Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bad and Good Arguments Against the Trans Pacific Partnership

A guest column by Barry Sheppard, a long-time comrade of mine who lives in Hayward, California. Similar reasoning applies to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) recently negotiated between Canada and the European Union but (like the TPP) not yet adopted by the Trudeau government. – Richard Fidler

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The three remaining presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have all come out against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in varying degrees. All stress a reactionary argument against it.

That argument is that U.S. workers should oppose it because it supposedly gives advantages to capitalists in other countries as against U.S. capitalists, and thus is harmful to U.S. jobs. “Don’t send U.S. jobs to China!” is how Sanders puts it, however illogically since China is not part of the TPP.

In fact, the TPP is part of a drive by the U.S. to consolidate a bloc of countries around the Pacific Ocean to challenge China economically, politically and militarily. It is part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” His recent visit to Vietnam illustrates this.

Moreover, U.S. capitalism is the dominant force among the nations encompassed by the TPP. The U.S. delegation involved in the secret negotiations that resulted in the TPP, in addition to government officials, had a high proportion of lawyers for the big corporations. They made sure that U.S. capitalists’ interested were well-protected.

The thrust of this xenophobic argument takes the focus off the real reason for the dire economic situation the U.S. working class is facing – the workings of the capitalist system itself, including the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Moreover, it cuts across international working class solidarity, pitting U.S. workers against “foreign” workers, who are allegedly taking jobs away from “us.” This thinking has its domestic counterpart with the argument that foreigners, immigrants, Blacks, and so forth are taking jobs from white workers, Trump’s main talking point.

However, there are many very good reasons why U.S. workers and all the workers encompassed by the TPP should oppose it. Fundamentally, it would strengthen the hand of capital in all its countries against workers’ interests. That’s why it was negotiated in secret, without public input.

It really shouldn’t be called a “trade” agreement. In the past there was a debate about “free trade” vs. “protectionism.” But tariffs are generally lower than in the past, so this isn’t the real issue. Most of what the TPP is about is regulations on a host of issues including intellectual property rights, financial regulations, labor laws and rules for health, safety and the environment.

From what has been leaked about it, what U.S. big business has obtained is rules that secure and extend their patents, trademarks and copyrights abroad, and protections of their global franchise agreements, securities and loans. New rules make it easier for corporations in the richer countries to outsource parts of production to lower wage countries.

At the same time, TPP rules mean less protection for consumers, workers and the environment. These rules would allow them to override such protections, including in labor laws.

For example, Big Pharma gets extensions of its patents under TPP, delaying cheaper generic versions of drugs. In the U.S. this will drive up medical costs even more. Workers and peasants in poorer countries will be denied affordable drugs, including many life-saving ones.

Corporations also get an international tribunal composed of private attorneys, outside any nation’s legal system, which can order compensation for any lost profits found to result from a nation’s regulations. The tribunal can also order compensation for any “unjust expropriation” of foreign assets.

A similar system exists in a “trade” agreement between Switzerland and Uruguay. The tobacco giant Phillip Morris is suing Uruguay under this agreement claiming that Uruguay’s strong anti-smoking regulations unfairly diminish the company’s profits.

The already existing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has a similar provision (the TPP has been characterized as NAFTA on steroids). When the Obama administration, under great public pressure, ruled against the XL pipeline that would have transported Canadian tar sands oil to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, the company has tried to sue the U.S. for $15 billion in lost future profits. Given the dominant role of the U.S. in NAFTA, this suit may not get far.

The environmental organization “350” – referring to the parts per million of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere beyond which there would be a tipping point to major global warming – says, “the TPP would give foreign fossil fuel corporations the right to sue city, state and national governments if climate action hurt their profits. It would also eliminate environmental reviews of fracked gas export facilities that would make Big Oil billions of dollars.”

These examples just scratch the surface of the myriad of pro-capitalist and anti-worker regulations in the TPP. It should be opposed on these grounds. Sanders, it is true, does refer to all this, but increasingly centers his fire on chauvinist appeals to U.S. workers. What is needed is international working class solidarity, not division along national lines.

We should also take a closer look at whether the increasingly precarious situation facing U.S. workers is primarily due to imports and outsourcing of production by U.S. corporations to lower-wage countries. Writer Kim Moody, a founder of Labor Notes, whose magazine and conferences seek to bring together class-struggle union militants, takes up one aspect, that of the decline of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., in a recent article.

He says, “Probably the most commented on … is the decline of manufacturing employment from 27 percent of private employees in 1980 to 11 percent in 2010…. While manufacturing has been declining for some time, the dramatic loss of nearly five million manufacturing, production and nonsupervisory jobs calls for an explanation.

“Many, particularly in the labor movement, argue that the culprit was trade. Clearly some industries like basic steel, textiles, garments, etc. saw big losses to imports. But these losses account for only about 20 percent of the five million. Nor does ‘offshoring,’ which grew over much of this period but recently slowed down, account for massive losses as domestic content in U.S. manufacturing still averages about 85-90 percent, well above the global average of 72 percent. As the United Nations observed, ‘Large economies, such as the United States or Japan, tend to have significant internal value chains and rely less on foreign imports.’

