We Need a New NAFTA

Thanks to the Democratic Presidential primaries, the North American Free Trade Agreement is back in the political limelight. And it’s about time.

The nearly 15-year-old trade pact between the United States, Mexico and Canada is the blueprint for many other trade pacts. And yet our leaders have never bothered to take a hard look at whether NAFTA’s promises have actually proved true.

The biggest sales pitch was about jobs. The deal’s supporters claimed that by lifting barriers to trade and investment, NAFTA would create more and better jobs. Today, who hasn’t heard the joke: “we’ve got lots of jobs in the U.S. – in fact, my wife has three!” Part-time hours, lousy benefits, low pay — those have been the hallmarks of the so-called job boom.

NAFTA cheerleaders also claimed that a related problem – the repression of basic labor rights in Mexico – would disappear. But the sad truth is that workers still face blacklisting and even violence if they try to organize to get their fair share of the benefits of trade.

And perhaps the most off-base promise was that NAFTA would improve living standards in Mexico so much that it would reduce migration pressures. Just the opposite has occurred, as millions of Mexican small farmers have struggled to compete with imports from heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness. There are some new jobs in border factories, but more have been lost in small businesses hurt by the pressures of the export economy.

Meanwhile, in all three countries, we’ve seen the rich getting richer. Mexican Carlos Slim is now the world’s wealthiest man, with $60 billion in assets.

And so the Democratic candidates’ promises to renegotiate NAFTA have been welcome. They have opened the door wider than ever for the public to demand new trade rules that promote good jobs, a clean environment, and healthy communities.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, has ignored these issues. By the end of his Presidency, he will have participated in four summits with the leaders of Mexico and Canada (the last in New Orleans this month). Not once has their agenda included the widespread concerns over NAFTA.

In fact, the three leaders have been going in the opposite direction by actually expanding NAFTA through an ongoing “Security and Prosperity Partnership.”

It’s hard to come out against apple pie virtues like security and prosperity, but this process is unlikely to produce either. That’s because the partnership appears to be only with big business.

The chief executives of Wal-Mart, defense giant Lockheed Martin and 28 other large corporations are in on the closed-door negotiations, while members of Congress, journalists, and ordinary citizens are excluded.

What are they talking about? Very little information is public, but the overall goal is to make regulatory changes that do not require Congressional approval. And given who’s in the room, it’s a safe bet that these changes will favor narrow corporate interests over the public good.

Hopefully, the November elections will signal an end to the secret deal-making on trade and the opening of a real dialogue on the future of North American economic relations. Ordinary citizens have been on the sidelines too long.

Sarah Anderson is director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and a co-author of the books Field Guide to the Global Economy and Alternatives to Economic Globalization.
Manuel Pérez-Rocha directs the NAFTA Plus and the SPP Advocacy project, which is part of the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies.