Unions to Fight Trade Pact by Freezing Political Donations

Unions to Fight Trade Pact by Freezing Political Donations

Above photo: Richard Trumka, President of AFL-CIO. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Move aims to stop lawmakers from passing ‘fast-track’ bill in Congress

By Melanie Trottman in The Wall Street Journal

Dozens of major labor unions plan to freeze campaign contributions to members of Congress to pressure them to oppose fast-track trade legislation sought by President Barack Obama , according to labor officials.

The move is part of the unions’ campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 nations around the Pacific Ocean. The unions worry the trade agreement could send more jobs to low-wage countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia.

Unions have opposed the TPP through demonstrations, letters to lawmakers and political ads, but withholding political contributions is a more forceful way of flexing their muscle. In the 2014 midterm elections, unions—the lifeblood of the Democratic Party—contributed about $65 million from their political-action committee, or PACs, to candidates, nearly all Democrats.

“Every single union in the AFL-CIO has agreed to join together to send Congress a message that if you mess with one of us you mess with all of us,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Monday at the union’s legislative conference in Washington. “We need to cut the spigot off.”

The firefighters spearheaded the effort by challenging other union presidents to follow suit at an AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Atlanta last month. The union said it took the lead because fast track would create job losses, which would hurt communities’ tax bases and their ability to fund public services.

After the meeting, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explained the freeze in confidential memos to members of his executive council, which consists of dozens of union presidents and other labor officials whose organizations are AFL-CIO members.

In one memo viewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trumka recapped part of the meeting, saying, “we have also agreed to freeze our PACs until after Fast Track has been decided to conserve our resources and underscore the importance of this fight for working people.” An AFL-CIO spokeswoman confirmed the memos.

Fast-track legislation, known formally as trade promotion authority, is seen as helping seal a TPP deal because the legislation would give the president the ability to complete trade agreements with the understanding that they would be presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without amendments or procedural hurdles. Proponents say it is needed to get an acceptable final deal from other countries in the talks, because many wouldn’t want to commit themselves if Congress could insist on amending a deal.

Economists say the TPP could weigh on some less competitive manufacturing industries, including light manufacturing andpossibly car makers, depending on the pact’s terms. Backers of Mr. Obama’s trade policy argue U.S. tariffs already are so low that the deal likely won’t cause a broad shift in the labor force. Most U.S. business groups and the farm lobby support Mr. Obama’s trade policy.

While it is still early in the 2016 campaign cycle, a pause now in contributions to lawmakers would signal that their votes on the fast-track bill could determine whether they get financial backing from labor for the elections. Proponents of the fast-track legislation are hoping to bring it to the House and Senate in coming months.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declined to comment.

Many Democrats publicly oppose the fast-track legislation. Still, the unions plan to temporarily cut off contributions to all members of Congress. “The reasoning is that this will put pressure on some of the Democrats who support the position of labor to put pressure on those who don’t,” said Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.

Mr. Buffenbarger said the freeze is supposed to last until Congress votes on fast track, which he expects could happen as soon as next month. After that, the executive council planned to reassess its strategy, said labor officials

The action is part of a heightened push on fast track by labor in recent weeks. More than 50 labor unions asserted in a March 2 letter to Congress that fast track is “undemocratic” and will lead to fewer jobs, lower wages and harm to the middle class.

“If you stand for higher wages, more jobs, and greater opportunities for America’s hardworking families, you must oppose fast track,” the labor leaders said, calling for “a new version” of trade negotiating authority “that brings the process out from behind closed doors.”

The labor leaders criticized fast track as a tool that has been used since the Nixon administration to promote deals such as Nafta that are “written largely” by large corporations to “make it easier for firms to invest offshore.”

Not every union that endorsed the letter is participating in the contribution freeze, according to at least one union that said it isn’t, but the vast majority are, said labor officials.

In the 2014 elections, labor unions spent nearly $235 million on political donations and other campaign spending, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, including about $65 million given directly to candidates via union PACs and roughly $170 million for television ads, mailings and other political activities on behalf of candidates. About 96% of it went to Democratic candidates.

By comparison, Wall Street spent about $195 million on the 2014 elections, but that money was much more evenly split between the two political parties, with Republicans receiving a majority.

A spokesman for the firefighters union said its ads bought through super PACs will be shut down. Other unions’ ad spending also could be affected.

On Capitol Hill, talks among committee leaders on the fast-track legislation have stalled over procedural issues in the bill.

U.S. officials are working on the TPP this week in Hawaii and say an agreement is possible in coming months. Backers of the trade pact want to finish the Pacific agreement this year before the coming election year could sour the politics. Fast-track legislation, if passed, would likely extend to the next president and apply to future international deals as well.

—Brody Mullins and William Mauldin contributed to this article.

Write to Melanie Trottman at [email protected]