“The problem with trade-based explanations is that manufacturing output hasn’t shown a decline, but had grown in real terms by 131 percent from 1982 to 2007 just before the Great Recession reduced output. At an annual average of five percent this is only slightly less than the six percent annual growth of the [boom years] of the 1960s.

“The mystery behind this massive lose of jobs lies in both the destruction of capital, on the one hand, and its increased application in the last 30 years, on the other. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs hasn’t followed the the more or less steady upward trajectory of imports since the mid-1980s. Rather massive job destruction has occurred during the four major recessions of this period as capital itself has been destroyed: in 1980-82 2.5 million manufacturing production jobs lost; 1990-92 725,000; 2000-03 about 678,000, and during the Great Recession another two million jobs gone.”

Moody points to two factors in the periods of “recovery” after these recessions that kept employment flat. One was the “increased application of capital” in new technology that displaced workers, and the other was greatly increased intensification of labor under the rubric of “lean” and “just on time” production. Both have increased productivity but not working class improvement.

In other words, the recessions of the business cycle, with a long-term tendency toward stagnation, capital investment in labor-saving, and neoliberal assaults on workers resulting in intensification of labor and the other workings of the capitalist system are the culprit, with NAFTA and TPP piling on top of this.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Alberta wildfires: Pachamama’s revenge?

With each day the bad news spreads. A gigantic wildfire now covering some 4,000 km2 is spreading through northeastern Alberta and into Saskatchewan — devastating much of Fort McMurray, the city in the heartland of the tar sands. Some 90,000 residents have been displaced and thousands of homes, many local industries and businesses, destroyed.

Although not comparable with the tragedy in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train exploded, the material destruction in the Alberta tar sands now ranks as the greatest in any single event in the history of modern Canada.

The tragic irony is that the working people most directly caught up in the extraction and processing of Alberta’s enormous tar sands operations now find themselves the most direct victims of one of its pernicious consequences.

The current wildfires — there are hundreds now burning in Alberta and Saskatchewan, many beyond human control — are the product of a perfect storm in which unusually dry hot weather in recent months, attributed to an intense El Niño effect (itself linked to global warming), has combined with the general warming resulting from the climate change to which the tar sands operations are a major contributor.

It is as if Mother Earth — “Pachamama” as she is known in the Andean nations of Inca origin in the South — was avenging the massive assault on her integrity now being mounted by global capital and its transnational corporations in large regions of Alberta.

What a devastating confirmation of the very dangers pinpointed by the Leap Manifesto with its demand for an end to hydrocarbons exploitation, especially the tar sands operations that constitute the major industry in Alberta. Just last month 1,500 delegates to the New Democratic Party federal convention, meeting in the Alberta capital, Edmonton, voted against party leadership opposition to make the Manifesto recommended study in the party over the next two years, with instructions that the social-democratic NDP, at its next convention, take a clear position on the challenges it poses.

And what a refutation of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, head of the NDP’s last surviving provincial government, when in her address to the Edmonton convention she derided the Leap Manifesto as “naïve.”

“We believe that it was ill-considered and, quite frankly, very tone-deaf to the economic realities that are being experienced in Alberta,” she said, adding that her government is totally committed to building pipelines “from Alberta to tidewater.”

Notley and her cabinet are now scrambling to cope with the current disaster. But there is no evidence that she is rethinking her recent decision, made in collaboration with the major corporations involved, to allow for a massive expansion of the tar sands emissions from 70 megatonnes a year now to 100 megatonnes a year in 2030.

Largely silent amidst the Fort McMurray tragedy are the major unions tasked with representing many Alberta workers, including in the tar sands. Like most North American unions, they identify their members’ interests with the fate of their employers, and with Capital itself. Their members’ precarious employment in today’s crisis-ridden capitalism and its climate-destroying industries bolsters that dependency, and has so far provoked little rethinking in the ranks of the official labour movement, least of all in Alberta.

Leading the attack on Canada’s petro-dependency today are communities directly in the path of the pipelines that (as Notley says) are indispensable to getting the hydrocarbons to markets. And in their forefront are the indigenous peoples, the First Nations, who despite the deep poverty of so many, their small numbers in the total Canadian population, and the illness and devastation directly suffered by those situated on tar sands lands, at least have retained the determination, and the space through the existence of their “reserves,” to say No to the corporate behemoths intent on violating those vital spaces.

Working people have displayed once again — as they did in response to the Lac Mégantic disaster — their solidarity with the displaced Fort McMurray workers, raising impressive amounts of financial and material aid in response to public appeals. But now we need to go further, to become involved as never before in the needed debate over climate change and its implications, and the quest for a radical response.

The Leap Manifesto contains some useful pointers, and it can be a valuable part of that debate, not only in the NDP. But ultimately we need to address the underlying problem that the Manifesto itself does not name, the capitalist system, and to find ways to challenge the very logic of capital, with its competitive and environmentally destructive drive.

Fort McMurray has given us a disturbing picture of what the future holds in store for all of us if we fail to meet that challenge.