CAN BUSH BRIDGE THE LABOR/TRADE DIVIDE?

CAN BUSH BRIDGE THE LABOR/TRADE DIVIDE?

There is no doubt that President Bush's tax cut plan will continue to spark debate about whether his math adds up. However, after his recent address to the Congress on his economic plan, one can wonder whether there is also something missing from his trade policy - labor standards. Although the President asked the Congress for new 'fast track' trade negotiating authority, or, as he has renamed it, 'trade promotion authority,' he didn't mention anything about labor (or environment) concerns being part of his trade agenda. If the 'old divides' the President spoke about bridging in his opening speech to the Congress include trade, he will need to address this omission.

Let's keep in mind that if there is anything on which President Bush and former President Clinton agree, it seems to be on expanding global trade. President Clinton used political capital to get the Nafta and Uruguay Round WTO agreements through the Congress. But in 1997, a proposed new trade negotiations bill didn't go far enough on labor and environment. So fast track authority hit the skids. And it has been off the rails ever since. Clinton recognized this deadlock in his State of the Union speech in 1998 when he said we have to 'put a human face on the global economy.' Translation: 'We have to take seriously labor and environment issues to get support for new trade agreements.' Some progress in this direction was being made.

Indeed, the Africa and Caribbean trade enhancement programs passed last year have significant labor rights elements. New labor provisions are also in the bill Congress passed to provide for China's entry into the WTO. The proposed free trade agreements with Jordan and Singapore also show that labor standards can be part of trade accords.

Moreover, in January, a leading U.S. business group, The Business Roundtable, issued an important policy paper that recognized the need to address labor issues in the context of trade negotiations.

President Bush must decide whether he will build a bridge on the labor and trade issue, or will continue the divide. He may not have much time to think it over.

When the President goes to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April to work on a free trade area for our hemisphere, he will have to explain how labor fits into this negotiation - or not. Will he maintain or reverse the position of the Clinton Administration?

The Bush administration clearly supports a free trade agreement with Jordan. But will Ambassador Zoellick continue to express concerns over the labor provisions?

How will labor be handled in the renewed negotiations with Singapore and Chile on free trade agreements?

Likewise, how will labor be addressed when Congress considers legislation to normalize trade relations with Vietnam? The Clinton Administration negotiated a starting point agreement with Vietnam on labor, but the Bush Administration will, no doubt, be asked for views on additional approaches.

The list goes on.

This is not even to mention the priority of the new Administration to get trade negotiating authority from the Congress. The next WTO ministerial is in November, and launching a new trade round is again the goal for most involved. Making progress on labor is crucial to both objectives.

Thus far, Ambassador Zoellick has said relatively little on labor. His annual trade policy agenda released March 6 is not, it must be said, forward leaning. The only point he makes on labor is that conditions improve with economic growth and open markets.

He was drawn out further in a Ways and Means Committee hearing the next day, and said he thought a variety of approaches on the labor issue need to be considered, and didn't believe that 'one size fits all.' No doubt, that is true. But he also seemed to say that the current labor provisions in the Jordan agreement might not be on his menu of approaches. That position, if continued, could hamper the hoped-for progress on the overall trade agenda.

Zoellick did say in a published interview reported this week that he recognizes trade policy must be 'aligned with our values,' and on the need to 'get out front' on child labor and forced labor issues. Indeed, it is still possible and desirable to fashion a new bipartisan consensus on trade and labor.

The bottom line remains, however, that the divide on trade policy won't be crossed unless the Bush administration builds the bridge on the labor issue. Expanding trade is too important to let four years go by without doing so.

Andrew James Samet is with the law firm of Sandler, Travis and Rosenberg.

Mr. Samet served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-2001, and is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Labor for International Affairs and U.S. representative to the International Labor Organization.