The first thing you should know about the Trans-Pacific Partnership is that we do not know what it is.
The Obama administration knows what it is, because it's negotiating the trade deal with 11 Asia-Pacific countries—a group that represents some 40 percent of the global GDP. Past that, what's inside the deal is largely a guessing game. Some members of Congress have said that they, too, have limited opportunities to digest the details of the deal and what it means.
But that didn't stop the Seattle City Council from unanimously passing a resolution on March 30 that expressed concern about the TPP and opposed the federal government's proposal to "fast-track" the deal through Congress. "Fast-track" is shorthand for the authority President Obama wants Congress to grant him so that the deal can be ushered through the legislative branch without amendments or filibustering—which critics say bypasses honest democratic process.
What does any of this have to do with Seattle?
Well, we know that the TPP has inspired loud protest from local labor and environmental groups. The March 30 council meeting was wall-to-wall packed—it also had homeless encampments on the agenda—and the unanimous decision about the TTP received a standing ovation. "Basically anyone who supports the rights of human beings and the environment is on one side of the debate," Council Member Kshama Sawant, who helped spearhead the discussion and the resolution within the city council, told the room.
Labor groups worry that NAFTA-style free-trade agreements help outsource jobs, but not everyone agrees with that conclusion. What economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have pointed out, however, is that the TPP agreement probably wouldn't do much to help workers and would primarily benefit industries like big pharma. Stiglitz has also written in the New York Times that the deal would make corporations richer, but not necessarily help "those in the middle, let alone those at the bottom."
Leaked drafts of the trade agreement raise cause for concern. Most recently, WikiLeaks and the New York Times revealed a draft section of the deal that outlined how foreign companies could sue TPP governments in an international tribunal over practices that cut into their investments.
Marco Simons, legal director at EarthRights International, told The Stranger that this kind of trade agreement provision—something called an investor-state dispute settlement—has resulted in abusive practices in which corporations sue governments over issues like anti-smoking measures and environmental regulations. More than that, he said, these kinds of provisions might even threaten to chill a local government's regulatory ambitions. For example, a city's desire to pass a $15 minimum wage.
"It would not be a surprise to me if a foreign multinational were to argue that a living wage law in Seattle was a denial of its rights as an investor, because it changed the conditions under which they invested, and resulted in a decrease in the value of their investment because they have to pay their employees more," Simons said. "It could make states and cities think twice about taking strong measures to protect the environment, or workers, or public health."
But then again, not everyone agrees that the TPP stands a chance of casting a chilling effect over US policies, let alone Seattle's. "I would say it would be highly unlikely," said Scott Miller, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most of the time, governments get sued over discrimination arguments, and something like a $15 minimum wage wouldn't qualify.
Simons maintained that the possibility to sue over a local labor policy would still exist. The wording from the leaked draft doesn't preclude it.
"It is possible, but I think it's very unlikely that [a corporation] would win," said Susan Ariel Aaronson, a research professor specializing in international trade agreements at George Washington University. Aaronson added that she was no fan of the investor-state dispute settlement provision, but imagined that it could very well be carved out of the agreement for the US.
Before the vote, the Seattle Times editorial board seized on much of the debate's unknowns to argue that the Seattle City Council shouldn't wade in. Council Member Mike O'Brien, however, said that even though the TPP doesn't "exist in any form we can meaningfully debate," it underlined the deal's lack of transparency, as well as the need to have trade agreements that support strong environmental and labor policies. And Nick Licata said that the vote would send a message to Washington, DC, about the concern Seattleites have about not being able to control their environment and protect workers through a domestic democratic process.