Progressive forces battling that God-awful gob of global corporate gobbledygook, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, encountered an odd problem: Incredulity.
As the Lowdown has detailed (August 2013, January 2015), the 1,000-page TPP trade scam is an unprecedented power grab by corporate elites. It is so unbelievably bad for workers, consumers, the environment, and our democracy that people literally can’t believe what they’re hearing.
While the deal is crammed with uglies, two impacts are downright nasty. One: Consistent with every “free trade agreement” of the past 20 years, TPP provides US corporations more and bigger incentives to export shiploads of our remaining middle-class jobs to low-wage countries. Still throbbing from Bill Clinton’s 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, the US majority no longer swallows the myth that free trade is invariably good for us. So people fume with disbelief and outrage when they learn that, far beyond Bill’s three-nation agreement, they’re about to be pounded with a 12-nation, nuclearized NAFTA, pitting our workforce against exploited labor in such repressive regimes as Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam (where some workers get 59 cents an hour).
Two, and worse, TPP would sanction direct attacks on US sovereignty bytens of thousands of foreign corporations. The real intent of this agreement is not to eliminate trade protectionism, but to protect global corporations from you, me, and any elected officials who stand up for us. BigPharma, BigOil, BigFood, BigFinance, and all the other Bigs would get sweeping new “profit rights” that would trump our people’s democratic rights. Of the 30 chapters that comprise this agreement, 24 don’t deal at all with trade, but instead provide new privileges to multinational corporations. Incredibly, TPP provides the authority and means for global corporate profiteers to attack directly our democratically enacted laws and regulations. All of this happens outside US courts.
No, explained Wallach. They’re in on the deal, which has been in the works since the Bush-Cheney regime. You haven’t heard about it, she pointed out, because the schemers shut out the media and public with a shroud of secrecy–even officially classifying parts of the proposal as “national security” secrets. This “partnership,” Wallach added, is solely between top government officials of the 12 member nations and representatives of about 500 multinational corporations. It is, in fact, a carefully calculated conspiracy.The audacity and enormity of this power grab is mindboggling. Indeed, my mind boggled when I first learned about the proposal some three years ago from Lori Wallach, the hard-charging bundle of brains and energy who heads Public Citizen’s ever-vigilant Global Trade Watch (GTW). Holy Thomas Paine, I thought, she’s describing a coup d’etat by the jefes of CorporateWorld! Surely this couldn’t be. If it was true, wouldn’t Obama and even the corporate-hugging, Boehner/McConnell Tea Party Congress be in an uproar?
My friend Lori and the indefatigable GTW diggers, along with a network of US and international allies, have steadily unearthed the truth of this coup, including the smoking gun: a leaked copy of the draft language of TPP’s corporate supremacy mechanism, called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement.”
ISDS sets up a secretive, supra-national, private government that would use corporate-run tribunals to enforce the “right-to-profit” doctrine that the agreement fabricates. Through these unelected, autocratic, foreign tribunals, corporations from any member nation that has set up shop here could sue our sovereign governments (national, state, and local) to eviscerate any domestic laws–such as those protecting health, food safety, labor, “Buy American,” and clean air–that, they claim, might potentially pinch their future profits.
Wrestling the world from fools
QUESTION: How do you battle the bosses, bankers, bastards, and bullshitters who have bribery money, mammoth amounts of political muscle, and most of the mass media behind their push to further empower and enrich themselves through artifices like TPP? ANSWER: Take it to the people.
I can tell you from experience that we populists win big legislative battles not by going inside capitol buildings, but by going out to the countryside. I learned this 30 years ago when, as Texas agriculture commissioner, I took on the prodigious clout of the chemical lobby by proposing strong pesticide protections for farmworkers, farmers, and consumers. Facing a wall of opposition from industry-funded legislators, I said to a group of allies: “You realize the odds are against us, don’t you?” To which one replied: “Some of the evens are against us, too.”
We ended up winning, but only because we got the hell out of the capitol city, took the issue directly to the grassroots, and rallied the outsider majority to stand against the self-dealing insiders. That approach, on a larger scale, is how we’ll stop the global elite from hanging this TPP albatross around democracy’s neck.
