Grassroots Power: A Key Part of Winning on Trade

If you've been paying attention to the debate over international trade, you probably know that the progressive movement--including most Democrats in the House and Senate--fiercely opposed fast track legislation which Congress passed in June. The Sierra Club played a critical role in this fight, with tens of thousands of our activists engaged in the movement calling for fair and sustainable trade policy. As the country's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, the Sierra Club is very familiar with the power of organized people calling for change. We also know that building on our successes--and not despairing at our losses--will be critical to ensuring that future trade policies benefit communities and the environment rather than simply enrich corporations.

In case you did miss it: fast track legislation aims to facilitate the passage of trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and any trade deal that our next president negotiates. Despite strong opposition from the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate and House, Republican members of Congress and a handful of Democrats passed fast track, which was subsequently signed by President Obama.

Thanks to a broad movement that opposed it, this passage was far from easy, and the President was not exaggerating when he said fast track had been "declared dead" many times. The President asked for Congress to approve fast track authority in 2013, but it took two years for fast-track advocates in Congress to even bring fast-track legislation to a vote. When fast track finally passed, it was like a Frankenstein monster: broken apart and messily patched together. Democratic leaders including Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senator Elizabeth Warren decried the TPP's pro-corporate rules and threats to environmental, financial, and labor safeguards. Before casting her no-vote, Leader Nancy Pelosi stressed, "You cannot separate commerce and the environment." And in expressing their opposition to fast track, many members of Congress cited major environmental concerns.

One of the most important reasons that many members of Congress realized the TPP's environmental threats is because Sierra Club activists became well-versed in the intersection between proposed trade pacts and climate, and emphasized these threats to members in meetings and at town halls. Sierra Club activists held more than 80 meetings with members in their districts. They highlighted that the TPP and TTIP would require the Department of Energy to approve liquefied natural gas exports to other countries in the pacts. They cautioned that the TPP (and likely TTIP) would give new rights to corporations to sue governments over climate policies in non-transparent private trade tribunals. In New York, they spoke on stage with Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz to highlight the risks of the TPP. Volunteers helped move cities like Seattle and New York to pass resolutions opposing fast track. In Texas, they helped move the State Democratic platform to oppose fast track.

In various states, Sierra Club volunteers joined coalitions with diverse concerns, reinforcing the myriad areas of everyday life that the TPP and TTIP would impact. Allies included labor, human rights, and other environmental groups. Sierra Club chapters and groups partnered with other groups to co-host more than 70 anti-fast track rallies in more than 14 states. They educated press about their concerns. They authored and co-authored op-eds. In 2015 alone, Sierra Club volunteers took in-person trade actions including meetings, teach-ins, and letter deliveries in more than 40 districts across 22 states. This year they sent more than 350,000 emails and made more than 10,000 calls into members' offices urging them to oppose fast track.

Historically, we have seen that battle losses often do not reflect the broader progress of a movement. In organizing, core measures of success include strengthening partnerships, broadening a base, and changing the existing discourse so that public opinion begins to turn against the status quo. By these metrics, our movement is starting to win. Last year the Sierra Club joined more than 600 organizations including the NAACP, AFL-CIO, Alliance for Retired Americans, Natural Resource Defense Council, and others in a letter asking Senator Ron Wyden to reject the proposed fast track model. With ongoing pressure, the majority of our elected leaders will eventually listen, and make trade pacts that harm workers and the environment a thing of the past.

But we can only truly win the fight to stop dangerous trade deals and rules if we don't give up, keep building on this incredible movement, and recognize that even in the face of a fast track loss, the even bigger wins are ahead.

This post originally ran on the Sierra Club's Compass blog.