.

“Now, we are us­ing those re­sources to hold politi­cians ac­count­able and re­mind them that voters are pay­ing at­ten­tion to this de­bate be­cause it’s enorm­ously im­port­ant to work­ing fam­il­ies,” Eric Haus­er, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the AFL-CIO told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a state­ment in ref­er­ence to the ads be­ing run against Wyden and Ben­net.

But Clin­ton’s pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy puts labor in a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion. Clin­ton has dithered on TPP since she be­came a can­did­ate, des­pite hav­ing pre­vi­ously call­ing it “the gold stand­ard” for pro­mot­ing free, fair, open, and trans­par­ent trade.

(RE­LATED: The Proof of Clin­ton’s Wrong­do­ing

Clin­ton’s po­ten­tial Demo­crat­ic chal­lengers—in­clud­ing ar­dent TPP op­pon­ents Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley—hardly pose a sig­ni­fic­ant threat right now. And, with no vi­able Clin­ton al­tern­at­ive, it is un­clear what steps the AFL-CIO—or or­gan­ized labor as a whole—would take if Clin­ton gives her back­ing to TPP.

The pre­dic­a­ment is part of a lar­ger prob­lem that or­gan­ized labor, typ­ic­ally a Demo­crat­ic con­stitu­ency, is fa­cing in the United States. Amer­ic­ans have gen­er­ally mixed feel­ings about the de­cline in uni­on par­ti­cip­a­tion over the last two dec­ades. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter study re­leased this week showed 45 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans saw the de­cline of uni­on mem­ber­ship as a bad thing, while 43 per­cent saw it as a good thing.

And it’s not like if uni­ons ul­ti­mately voted down on Clin­ton that they would be wel­comed by Re­pub­lic­ans. The same Pew study showed 62 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans viewed the re­duc­tion in uni­on mem­ber­ship as mostly good for the coun­try, with 51 per­cent say­ing it has been mostly good for work­ers spe­cific­ally. And it is not likely that uni­ons would find a home with Re­pub­lic­ans any­way, giv­en can­did­ates like Jeb Bush who ar­dently sup­port the TPP.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton May Have Lost a Cam­paign Weapon

Or­gan­ized labor has a clear line on trade. They just don’t have a clear al­tern­at­ive if that line is crossed.

Cor­rec­tion: This story has been up­dated to cla­ri­fy the struc­ture of the AFL-CIO. It is a fed­er­a­tion of uni­ons.

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