We Are All In This Together

Dissecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership

by Sebastian Clark, Alex Sammon & Emma Wohl

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published January 31, 2014

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim nations (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, the US, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada, and Japan) that encompass 39 percent of world trade. It has outraged many, from lefty activists to libertarian bloggers. Despite the vitriol, there remains confusion as to what the TPP will mean. Wading through the bureaucratic jargon, Indy News has created a pocket guide.


President Obama has said that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will “boost our economies, [lower] barriers to trade and investment, [increase] exports, and [create] more jobs for our people,” but beneath the rhetoric of commonwealth and economic growth is an agreement that is neither free nor restricted to trade.

     Only five of the 29 chapters of TPP actually deal with matters directly relating to trade. The other two dozen would tighten intellectual property law, liberalize the financial sector, breach consumer and labor rights, and stymie action on climate change. According to Dr. Matthew Rimmer, of Australian National University, TPP is “a Christmas wish-list for major corporations.”

     State leaders and their trade delegations have conducted the negotiations in complete secrecy. If it were not for published WikiLeaks drafts on the IP chapter and a “state of play” analysis after the 2013 Salt Lake round of negotiations, public knowledge of any of the provisions would be nil. The most fervent reactions have come from grassroot networks, which view such secrecy as an attempt to bypass the democratic mechanisms that they used to stall prior similar legislation–namely, the 1999 and 2010 expansions of NAFTA and the 2011 SOPA and PIPA bills.

     The US Trade Representative (USTR) is quick to point out that 300 “stakeholders”—a hodgepodge of civil society groups, academics, and simply concerned citizens—were invited to comment on the agreement at the July 2012 round of talks in San Diego. Yet these stakeholders were never granted access to the text on which they were meant to comment. Similar stunts have been pulled in other would-be member countries; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade held a “public forum” on the negotiations, but on the day before the event, rescinded the invitations of all registered journalists, stating that the meeting was “off-the-record.”

     Neither has Congress been afforded access. US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in May 2012 that “the majority of Congress” has been “kept in the dark” on TPP, while major corporations—like Halliburton and Chevron—have been “made privy to the details of the agreement.”

     Wyden’s concerns over corporate influence appear to be founded. One TPP provision, the Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) would establish supranational tribunals that would issue binding rulings, irreversible by appeal to any judicial court, that would grant corporations the right to sue member countries if they hamper “expected future profits”— in essence, elevating corporations to the legal status of sovereign states and formalizing the excision of corporate power from state control. Public policy would become a matter of purchasing policies from private industry. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, has stated, ISDS would constitute “a corporate coup d’etat.”

     The USTR has stated that ISDS will be “subject to appropriate safeguards,” but that is hard to imagine. A similar provision in the US-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty recently allowed Chevron to sue Ecuador for fining the corporation $18 billion, following its spilling of 16 million gallons of crude oil.

     As mentioned in his State of the Union Address, President Obama is now seeking “fast-track” trade promotion authority to bring US accession to TPP and the upcoming, and similarly frightening, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. If passed, legislators would not be allowed to amend TPP’s text, a direct breach of the US constitution, which grants Congress the power to regulate international trade.



The TPP’s shoring up of intellectual property law would grant Big Pharma a monopolistic stranglehold on the international distribution of drugs, reshaping health care across the globe. First, existing medical giants would be given legal footing on which to prosecute and prevent the distribution of cheaper, generic drugs. Under the guise of patent infringement, companies acting to proliferate medicine with more accessible pricing would be effectively outlawed. This means that prices on cancer drugs, the HIV/AIDS cocktail, malaria treatment, etc. would shoot up astronomically, pricing out needy populations in the developing world. Furthermore, it would preclude government-sponsored medical programs (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid) from bargaining with Big Pharma for bulk drug prices. The end result is massive price hiking and profit increases for the world’s major drug distributors, namely Merck and Pfizer.

Banking Policy

The TPP is a sweetheart deal for bankers. Transaction taxes like the Robin Hood Tax (one-half to one percent of Wall Street transactions) are explicitly illegalized. Consumer protection provisions like the Glass-Steagall Act, which prevents banks from using consumer funds in risky investments, are strictly forbidden. Regulation stemming from the 2007 financial collapse would be summarily rolled back, and banks in all TPP nations would be free from the aptly named “too-big-to-fail” size limitations on banking operations.

