Posts Tagged ‘NAFTA’
Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
United Steelworkers and Mexico’s Los Mineros union could develop a unification proposal as soon as this August
In Mexico, few independent union exist that are not effectively controlled by the Mexican government. According to United Steelworkers International Affairs Director Ben Davis, fewer than 1 percent of Mexico’s unions are truly independent unions. As a result of the lack of independent unions in Mexico, Mexican workers have had a very hard time advocating for higher wages. Further, those unions that are independent in Mexico—like the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Related Workers of the Mexican Republic, aka Los Mineros—have faced severe oppression at the hands of government-affiliated unions.
In 2006, Los Mineros President Napoleon Gomez Urrutia was forced to flee to Canada after the Mexican government charged him with what union officials characterize as trumped-up charges of embezzlement. A federal Mexican court has dismissed the charges against Gomez Urrutia, but the charges against him remain pending at the state level. Supporters of the exiled labor leader says that he was only charged with crimes after he demanded an investigation of 2006 mine explosion that killed 65 workers at the Pasta de Conchos. Gomez Urrutia has been running the 180,000-member Los Mineros union out of the Steelworkers’ District 3 offices in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Despite the charges against Gomez Urrutia and his forced exile, his continued relevance was demonstrated late last week when officials for the Mexican operations of steel corporation ArcelorMittal traveled to Toronto to negotiate with the exiled Mexican labor leader. The trip was made possible in part through the assistance of the United Steelworkers (USW), who may merge with Los Mineros later this year.
Last month, In These Times Contributing Editor Kari Lydersen profiled how the unique cross-border solidarity emerged between USW and Los Mineros. In 2005, steelworkers went out on strike at an Asarco owned copper mining and smelting mill in Arizona in 2005. Many Mineros members who work at the Grupo Mexico company, which owns Asarco, went out on strike and performed other solidarity actions in support of striking miners in Arizona.
As a result of that strike, a solidarity agreement was formed between those two unions in 2005. In 2010, USW and Los Mineros formed a joint commission to look at merging their two unions. According to United Steelworkers Public Affairs Director Gary Hubbard, the joint commission is working toward a unification proposal for discussion at the Steelworkers’ convention in August in Las Vegas.
As Kari Lydersen noted, “If the merger occurs, the new USW-Mineros union would represent more than 1 million workers—the USW has 850,000 members, while the Mineros has 180,000.”
If the USW/Los Mineros merger passes, as many expect it will, it would be the first between a Mexican-based union, an American affiliate of a union and a Canadian affiliate of a union—marking a new phase of cross-border solidarity. The merger has the potential to reshape labor markets in both countries.
“We are directly affected everyday by the low-wage competition from Mexico. The reason that competition is low-wage is because Mexican government keeps wages low by busting unions,” says USW International Affairs Director Ben Davis. “It’s a matter of survival for us to have democratic unions that support workers’ rights and raise wages. It’s really about closing the gap the right way by bringing Mexican wages up, not our wages down, through strengthening alliances between workers who quite often have the same employers.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated that members of both USW and Los Mineros would vote on a unification proposal if it were part of USW’s August convention. In fact, only USW members can vote on proposals presented at the convention.
This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.
Friday, December 10th, 2010
So-called “free trade” is part of the relentless class warfare under way in America. And the so-called “free trade” deal with South Korea is no exception. That said, a lot of the shallow criticism of the UAW’s support for the deal is–well, shallow. Here’s my view about how we should engage the UAW–my union–via an open letter to the union’s president.
December 9th 2010
8000 East Jefferson
Detroit, MI 48214
Over the past few weeks, I keep coming back to one question: where do we draw the line to oppose the unrelenting class warfare now under way in our country, and the rest of the world?
From listening to the rhetoric and watching the back-slapping among members of the deficit commission, Democrats and Republicans, we have a bi-partisan agreement, apparently, that working Americans have to “share the pain” for an economic crisis that they had no hand in creating; our president buys into the mantra of a phony debt “crisis” and, then promptly turns around and stands ready to treat the already-staggeringly wealthy top one percent to hundreds of billions of dollars of the U.S. Treasury’s bank account; Wall Street bonuses are back in bullish amounts; and corporate profits are at record levels, partly because of a plague of slashing jobs that will not come back.
