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The Planet
Fair Trade or Fast Track?

Club urges Congress not to give up power to fix harmful trade deals

By Jenny Coyle

It was a Saturday night in Houston, hot and muggy like it can get in August. Nan Hildreth was sitting at her desk reading e-mail when the phone rang. It was her congresswoman, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, wanting to talk about the Sierra Club's position on a new anti-environmental fast track bill.

"It was a bit of a surprise that she called, yes," said Hildreth, Texas' leader for the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Campaign. But then, there was plenty of heat being placed on Jackson Lee, a Democrat, to publicly oppose the bill.

"She'd refused to meet with environmentalists, so we swamped her office with several thousand postcards asking her to vote against fast track," Hildreth said. "The Houston Group sent her an official letter opposing fast track. We issued an e-mail alert asking folks to call her. We phone-banked a couple of hundred environmentalists in her district asking them to urge her to vote against fast track. In short, we got her attention."

At issue is fast-track legislation H.R. 2149, the Trade Promotion Authority Act, introduced by Philip Crane (R-Ill.). Under fast track, Congress gives up the power to fix trade deals made by the president, even when those deals threaten the environment and worker's rights.

"Fast track would pave the way for expanding NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) to the rest of the Americas," said Dan Seligman, director of the Responsible Trade Campaign. "This would open the door to widespread corporate lawsuits against environmental protections."

So how bad is NAFTA?

Take the case of California's decision to ban MTBE, a toxic gasoline additive used to reduce air pollution, but which has contaminated drinking-water wells and groundwater throughout the state. After Gov. Gray Davis announced the ban, Methanex - the Canadian corporation that helps to manufacture MTBE - sued the United States in a NAFTA court for $1 billion, saying the ban had cost it money.

(The United States isn't always the victim: A California company won $19 million in a NAFTA lawsuit against Mexico after a state government there blocked the company's plans for a toxic waste dump.)

The Bush administration intends to use fast track to expand NAFTA across the Americas in a trade deal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The draft FTAA contains the same kind of corporate lawsuit provisions as in NAFTA. Tens of thousands of people, including members of the Sierra Club and Sierra Student Coalition, protested when Bush attended the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April to tout the FTAA. (See June 2001 Planet.)

As the Bush administration pressures Congress for fast track authority, the Sierra Club pushes for "right track," urging representatives and senators to maintain their power to alter the provisions of trade agreements, making it more likely that they are clean, green and fair.

In Portland, Ore., a coalition including Brent Foster and other members of the Oregon Chapter, set up a booth at a local fair and generated hundreds of grassroots calls to members of Congress by using a cell phone.

And in New York, under the leadership of Atlantic Chapter member Jim Mays, activists have had sit-down chats with every undecided member of the state's congressional delegation.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Jackson Lee has yet to take a public position. But at least the congresswoman has sent Nan Hildreth a clear signal that the channels of communication are open.

More information on the Fast Track Trade Authority Bill

Take Action:

As The Planet went to press, action on fast track was expected in late September or October. Call your representative and urge him or her to vote against H.R. 2149, and reject any fast-track legislation that allows the negotiation of trade deals that would undermine protection of the United States' environment.

If you're told that the vote has already taken place, ask how your decision-makers voted. Thank those who opposed the bill and voice your objections to those who supported it.

For more information, check out www.sierraclub.org/trade/fasttrack.


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