For example, in May, when the coalition shocked The Powers That Be by initially defeating the process for railroading TPP through Congress, the New York Times blared on its front page that this comeuppance was a product of “Labor’s Might.” But wait. The media establishment also says unions have shriveled to political irrelevance. So how did “little labor” suddenly become so mighty that it could deliver a devastating blow to Obama, the entire GOP leadership, and all those brand names marching under the banner of the “US Business Coalition for TPP”? [Find out more about these folks here.]
Labor certainly is showing “might” that far exceeds the labor v. bosses conflict simplistically portrayed in the media. It rises from the millions of Americans in thousands of grassroots organizations who have come together from across the political spectrum to create a diverse, majority coalition. Ironically, TPP–designed to be the wet dream of the multinational corporate order–has spawned the establishment’s nightmare: the beginning of a genuine people’s uprising against the arrogant overreach and insatiable avarice of the over-moneyed class.Well, surprise! Labor is nowhere near as weak as the sneering corporate swells would have us believe, especially when they unite and focus their grassroots members on a pivotal goal. For more than two years, unions have been educating their members; holding TPP teach-ins and rallies; calling, emailing, and visiting members of Congress; and going door-to-door, creating videos, and running social media campaigns. Pushed by a few smart and fiery leaders like the indomitable Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America, diverse and sometimes discordant unions have unified into one cohesive force. The AFL-CIO’s executive council even cast an unprecedented vote to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire by withholding all campaign donations until after key votes on the trade flimflam. (The Dems’ shrieks of horror could be heard on Pluto!)
Blueprint for a movement
The grassroots coalition has not won the Trans-Pacific battle (not yet), but it’s already a winner. This remarkable campaign has flushed the nefarious scheme of the global kleptocrats into full public view, wrecking their plan for a quick coup. (The powers had originally assumed Congress would rubber-stamp the deal in 2013!) So, in June 2015, still far from done, the amalgamated powers resorted to legislative gimmickry and tawdry exchanges of favors with enough lawmakers that they squeaked out a one-vote procedural victory in the Senate. It allowed them to use the “fast track” mechanism in hopes of finally ramming their deal through a reluctant Congress later this year.
Victory at last, thought the US corporate clique as they headed to Hawaii in July to seal the “final round” of TPP negotiations among the 12 nations. But yikes! The negotiations collapsed. It seems that our US grassroots fighters had been working with similar activists elsewhere in the world who had compelled their countries’ negotiators to stand firm against TPP. And the failure of the member nations to agree on the final contents of the TPP, means new negotiations must take place. And that means there’ll be no vote to try to ratify TPP until well into 2016, when the stormy winds of presidential politics will be raging.
Meanwhile, the citizens’ democracy coalition is more energized than ever.
How did this people’s coalition come so far against seemingly impossible odds? Not simply by grabbing pitchforks and torches (though public rage at plutocratic greed certainly provided fuel), but by grabbing grub-hoes and doing the hard work of grassroots cultivation. While a profusion of groups rose to this challenge, the early warning about TPP (and much of the subsequent strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing to defeat it) came from the small group of big thinkers and doers in the Global Trade Watch project of Public Citizen.
As a longtime board member of Public Citizen, I’ve followed GTW’s extraordinary work on this corporate sneak attack. In 2011 Lori Wallach began developing a strategy for taking the practically unheard of TPP out of the backrooms and splashing it into the faces of the public to awaken people to its multiple threats. Mainstream liberal organizations thought she was off on Mission Impossible, since the corporate side has thousands of trade lawyers, lobbyists, PR agents, and other experienced operatives working on this. Was Lori seriously proposing to confront that army with her 11 staffers?
Yes. Enlisting a core band of labor, environmental, and community allies, the dozen trade-watching stalwarts at Public Citizen divided into five teams and went after the Brobdingnagians of global corporate power. Here are a few highlights:
Field Team. In 2013, the organizers launched “The TPP Roadshow” that traveled across the country with graphic presentations on what the “trade” deal would do to locals–and they hit a nerve. In Connecticut, for example, at a small meeting in a library basement with a remnant of activists from the 2010 Occupy Hartford movement, one attendee, Debra, got fired up, created a women’s group named ActivateCT, and, well… they began to activate. The movement ultimately generated a rebellion so effective that only only one Democratic Congress member in the entire Northeast–former Wall Street banker Jim Himes–supported Fast Track. (Empowered by this experience, Debra and group have become progressive leaders on a range of issues in their state.)