When do we say finally: no more, enough is enough.
And, then, there is the South Korean Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). In my view, this deal is another disaster for the working people of this country, and for the world. I hope that you, and others, read the concerns I raise about this deal in the spirit in which they were written.
First, we’ve known each other a very long time. As a proud UAW member, I think of you not only as one of the most progressive and visionary leaders in the labor movement but also as a person of enormous integrity. When you took office this year, you said, “We are one union. We are one society, and we are one world. If we don’t stand up and fight for our own membership in every sector and if we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.” [emphasis added]
And you want our union to live those words. You just spearheaded a rally in Michigan on December 6th to support Hyundai workers who are engaged in a bitter strike in South Korea because you understand the nature of global solidarity. As you said at the rally, “Bosses around the world, even at tremendously profitable corporations like Hyundai, are trying to reduce the number of permanent workers and expand the number of temporary workers, weakening the middle class. We want permanent, middle-class standard of living jobs for every person working in the world.”
Second, I also understand that, while it is easy for liberal/progressive observers to sit back in the comfort of their offices or homes and pontificate from hundreds of miles away about “fighting” and “not selling out”, you have to fulfill your mission to protect the livelihoods of UAW members, livelihoods that have been under brutal assault from transnational auto companies for the past two decades. While I understand both intellectually and emotionally what our sisters and brothers face, I know you grapple with this every day you walk into the office.
Almost two decades ago, I remember exactly where I was standing when NAFTA passed: Mazey’s bar at the union’s Black Lake education center. We had just finished the day working to build coalitions between the UAW and non-UAW activists—the mission that our Region 9A leadership, under then-Director Phil Wheeler, had dedicated the week to. We gathered around the television bracketed on the wall to watch the vote. At the end, when the vote was announced, I remember thinking: this is the end of the American middle class.
NAFTA was a disaster. Not just because it ruined the lives of millions of American, Mexican and Canadian workers. As important, it became the model for all future so-called “free trade” agreements: protect capital and investors. In my view, the South Korea deal is baked in the same NAFTA mold.
People are going to argue about whether the concessions given to the UAW in the KORUS were sufficient in terms of significant changes in tariffs or rules of origin and other similar issues. I’m going to stay away from those points in part because I think that whether X or Y cars will be allowed into Korea gets us down into the weeds and misses some crucial points:
- Is This Deal Worth The Paper It Is Written On When It Comes To Enforcement?
- Can The President Be Trusted?
- Does This Transform The Debate About Global Fairness?
A quick observation about why I use the term so-called “free trade”. There simply is no such thing as “free trade”, at least not if we are talking about the NAFTA model. “Free trade” is as real as the phony government deficit-debt “crisis”, as real as the Wall Street “reforms” (that left mostly the same people in charge of the financial system, making it almost a certainty we will have another financial calamity) and as real as Robert Reich’s promise that if we all just get smarter and get a college education, we’ll be fine (no one uses the absurd term “symbolic analyst” anymore and thank god for that).
I could write a “free trade” agreement in 10 pages, okay, maybe 20. But, these deals are hundreds and thousands of pages long because they are very much managed and tightly controlled corporate trade—-they set forth very specific, detailed protections for capital and investor rights (particularly, the Chapter 11 rules).
And the sooner we stop repeating the term “free trade”—which is a great marketing phrase because who isn’t for something “free” and who doesn’t want to trade—the better for the American people and our understanding of what is really afoot here: we are being robbed by these trade deals. Not simply because of the off-shoring of jobs. But because NAFTA-style trade is based on one thing and one thing only: wage and regulation arbitrage.
Every NAFTA-style deal essentially sets up a framework that allows companies to move production in search of low wages and/or undermine regulations that protect people and communities. That is what trade is about today.
