In 2014, when Thea Lee was a top official with the AFL-CIO, she posed a provocative question at an economics conference about what America’s trade objectives should be. Was the point to lower barriers and increase the level of trade, or was it to use American leverage to create good jobs and protect worker rights?
Lee went on to call for a shake-up of the status quo, telling the crowd, “We need to turn the whole concept of how we think about trade policy and globalization upside down, because the people who are in charge of this policy have done a crappy job.”
Today, Lee became one of those people in charge when President Biden named her head of the Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs. In that key post, she will will oversee enforcement of labor provisions in U.S. trade policy, including those in President Trump’s major trade deal, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. Among other things, the deal requires Mexico to offer workers greater protections, including against forced labor and violence.
Lee was most recently the president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which put on that 2014 conference and has been critical of free trade policies. Earlier this year, she testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Biden administration’s plan to bolster workers here in the U.S., drawing attention to low-wage workers who rely on federal anti-poverty programs to make ends meet.
At the Labor Department, Lee will turn her attention to labor practices and abuses overseas. The bureau she heads up has already been scrutinizing the products made with forced labor in Xinjiang, an issue she is expected to weigh in on during future China trade talks.
“I think she is going to be very focused on making sure that worker rights are as important a part of our trade policies and our global policies as the exchange of products and goods, that workers don’t get lost in the equation,” says Jon Hiatt, a labor lawyer with the Solidarity Center who worked with Lee at the AFL-CIO for two decades.
Hiatt describes Lee as a fair-trade, not an anti-trade, person, and points to smaller trade agreements that she pushed for during the Obama administration that included protections of worker rights that previous deals had lacked.
“I think that’s the mindset that Thea will take in this position,” Hiatt says.
In a statement, Lee said she looked forward to supporting the Biden administration’s efforts to define and build out a “worker-centered trade and foreign policy.”