November 12, 2014 11:12AM

Labor Unions, Not the Tea Party, Are Leading the Fight against Obama’s Trade Agenda

This week is the #StopFastTrack Week of Action, an attempt by the anti‐​globalization movement to coordinate protests around the world against the Trans‐​Pacific Partnership, a potential free trade agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. The reason they’re doing it now is to influence lawmakers in the lead up to Congress’s lame duck session, during which many in Washington hope/​fear that Congress will vote on a bill to grant “trade promotion authority” (also known as “fast track”) to help the Obama administration complete the TPP negotiations.

Spearheading the effort is the AFL-CIO. In addition to asking supporters to call their member of Congress, the unions have also paid for ads at the DC metro station on Capitol Hill, obviously meant to reach congressional staffers during their commute.

Understandably considering the source, the ads have a very union‐​like feel to them. Lonely hardhats on the floor of a shuttered factory, middle‐​aged people lamenting that they’re not being paid enough, etc. Here’s a typical example showing a forlorn‐​looking young man who’s upset about income inequality:

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The “1%” rhetoric should be quite familiar to most Americans by now as the standard jargon of the ideological left when they rail against all forms of voluntary commerce. It’s no surprise to see it employed by labor unions in their crusade against free trade. 

Organized labor’s opposition to trade is nothing new. So, in order to get more attention this year, labor groups have been readily pointing out that even some Republicans are opposed to fast track. In particular, they are referring to a soi‐​disant “tea party” group that claims fast track will enable “Obamatrade” to destroy American sovereignty and jobs. That group takes a very different approach with its messaging:


The news media have run with the narrative that a right‐​wing insurgency against fast track could threaten the U.S. trade agenda.

The problem with this narrative is that it is just wrong. Scott Lincicome and I have written a comprehensive take‐​down of the attempt by a tiny protectionist wing of the GOP to paint its anti‐​trade agenda as part of the tea party movement. Yes, there are conservatives who don’t like free trade, but the tea party movement is all about holding Republican members of Congress accountable when they stray from (most) limited government principles. As such, the members of Congress most associated with the tea party movement have the best records in support of free trade

Trying to get Republicans to oppose free trade by wearing a tri‐​corner hat and shrieking “OBAMA!!!” merely plays to the negative views of the tea party held by many in the news media.

There are real obstacles to liberalizing trade in the United States. The greatest obstacle is the inescapable reality that politicians benefit from rigging the system in favor of narrow constituencies seeking protection. Protectionists get ideological cover mostly from the anti‐​globalist left but also from the nationalist right. Thankfully, that nationalist impulse is largely in abeyance as a force against free trade in Congress at the moment, and “Obamatrade” notwithstanding, the tea party isn’t about to bring it back.