You were right when you said that if “we don’t stand up and fight for all workers in the world to get fair wages and benefits, we will never have the power we need to win back the things we’ve given up.”
Respectfully, every NAFTA-style so-called “free trade” deal pushes us further from the vision that you so passionately and powerfully speak of.
They are playing us. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.
Enforcement: A Sham
In the past, the UAW initially made clear, in its own testimony, that the “KORUS FTA has inadequate protections and enforcement mechanisms to enforce either the spirit or the letter of the law.”
Now, the UAW’s statement in support of the South Koreal deal says that the language of the agreement “includes labor and environmental commitments”. It goes on to say: “This agreement is an important step toward a global rule-based trade system, an important step in giving labor a real voice in trade negotiations. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration on the issue of global rights for workers — especially the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
I don’t see the progress.
As I understand it, the deal keeps in the very same NAFTA-style, Bush Administration language that prevents the deal from living up to the conventions of the International Labor Conventions (ILO). To be sure, the ILO’s conventions lack much in the way of enforcement power. But, when these NAFTA-style trade deals try to even keep high-minded ILO rhetoric from muddying the waters, what are we to think?
That enforcement is a sham.
In February 2008, I posed a challenge to then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama who were both pledging to renegotiate NAFTA in order to enhance enforcement of labor and environmental enforcement. As you recall, the labor and environmental provisions were added on to NAFTA because that was the only way to buy a handful of Democratic votes to ram through the agreement.
NAFTA enforcement was supposed to have been under the purview of the Commission for Labor Cooperation (CLC). The CLC was supposed to be funded, partly by the U.S., via a $2 million-a year appropriation, which would have meant that, over the period between 1993 and 2005, the CLC would have had $22 million from the U.S.
But, as Public Citizen found:
In another example of the gap between promised authorizations and actual funds appropriated to such programs, the CLC has only been granted $7.2 million of the $22 million it was authorized to receive from the United States as of 2005, or less than a third of the promised amount.
The game was rigged from the beginning. For argument’s sake, let’s say the CLC got the full $22 million? Would that have been sufficient?
I like to use this analogy. In the U.S., we have accepted, under Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, that injury, illness and death in the workplace are a cost of living in the wonders of the “free market”. We make a show of enforcement—-the same show that was proposed for NAFTA enforcement—-but the truth is that the system embraced, in a bipartisan way, does very little to ensure a safe workplace.
Here’s what the AFL-CIO found in its 2007 report [the emphasis is mine]:
At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 133 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In seven states (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, and South Dakota), it would take more than 150 years for OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace. In 18 states, it would take between 100 and 149 years to visit each workplace once. Inspection frequency is better in states with OSHA-approved plans, yet still far from satisfactory. In these states, it would now take the state OSHA’s a combined 62 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.
The current level of federal and state OSHA inspectors provides one inspector for every 63,670 workers. This compares to a benchmark of one labor inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization for industrialized countries. In the states of Arkansas, Florida, Delaware, Nebraska, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1/100,000 workers.
When the AFL-CIO issued its first report “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect” in 1992, federal OSHA could inspect workplaces under its jurisdiction once every 84 years, compared to once every 133 years at the present time. Since the passage of the OSHAct, the number of workplaces and number of workers under OSHA’s jurisdiction has more than doubled, while at the same time the number of OSHA staff and OSHA inspectors has been reduced. In 1975, federal OSHA had a total of 2,405 staff (inspectors and all other OSHA staff) responsible for the safety and health of 67.8 million workers at more than 3.9 million establishments. In 2005, there were 2,208 federal OSHA staff responsible for the safety and health of more than 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million workplaces.
The 2008 OSHA budget proposed $490 million. Yes, that was a Bush budget. But, even in Democratic Administrations, OSHA has always been underfunded given the task described above. The 2010 Obama budget proposed a $559 million—-a significant increase but still inadequate.
So, think about that for a moment: we have an entirely inadequate system in this country just to watch over safety and health in the workplace, funded at a miniscule level of several hundred million dollars—and, yet, we even more ludicrously proposed, in the past, to oversee labor rights enforcement over three countries (the U.S., Mexico and Canada) at a laughingly pathetic and criminal level of a couple of million bucks?
