Happy birthday, NAFTA

“I believe we have made a decision now that will permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment and a greater possibility of world peace. We are on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States, at this critical moment, decided that we would compete, not retreat. In a few moments, I will sign the North American Free Trade Act into law. NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations. It will create the world’s largest trade zone and create 200,000 jobs in this country by 1995 alone. The environmental and labor side agreements initiated by our administration will make this agreement a force for social progress as well as economic growth.”

These were the comments of President Bill Clinton before signing the NAFTA Trade Agreement.

According to Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, not only haven’t these promises come true, but in most cases things got worse. After these 20 years, there are over one million jobs lost in the U.S., 1.5 million campesinos in Mexico were displaced, immigration from Mexico doubled as workers came to the U.S. looking for work.

So, as I often ask, who benefitted from NAFTA? The agreement raised medicine prices with patent extensions for Big Pharma. The chemical and pharmaceutical companies gained absolute rights to natural resources. The chronic job offshoring companies got new investor protections to offshore jobs.

Although NAFTA was unpopular with the citizenry, Congress willingly relinquished its power to control trade agreements by agreeing to fast tracking the NAFTA agreement. This allowed the executive to sign off on the agreement before Congress was able to review the content. It was not amendable and might contain things that Congress had no awareness of.

NAFTA has been a major contributor to the rising inequality of incomes and wealth that Barack Obama bemoans in his speeches. Yet, Mr. Obama is proposing two more such trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Pacific Rim countries and a free trade agreement with Europe.

NAFTA was never designed for the benefit of workers. Instead, it was corporate America that was the beneficiary. It provided cheap labor, provided corporations with playgrounds where environmental and public health regulations were weak, and freed multinational corporations from public regulation in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Corporations were also granted legal protections against national labor and environmental laws that they could claim restricted future profits.

The bargaining positions of U.S. workers—union and non-union—were severely undercut. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began using the threat to move elsewhere in order to force U.S. workers to work longer and harder for less. Threatening employees with outsourcing is now standard practice in American business.

Given this dismal history of NAFTA, one might ask, why is our president pursuing more NAFTA-type trade deregulation agreements? Is he or isn’t he for the working man? Why am I asking such self-evident questions?

Dave Alpert has masters degrees in social work, educational administration, and psychology. He spent his career working with troubled inner city adolescents.

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