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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 13: Trade-Related Job Losses Have Continued Under Trump

Despite Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promises to “bring back jobs,” trade-related job losses have continued under the Trump administration. Under the Labor Department’s narrow Trade Adjustment Assistance program alone, 176,982 workers have been certified as losing jobs to trade since 2017. Trade-related job losses have been especially high in California, Michigan, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and Washington state.

On this episode we break down these figures and discuss Public Citizen’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Database, the online portal where you can search by zip code, state, company name and more for trade-related job losses across the United States. 

Transcribed by Mariana Lopez and Sarah Grace Spurgin


Welcoming back to Rethinking Trade, where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. We are joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Despite promises to bring back jobs, trade-related jobs have continued under the Trump administration. Public Citizen just released some data about this, and I wanted to discuss that with you today, Lori, as well as the system through which we obtain this kind of data. Let’s start with the numbers. What’s in this new report?


What we found is that almost 180,000 workers were certified by the U.S. government as having lost their jobs to trade since the beginning of the Trump administration, just through the middle of 2019 (so it’s not even current data). That data is part of what’s called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). It’s really a big undercount relative to what the total job loss to trade has typically been, because it only applies to certain kinds of jobs, and workers have to know to apply, and then you have to fill out a quite detailed form that proves your job loss is trade-related. So just under that TAA program, 167,982 have been certified under the Department of Labor as lost jobs to trade since the 2017 start of the Trump administration. And some states have gotten particularly walloped. The largest by far by number of job losses is California, but Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio are in the top five. And Virginia and Washington state are up in the top ones too. 


These numbers look pretty similar to numbers from past administrations, but Trump of course is running around talking about how he’s bringing the jobs back and keeping jobs here to begin with. Shocking. But why are we still losing just as many jobs as before?


Well I think there are two different things. One is the trade policies themselves. So the new NAFTA, which Trump signed in 2018, was such a disaster—it wouldn’t have stopped job outsourcing and it would have locked in high medicine prices (there were new goodies for pharma)—that the renegotiation had to be renegotiated. So it was much delayed and only went into effect just now, July 1st. So we had, despite the promise of a quick new NAFTA, the old NAFTA in effect. There have been various trade sanctions against China and our trade deficit with China did decline, but unfortunately because of the big systematic problems, like currency cheating (the thing Trump promised to fix on day one of his presidency), well nothing has been done. So as a result, even though the trade deficit with China has gone down, it was kind of like squeezing a balloon. The deficit just moved over to Vietnam and other countries as compared to actually overall us having a smaller deficit and less jobs being lost to trade. So that’s number one on the trade front. 

Number two is that the President promised that they would stop giving government contracts to companies that were outsourcing jobs. And that would have been a huge incentive for a bunch of companies that are notorious job outsources to knock it off. But instead there was a lot of rhetoric about Buy American, hire American, but in reality, the campaign promises by Trump about no more government contracts to outsourcers has totally been ignored. So billions in government contracts have been awarded to Boeing, General Electric, United Technologies, and other firms that have been certified under that narrow database as outsourcing. So Given we know the TAA only covers the tip of the iceberg, it is pretty scary that even under that limited assessment, we seeing Boeing’s outsourced almost 6,000 jobs during the Trump administration (53 billion dollars in contracts), GE outsourced more than 1,000 jobs (6 billion dollars in contracts), United Technologies—that’s the company that Trump made such a big fuss about (“they’re not going to be allowed to outsource”)—1,000 jobs gone. They got 9 billion dollars in contracts. So both on the trade front and on the Buy American front, not a lot has actually changed. 


Something significant to me in this story, and you just touched on it with the federal contractors that are still receiving federal contracts while continuing to outsource, is the role of Trump donors, meaning companies that have donated to Trump while also outsourcing jobs. Maybe you can talk about some of that stuff. And aren’t there rules against federal contractors outsourcing jobs? 


Well Trump promised there would be new rules that banned companies that got federal contracts from outsourcing jobs, but that’s not what happened actually. So there were things the administration could have done. For instance, Trump didn’t use—he failed to use the authority he already has under existing law to basically stop the throwing away of Buy American for corporations in countries that we have free trade agreements with or that are WTO procurement partners. And he also could have taken administrative action to basically condition, make one of the review topics for getting a government contract, the history of the company with outsourcing. But none of that was done. The result basically is, by not using authority under the Procurement Act of 1949 or the Trade Agreements Act of 1979, Trump didn’t use the authority he had with respect to those procurement outsources. And as a result these companies that, yes may have given him campaign contributions but for sure were outsourcing during his presidency, still got these very lucrative contracts. And that’s part of why you don’t see the numbers changing. 