The field team organized similar creative coalitions in many states. They birddogged Congress critters at local public appearances, did two-hour “drop-in-and-hang-out” visits to their district offices, and otherwise stayed in the face of power. This year, with spectacular success, the field operation upped its online outreach. In just the first six months, it reached 18 million people through Twitter and–get this–34 million through Facebook! Many of those activated were previously unaware of corporate trade scams like TPP, and their engagement in this fight has expanded the base for other populist encounters.
Research & Analysis Team. Credible documentation of the facts is essential to convincing the public, media, and lawmakers that this trade deal is a Trojan horse for global corporate empowerment. This has required extensive sleuthing by GTW analysts and their international allies, including globe hopping to gather intelligence and monitor meetings of the secretive negotiators. For example, having a speedy analysis of the leaked TPP chapter on the shocking ISDS tribunals was a huge breakthrough, for it clearly exposed the autocratic intent of the proponents. The document was so powerful that it forced Obama himself to flat-out lie, publicly claiming that ISDS will not do what the language of the chapter plainly says it will.
Debunking the bogus statements of the deal’s cheerleaders became a major function of this team. GTW issued more than 40 rebuttals–many on the same day as the pro-corporate claims– to the false assertions of those pushing TPP. The team got so good that it even began doing “pre-buttals”–anticipating what the other side was about to put out and preemptively refuting it.
The team instantly disseminates its findings to local trade campaigns, allied groups, online sites, and social media, allowing activists to spread the word independently from what (if anything) traditional media report. The team also breaks down national data on job losses, agricultural impacts, etc., to show TPP’s potential damage in each state, as well as in particular Congressional districts.
Communications & Monitoring Team. This is GTW’s watchtower, constantly attuned to Washington’s trade politics and informing its allies to the latest developments. The team’s “daily dragnet” checks over 35 sources to learn about Congressional meetings, policy briefings, lobbyist maneuverings, and conferences. GTW’s senior staff decides events to be covered and alerts coalition partners to meetings affecting their constituencies. Gathered intelligence is analyzed for what actions are needed, and shared with coalition allies, local groups, media outlets, and lawmakers.
When the TPP started drawing mass media attention last year, coverage was almost entirely from the fawning “free trade is godly” perspective. To counter that, GTW began convening weekly message meetings with communications staffers of allied groups, Congressional offices and social media mavens, developing a consistent and cohesive message for the coalition.
International Team. Not only is corporate power now multinational, but so is people power. GTW’s international team coordinates and facilitates weekly conference calls with campaigners in Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. As a result, they’re on the same page; present even at unofficial, unannounced, pop-up meetings of the cabalists; and able to coordinate opposition on the specific issues that make passage of TPP a terrible deal for most people in the countries involved. The international team also birddogs TPP negotiations and negotiators, making sure that the people’s voices are heard. In Maui, for instance, where the latest trade talks collapsed, a Guinness World Record was broken when 400 conch shell blowers protested in front of the negotiators’ luxury hotel.
Pulling back the curtain on TPP has let Americans take a rare, direct look at the treachery of the corporate elites colluding with leaders of both major parties to impose a selfish, plutocratic deal that threatens our democratic aspirations. It’s an ugly, unsettling sight, but it has shaken people awake and revived their rebellious instincts.
That’s why it’s important to spread the story of the progressive coalition’s successful confrontation with the Global Goliath. Its methods and achievements give us a new template for organizing (and winning) future populist challenges to the corporate order. And the breadth, depth, and intensity of this effort show what it will take to forge a real populist movement–multifaceted and with the long-term capacity to pursue our country’s deep democratic principles. We can get there if we build on what we learn–and keep pushing.
Even with the Hawaii negotiations breaking down last month, the fight for keeping our democracy intact, and against implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership is ongoing. Stay informed, join the fight, and recruit others by checking out these organizations.
Here are two from the good folks at Public Citizen:
And check out these efforts as well: