Lori Wallach: The Trade Debate's Guerilla Warrior Gets Her Day

The advocate seeks "a trade policy that respects the fundamental tenets of American democracy."

Lori Wallach was 27 and lobbying for food-safety improvements as a staff attorney for the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen when she noticed that industry lawyers were routinely citing trade agreements as a reason to lower food-safety standards. That launched her on a mission to find out more. She wound up poring over a draft of the agreement that would establish the World Trade Organization—and coming to the conclusion that trade negotiations were affecting a whole lot more than just trade.

Lori Wallach at Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. (Chet Susslin)This "awakening," as she calls it, kicked off two decades of work educating legislators and the public as the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. She and her 11-person team spend their days translating the arcane language of trade policy to help people understand it, tracking the outcomes of existing trade deals and measuring them against free-trade advocates' claims, and lobbying Congress for what Wallach calls "a trade policy that respects the fundamental tenets of American democracy."

"What I do is a combination of the 'Dracula strategy' and translation," she says. "I translate what the terms mean and then basically drag into the sunshine what the real implications are. The thing is," she adds, "just like Dracula, once exposed to the sunshine, the details of these agreements do not fare well." Her efforts have made the 51-year-old perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the free-trade movement—but if they want someone to blame, she says, they should talk to Big Food: "If the agro-business companies hadn't gotten greedy about food-safety laws through the WTO and NAFTA, I'd still be working on fish inspection."

Now, with Republicans in control of Congress and the Obama administration prioritizing trade deals—including the largest in decades, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which involves a dozen Pacific Rim countries—Wallach is gearing up for the fight of her career, and both friends and foes expect her to give it her all. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has helped lead the House Democratic fight against the presidential trade negotiating power known as fast-track authority, and who counts Wallach as a friend, calls her "indefatigable." Bill Reinsch, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which supports free trade and the TPP, chooses a different term: "relentless"—a rare point of agreement between him and Wallach, who uses the same word to describe herself. "I've found her over the years a very formidable adversary," Reinsch says. "It's made a little bit easier by the fact that she's wrong, but that's small consolation sometimes."

Wallach, for her part, is well equipped to counter that viewpoint. She grew up in the northern Wisconsin town of Wausau, and even when she was a kid, she tells me, people said she ought to be a lawyer. She recounts a time in third grade when, upon learning that a favorite teacher was getting transferred, she launched a "Save Mrs. Fitzgerald" campaign at John Marshall Elementary School. "I was either going to be in legal services or I was going to need them," she says.

But after enrolling in Harvard Law School in the late 1980s, she found she didn't really want to be a lawyer "in the traditional sense." She knew she wanted to do something in the public interest, but it wasn't until several years after she graduated that she would find the work that would come to define her. "The issue is what, in a way, has made me," she says, "because it is so broadly affecting of everything, every policy, every facet of our day-to-day lives. And the prospect of the damage that can be caused has motivated me to do this work. It's the issue that's really interesting."