Out of Work, Out of Luck

If things don’t change in the next two weeks, workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own will also lose their Trade Adjustment Assistance Act benefits. These vital benefits provide much needed training, health care benefits (80 percent), and unemployment assistance (156 weeks) to workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign trade. Due to a technical drafting error in the U.S. Senate, this program is set to expire on February 13, 2011.

In the waning hours of 2010 there was a last minute, frantic rush to extend TAA for workers as part of HR 6517. The language was supposed to say that TAA would be extended for six weeks and if Congress did not act by February 13, TAA would be cut back to its pre-stimulus level of funding and eligibility (The stimulus bill had increased funding for the program and expanded eligibility to include service workers, not just manufacturing workers affected by job loss.)

However, because of a drafting error, the language instead says that unless Congress acts by February 13, TAA for workers will be completely eliminated. This error has opened the door to political tomfoolery to the detriment of U.S. workers. 

As one labor lobbyist put it, the TAA program is now the new “UI benefits extension” in the eyes of Republican members of Congress.   Just as the President had to make a deal on tax cuts in exchange for an extension of UI benefits, so too might he have to pass unwanted trade agreements in order to save the TAA program.

According to an article from Inside U.S. Trade, Republicans in Congress see an opportunity to hold TAA benefits hostage in exchange for their hopes that President Obama will push not only the South Korea Free Trade Agreement but the Columbia and Panama Free Trade Agreements as well. Supported by the White House and the United Auto Workers, the South Korea Free Trade Agreement has a much higher likelihood of passage. The Columbia Free Trade Agreement meanwhile faces labor opposition because of that countries track record of killing union activists and the Panama Free Trade Agreement is opposed by many members of Congress because it has long been one of the world’s largest tax havens.

Democrats are caught in a quandary: Is it better to expand trade deals that will put more workers on the unemployment line and support an anti-labor regime, or squash the trade deal and risk losing benefits for thousands of unemployed Americans?

The California Labor Federation’s Workforce & Economic Development Program (WED) is working with the national AFL-CIO to gather evidence of the need for this program and for increasing its use by California workers.   Perhaps the politicians in Washington can make a strong argument for saving the jobs we still have AND supporting workers who have lost their jobs transition back into the workforce.

If you are a labor leader in an industry that faces international trade competition,  then please help us by taking this five minute survey.

For more information on TAA and to participate in TAA training forums, please contact Peter Cooper.