The NAFTA curse 20 years later: Lessons we should have learned


WEST VIRGINIA, March 29, 2014 — Billionaires are celebrating the 20th anniversary of NAFTA. Normal Americans aren’t. It worked for them, but not for the rest of us.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO released a report about what we should have learned from the NAFTA debacle. But we haven’t learned much and are rushing headlong into something even worse: the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

How will we look at the NAFTA experience and make sure not to replicate it on new trade agreements? These are the lessons of NAFTA:

• It is a flawed model that promotes the economic interests of a very few and at the expense of workers, consumers, farmers, communities, the environment, and even democracy itself.

• While the overall volume of trade within North America due to NAFTA has increased and corporate profits have skyrocketed, wages have remained stagnant in all three countries.

• Productivity has increased, but workers’ share of these gains has decreased steadily, along with unionization rates.

• NAFTA pushed small Mexican farmers off their lands, increasing the flow of desperate undocumented migrants.

• It exacerbated inequality in all three countries.

• And the NAFTA labor side agreement has failed to accomplish its most basic mandate: to ensure compliance with fundamental labor rights and enforcement of national labor laws.

The NAFTA architecture of deregulation coupled with investor protections allowed companies to move labor intensive components of their operations to locations with weak laws and lax enforcement. This incentivized local, state and federal authorities to artificially maintain low labor costs by ignoring — or in some cases actively interfering with — such fundamental rights as the rights to organize, strike and be free from discrimination.

This dynamic undermined organizing and bargaining efforts even in areas with relatively robust labor laws. Today, it is commonplace for employers to threaten to move south — whether to South Carolina or Tijuana — if workers do not agree to cuts in wages and benefits.

Multinationals are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the rules set down in NAFTA, everything from prohibitions on local input requirements to new ways to challenge regulations, including the investor-to-state dispute settlement process. NAFTA guarantees that foreign investors get enhanced opportunities to fight laws and policies they don’t like that go far beyond the democratic processes available to citizens and domestic businesses.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other proposed trade agreements do not have to repeat the mistakes of the past 20 years. Instead of facilitating corporate actions that exploit workers, pollute the environment and poison consumers, trade deals must move away from this flawed model toward a system that builds sustainable, inclusive development, fosters social mobility, ensures corporate accountability and encourages rather than hinders innovative social policy.

Trade is not an end in itself, but a means to enhance living standards and promote shared prosperity. Unfortunately, the legacy of NAFTA and the flawed U.S. trade policy it both shaped and reflects has been stagnant wages, declining social standards and increased inequality.

Democrats Shenna Bellows, candidate for the U.S. Senate in Maine, and Rick Weiland, running for U.S. Senate in South Dakota offer hope on trade and other issues. Policy is only as good as the people who set it. The Shedlon Adelsons and Koch brothers of the world have bought and are buying all the senators they need to pass more low-quality trade treaties.

They own Senator Susan Collins from Maine, and they’re salivating to get a shameless puppet like Mike Rounds into the Senate. We need men and women — like Bellows and Weiland — who will stand with the people’s senators: Elizabeth Warren, Brian Schatz, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, and others like them.

A few hours ago, CommDigiNews asked Rick Weiland if NAFTA is an issue that resonates with voters in South Dakota. He answered:

If you are a big fan of the $5 minimum wage then you’re a big fan of big money, and of the NAFTA agreement big money wants to make the prototype for US trade with the entire world.

NAFTA is great at driving American wages down toward an international minimum, like Mexico’s $5 minimum wage for example, $5 per DAY!

It’s also great at exporting American jobs, eviscerating American labor, and exploding America’s trade deficit, all things beloved by big money.

But for the rest of us, who have to feed our kids and try to keep our heads up while our homes are sold out from under us because our jobs went overseas, NAFTA is an unmitigated disaster. In my opinion it is an equally unmitigated ethical disgrace.

The moguls who hand their kids the keys to new Mercedes, then send them off for Spring Break in Cancun using the NAFTA based profits they reap from putting us out of work should be embarrassed to look in the mirror. My wish for them is that they should someday be forced to tell their own kids that their opportunity for a college education just got sent to Tijuana along with their job.

Once they have done that, if they still support NAFTA, they will at least have earned the right to do so.

If you’d like to help Shenna Bellows and Rick Weiland, you can do that here.

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