The next time unions or progressive democrats say they just can’t do anything right because they just can’t, remember what happened last Friday with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In the spirit of gallows laughter – which is sometimes all we’ve got – I’ve a certain measure of perverse explaining this issue to inquiring minds over the last couple of months. I like to try and put issues like this in my own words whenever possible, and when it comes to the TPP, that looks something like this:

So, it’s a “free trade” agreement being negotiated between the United States and twelve different countries in the Pacific region. “Free trade” sounds really nice, like “Free Tibet” or “Free Shamu,” but these agreements are legal treaties designed to allow for business to be conducted smoothly across multiple countries. In the past, it has meant that companies can more easily fire everyone they employ in the US and move the jobs to a different country without unions or laws requiring that they pay them very much. Not so nice.

In this case, we only kind of know what’s in the TPP because it’s a secret. Everyone is being very open about how they are not going to tell us anything. Some of it has leaked out over the last few months, however. We think it has to do with standardizing regulations across these countries. By standardizing, they mean taking everyone’s regulations and matching them up whomever has the least regulations so that everyone can get on the same page. In this case, that includes countries that basically have slaves and dump their waste chemicals in the river. And part of the TPP gives corporations the right to turn around and sue governments who don’t want to let them have slaves and dump their waste chemicals in the river.

Or something like that.

But the easiest way to know it’s really really bad is that democrats in Congress actually oppose it. Not just Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as part of his pretend run for President but like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They’re basically telling Obama to fuck off on this one. They never do this. They never do anything good. The TPP must be disturbingly bad.

“So why does Obama support it then?” some would ask.



My summary involves some measure of poetic license. Without question, centrist democrats in congress, right along with big labor, have a lot of self-interest tied up in their opposition. NAFTA, Bill Clinton’s 1990s free trade bacchanalia, is generally perceived by the public to have caused the loss of millions of jobs and dealt a death blow to US manufacturing. (Which is true.) It’s poisonous to democrats and even, in some quarters, to republicans. Nobody wants to touch it. Obama doesn’t have to win elections anymore – but all of them still do.

When it comes to union leadership and staff, we can accuse them of being out of touch with the needs of their rank and file members, but they’re always conscious of threats to their own positions of influence, comfort, and (relative) power. When it’s time to apply their muscle to getting the best deal for the workers they purport to represent or even broadly to push for advances of any kind, nobody can guarantee where they’ll be. Mild pressure will be exerted to preserve the status quo, or maybe to allow things to get worse, just a bit more slowly.

When it became apparent that the TPP was so bad that it threatened their status quo, primal instincts of self-preservation kicked in.

In fact, at least in some cases, the unions were actually confident long before Friday that they had the power to kill this thing. As Politico labor reporter Mike Elk noted on Twitter, people at the Communication Workers of America and United Steelworkers told him months ago that they were gonna kill it.


Which is weird, because that sounds a lot like actual power and influence to me.

In order to (properly maybe) kill the TPP, democrats employed everything from poisonous statements to the media to a wide array of parliamentary procedure to telling Obama both publicly and in private to go to hell. It didn’t help the President’s cause that his cravenly stupid and cynical plan to clear the way for the treaty’s passage involved depending upon the votes of House democrats (plus a couple republicans Speaker John Boehner could extort) to pass one shitty bill and then depending on just republicans to pass the second shitty bill. It also didn’t help that the purpose of these bills was to implement “fast track,” which is a fancy way of saying “Congress doesn’t get to argue or really even talk about this ever again.” I can’t imagine why Congress wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, can you?

(To fulfill the requisite comedy quota, the Tea Party republicans oppose TPP because The New World Order. Yeah.)

Obama’s failure to realize how much trouble he was in speaks either to hilarious executive incompetence or a form of DGAF laziness – both qualities some might find mildly questionable coming from our head of state. He raced down to the Capitol where, sadsies for him, even his friends hate him. Instead of trying to charm his legislative frenemies, he instead delivered a pretty weird lecture about “playing it straight.” OK, dude.

And that’s basically what they said to him. They were gonna vote it down anyway, and now they were gonna vote it down with smiles on their faces.

It’s important to remember, as Ryan Grim (probably the only writer still standing worth reading at the HuffPost) said in his email newsletter, “The thing might still pass somehow (Congress has a way of remembering how to function when Wall Street or a band of multinationals wants something done) but it’s going to be awfully, awfully tight.”

For a moment, though, let’s assume TPP is dead, and let’s remember how it died. The unions and the democrats killed it, and they killed it with minorities in both the House and Senate. When they want to do something, they actually can do it. When do they want to do things? Only when they perceive it to be in their interests – and therein lies the political axiom we need inscribe on the walls of our hearts. Our salvation will never come from “our” elected representatives in Congress, but our challenge is to force their hand by making our imperatives inescapably in their interests.

There are multiple ways we can do this, but that’s unquestionably easier said than done. We’ve got a long road ahead. But bottom line for all of us today? Don’t ever let anybody tell you that democrats and unions are impotent in the face of corporate demands. Don’t accept it when people say that minority numbers or even “the system” makes it so that they can’t do anything.

They just did something. We all saw it. And they’ll do it again – but only if we make them.


One thought on “Selective impotence – lessons from the TPP

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