If it were more than a mere symbolic accessory intended to signify that “the struggle continues,” the canary lapel pin worn by Sen. Sherrod Brown might forewarn of the toxic air that is the modern day American economy. Life is gradually sucked out by ill-conceived trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, leaving a gigantic void in what was once the backbone of America‘s flourishing economy: its manufacturing base.
But, that emblematic gesture does indeed mean so much more.
You see, for centuries miners died by the thousands each and every year because there were no safety laws or trade unions to demand protections or lawmakers ordering more precautionary measures be taken. It was just the hard-working men and a caged canary toiling miles under the earth‘s surface. The bird was no mascot, however, it was the only tool the miners had to warn them of potentially hazardous air conditions: if the bird croaked, it was time to get out - and quickly. Today, the canary symbolizes the progress made by working men and women over the intervening years - child labor laws, mandatory safety regulations, 40 hour work weeks, collective bargaining rights - and the ongoing struggle that continues today.
It is fitting then that the bird known for protecting the working men of years past is now proudly worn by the one of the working men and women’s strongest advocates in Congress, the junior Senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown.
Throughout the course of his career Brown has been derided by critics as “a demagogue on trade,” a “protectionist” and as someone standing in the way of progress in the perennially downtrodden economies of Third World nations. Washington Post columnist David Broder once described Brown as “a loud advocate of protectionist policies that offers a false hope of solving all our trade and job problems.”
The reality, however, is that Brown just gets It, writing in an April Op-Ed piece “Eight times I have taken the oath of office to support and defend the United States. My colleagues and I commit ourselves to protecting our nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic. That includes protecting our neighborhoods from unsafe products. And, yes, that also means protecting our workers and businesses from unfair competition.”
Protecting American businesses and workers is how Brown made a name for himself in the me-first world of American politics. An economic populist with both a homespun, down-to-earth Midwestern style and an Ivy League background, he rejects the conventional wisdom that “free trade” is great for everyone involved and is not afraid to make blunt, politically unpopular assessments of the consequences of unfettered “free trade.”
“This is what’s at stake when we talk about trade policy: America‘s middle class and the American Dream” Brown wrote in a 2006 Washington Post Op-Ed piece.
By rejecting the gospel of “free trade,” Brown, in 2006, became the first Democratic senator from the state of Ohio since John Glenn retired in 1998. Brown’s 2006 defeat of Republican incumbent Mike DeWine was the pinnacle of a political career that began soon after he graduated from Yale. State Democratic officials persuaded him to run for a seat in the state legislature at the ripe old age of 21. Showing the fight and determination that is readily evident in the working men and women Brown has supported throughout his career, he knocked on 20,000 doors in his district, helping him defeat a popular incumbent Republican. By age 29, Brown was elected Secretary of State. In 1992, he was elected to represent Ohio’s 13th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would serve six terms.
It was here, during his time in Congress, that Brown built a reputation as a fiery populist ready to fight tooth-and-nail for the working-class families of his district. He fought on issues ranging from minimum wage, to universal health care, to sick leave, but especially on trade issues, which had become a political lightning-rod in Rust Belt states like Ohio as good-paying jobs seemingly disappeared faster than a field of snow in May. “Free trade” had decimated the industrial base of Ohio and left its victims jobless and demoralized, but Brown was there to fight the good fight.
His father a local physician and his mother a one-time civil rights activist, Brown had been instilled with a sense of righteous justice, and seeing none in America’s trade policies he was determined to deliver it.
In 1993, in a losing effort, Brown led the fight against NAFTA - which since has cost Ohio manufacturing 200,000 jobs. Not to be deterred, members of the Democratic leadership in the House would appoint him liaison in trade policy fights because of his manifest grasp and passion of the issue. In 2005, Brown was charged with leading the opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement Though CAFTA would pass, the fact that it was carried by just two votes, 217-215, in contrast to the passage of NAFTA by 34 votes 12 years prior, heartened Brown. He decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate, where he is now one of the upper chamber’s leading advocates of “fair trade,” describing America’s current trade policies as “a global race to the bottom as corporations troll the world for the cheapest labor, fewest health, safety and environmental regulations and the governments most unfriendly to labor rights.”
On nearly every major piece of trade legislation over the past 15 years, Brown has been there, fighting for the rights of American workers against unfair trade policies. In addition to his opposition to NAFTA and CAFTA, Brown has actively and vigorously opposed trade bills with the Andean nations, Singapore, Chile and Oman among others. He has twice voted for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Trade Organization. He opposed giving the president of his own party fast-track authority, which would have effectively cut Congress out of any negotiations on further trade deals. He has been a proponent of country-of-origin labeling on imported food products. He has railed against corporations’ corrupting influence on government. Until recently, after urging from his wife, Brown refused to accept the Congressional health insurance. He paid for it out of his own pocket because many hard working men and women are unable to afford health insurance. And Brown is the author of Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.
America needs more lawmakers like Sen. Sherrod Brown, fighting for the working men and women of America. Without them, the canary-in-the-cage may keel over and die, warning us that our current economic environment is no longer sustainable.