How Biden Can Spread the Benefits of Trade to Black Workers

Last week, President Joe Biden’s nominee for US trade representative Katherine Tai — a well-seasoned trade expert with decades of trade experience faced the Senate Finance Committee for confirmation. The job will not be an easy one. As the nation’s chief trade representative, Tai will inherit a turbulent legacy of trade policy decisions during a particularly difficult time in which a pandemic continues to ravage countries, communities and working people across the globe, especially workers of color.

Often, the mainstream narrative on trade promotes an idea that White workers from the Midwest have suffered most from recent US trade policies. But a growing body of evidence has shown this is not the case.

A recent report found that US trade policies have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Latino workers, as these workers are more likely to work in industries and in regions that were hardest hit by trade policies that allowed for job offshoring and depressed wages.

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This research also shows that relative to their share in the labor force, Black and Latino workers are more likely than their White counterparts to be concentrated in manufacturing industries most intensely hit by offshoring and import concentration — including paper manufacturing, chemicals manufacturing, transportation equipment manufacturing and primary metals manufacturing — due to free trade policies. The decline in manufacturing from 1960 to 2010 contributed to a 12% increase in the racial wage gap for men, for example.

Subject to Senate approval, Tai would be the first woman of color and first Asian American to lead USTR. And while representation isn’t the only important thing, it is a step in the right direction. No policy is race-neutral. Trade policy is no exception.

Tai must work to reverse the harms done by a legacy of trade policies on workers of color. This legacy includes trade agreements that have continued to undermine the US manufacturing sector and a lack of sound industrial policy that could revitalize communities that have been left behind.

Tai should also work to ensure that USTR protects workers and unions in the United States by developing new rules for foreign investors to hire from local communities instead of bringing in workers from elsewhere. She should also coordinate with the Department of Labor, Department of Education and the Department of Commerce to ensure that Black and Latino workers and communities benefit from these investments.

Tai should also work to increase wages and benefits by encouraging firms to offer apprenticeships for Black and Latino workers and restricting anti-union and anti-worker behavior by these firms, allowing workers to have a voice in corporate governance.

Trade policy has the potential to foster real prosperity and help build a strong economy for all of us, and Tai is well positioned to make this possibility a reality. Though the task ahead is substantial, if Tai continues her commitment to trade policy that centers on working people — in particular, the workers who face structural barriers in our economy — the promise ahead is clear.

This column first appeared on CNN Business.

Marc Bayard is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of its Black Worker Initiative.