NAFTA at 20: “A Vehicle To Increase Profits at the Expense of Democracy”

Thursday the AFL-CIO released a new report, NAFTA at 20. The report makes the point that, “On the whole, NAFTA-style agreements have proved to be primarily a vehicle to increase corporate profits at the expense of workers, consumers, farmers, communities, the environment and even democracy itself.”

In a press release accompanying the report AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says that working people and democratic governance on all sides of NAFTA’s borders are now worse off, and Congress should recognize this before approving any more “NAFTA-style” trade agreements.

“There is no success story for workers to be found in North America 20 years after NAFTA,” said Trumka. “The NAFTA model focuses on lifting corporations out of reach of democratic governance, rather than solely reducing tariffs. This report should serve as a cautionary tale to the Obama Administration and Congress as they consider negotiating and implementing new trade deals.”

Trade Agreements Should Stop Following The NAFTA Model

Preceding the report, Trumka gave a major speech on trade at the Center for American Progress. He talked about the history of “a disastrous, outdated, failed model of global economic policies.” He said that trade agreements should abandon the NAFTA model and instead offer a “global new deal … to bring the basic infrastructure of modern society—electricity, water, schools, roads, internet access—to everyone on Earth.”

The Report

A summary of the report contains these points about NAFTA:

– It’s 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.

See the report at NAFTA at 20.

The Speech

In his speech Trumka began by outlining how NAFTA failed regular people by killing jobs and keeping wages down, which enriching an already-wealthy few – setting the stage for the 2008 financial collapse.

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The “middle class” myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today

(Credit: AP/Darron Cummings)

Let me tell you the story of an “unskilled” worker in America who lived better than most of today’s college graduates. In the winter of 1965, Rob Stanley graduated from Chicago Vocational High School, on the city’s Far South Side. Pay rent, his father told him, or get out of the house. So Stanley walked over to Interlake Steel, where he was immediately hired to shovel taconite into the blast furnace on the midnight shift. It was the crummiest job in the mill, mindless grunt work, but it paid $2.32 an hour — enough for an apartment and a car. That was enough for Stanley, whose main ambition was playing football with the local sandlot all-stars, the Bonivirs.

Stanley’s wages would be the equivalent of $17.17 today — more than the “Fight For 15” movement is demanding for fast-food workers. Stanley’s job was more difficult, more dangerous and more unpleasant than working the fryer at KFC (the blast furnace could heat up to 2,000 degrees). According to the laws of the free market, though, none of that is supposed to matter. All that is supposed to matter is how many people are capable of doing your job. And anyone with two arms could shovel taconite. It required even less skill than preparing dozens of finger lickin’ good menu items, or keeping straight the orders of 10 customers waiting at the counter. Shovelers didn’t need to speak English. In the early days of the steel industry, the job was often assigned to immigrants off the boat from Poland or Bohemia.

“You’d just sort of go on automatic pilot, shoveling ore balls all night,” is how Stanley remembers the work.

So why did Rob Stanley, an unskilled high school graduate, live so much better than someone with similar qualifications could even dream of today? Because the workers at Interlake Steel were represented by the United Steelworkers of America, who demanded a decent salary for all jobs. The workers at KFC are represented by nobody but themselves, so they have to accept a wage a few cents above what Congress has decided is criminal.

The argument given against paying a living wage in fast-food restaurants is that workers are paid according to their skills, and if the teenager cleaning the grease trap wants more money, he should get an education. Like most conservative arguments, it makes sense logically, but has little connection to economic reality. Workers are not simply paid according to their skills, they’re paid according to what they can negotiate with their employers. And in an era when only 6 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, and when going on strike is almost certain to result in losing your job, low-skill workers have no negotiating power whatsoever.

Read more at Salon