U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai Promises Workers Will Have a Seat at the Table on Trade

By Jeffrey Bonior
Jun 10 2021 |
“We know that trade is essential to a functioning global economy. It is clear, however, that the past promises made to workers on trade were not met,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Thursday. Photo via AFL-CIO livestream on Facebook

Appearing at a town hall event sponsored by the AFL-CIO, Tai noted that “President Biden is committed to protecting our steel industry and workers” from unfair trade practices.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Thursday outlined President Joe Biden’s plan to create a worker-centered trade policy during an AFL-CIO town hall in Washington, D.C.

As part of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better policy, Tai explained why America’s workers must have a seat at the table in the early stages of trade negotiations so that our economy can grow from the “bottom up and middle out” instead of relying on the failed trickle-down policies of past administrations.

“The president has been clear that trade policy will play a critical role in carrying out his vision for an economy where, as he puts it, ‘everyone is cut in on the deal.’” Tai said. “And that is why I am here today, to talk about your important role in the Biden-Harris administration’s pursuit of a worker-centered trade policy.

“We know that trade is essential to a functioning global economy. It is clear, however, that the past promises made to workers on trade were not met. Certain sectors of the economy have done well. But far too many communities and workers were left behind.

“The consequences for families when factories closed, and jobs were sent overseas were real. And they were real for the workers who lost their jobs to unfairly traded imports, too. This created a trust gap with public about free trade.”

For many years now we have heard many of America’s elected officials expound on the benefits of so-called “free trade.” Call it what you wish, but it certainly has not been “fair trade.”

“In the United States, real wages have stagnated for decades and the wealth gap – particularly between Black and white workers – has widened significantly,” Tai continued. “CEOs now make an average 320 times more than their employees. And the percent of workers in unions – a good indicator of higher wages and job stability – is half of what it was 40 years ago.

“This inequality isn’t fair or sustainable. It didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a long pursuit of tax, trade, labor and other policies that encouraged a race to the bottom.”

Tai’s major trade policy address at the virtual town hall was unique in that her remarks were not directed only to corporate leaders and top labor union officials, but to the everyday hard-working men and women of the labor movement. She made this clear at the beginning of her remarks telling the union members “This speech is for you.”

One of those people: Kameen Thompson, president of the United Steelworkers Local 9462 near Philadelphia. Thompson represents approximately 150 workers at the Conshocken mill, which makes high-alloy steel that is vital to the United States military.

Thompson has seen large drops in production at the mill over the years and is an advocate for investments in our military and infrastructure. He had a chance to ask Tai about the threat to America’s steel industry because of overcapacity brought on by the illegal dumping of steel products into the U.S. market by China and other foreign countries.

“There is a growing future in demand in renewable energy that holds great promise for American workers throughout our supply chain and I will give you an example,” Thompson told Tai. “Each new megawatt of solar power requires between 35 to 45 tons of steel and each megawatt of wind-power requires 103 to 110 tons of steel and I would like to know if we envision taking full advantage of these opportunities particularly given the ongoing problem of global overcapacity of critical goods like steel?”

Tai responded that Biden is aware of his need to address overcapacity, noting she will travel with the president to Brussels next week to meet with allies to discuss a sustainable solution:

“The steel industry is critical to our economy and our national security and as you point out it is also really important for the climate agenda because it is a crucial component in solar and wind. We know that workers like you at steel mills around the country have faced unfair competition from global overcapacity. China and several other countries have used industrial policies, including unfair subsidies, to flood the global market.

“President Biden is committed to protecting our steel industry and workers like you from unfair trading practices. We will be better able to respond to global overcapacity if we consult closely with the United Steelworkers and partner with our allies.”

Throughout her remarks, Tai stressed Biden’s commitment to all Americans when it comes to matters of trade policy.

“By bringing workers from all backgrounds and experiences to the table, we will create inclusive trade policy that advances economic security and racial and gender equality,” she said. “We want to lift up women, communities of color and rural America – people that have been systematically excluded or overlooked.

“We know that when workers have a seat at the table in their workplace, wages go up, retirement benefits go up, workplaces are safer, and discrimination and harassment get addressed. We want trade to deliver the same results.

Tai said that the U.S. is also working with allies to make U.S. supply chains “less vulnerable and more resilient,” given the problems that were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For too long, the United States has taken certain features of global markets as inevitable – especially the fear that companies and capital will flee to wherever wages, taxes and regulations are lowest. The pandemic laid bare the challenge of this approach and we need to fix it,” Tai said.

“A worker-centered trade policy seeks to expand opportunities for businesses by expanding economic security for workers here at home. I hope American companies of all sizes will join us in this effort. We need their ideas, experience, energy and partnership.”

An aggressive and progressive trade policy is a complicated issue in these days of mercantile economies. But Tai left the workers with a message of hope.

“You are the sweat, the muscle and the brains behind American ingenuity, perseverance and competitiveness,” she told the workers. “You are the backbone of our economy and democracy. You are the guiding light of trade policy for the Biden-Harris administration.”