Why Firefighters are Against Free Trade


The French demonstrators in the Nuit Debout movement (Up All Night) hope that a convergence of struggles will enable them to extend their appeal beyond the young and university-educated, and become part of an international dynamic. One of their campaign issues — the rejection of free trade treaties (1) — may help those objectives.

The intricacies of trade agreements often discourage protest, as it is very hard to know which stage of the process to scrutinise most closely, or which apparently technical measure may conceal potential social devastation. Yet despite the pro-treaty hype from politicians, bosses and media, hostility to these treaties is spreading. There is strong opposition to TAFTA (the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement) in Germany and Belgium (2).

In the US, all the main presidential candidates have now come out against TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership). Since the end of the second world war, the US empire has been the engine of trade liberalisation, and the consistency of views has been absolute among successive presidents, Democrat or Republican, from John F Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, George W Bush to Barack Obama. But suddenly, the neoliberal engine has stalled.

Few believed Obama’s claim that the “companies who only care about low wages have already moved”: offshoring continues in the United States, and previous trade agreements had promised plentiful jobs and good salaries. So it’s not surprising that candidates as different as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have achieved an electoral breakthrough by attacking such treaties, forcing Hillary Clinton to disavow her previous support for TPP while she was Obama’s secretary of state. François Hollande also seems to be about to change his mind on TAFTA, which he was in a hurry to sign two years ago.

Workers whose salaries have been hit by the threat of unemployment or relocation are no longer alone in rejecting free trade. Environmentalists, farmers and consumers have joined them. Public sector employees — even firefighters — are getting involved, so much so that a perplexed senior figure at the US Chamber of Commerce said: “None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports” (3).

The public sector employees’ union knows it will not be able to defend its 2 million members’ jobs and pay for long if those of other workers continue to crumble. The firefighters know that if taxpaying businesses are replaced by an industrial wasteland, it will mean slashed municipal budgets, and fire station closures. A convergence of struggle has come of age — and already won its first victories.


(1) See the special supplement on TTIP, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June 2014.

(2) See Amélie Canonne and Johan Tyszler, “Ces Européens qui défient le libre-échange” (The Europeans who are challenging free trade), Le Monde diplomatique, October 2015.

(3) Noam Scheiber, “Labour’s Might Seen in Failure of Trade Deal as Unions Allied to Thwart It”, The New York Times, 14 June 2015.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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