The fact is enforcement is a farce. It was a farce created to buy a few votes to jam NAFTA through a Democratic Congress. It was a farce concocted by a Democratic president and his Labor secretary (Robert Reich), who were both full-throated champions of NAFTA and so-called “free trade”.
It is not clear to me how the agreement with Korea to enforce labor rights is anything but a continuance of the farce. There is simply no way—no way—that these provisions can be enforced. None. Please explain how I am mistaken.
But, here is a larger point: there is no enforcement that can work. Ever.
The problem is not enforcement of NAFTA-like agreements.
It is NAFTA-style trade itself and its very conception and framework. Labor and environmental rights are slapped on as add-ons to deals that are sideshows to the meat of these agreements—protecting capital and investors’ rights. We cannot “fix” NAFTA-style trade deals unless we destroy the fundamental motivation behind them—lower wages and a careful obliteration of every reasonable regulation to protect individuals.
We are being played. People against people. Worker against worker. Community against community.
The President’s Promises
This president cannot be trusted. I don’t mean that in some Tom Delay-Newt Gingrich venal “he will lie” manner. I believe that he is who he is—-and who he has always been: a person who believes in marketing phrases like “free trade” and the “free market”, a person who surrounds himself first and foremost with the Robert Rubins of the world; and, regretfully, a person who does not have the best interests of organized labor as a first and overriding principle.
It is also not clear to me, as a political matter, how he can help. He appears unwilling or unable to fight. Why do we think he will go to the mat for organizing rights when he will cave in and let the raiding of the U.S. Treasury by the richest people in the land continue, even after those richest people have pocketed a king’s ransom in wealth over the past 30 years?
He has promised to aid our organizing efforts, particularly in the South. Why should we believe he has a strategy to do so, beyond rhetoric? If we learned anything from the recent tax fight, it isn’t going to happen. The expiration of the tax breaks for the wealth was something he, and the rest of the Democratic Party, knew was coming from the first day the president took office.
So, a reasonable person could ask: why did he not take that on from the get-go when he was riding high? Why not take that mandate then, when he had the attention of the people (in a good way) and say, “today, we are taking a first step towards ending class warfare in America”.
Because there was no strategy.
So, I am skeptical that there is a winning strategy behind the promises on organizing.
Transforming The Debate
Even if you believe that you could find enough money to deploy inspectors all around the world and even if you are willing to believe that this president—or any president in the current political environment—will fight for the UAW at the cost of alienating large corporate contributors, there is a much bigger challenge:
How do we stop the stupefying, unrelenting class warfare of which so-called “free trade” is an integral piece?
Where do we draw the line?
Sure, each union, for the price of its support, can get a few concessions in any so-called “free trade” deal. We can get jobs some jobs. I certainly can imagine, given the dire predicament of UAW members, that any promise of some jobs is welcome.
But at what price?
Is the price of a hammering down of wages worth it—because that is precisely what will happen if we continue to let the NAFTA-style of trade grown and mutate.
Is it worth letting another NAFTA-style deal pass which is a link in a chain that connects tax cuts for the rich, the growing divide between rich and poor, the decline of union power, and Wall Street greed?
At the end of the day, if the UAW has to support this agreement, I understand the real world: we have very little power to get a better deal right now. In some peoples’ minds, we’ve gotten very little from fighting these NAFTA-style deals over the past two decades. True, nothing good has come from these rancid products.
But, let’s not, to abuse the cliché, put lipstick on a pig. Why not simply say: this deal stinks but it is the best we can get. “Free trade” is a disaster for the working people of the world. But, we have to swallow this bitter pill because of our weakness today.
I am planning on posting this letter on my blog and would also do so for any thoughts you had in response. I think these issues are crucial for labor to consider and I think a lot of people would be interested in your point of view.
This article was originally posted on Working Life.
About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
Real men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.
Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.
The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.
Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.
Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.
Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:
“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”
In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.
Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.
In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.
Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”
They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.
It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:
“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”
The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.
When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.
The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.
Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.
If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.
About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.
Wednesday, May 20th, 2009
People and planet should come before profits, but the proposed Panama trade plan would mean greed rules. The Senate Finance committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the proposed Panama Trade Promotion Agreement. Top trade negotiator Ron Kirk is trying to ram through this agreement by July 1, when the Panamanian head of state Martin Torrijos leaves office. But this is just another free trade agreement that is bad for the people of Panama, it’s bad for the planet, and it’s no good for people of the US. We should call upon Congress to stop it now.
There’s a rancher that I know who raises cattle in the San Blas mountains of Panama, who I’ll only call Uncle Rickie. I met Uncle Rickie when I traveled to Panama in November of 2008, and I remember him for being a jolly fellow with a big belly who proudly bounced his new granddaughter Antonia, his first grandchild, on his knee.
If the Panama agreement went forward, Uncle Rickie would have to contend with a host of difficulties. The first would be that US cattle ranchers, who enjoy hundreds of millions in subsidies from the US government (US livestock farmers got handouts of about $344 million in 2003, for example,) would suddenly be able to sell duty-free to Panamanians. At the same time, Uncle Rickie will have to compete with a dramatic influx of cheap pork products from the US. Pro-pork lobbyists think that increased sales to Panama will result in $20.6 million in increased revenue. Uncle Rickie will have a lot of trouble making a profit by selling his beef to the Panamanian market, and eventually he may have to sell his land.
Farmers should be allowed to sell to their local markets. Local, living economies are good for everyone. If officials pass the harmful agreement, farmers like Uncle Rickie will no longer be able to carry on farming. Who would be there to buy the land of farmers who are forced to sell? Companies from the US and other rich nations, and maybe some wealthy Panamanians who support this agreement. This leads to a consolidation of power and decision-making as fewer people own more and more of planet earth. But people have a right to self-determination and autonomy, and the Panamanian government should respect that right.
Another supporter of the Panama agreement is Caterpillar, maker of heavy machinery used for logging and constructions. They are frothing at the mouth thinking of all the Panamanian trees that they can cut down and the increased heavy machinery sales that will result.
By the time little Antonia is going on her first date, the forests of Panama will probably be decimated, the clean rivers and pristine stands of old growth trees a distant memory. Verdant ecosystems will be forever ruined for incredible species like the blue morpho butterfly, which I first saw shining iridescently as it soared through the rainforest in the Boquete region of Panama. Like all of us, Antonia has a right to intact ecosystems, which Caterpillar seeks to undermine through supporting this trade agreement.
Another group who will be thrown under the bus if this agreement passed would be the Kuna Indians, a Panamanian ethnic group who have preserved their cultural heritage. Traditional farmers and artisans, these indigenous peoples will also face steep competition and many may have to abandon the ecologically sustainable, culturally rich ways of life their ancestors have known for thousands of years.
Will Antonia benefit from a more productive national economy? Probably not. Even looking at the brute economic indicator of gross domestic product, this trade agreement does not promise positive effects.
A similar trade agreement offers foreshadowing of what could happen if the Panama agreement goes through. NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, has shown that increased unprotected trade with the US is not likely to promote self-government, support local, living economies, or benefit most people at all.
GDP growth has been unequal after NAFTA, with Canada growing an average of 3.6 percent per year, the US growing 3.3 percent and Mexico growing only 2.7 percent. The average Mexican did not benefit from this growth, as income inequality has risen. Wages of Mexican workers decreased by 18 percent in the first five years. The predominant occupation in Mexico prior to NAFTA was farming, but many farmers, mostly in Central Mexico, were forced to sell or abandon their land after subsidized corn from the US flooded into Mexican markets, leaving the Mexican farmer unable to compete. Corn is indigenous to Mexico, and was farmed mostly sustainably. But now what is left is forced to compete in an atmosphere of industrial agriculture.
