President Trump is in a tight spot. The House Intelligence Committee is voting on impeachment on Tuesday this week, and the Judiciary Committee is starting its own hearings soon afterwards. We know for a fact — indeed, from Trump’s own mouth — that he attempted to blackmail Ukraine into ginning up a smear campaign on his political opponent. The economy is looking distinctly soft, and the only major policy victory of his term, a huge tax cut for the rich, is extremely unpopular.
So naturally, the House Democratic leadership is … planning to give Trump a big bipartisan policy win: passing a free trade deal that might help unions, but also might not. Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is sitting on a major overhaul of labor law (one which already has majority support in the House) that unions have been asking for over 70 years.
God save us all.
Rachel Cohen has the details at The Intercept. The free trade deal is the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USMCA), a rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the ramifications of which are still very much in dispute. Several major unions have stated that they want extensive changes before they can support the bill, especially regarding enforceable labor protections, but they might come around if the details are right.
The calculation from the leadership of both unions and Democrats probably goes something like this: Unlike any other policy area, Trump appears to be vaguely interested in trade, and maybe wants to do something to help manufacturing workers. At the same time, the Democratic Party is at least nominally committed to unions, and centrist Democrats are reportedly desperate to pass anything to prove their get-er-done bona fides. “We need to go back and show that we can do something,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Politico.
That carries its own risks, however. Trump might well sign a half-decent trade deal, but it would also have to get through the GOP-controlled Senate, where oligarch Republicans are certain to object to any changes that progressives in the House might secure. If that happens, centrist Democrats are likely to demand passage anyways. Indeed, as David Dayen reports at The American Prospect, 11 centrist representatives, including Cuellar, wrote a letter to the U.S. trade representative (who is in charge of negotiating with counterparts from Mexico and Canada) to express support for a measure in the agreement that would force Canada and Mexico to adopt the kind of U.S.-style drug patents that have made pharmaceuticals so hideously expensive in this country. These conservative Democrats are in the pocket of Big Pharma and other corporate lobbies, not allies of the working class.
Ratifying the agreement would also concretely help Trump as the 2020 election gets going. You can already hear the campaign rally boasts: “The best trade deal — the finest, most beautiful deal we’ve ever seen. No president has ever done a deal like this. Folks, the jobs are coming back. No thanks to the Democrats, of course.”
It also goes without saying that the Republican leadership would never, ever, ever help Democrats in this way. Indeed, when the tables were turned in 2009, the Republican leadership met in secret to plot total obstruction to the Democratic agenda sight unseen. “If he was for it, then we had to be against it,” then-Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said.
The smart move from both labor and Democrats would be to run out the clock this year, win the 2020 election, and then negotiate and pass something much better than USMCA. Even if unions get some minor benefit from Trump’s deal, Republican governance is sucking money up the income ladder, and you know, tearing the country to pieces.
On the other hand, one can sympathize with a union desire to get whatever they can while the getting is good. The Democratic Party has not been a loyal friend to workers for over 40 years. President Obama barely even bothered to mention a card check bill in early 2009 (a reform that would make it somewhat easier to organize workplaces) he supposedly supported; it died within months. That kind of history, which goes back to President Carter at least, is partly why Trump only lost the union vote by 8 points.
But this brings me to the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would drastically strengthen union rights. As Cohen writes, it “would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing, crack down on worker misclassification, and establish new rules so that employers cannot delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts.” While there is no chance this bill would pass the Senate, there is also no possible downside to passing a concrete demonstration Democrats are on the side of labor — thus aiding efforts to win the union vote.
Indeed, before she was grudgingly dragged into supporting an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi was supposedly all about this kind of messaging bill. “The point is that we need to show [voters] that we are doing all of these other things that they care about so much,” she told a meeting of Democratic lawmakers in May. Well, what gives?
One can only hope that Pelosi will schedule a few minutes of floor time to pass the PRO Act at some point before November 2020. At a minimum, this all doesn’t speak well of the Democratic leadership’s tactical sense.
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The Week · by Ryan Cooper · December 2, 2019