Internet Freedom

The TPP’s intellectual property legislation proposes to dramatically alter public Internet usage. The TPP has effetively revived the Internet usage act SOPA (euphemistically, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” which was defeated in Congress
in 2012). Corporate content would be granted exclusive copyright for 120 years, allowing private media giants to run roughshod over creative commons. Perhaps most shocking, however, is the blank check given to Internet providers like Time Warner Cable and Verizon, who would be given free reign to conduct international surveillance of web use, able to fine users for transgressions as minor as sending a purchased song to a friend.


The labor provisions of the TPP affect developed and developing countries in distinct ways. In countries like the United States, the TPP promises to lower wages for middle and lower class workers, and furthers the persecution of unionized labor. Any growth in GDP will be applied to “high income earners.” Labor forces of the developing world would be locked into low-wage slavery, barred from collective bargaining, workplace safety regulations, and workers’ rights movements. This provision will codify a labor system that impels factory workers as young as 14 years old legally work 12-hour days.


The transcript of the TPP environmental chapter states immediately that the TPP is a commercial agreement, not an environmental one. The policy proposes an avoidance of many environmental regulations and penalties. The aforementioned Investor-State Dispute Resolution provision gives all corporate entities involved the capacity to sue governments for financial compensation if any new environmental tariffs are implemented. To exact environmentally-motivated fines against the world’s biggest polluters, governments will have to pay these companies for their subsequent loss in profit. Simply, environmental enforcement becomes punishable by law. Massive producers like Halliburton would take over their own export regulation, able to sell natural gas to any TPP nation while bypassing all current review of the environmental and economic impacts of extraction. The US Department of Energy would be summarily removed from all oversight.



Chile leads Latin America in TPP negotiations. Santiago already has free trade agreements with every country in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Chilean observers worry that the current agreement will bring new restrictions without any new benefits. As the NGO Derechos Digitales noted last May, “the contents that are being incorporated in particularly sensitive areas, such as intellectual property and digital rights, services and investment, capital movements, environment, and regulatory coherence, among others, go far beyond what at the time was negotiated in those agreements.”

     Michelle Bachelet, the former president who will assume the presidency for a second time this year, has voiced her opposition to the TPP in interviews and on Twitter, where she linked to an online petition for open negotiations. A group of 50 legislators, academics, journalists, and activists published a petition for transparency in national newspaper El Mercurio. But Theodore Khan, a researcher in international studies at Johns Hopkins University, told The Santiago Times that Chile has little recourse other than to accede, “even at the expense of adopting standards on intellectual property and other issues that are being pushed by the US,” because Santiago needs to maintain its economic ties to the US.


When Canada gained admittance to the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in 2013, it agreed to abide by any parts of the deal that had already been negotiated. Canadian critics of the TPP share the concerns of opponents in other countries—that the deal has been negotiated in secret and gives legislators little room to negotiate. But many critics in Canada have also railed against the effects of individual platforms in the TPP, almost as soon as those platforms have been made public. The Canadian wing of the organization Doctors Without Borders called the deal “the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines,” due to the protections it grants pharmaceutical companies in extending their monopoly on brand-name drugs.

     While the majority of public knowledge about the agreement comes from leaks and independent investigations, Harper’s government seems to have created a civilian consultation group with access to the TPP negotiations—composed, digital law expert Michael Geist argues, of lobbying firms— whose members had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. That group was discovered because someone in Harper’s office accidentally sent a non-disclosure agreement to representatives of an anti-TPP organization.


Garments were Vietnam’s second-largest export in 2013, and the industry will be Vietnam’s top priority in TPP negotiations. In the same year, Bangladesh—the world’s second-largest garment manufacturer after China—faced a series of controversies from collapsing buildings to fires to mass strikes over wage non-compliance that brought attention to the poor treatment of its garment workers. International boycotts and demands for better working conditions followed. Constituents of the Vietnamese industry are hoping to avoid those pitfalls. Workers and trade union representatives have been making gains in the past year, to the point that they now meet regularly with management and educate each other about their right to safer workplaces. But agreements between labor and management are in a delicate balance, and the new trade deal could threaten workers’ position by strengthening managers’ and factory owners’ negotiating position.