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Pandora’s Box of Corporate Power

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The story of Pandora’s Box (which was really a jar) — much like the Biblical tale of “forbidden fruit” — is meant as a warning that once the evils of the world are released, it’s virtually impossible for them to be recalled. Sticking with the Greek mythology vibe, I guess you could say Adam Weissman has been playing the role of Cassandra in the struggle to inform others about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Weissman organizes against TPP and other free trade agreements with TradeJustice New York Metro, a coalition of groups from diverse social movements resisting the NAFTA neoliberal free trade model. He also works with Global Justice for Animals and the Environment, an organization addressing the threat posed by free trade agreements to animals; the environment; safe and sustainable food; and the human rights of environmentalists.

Put simply, Adam has become my go-to person when it comes to TPP and related issues so I figured it was longoverdue we did an interview. It went a little something like this…

Mickey Z.: Let’s start with the essentials. What exactly is TPP and why are you working so hard to stop it?

Adam Weissman: TPP is a 12-nation agreement currently being negotiated between the governments of the United States and 11 other countries (Canada, Mexico, Peru , Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Japan). TPP is being pushed by corporate interests seeking to enact a wide variety of policies into law that undermine the public interest on behalf of their profits, policies that would be vigorously opposed if presented as individual pieces of legislation rather than being lumped into a massive, obscure international trade agreement.

MZ: Is it accurate to call TPP a trade agreement?

AW: TPP is considered a trade agreement and thus the Office of the United States Trade Representative is negotiating on behalf of the United States. However, but only five of TPP’s 29 chapters address trade issues, with the rest covering a wide range of topics include investor rights, intellectual property, and sanitary standards.

MZ: So why isn’t everyone talking about such a totalitarian salvo?

AW: TPP negotiating texts are being treated as classified documents, closed off from the public, the media, non-profit advocacy groups, and even elected officials. Members of Congress have highly restricted negotiating access to the texts and are sworn to secrecy about what they read. Meanwhile, 600 “cleared advisers” to the U.S. negotiating team — mostly representing corporations and industry organizations — have unfettered access to negotiating documents relevant to their interests and are able to use this access to influence U.S. negotiators to craft an agreement that advances their agendas.

Additionally TPP is getting little coverage in the mainstream print media and almost no coverage in broadcast media. A Media Matters for America study found that between Aug. 1, 2013 and Jan. 31, 2104, TPP received only one mention on network nightly news — a pro-TPP comment on PBS’ Newshour. During the same period, Fox News Channel never mentioned TPP and CNN mentioned TPP once. The one shining exception in broadcast media has been MSNBC’s The Ed Show, which during this period mentioned TPP 32 times. Unfortunately media companies have a conflict of interests regarding TPP. Many stand to benefit from TPP’s Intellectual Property chapter, which will help protect the profits of content creators. The Walt Disney Company (ABC) and News Corporation (Fox News) are both members of the U.S. Business Coalition for TPP.

MZ: How bad would it be if TPP came into existence?

AW: TPP threatens to undermine environmental protection, prohibit financial industry regulation, encourage privatization of public services, offshore jobs to sweatshops, endanger wildlife, threaten food safety standards, destroy family farms while promoting industrial agriculture, limit access to lifesaving medicines by extending the life of corporate drug patents, ban government procurement policies like “Buy Green” and “Buy Local,” curtail internet freedom, and limit democracy by creating tribunals where corporations can attack governments for enforcing laws that protect the public from destructive corporate greed.

MZ: Is it safe to say Obama is on board with TPP?

AW: TPP is a key element of President Obama’s Asia-Pacific Pivot — an effort to cement  the United States, not China, as  the dominant military and economic power in the Asia-Pacific region.

MZ: You’ve said that TPP is “kind of like Pandora’s Box.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

AW: Like Pandora’s Box, TPP contains unknown horrors — it’s being negotiated with an unprecedented degree of secrecy. Even the Bush-era trade agreements were negotiated with a greater degree of transparency. TPP negotiating texts are being treated as classified documents, with access denied to the media, civil society groups, academics, and the general public. Members of Congress were restricted from seeing the TPP texts until Rep. Alan Grayson launched a petition campaign demanding access. The office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) finally allowed him to see one TPP document — on the condition that no staff would be present, he take no notes, use no recording device, and would be sworn to secrecy on whatever he saw. According to Representative Grayson, “having seen what I’ve seen, I would characterize this as a gross abrogation of American sovereignty. And I would further characterize it as a punch in the face to the middle class of America. I think that’s fair to say from what I’ve seen so far. But I’m not allowed to tell you why!”

TPP is also like Pandora’s Box because once we’ve released the horrors it contains, we’re stuck with them — they won’t go back in the box. In contrast to U.S. participation in the World Trade Organization, which Congress has to renew every five years, our commitment to TPP has no expiration or renewal date. Any changes to TPP would need to be agreed upon by all member nations. TPP is described as a “docking agreement,” meaning that more countries can be added after TPP is in effect without any new act of Congress. India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Colombia, and China have all been discussed as potential later additions.

MZ: Does anyone have access to at least parts of the full TPP text?

AW: There is one group that has access to the TPP negotiating texts — roughly 600 members of advisory committees to USTR — mostly representatives of corporations and organizations representing industries that stand to benefit from TPP, often at the expense of the public interest. Corporations represented include some of the most notorious human rights violating, worker exploiting, union busting, polluting, and animal abusing companies on the planet, including Chevron, Cargill, Wal-mart, Georgia Pacific, Halliburton, Weyerhaeuser, Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut ), Verizon, Caterpillar, and Dow. Nine of the companies represented are listed as being among the 20 Worst Companies on the Planet based on a metaanalysis of social responsibility surveys over the last 20 years compiled by sociologist Ellis Jones. These corporate advisers are joined from reps of organizations representing the factory farm, pharmaceutical, mining, logging, oil, genetically modified seed, tobacco, software, chemical, junk mail, and nuclear energy industries.

