Massa Press Conference: His New Trade Plan

Eric Massa had a short press conference this morning to announce his new trade plan. The plan is available on Massa's site[pdf]

Massa began the press conference by noting that he had just returned from a press event at a closed Toshiba plant in Horseheads, which he said closed because of "unfair trade policies." Massa said that the area lost 900 "living-wage jobs" when the plant closed in 2004, and that the plant closure highlights the affect of trade politics that "cut across both sides of the aisle". Massa added that "NAFTA has cost us over 1 million living-wage jobs", and added that, between 2000 and 2005, Elmira lost 31% of its manufacturing jobs.

I stand for fair trade. Free trade has failed us. Fair trade means [first and foremost] that we require our trading partners to live by the trade agreements that have been signed.

Massa cited the refusal of the Chinese to follow World Trade Organization guidelines and trade their currency on the international market as one example of many. "Our trade deficit with China is $201 billion."

As a Freshman Member of Congress, I'll make this one of the absolute cornerstones of any legislation I sponsor, cosponsor [or support]. American politicians must take care of America. There's nothing wrong with serving the interests of those paying the salaries of Members of Congress. If you keep taking [...] thousands of dollars from overseas interests, it's not going to serve the needs of other constituents.

I asked Massa what else was in his trade plan other than making countries live up to the trade agreements.

He said that it was a "huge first step", but he also advocates moving to a fair trade system of partner nations. New agreements must respect intellectual property, the environment, and child labor laws.

We must also put into these relationships the fundamental respect of human beings. Child labor is rampant in many of our trading partner's countries.

Massa also cited workplace safety and retirement benefits for the elderly as items that need to be part of the trade solution.


Of course we would like our trade partners to work under the same constraints that we do (or should do), but I'm afraid that there isn't much substance to Massa's proposal. The problem that no politician can acknowledge is that we are competing with poor people who are willing to sacrifice their rights and health for their children's future, just as our ancestors did.

Until the majority of people in the world attain our standard of living and security, we will benefit from free trade by taking advantage of low cost commodities and outsourced labor. Unfortunately much of our work will be rewarded at rates established by the global market.

Americans employed in the decreasing number of occupations that must be performed locally like infrastructure repair, maintenance and expansion, or personal services such as health and beauty, counseling, mentoring, child care, or in tourism, or local food production, can still count on a relatively stable job market. With intellectual property laws virtually impossible to enforce, given the sophistication of tools for snooping and the reproduction of products and the disparity of wealth world-wide, innovation is unlikely to benefit average Americans except that its cost will come down much faster than it had in the past.

Please tell me how I'm wrong here.

I think the grim picture of "sacrificing rights and health" is partially correct, but I agree with Massa that we can tweak that at the margins with better-written trade agreements.

For example, Cambodia has a national policy of very basic human rights (regular hours, no child labor, decent by their standards wage) in its factories, and wants a trade agreement to give it more favored trading status:

This seems like the kind of "fair trade" that can might lead to slightly more expensive goods for us, but would greatly accelerate development in Cambodia. Though we will inevitably compete with poor people, it's not necessary to compete with enslaved, poor people.

The other trade factor you don't mention is higher energy costs, which increase transportation costs. At some point, this might tip the balance for some goods to be manufactured closer to home.

But, in general, I agree that we're in a global market and it's very difficult to compete. I don't think we can negotiate trade agreements that are so tough that we get back American jobs.

A few thoughts: First, I think Massa is wrong to target China--it's kind of like castigating a criminal for joining the mafia (the mafia being the WTO/FTA's) Massa also doesn't call out U.S. corporations who lobby for and largely shape our trade laws. They don't want wages to rise or laws to be strengthened in other countries b/c that is the whole reason they want to do business there--to maximize profits (which don't trickle down).

Vdomeras writes: "The problem that no politician can acknowledge is that we are competing with poor people who are willing to sacrifice their rights and health for their children's future, just as our ancestors did."

There is truth to this, but from a different angle. Trade Unionists in countries like Guatemala often give their lives fighting against FTA's and for their human rights:

Free trade is widely unpopular in L.A. (like here) but are pushed through by self-serving elites who litter those countries' gov't's (like ours). Protesters have been shot at, killed and imprisoned--but you will never hear criticism out of Washington b/c these are our allies, and our foreign policy objectives place free markets ahead of human rights and popular democracy.

What we need are trade agreements that put human rights first, by not only adopting ILO and other universal labor and environmental standards, but by creating enforcement mechanisms that ensure that these laws are upheld, with "real" consequences for host country governments and corporations like Chiquita, who pay off death squads (with Washington's consent) to ensure a union free work- place.

Politically, China makes a good whipping boy. And Michael Corleone was still a bad guy, even if the Mafia existed before him.

I agree that it's tough for unions in all developing countries, and that oppression there is often brutal.

In general, yeah, corporations are out to make a buck, and they're going to fight any restriction on trade. Corporations always act in their own interests, including lobbying for them. Whether it's politically smart to call them out is another matter. Focusing on the human cost of trade is probably a strategy that will convince more people.