How a Wonky Trade Pact You’d Never Heard of Became a Huge Campaign Issue

It all started with this Bernie Sanders staffer.

Anti-TPP signs were fixtures at July's Democratic National Convention.Bill Clark/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Until very recently, grousing about the pitfalls of global trade was seen as akin to complaining about the weather. One could no more stop China from dumping cheap imports than outlaw El Niño. And besides, the deluge of foreign goods would in the long run lift all boats. Or so we were told—before Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump begged to differ.

In a year of seething resentment toward the political establishment, support for “free trade” is no longer a given within either party. Even Hillary Clinton, whose husband famously signed NAFTA into law, has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a sweeping trade deal she helped set up as secretary of state.

Larry Cohen has a pretty good idea why that happened. As the president of the Communications Workers of America, and more recently a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, he has probably done more than anyone to elevate the issue. I reached out to Cohen to ask how he managed to make trade a big deal again.

Mother Jones: How has global trade affected your union members?

Larry Cohen: Call center jobs are tradable—more tradable than the production of steel or auto parts. Tens of thousands of CWA jobs are now in South Asia with English speakers. But that’s not all. The United States is the biggest consumer of telecom products in the world and almost none of them are made here. Other countries that don’t have this kind of trade regime have held onto those jobs. So Germany with Siemens and France with Alcatel—the French government puts huge penalties on shutdowns. We don’t put any.

MJ: The Democratic Party has been divided on trade since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA with Republican support. President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 12 Pacific Rim countries was supposed to win over the liberal wing of the Democratic Party by better protecting workers and the environment. What happened?

Obama said to me, “Larry, you must admit, the language is a lot better in here.” I said, “Yeah…but the problem is with enforcement.”

LC: A year ago, President Obama said to me, “Larry, you must admit, the language is a lot better in here.” And I said, “Yeah, the language is a lot better, but the problem is with enforcement.”

MJ: Give me an example.

LC: I worked on a case in Honduras involving the murder of labor organizers and the collapse of bargaining rights. When there’s complaints, the International Labor Affairs Bureau does an investigation. It takes them at least two years. Then you get a report eventually, and then it goes to the US Trade Representative. This is the guy who is gung ho for all these deals in the first place. When he gets to it, he meets with his foreign counterpart. They had one meeting on Honduras. It can move, after years and years, to a loss of some trade preferences. TPP enumerates that a little bit more clearly. But that’s years and years, and by that point, you know?

MJ: The jobs are long gone?

LC: It’s not just the jobs. It was people being butchered! The bottom line is: Multinational corporations get reparations. We get reports.

MJ: In other words, companies get to sue to protect their interests but workers and environmental groups do not?

LC: Right. Companies get to sue under what’s known as “investor state dispute settlement.” TransUnion is suing the US over Keystone: $15 billion. Vattenfall, which is a Swedish energy company, is suing Germany for $5 billion euros because [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, a conservative, said we’re going to shut down nuclear after Fukushima. These are examples. That has been the history of 25 years of so-called improvements in side agreements in trade.

“Chapter after chapter [of the TPP] was written by corporate lobbyists. Nothing was written by people like me.”

MJ: And you don’t think TPP fixes those problems?

LC: Chapter after chapter was written by corporate lobbyists. Nothing was written by people like me. There was a little side panel on labor and the environment and they didn’t do a single thing we wanted.

MJ: Obama has framed the TPP as part of his “pivot to Asia,” arguing basically that this is really a diplomatic mission aimed at counteracting the influence of China.

LC: That’s what they wrap this in. But what it really is about is all the multinational corporations that are cheering this deal because they will reign supreme in all 12 countries. That is the core of our foreign policy. Just look at our embassies around the word. In Honduras they throw in one person on human rights. This person says, “I am totally overwhelmed. People are killed here, killed there—it’s a police state.” And then the Commerce Department has 15, 20 people in Honduras promoting US multinationals there, from Fruit of the Loom to you name it. It’s way off.

MJ: How did your meeting with Obama come about?

LC: It was May of 2015. I’d been criticizing TPP at the time and they said, “He’d like to talk to you.” What he told me was: “I am too far down the road to change.” He repeated it over and over.

MJ: So you got a sense that he kind of agreed with you?

LC: No, he never agreed with me. His point of view was that this was significantly better than any other trade agreement on the things that I cared about. He did most of the talking. The joke I made at the end was: I grew up as the only kid. There were five adults in my great grandmother’s rural house in North Philadelphia. These were big talkers. Once in a while, I got to talk, and they never listened to a thing I said. And I told the president, “I love you very much anyway.”

MJ: What did he say?

LC: He laughed. They all laughed.

MJ: So after that meeting you kept fighting against TPP—and you almost derailed it.

LC: Right, June 27. They needed 60 votes to pass fast-track authority for the deal. We lost in the Senate by one vote.

MJ: And that’s when you decided to do something different.

LC: In September I said, “I am not going to run again [for CWA president]. I feel like we are in a box. I want to go back to movement building.”

MJ: So you joined the Sanders campaign as a senior advisor.

LC: Yeah, I worked full time, unpaid.

“We call it trade, but it really isn’t trade. It’s how we rig it.”

MJ: On the trade issue?

LC: Yeah, that was my job.

MJ: What did you do, specifically?

LC: In Lansing, Michigan, we set up a trade forum with Bernie and the media and brought in a whole bunch of people who gave firsthand reports about what they had experienced.

We did a nonpartisan march through Indianapolis. Carrier, which is owned by United Technologies, announced a shutdown of their heating and furnaces plant—1,900 jobs moving to Monterrey, Mexico, at $3 an hour. Bernie spoke at the march and it was 100 percent about trade.

