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Why President Obama's trade agenda just turned into a food fight

UFCW members protest Walmart business practices in November 2012 in Maryland. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/the Washington Post via Getty Images)
UFCW members protest Walmart business practices in November 2012 in Maryland. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

The president's trade agenda just became a food fight.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) dealt another blow to President Obama’s hopes of sealing new trade deals today, calling for the defeat of fast-track legislation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact — threatening to punish lawmakers who back them — in an op-ed in the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill.

With other unions also unhappy with Obama's trade plans, UFCW's decision to fight so aggressively matters for two reasons.

First, UFCW hasn’t opposed all trade deals in the past. As the group’s chief, Marc Perrone, points out in the op-ed, the union supported the US-Korea free-trade agreement — at a time when major labor groups were divided on it.

So UFCW’s defection signals an erosion of Obama’s trade coalition. Obama knows he’s facing an uphill battle on trade, and UFCW just stood its 1.3-million-member army on the high ground above him.

Second: money, money, money. The UFCW ranks among the top direct givers to Democratic House and Senate candidates, having doled out a little more than $1.7 million from its political action committee in the last election cycle — even more than the politically vaunted Teamsters — according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Given all that we know, how any elected official, Democrat or Republican, can support TPP is inexplicable," Perrone wrote, before alluding in no uncertain terms to the union’s treasury. "Make no mistake, we, and all of America’s hard-working men and women, will be watching whether or not our elected representatives do what is right for our families."

Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said this week that Congress would likely begin work on the fast-track legislation — the predicate for TPP and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (known as TTIP) — in the next several weeks.

Perrone and his union aim to stop it in its tracks.

"While a bipartisan chorus will sing the praises of this trade deal, they choose to ignore the truth that it is America’s working men and women, not them, who will pay the price as irresponsible corporations justify future cuts to wages, hours, and jobs — all in the name of 'international competition,'" he wrote.

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