Can we go back to talking about some of the specific data here? You’ve described the TAA database, you know, you’ve described this as being something as the tip of the iceberg. So there’s probably more, but maybe you could describe again some of the data and how significant it is?


You bet. So this program, Trade Adjustment Assistance, if you apply for it and you get accepted, you get an extended unemployment benefits period, you can get retraining money, once it’s been proved you lost your job to trade. You can be trained for a new job. 

And the problem is there is about a two year lag, maybe a year-and-a-half lag when things are quick, so we don’t have the data for any of 2020. And we don't have all of 2019, we have about half of it. But even so, between 2017 and the beginning of 2019, 176,000 workers were certified by the Department of Labor as losing jobs to trade. And again, the reason it’s an undercount is number 1) it only covers certain kinds of jobs. So depending on what role you had in a factory or what sector you were in, but number 2) workers need to know to file, so either if they had a union or the company did it, but it’s kind of a pain in the butt, because there’s a lot of information. 

Now it’s a good program, I suggest people try and file with their State Department of Labor, but you have to provide a certain amount of data to be able prove your case that you’re trade related loss. Yet, even with only really the 2017-2018 data, we see almost 180,000 jobs, but for instance you see 16,000 of those came out of California, but then almost 10,000 from Michigan. Almost 10,000 from Virginia, Washington state 9,000. Pennsylvania almost 9,000. Ohio 8,000+. Illinois 8,000+. Georgia and Texas both around 8,000. And it is North Carolina, 6,000, if that’s the tip of the iceberg of the ongoing job loss to trade under Trump, the prospect of what we’re going to see through 2020, much less just even the full damage of his first 2 years, is a lot bigger.

And that is not what was promised up when Trump said he was going to quickly get rid of the trade deficit and quickly bring back lots of jobs and stop outsourcing. 


That’s a lot of jobs. And it sounds like a lot of data. Maybe you could tell folks how they can access this data? And also I know there's an interesting story of public interest legal success in the fact that we even have access to this data. Maybe you could talk about that for a little bit as well.


So the Trade Adjustment Assistance data, anyone can look at. Go to our website,, go to the Trade Data Center, and you will see a box to click on to get to the TAA database. 

We have gotten the raw data from the Department of Labor under a standing FOIA settlement- Freedom of Information Act settlement, so that we make it searchable. So up until the last couple of years, the data was only available literally on PDFs, scanned in paper copies of often handwritten applications. And so it was impossible to search. You couldn’t aggregate the numbers, you couldn't break it up by state, it was just useless. 

So back in basically 1996 or 1997 we settled the FOIA lawsuit with the Department of Labor trying to get the raw data so we could actually search it, and try and tabulate the trends, and so every quarter since then we’ve received the raw data from the Department of Labor and we hired someone to build a searchable database. So that people can put in your zip code, you can put in your Congressional district, you can put in your town’s name and your state, you can put in the name of a company, you can put in a sector, the economic sector, it’s searchable in lots of different ways. You can do it by map and drag out an area, a town or state where you want to see what happened. You can get all the data mapped, but you can also download, anyone can get an Excel file so you can actually search. That’s how we can basically quickly keep tabs on everything. 

Now again, it’s a year-and-a-half to two years behind when the job loss happens before it goes through the process and gets certified. So if you’re looking and you know in your hometown, ‘I remember that outrageous outsourcing to Mexico that happened right around Christmas 2019-- why isn’t that in there?’ like the Carrier case, the United Technologies case, that Trump made such a big deal about and the jobs went anyway, that’s not in there because it’s such a lag.

So you know if you can remember something that really pissed you off about job outsourcing in 2018, type in the name of the company, type in your town, and you find it. Anyone can use it, it’s free to use, and yes because we basically sued under the Freedom of Information Act, Public Citizen's lawyers were able to make this data not just available but searchable, so useful to everybody. And it basically puts the truth to many president’s, including this one, claims of how these agreements would create jobs, not lose jobs, and you can actually look at the data of what happened and you can look at X town and 100,000 jobs in a state over the period of NAFTA. 

For instance, things you wouldn't expect, El Paso, Texas is the number one NAFTA job loss impact location. You’d expect it to be Detroit. Nope, actually, in small geographic area El Paso has more concentrated job loss. Or you can do it by sector. You can do it by time. So if you know from your town that’s been clobbered by these race-to-the-bottom corporate-rigged trade agreements, you want to go see your member of Congress who has been a little shady on whether or not we should replace our failed trade model, you can run your zip code, you can run your Congressional district, and you can have the list. And the list will say the date, the company, the address. 1,000 jobs, 800 jobs. 5 jobs. 4,000 jobs. And it lets you actually know the real people who were affected by these failed trade agreements and why we have to fight to replace them.

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