On the South Side of Chicago, we did a big event in front of the Nabisco plant in the middle of winter with the workers there, mostly black. They had announced they are moving the Oreo cookie line, over 1,000 jobs out of that plant, to Mexico.

Bernie wrote op-eds on trade. He did a thing in Pittsburgh, We had a thing called “Labor for Bernie” that I helped organize, bringing in tens of thousands of active union members.

MJ: Can you point to any particular moment in the campaign when it became clear that the trade issue was really resonating with voters?

LC: Definitely Michigan.

MJ: Sanders’ primary victory there was a big upset.

LC: There were dramatic results there from what we believed was, in part, that work. I would give the credit to Bernie. He really thinks that the way the global economy is working is at the center of what’s wrong. We call it trade, but it really isn’t trade. It’s how we rig it.

MJ: As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton helped set up the negotiations for TPP, so it was surprising when she came out against it in October. Did you see that coming?

“I think Hillary made a very careful calculation: If she had not come out against TPP, she would have lost to Bernie Sanders.”

LC: Gradually. The pressure was enormous. I think she made a very careful calculation: If she had not come out against TPP, she would have lost to Bernie Sanders. She never could have provided enough cover to the national labor unions that endorsed her campaign without that flip.

MJ: Did you then start to see other prominent Democrats follow her lead?

LC: No. Tim Kaine would be the next prominent Democrat, and that was only when it was announced that he would be vice president.

MJ: Interesting. So what were you doing heading into the Democratic convention?

LC: Bernie put trade right at the top of his list. We had five people on the platform drafting committee out of 16. There was a meeting in St. Louis where the draft got finalized. The language had said that Democrats are “divided” on the TPP. The platform committee itself had I think 188 people, of which we had 72. They realized they had a problem. They took out “Democrats are divided” and instead they listed a bunch of standards that are actually pretty decent. The document concludes by saying, “Trade deals must meet this standard.” We had an amendment that said, “Therefore, we oppose the TPP.” It lost 106 to 74. So we got 2 votes from the Clinton appointees and our 72.

MJ: If Clinton really opposes the TPP, why would most of her platform committee reps oppose that language?

LC: The reason is, I think, that the White House said, “This is a total embarrassment to us. You are our secretary of state. We are not going to put up with that. We don’t want any opposition to the TPP in the platform.”

MJ: Why didn’t you take it to a floor vote?

LC: We could have, because you only need 25 percent of the platform committee to go to the floor, but Bernie’s view was that we would get the same thing. We would lose, and then it would look like the Democratic Party doesn’t oppose the TPP.

“On Monday night [at the DNC] we had the giant TPP forum with 800 delegates. We actually practiced the chants of ‘No TPP!'”

MJ: So you orchestrated a protest instead. People who watched the convention on TV may still remember all the anti-TPP signs. How did that come about?

LC: On Monday night we had the giant TPP forum with 800 delegates. That’s where we sort of revved up the signs and the stickers and the chants of “No TPP!” We actually practiced that in the room.

MJ: Whose idea was it to do that?

LC: Me and others who organized the forum. We knew we had to use it as a springboard. That is what a political convention is supposed to be. It’s not just about falling in line. In my opinion, Hillary Clinton is opposed to TPP, so we should be saying it publicly so we don’t give ground to Trump.

MJ: What is your take on how the trade backlash happened within the GOP?

LC: It’s voters. Hillary Clinton would say the same thing. “I listened to voters.” People get it. They look at the numbers about jobs or incomes or the trade deficit, and they see the results.

MJ: Trade might be the only thing Trump and Sanders agree on.

LC: At an ideological level, we don’t have the same views of fair trade at all. Our view would be that workers rights and the environment need to count as much as corporate profits, and Trump’s view would be just that it’s “a bad deal.”

MJ: Do you think you can build an effective bipartisan coalition on trade?

LC: With regular people we can do that. But it’s not like our part of the movement can unite with whatever that part is in the Republican Party. There’s some acknowledgement of each other. That’s about it. I just got off a call earlier making a plan for the next few months. We don’t have any of them to make a plan with.

MJ: Do you think TPP will be addressed in the lame duck session?

LC:  Only once can TPP be sent to Congress by any president. If it is sent before the election, it’s really gonna get attacked. Anyone who is in a vulnerable district, that issue is gonna go way to the top. The White House could send it after the election but they are not even guaranteed the vote. So they are caught here. They can’t send it unless they think they have the best chance they possibly have to pass it. That’s why you have [House Speaker Paul] Ryan doubting it for lame duck.

MJ: So they might just wait until the next administration?

LC: Yeah, but we’re not going to give on that. We are going to mobilize constantly on it.

MJ: And beyond the TPP?

LC: The only thing that the president really controls is trade policy. Congress reacts, the president acts. I do think there is a ground swell for not bringing Wall Street people into the US Trade Representative’s office and taking it over. That has been going on either directly or indirectly for decades.

MJ: What should the overarching principles be?

“We need to have plain, simple language where we count just as much as the richest corporations.”

LC: Balanced trade should be a major factor: The net effect on jobs. Consequences about manufacturing. What happens to different employment sectors in our country. But also, ending the investor state dispute settlement. There should be issues about the environment or workers rights or human rights that can trump national courts in the same way that investment rights do now.

MJ: This stuff is obviously important, yet when politicians talk about it, people’s eyes often glaze over. How do you keep voters engaged?

LC:  Only by saying to people quite bluntly, “This is not about trade, it is fundamentally about the way in which large foreign corporations rig the global economy.” We need to have plain, simple language that regulates the global economy where we count just as much as the richest corporations in the world. That’s what people react to.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.