So we heard the inevitable threat today from AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka that the labor federation might not endorse Hillary Clinton in a general election if she doesn’t come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. As articulated in a less than crisp interview by USA Today, the threat was indirect, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether neutrality might suffice. But he put it out there.
Truth is, the labor movement is not going to sit out the 2016 presidential election even if HRC endorses TPP on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The stakes are too high, and the alternative, of course, is a GOP that is more vocally anti-union than at any time since 1950–a party that treats someone like Nikki Haley, who opposes the very existence of private-sector unions (in her state, at least), as a big star and a possible running-mate for the Union-Basher in Chief, who could well be Scott Walker.
But you cannot blame Trumka for trying. Most unions stopped supporting multilateral trade agreements in the 1970s at the latest. Yet every single Democratic President going back to Martin Van Buren has been in favor of trade liberalization. So it’s sort of become habitual to think this is just a subject on which Democrats are more likely to buck “the base” the broader their constituency is, meaning presidents most of all and to some extent Senators.
Having said all that, the case that TPP represents an agreement that isn’t about tariffs or trade barriers so much as grievance mechanism for multinational corporations is pretty widely held by liberal elites (viz. Paul Krugman) and offers HRC and other pols an out if they wish to stop supporting such deals. But even a lot of TPP opponents (again, viz. Krugman) don’t share labor’s view that it’s a catastrophe. It’s very helpful to the otherwise quixotic candidacy of Bernie Sanders that he’s able to stand with Trumka and in good conscience denounce every major commercial agreement reached since–well, since labor itself stopped being “pro-trade.”