by John Byrne Barry
When the House of Representatives voted 215 to 214 in early December to give the president fast-track authority to negotiate trade pacts, Craig Volland was angry.
Ever since 1992, when he first learned that the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna law was undermined by GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, Volland has been fighting to stop trade agreements that threaten the environment. "Back then, I couldn't believe there was an international organization that had the power to weaken our Marine Mammal Protection Act," he says.
But on Dec. 6, Volland's congressman, Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) -- who the Sierra Club endorsed and supported in the 2000 election -- voted for fast track.
"We lost and my representative cast the deciding vote," says Volland.
By passing fast track, the Congress essentially surrenders its authority to amend upcoming trade pacts; it can only vote them up or down.
In August, Rep. Moore moderated a debate on the impacts of free trade in Kansas City, in which Volland and Judy Ancel, another member of the Club's Kansas Chapter, argued for clean, green and fair trade.
While frustrated about the defeat, Volland asserts that far more locals are educated about international trade than ever before. "The glaze-over factor is dissipating," he says. "When we did a phone bank recently to our members, the response rate was as good as any other Club issue. That wouldn't have been the case several years ago."
It was a brighter day in Oregon, says Portland volunteer Brent Foster. The defeat hurt, he says, but all four Oregon Democrats, some very much pro-free trade, voted against fast track.
Foster says that Club activists, working alongside members of the AFL-CIO, religious groups and Jobs With Justice, rallied outside Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D) office once a week for several months. Blumenauer reported that he got hundreds of calls a day urging him to oppose fast track. He did.
One successful tactic the alliance tried was setting up phone banking on Portland street corners. "We'd show up with a bunch of cell phones," says Foster, "and fill up Congressional voice mailboxes within a few hours."
"The contacts we made in Seattle [at the WTO protests in 1999] blossomed during the fast-track fight," says Foster.
Adoption of fast track, which is expected to pass the Senate in 2002, could pave the way for an expansion of the controversial "investor rules" in NAFTA. Under these provisions, for
example, the Canadian corporation Methanex sued the United States for $1 billion, claiming California's ban on MTBE, a gasoline additive that has poisoned drinking-water wells and groundwater, has cost it money.
Such provisions are expected to be part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, which would create a trading bloc of 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere.
"While we lost this one," says Dan Seligman, director of the Club's Responsible Trade Program, "we greatly increased the awareness about the environmental perils of any trade agreements that might result from the fast-track process."
Seventeen of the 20 pro-trade Democrats on the West Coast voted against fast track.
"Grassroots organizing trumped corporate money in the most trade-dependent part of the country," says Seligman. "Club activists poured their heart into this one, breathed new life into the old idea of citizenship. We just need to build from that base."
More on Responsible Trade.
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