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Understanding “Worker-Centered” Trade Policy


Published 02 February 2021

The Biden administration has said it would pause new trade agreements until it can redirect the United States toward a “worker-centered” trade policy. What does it mean in practice, and what should journalist be aware of when covering the debate?

Click the image below to watch the full discussion:

In this webinar as the Hinrich Foundation reboot our global trade series with the National Press Foundation, we have invited three experts on trade and its effects on workers to help journalists prepare for the upcoming debate on Biden’s ‘worker-centered trade policy’. Speakers included:

  • Shannon O'Neil, Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Sandra Polaski, Senior Research Scholar of the Global Economic Governance Initiative, Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center
  • Josh Nasser, Legislative Director, United Auto Workers

Here are the five key takeaways from the discussion:

  1. Vast global markets are restricting US companies. Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations said that Canada and the European Union are grabbing a larger share of global trade, while US access is receding. “We only have preferential access to less than 10% of the world’s population,” she said. “… Canada, Mexico and the EU have preferential access to over half of the world’s consumers. … And frankly we have lost ground over the last three or four years.”
  2. The evidence is mixed on whether trade policies have served American workers. Sandra Polaski of the Boston University Global Development Policy Center wrote recently that the “policies have failed most Americans.” Corporate interests dominate trade policy, extracting wealth at home and abroad and leaving working people to bear the costs, she said. Trump administration tariffs and other attempts to make trade fairer did not deliver the promised job growth.
  3. The trade deficit is huge and getting bigger. While trade in services has been positive for the US, trade in goods has been increasingly negative. The US trade deficit (Census Bureau data here) hit US$577 billion in 2019 – not an all-time low but approaching the lows of the last three decades.
  4. Low-income workers were hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. They’ve also been the slowest to come back. Josh Nassar, legislative director of the union UAW, noted that high-wage jobs dropped 13% after COVID lockdowns but have since recovered. Low-wage jobs dropped 37% and have only recovered about a third of those losses.
  5. The US needs a holistic policy for worker well-being that includes trade. Polaski and Nassar argued the Biden administration needs to create better-paying jobs through infrastructure programs, support for strategic industries like semiconductors and batteries for electric cars, for example. Polaski said the administration should “create work where the private sector won’t go.”

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