MZ: What’s Obama done to make sure TPP gets through Congress?

AW: President Obama has requested that Congress grant him Fast Track Trade Authority, which would allow his administration to complete TPP negotiations, draft implementing legislation (legislation to put TPP by changing existing U.S. law to adhere to the terms of the agreement) and then send that legislation to Congress. Under Fast Track, the House would be required to vote within 60 days and the Senate within 90. Fast Track prohibits Congress from amending the legislation in any way, forces committees to release the legislation for a floor vote, and limits floor debate to 20 hours. Agreements like TPP are written in dense legalese, where the presence of a comma in a sentence can have profound implications. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, contained 22 chapters, covered three countries, and ran 1,700 pages. TPP, which is often described as “NAFTA on steroids” will contain 29 chapters, many dealing with issues never before addressed in a trade agreement, and includes 12 countries. So legislators, while dealing with a wide range of other issues, are expected to take stock of this entire agreement and decide how to vote within two-three months while corporate lobbyists are twisting their arms to get them to support it and the President and the U.S. Trade Rep are putting out propaganda about the agreement will create jobs and prosperity. Fast Track by design steamrolls bad trade deals through Congress before anyone really even knows what is being voted on.

MZ: Sounds like every CEO’s fantasy scenario.

AW: In effect, corporations are pushing for a binding and virtually irreversible mechanism to force the United States and other TPP nations into expanding corporate control. TPP’s investor rights chapter, for example, can be used against all manner of current and future food safety, environmental, or labor laws and many other forms of public interest legislation, in effect making corporations more powerful than nations. By committing to TPP, we’re pretty much throwing away the future of democracy.

And really, this is exactly why TPP negotiations are being kept secret, not national security. The U.S. Trade Representative does not want us to know what is in the box. Ron Kirk, who was U.S. Trade Representative for the first three years of U.S. involvement in TPP negotiations, told Reuters that “we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality” and noted that when hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiating texts were released a decade ago, it was impossible to complete the negotiations. What he didn’t come out and say was that the reason it was impossible to complete those negotiations was because of widespread popular resistance throughout the hemisphere, including massive demonstrations here in North America during TPP negotiating meetings in Miami and and Quebec City.

MZ: Okay, let’s try to end with some activist motivation. How can people help keep this Pandora’s Box from being opened?

AW: There are some critical differences between our TPP fight and story of Pandora’s Box. Pandora didn’t have Wikileaks. Part of the reason we know as much as we do about what’s taking place in these secret negotiations is because of leaked documents — all of which have been terrifying. So, unlike Pandora, we have a bit of forewarning about what’s in the box.

The other big difference is that while Pandora released hope from the box, we have hope right now. Fast Track Authority for trade agreements expired in 2007. For President Obama to send TPP to Congress under Fast Track rules, Congress would first have to pass new legislation granting him Fast Track Authority. There is a strong grassroots movement against Fast Track and also strong opposition among many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in the House of Representatives. One hundred, fifty one House Democrats, 22 Conservative House Republicans, and six Moderate House Republicans wrote to President Obama last November in three separate letters expressing opposition to Fast Track. The Bipartisan Trade Priorities Action of 2014, a Fast Track bill introduced in January, went over like a lead balloon — despite its name it was unable to find a Democratic sponsor in the House.

MZ: So, TPP is not a done deal nor a foregone conclusion?

AW: The fight against Fast Track is far from over, but it is a fight we can win, and if we do, President Obama will have a much harder time getting TPP through Congress. A new Fast Track bill with cosmetic changes intended to soften Congressional opposition is expected to be introduced in November after the Congressional election, a time when politicians typically move particularly sleazy pieces of legislation that the corporate lobbyists are demanding but that they would rather the voting public not know about. Right now, while our elected officials are home for the August recess is a critical time to visit their offices and attend their Congress on Your Corner events and town hall meetings to let them know that we’ll be making our decisions on election day based in part on whether or not they’ve expressed unequivocal opposition to Fast Track.

MZ: How can readers get in touch with you and/or TradeJustice New York Metro and can you recommend resources for further research and action?

AW: People can contact us by phone at (718) 218-4523 or by email at info@tradejustice.net.

They can learn more about TPP at our website, on our TPP page and on social media. Out Twitter address is twitter.com/OWSTradeJustice , our Facebook page can be found at tradejustice.net/fbp and our Facebook group at tradejustice.net/fbg. People can also sign up for e-newsletter and other email lists athttp://tradejustice.net/elists and sign our e-petition vs. Fast Track and sign up receive updates via Causes.com atcauses.com/tradejustice-ny-metro.

People who want to learn more about TPP’s implications for the environment; animals; safe, just, and sustainable food; and the human rights of environmental defenders can visit the Global Justice for Animals and the Environment website and TPP page. GJAE is on on social media. Our Facebook group can be found atgjae.org/fbg our Facebook page is at gjae.org/fbp, and our Twitter address is twitter.com/GJAEnvironment. On Causes, we’re at causes.com/gjae. People can sign up for our email list at http://gjae.org/email.

Other good websites on TPP and Fast Track include:

Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.

Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here. This piece first appeared at World Trust News.  

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