Biden is using Detroit to sell his vision for the global economy. It also highlights the pitfalls.
For the Biden administration, Detroit’s symbolic appeal as host of this global conference is obvious. It embodies the resurgence of American manufacturing promised by the president and is set to benefit from a torrent of federal investments in emerging technologies like electric vehicles and semiconductors. It’s a contrast to the last time the United States hosted APEC in 2011. At the time, the Obama administration was aggressively pushing free trade deals and hosting the meeting of trade ministers in the resort. resort town of Big Sky, Montana, a place intended to showcase the “unlimited possibility” of the American West.
“Detroit has experienced first-hand some of the most negative impacts of aggressive trade liberalization and deindustrialization,” Tai said Thursday as the first formal meeting of trade ministers began. “When President Biden and I talk about putting workers at the center of our trade policy, it’s no exaggeration to say that Detroit – past, present and future – is at the heart of it.”
Detroit has steadily rebounded from its headline-grabbing bankruptcy in 2013, and swaths of the once devastated city have since been revitalized. Some manufacturing has returned as the Big Three U.S. automakers have opened or expanded electric vehicle plants in the region, and Mayor Mike Duggan said the drive to restore critical U.S. supply chains would give a new impetus to the city.
“For most of my adult life, manufacturing was moving out of Detroit,” Duggan said in an interview. “And you look at what’s happened over the last seven or eight years, it’s been remarkable.”
“If you look at where international trade is going, I think mobility will be a major part of that for a long time,” Duggan added. And as Biden negotiates trade initiatives in Asia, Duggan said he’s confident they “will open up markets for people in the United States to create jobs here, and won’t have the effect we’ve had. decades ago.”
But for free-trade skeptics, Detroit offers a cautionary tale of the repercussions that ripple through American communities when policymakers simply open the doors to American markets: outsourced jobs, shuttered factories, and growing inequality.
“Detroit, in many ways, has illustrated how past trade deals — and how we’ve concentrated trade, dominating corporate interests over workers’ interests — has resulted in the exhaustion of manufacturing,” said Melinda St. Louis, Director. of the global business intelligence program of Public Citizen, a progressive advocacy group.
Now, those same skeptics are increasingly concerned about the Indo-Pacific economic framework, particularly whether it will adequately protect consumer data privacy, prevent further environmental degradation, and uphold human rights. workers in countries with poor results.
A coalition of progressive groups, led by Public Citizen, rallied in Detroit on May 19 to demand the Biden administration enshrine tough labor standards and environmental protections in the Indo-Pacific economic framework — and reject provisions that help companies to reap greater profits.
“Detroit was the birthplace of the labor movement and has become this city of opportunity where you build a strong middle class that encompasses a large portion of the population,” said Charles Daniels, senior campaign manager for the Communication Workers of America. “I feel like we’re going to be the rebirth of the labor movement.”
Some in Biden’s own party aren’t entirely convinced that his trade agenda will correct past mistakes, even as they argue his administration is listening to working people.
“The Midwest is where we’ve seen the worst impacts of bad trade deals in decades,” the rep said. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), whose district includes the area around Ann Arbor, said at a town hall last week. “It’s great to see the presence of people here, but I’m not interested in words, I’m interested in actions.”
The Biden administration hoped to avoid such a backlash when officials first laid out the Indo-Pacific trade framework. The administration has deliberately avoided the kind of traditional free trade deals that voters in Michigan and other swing states have rejected in the past, opting instead for a pact focused on issues like labor rights, supply chains and clean energy.
And instead of unfettered free trade, the White House has touted what it sees as a new model – a “worker-centric trade policy” – that gives workers and the environment more influence. on the rules of international trade. Tai, in particular, ensured that the unions had a strong voice in American trade discussions. Before kicking off the APEC ministerial on Thursday, for example, she moderated a discussion with United Auto Workers and AFL-CIO officials.
Addressing a room of senior trade officials, the union leaders offered an unvarnished critique of free trade. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain said “anti-working class trade policy has been the single greatest source of damage to our nation’s working class in the past 40 years.” And AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frederick Redmond added that countries, including APEC members, cannot continue to undermine labor and environmental standards if that is to change. “If we want to have a worker-centric trade policy, it has to be fair for everyone. That’s what we’re talking about. »
The challenge for the Biden administration is how to incentivize foreign countries to raise their labor, environmental, and digital trade standards if they get no preferential access to lucrative U.S. markets in return. While many trading partners praise the Biden administration for strengthening economic ties, they also want the United States to eventually join a traditional trade deal that gives foreign companies better access to the U.S. market.
Still, administration officials are pushing ahead, hoping to complete the Indo-Pacific deal by the end of the year — staggering speed for a trade pact. And they hope the rally in Detroit will give the talks a jolt in the arm.
“The two major Asian-American engagement initiatives are essentially going to be tested” in Detroit, said Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, “particularly if they can provide substance and confirm or emphasize American leadership in the region.”