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From Bread to Bridges: What U.S. Workers Want from Trade

Notes from the Field: Seattle and Burlington, Washington Thursday, August, 5, 2021

Charita L. Castro, PhD
Director for Labor Affairs
Office of the United States Trade Representative

In Ambassador Katherine Tai’s Day One message to USTR staff, she explained that we will support the Biden-Harris Administration’s Build Back Better Agenda by pursing “policies that advance the interests of all Americans, support American innovation and promote broad, equitable growth by giving workers a seat at the table.” In laying out USTR’s historic worker-centered trade policy, Ambassador Tai noted that this means “a different kind of process” — a process where workers are at the table and we listen and learn from them as we formulate and implement trade policies. Since Ambassador Tai was sworn in, she has held roundtables with workers across America, in their communities, and heard first-hand how trade policy is affecting their lives and work.

Last week, I had the privilege of joining Ambassador Tai as she traveled to Seattle and Burlington, Washington at the invitation of Representative Suzan DelBene to meet with local agriculture stakeholders, tribal leaders, and farmers; business representatives from the Washington Council on International Trade; and workers from the Washington State Labor Council.

But during our early morning drive to Burlington, Ambassador Tai received a phone call.  As I was sitting behind her, I could hear the concern in her voice. Something was wrong. After she hung up, she informed us that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had suddenly passed away.

President Joe Biden called Trumka “a fierce and forceful champion for the dignity of the American worker.”  In Ambassador Tai’s statement, she vowed to “carry [Trumka’s] vision forward as we develop a new trade policy that champions everyone, starting with our workers.” On a day when Ambassador Tai was describing her vision for a worker-centered trade policy to local workers, we had lost one of its biggest champions.

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Ambassador Tai and Representative DelBene (WA-01) touring the Washington State University Bread Lab and learning about their innovation in developing sustainable grains.

In the same way Richard Trumka praised Ambassador Tai for being the first U.S. Trade Representative to visit the AFL-CIO “House of Labor” for her worker-centered trade policy speech, I watched the tribal leaders, farmers, union representatives, and even bread researchers thank her for coming to Washington, visiting their “house” for the first time, and hear directly from them.  They shared common interests, including what they wanted from trade:

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Ambassador Tai and Representative DelBene (WA-01) listening to workers with the Washington State Labor Council at Machinists Hall.

  • Their innovation and hard work, including the development of sustainable, eco-friendly products, to be valued here at home and abroad;
  • Market access for the goods they produce or manufacture;
  • Assurances that trade monitoring and enforcement was robust so that their labor was not being undercut by unfair trade practices;
  • Protection from COVID-19 and an update on the TRIPS Waiver so that workers around the world can be protected from the deadly virus;
  • An understanding that supply chain resiliency has a human component and the ability for a supply chain to bounce-back from shocks includes not only an available supply of products but of workers; and
  • To stand in solidarity not just with workers in the United States, but with workers whose rights at work are being violated, including those of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities being subject to forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

 

The workers also made clear that they want America to invest in our infrastructure and create jobs, which the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed the Senate this week will deliver. They recognize that a worker-centered trade policy depends on investments that provide good-paying union jobs.

Ambassador Tai learning about the Microsoft Azure Cloud Computing Center and the kinds of jobs it creates for workers.

As I watched Ambassador Tai interact with attendees, it was not lost on me as a child of Filipino immigrants that I was witnessing the fulfillment of an American dream.  In the same way that Ambassador Tai’s immigrant parents from Taiwan worked to ensure that she had all the tools to succeed and live out the American dream, she knows that all American workers and their families want the same. 

For her, the worker-centered trade policy is not about pitting workers against businesses. It is an invitation to have the interests of all Americans in mind, and in doing so making sure that trade is a force for good.  In the same way President Trumka has fought for the dignity of workers, Ambassador Tai is pursuing a trade policy that treats workers with respect and fairness.  Nothing more, nothing less.

In Ambassador Tai’s Day One message to staff months ago, she invited us to meet the moment and “have an open mind and embrace the tremendous possibilities that can come from thinking outside the box.” Consider this an invitation to join us, the staff at USTR.  Join us as we work on behalf of the American people. Join us to Build Back Better.