Will the Biden Administration Make the Right Decisions on Trade and Jobs? (Updated)

December 9, 2020

This article was rewritten on Monday, January 4, to incorporate information about the nomination of Katherine Tai for USTR, which was announced the day after the original article was posted. The original article can be found on the Internet Archive here.

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, President-Elect Biden promised not to negotiate any new trade agreements until there are major investments in U.S. production. He also promised to make job-creating investments in infrastructure, including high-speed rail.

In mid-December, Biden’s team announced that Biden will be nominating Katherine Tai for U.S. Trade Representative. This is a positive step. Tai led negotiations over NAFTA 2.0 for the Democratic majority in Congress, helping to strengthen provisions in the new agreement that protect Mexican workers’ ability to form independent unions and negotiate for better pay and benefits. Improving the wages and working conditions for workers in other countries is the best way to prevent U.S. firms from moving production overseas.

Tai’s nomination demonstrates that the old “free trade” model, embodied by NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced for decades by both Republicans and corporate Democrats, is no longer viable. It has failed workers and working-class communities, both in the U.S. and around the world. More of the same will be a policy and political disaster.

However, it remains to be seen how much Tai, and the Biden administration, are committed to policies that raise the wages and working conditions of workers, especially manufacturing workers, in all countries. Those are the only kind of policies that will truly protect our jobs from globalization, so working people will still need to stay alert and be ready to keep the pressure on.

On a podcast in early December, a week prior to Tai’s nomination, Lori Wallach of Rethink Trade said that “If the right person is chosen for the trade representative's job, then that person has a lot of leverage, and has a lot of new tools, to actually do the right thing.” However, she noted that making the wrong decisions on trade, such as appointing the wrong U.S. Trade Representative, will “doom the Biden presidency from day one.”

“Biden said some of the right things on trade and jobs during the campaign,” said UE General President Carl Rosen, “but we know he comes from the same corporate wing of the Democratic Party that gave us NAFTA and tried to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama administration. It will be up to the working class and our allies to mobilize to make sure he not only follows through on his campaign promises, but pursues a trade policy that will actually lift standards for all workers. That is the only way we can have truly secure good jobs.”