Matthew Rimmer

This week there has been discussions between leaders from the Pacific Rim over the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Bali, Indonesia at APEC.

President Barack Obama has demanding a ‘trade promotion authority’ from the United States Congress to fast-track the Pacific Rim treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.[1]

The fast-track authority plays a pivotal role in determining the extent to which the United States Congress can engage in a critical review of trade agreements.[2]

The United States Chamber of Commerce has supported a comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would enhance the intellectual property rights and investment rights of corporations.[3] Thomas Donohue, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Chamber, has vowed: ‘We will launch a full-scale lobbying, grassroots, and education campaign to win passage [of the Trans-Pacific Partnership] in Congress.’

However, there has been a growing concern within the United States Congress and in civil society about the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on democracy, jobs, the environment, and public health.

1.         Democracy

The United States Massachusetts Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren has been one of the most eloquent critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Warren has written to the Obama Administration, complaining: ‘While I have no doubt that President’s commitment to openness to genuine, I am concerned about the Administration’s record of transparency regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership.’[4] She observed: ‘If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that agreement should not be the policy of the United States.’

Warren opposed the nomination of Michael Froman as the United States Trade Representative because of his failure to prioritize transparency and public debate.[5] She insisted that ‘the American people have the right to know more about the negotiations that will have dramatic impact on the future of the American economy’ and that ‘will have a dramatic impact on our working men and women, on the environment, on the Internet.’

In a rousing speech, United States Congressional Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren warned of the dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

‘For big corporations, trade agreement time is like Christmas morning. They can get special gifts they could never pass through Congress out in public. Because it’s a trade deal, the negotiations are secret and the big corporations can do their work behind closed doors. We’ve seen what happens here at home when our trading partners around the world are allowed to ignore workers’ rights, wages, and environmental rules. From what I hear, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters, and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the upcoming trade deals in their favor’.[6]

She commented: ‘I believe that if people would be opposed to a particular trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not happen.’

Lori Wallach of Public Citizen has expressed similar concerns about the secrecy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She has warned on Democracy Now! that the trade agreement is a ‘Trojan Horse’ for transnational corporations:

‘Well, one of the most important things to understand is it’s not really mainly about trade. I guess the way to think about it is as a corporate Trojan horse. The agreement has 29 chapters, and only five of them have to do with trade. The other 24 chapters either handcuff our domestic governments, limiting food safety, environmental standards, financial regulation, energy and climate policy, or establishing new powers for corporations’.[7]

She is concerned: ‘While the text of the treaty has been largely negotiated behind closed doors, more than 600 corporate advisers reportedly have access to the measure, including employees of Halliburton and Monsanto.’

2.         Workers’ Rights

Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership undermine jobs and working conditions in the Pacific Rim?

James Hoffa, the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, co-authored a paper with Michael Brune from Sierra Club on fair trade.[8] The pair lamented that ‘free trade agreements like NAFTA have only led to the outsourcing of American jobs, downsizing of our wages and loss of environmental protections’. Hoffa and Brune maintained that ‘It’s time to stop letting big corporations ship our jobs overseas and dump our wages, benefits and protections overboard along the way’. The pair insisted: ‘We don’t need any more free trade agreements; we need fair trade agreements.’

Celeste Drake, a trade specialist at the American Federation Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, has been concerned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will undermine workers’ rights.[9] She warned that ‘global firms that use the United States as a flag of convenience are once again substituting their interests for the national interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.’

Drake emphasized ‘that, for a trade agreement to benefit workers here and abroad, it must prioritize fundamental labor rights, the creation of high wage, high benefit jobs, and balanced and sustainable trade flows’. She insisted: ‘When workers can exercise their fundamental rights, as well as have a secure and hopeful future and sufficient incomes, their demand will help businesses and the global economy grow in a sustainable way.’

There has been concern amongst a number of United States Congressmen and women that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would significantly limit Buy American procurement policies and as a result adversely impact American jobs, workers, and manufacturers.[10]

3.         The Environment and Climate Change

Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership transform the Pacific Rim into a Gasland?

Allison Chin, the President of the Sierra Club said: ‘The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact could subject environmental and public interest laws and safeguards to attack by foreign corporations, threaten our air and water with toxic pollution, and lead to more American jobs being shipped overseas’.[11] She is troubled that ‘the Trans-Pacific Partnership is shaping up to be a stealth affront to the principles of our democracy.’

There has been particular disquiet about the use of state-investor clauses to challenge environmental regulations, such as Lone Pine’s challenge against Quebec’s moratorium on fracking.[12] Ilana Solomon of the Sierra Club maintained:

‘It’s time that governments stop signing trade and investment pacts that put the rights of corporations above the rights of communities and the environment. My right to clean water, clean air, and a healthy planet for my family and community has to come before Lone Pine’s right to mine and profit’.[13]

There has been alarm that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be used to promote the export of natural gas, particularly to Japan.[14]

There are also tensions between Barack Obama’s promises for action on climate change, and his trade agenda. Ilana Solomon of the Sierra Club has warned: ‘Our current model of free trade is once again interfering with sound climate policy.’[15]

There has been outrage amongst environmental and climate activists that the United States Trade Representative been promoting tar sands, the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the export of fossil fuels in trade negotiations.[16]

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and other environmentally-minded senators have written to the Obama Administration about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the environment.[17] The Senators have argued for a strong environment chapter in the agreement: ‘We think a “21st century trade agreement” must have an environment chapter that guarantees ongoing sustainable trade and creates jobs, and that this is what American businesses and consumers want and expect also.’ The Senators have maintained that ‘it is important that other provisions in the agreement, including those in the investment chapter, do not undermine efforts to protect the environment, protect the legal trade in natural resources, and address the challenges of sustainable conservation.’

4.         Public Health

Will the Trans-Pacific Partnership undermine public health initiatives – such as tobacco control measures like graphic health warnings and the plain packaging of tobacco products?

There has been disquiet amongst public health advocates over the Obama administration backsliding on promises to protect tobacco control measures in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The recent New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg warned: ‘If the Obama administration’s policy reversal is allowed to stand, not only will cigarettes be cheaper for the 800 million people in the countries affected by the trade pact, but multinational tobacco corporations will be able to challenge those governments — including America’s — for implementing lifesaving public health policies.’[18] He feared that the Trans-Pacific Partnership ‘would not only put our tobacco-control regulations in peril, but also create a chilling effect that would prevent further action, which is desperately needed.’

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors led by Eric Mar have ‘unanimously passed Resolution 297-10 urging our trade leaders to change course to protect our health by excluding tobacco and tobacco products from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and from all future trade agreements.’[19]

Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, has written to the Obama Administration: ‘We are not demonstrating global public-health leadership by putting forward a proposal that allows tobacco companies a back door to undermine anti-tobacco safeguards’.[20]


The battle over the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not just a matter of international trade debate between the participating countries. There is an intense debate between the Obama Administration and the United States Congress over the treaty-making process, and suitable protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership for labor rights, the environment, and public health. A number of Democrats have baulked a ‘fast-track’ authority for the Pacific Rim Trade Deal. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, has commented: ‘We are not just here to rubber stamp what gets done’ by trade representatives.[21] There is a need for the United States Congress to submit any Pacific Rim Treaty to rigorous scrutiny.