Labor Makes Trade a Line in the Sand for 2016. But What If Hillary Clinton Crosses It?

The AFL-CIO is adamant about political candidates opposing the Trade Promotion Authority and Trans-Pacific Partnership. But they have limited options.

President of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Richard Trumka speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (National Journal)

One of America's most influential labor organizations is trying to ensure that the political candidates it would support will oppose free-trade deals. But if Hillary Clinton comes out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, labor doesn't have many other options.

In a speech Tuesday morning, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation free-trade deal supported by the Obama administration, as well as Trade Promotion Authority, also known as "fast-track authority," which would make trade deals like the TPP subject to an up-or-down vote in Congress without the ability to amend the deal.

"We expect those who seek to lead our nation forward to oppose fast-track," Trumka said. "There is no middle ground, and the time for deliberations is drawing to a close."

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The AFL-CIO is already putting its money where its mouth is. The organization had previously frozen donations to federal candidates to focus on stopping TPA and TPP, and last week, after the Senate Finance Committee voted to approve TPA, the AFL-CIO began running online ads against Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats, for voting in favor of the legislation.

"Now, we are using those resources to hold politicians accountable and remind them that voters are paying attention to this debate because it's enormously important to working families," Eric Hauser, communications director for the AFL-CIO told National Journal in a statement in reference to the ads being run against Wyden and Bennet.

But Clinton's presidential candidacy puts labor in a particularly difficult position. Clinton has dithered on TPP since she became a candidate, despite having previously calling it "the gold standard" for promoting free, fair, open, and transparent trade.

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Clinton's potential Democratic challengers—including ardent TPP opponents Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley—hardly pose a significant threat right now. And, with no viable Clinton alternative, it is unclear what steps the AFL-CIO—or organized labor as a whole—would take if Clinton gives her backing to TPP.

The predicament is part of a larger problem that organized labor, typically a Democratic constituency, is facing in the United States. Americans have generally mixed feelings about the decline in union participation over the last two decades. A Pew Research Center study released this week showed 45 percent of Americans saw the decline of union membership as a bad thing, while 43 percent saw it as a good thing.

And it's not like if unions ultimately voted down on Clinton that they would be welcomed by Republicans. The same Pew study showed 62 percent of Republicans viewed the reduction in union membership as mostly good for the country, with 51 percent saying it has been mostly good for workers specifically. And it is not likely that unions would find a home with Republicans anyway, given candidates like Jeb Bush who ardently support the TPP.

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Organized labor has a clear line on trade. They just don't have a clear alternative if that line is crossed.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the structure of the AFL-CIO. It is a federation of unions.