After NAFTA, Mexico has maintained a trade deficit with the US, meaning they import more than they export. This leaves the country hemorrhaging money and exports, which isn’t good for anyone in Mexico.
Furthermore, trade agreements like this one are bad for US workers, as we lose jobs here in the US. In just the first seven years, NAFTA had caused the loss of 766,030 jobs in the US. And it will cost us tax dollars, too. By 2002, the US Department of Labor had qualified 408,000 workers extensions on their unemployment benefits because their jobs had moved to Mexico.
Trade between the US and Panama totaled $2.1 billion in 2002 according to the office of the US Trade Representative. US exports account for about $1.8 billion of that amount. This means that for every $10 worth of goods that the US sells to Panama, Panama sells only $1 worth of goods to the US. The exports Panama sells to the US account for a tiny fraction, only 1.4 percent, of its GDP of $21 billion. Yet it is willing to sell its people down the river for this pittance.
The farmers who’ll be forced to sell their land and migrate may be forced to relocate to the city of Colon, where there are jobs in the Colon Free Trade Zone, or Zono Libre. When you picture a free trade zone, picture “Pleasure Island” from the Disney cartoon Pinocchio. For rich companies, a free trade zone represents a lawless area free from tariffs, taxes, or pesky labor or environmental laws. It usually looks like a collection of warehouse-like buildings on the edge of a port city that is protected by barbed wire. Working people (such as ex-farmers) travel into these zones each morning to do the most tedious grunt labor in return for low wages. Corporations like the low wages, while the workers are usually just desperate for any work they can get. Ships pull up to the buildings, unload raw materials like T-shirt fabric or radio parts, workers assemble them, and the finished goods get shipped to rich countries where people can afford them.
In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to approve the Panama trade agreement, gleefully stating that the agreement “will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say ‘Made in the USA.’” That sentiment is perplexing to anyone familiar to Zono Libre, where low-paid workers work in unsafe work conditions to sew together textiles bound for the US valued at $400 million per year for companies like Orotex, with offices in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Textiles and clothing account for about 24 percent of the work done in Zono Libre. This happens as US workers lose more and more textiles jobs (stat), yet purchase more and more clothing (stat).
For all the celebrated freedom that free trade measures like the Colon Free Trade Zone has received, you would think that Panamanians would be better off, however the average Panamanian is not better off. Income inequality has risen, placing Panama among some of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Panama’s index for income inequality is 60, according to a World Bank report. As the report says, “[Inequality] is more obvious in urban areas like Colon, where the close, physical juxtaposition of the modern, dynamic wealthy sector with poor city slums accentuates the perceived gap between rich and poor.”
I have never seen Colon since my Panamanian friends have insisted that if I were to travel there I would become a certain victim of a mugging or kidnapping. But the real Panamanian danger isn’t really frustrated urban poor who see wealth all around them but can’t touch it. The real danger is the Panama trade agreement.
Some are arguing that this trade agreement is needed to rescue the US economy. But Panama’s entire economy is 0.15 percent the size of the US economy. The US has one hundred times more people than Panama. That’s right, I’m saying the country is tiny. For US officials to undermine people’s basic rights in order to do business with this small country in the hopes that its tiny economy will deliver us from certain economic death is a mistake.
If passed, this agreement will harm Panamanians like Uncle Rickie. It will negatively impact little Antonia and make her economic future less certain. It will not benefit the average Panamanian but is likely to lead to a decrease in self-government and a spike in income inequality, as NAFTA did. And it will not benefit people in the US. Our Congress should vote an emphatic “no” on the Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.
About the Author: Lacy MacAuley is a global justice activist, antiwar activist, and environmentalist with a passion for amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard. With a BA in International Relations specializing in World Development Studies, she is committed to promoting local, living economies that place people, planet, and principle before profit. She ignited a creative fire while working as news editor for her college newspaper, and has kept the flame burning through intensive grassroots organizing and Lacy has done media relations work with groups such as Project Vote and ACORN, Global Justice Action, United for Peace and Justice, Jubilee USA, Mountain Justice Summer, and Working America (community affiliate of the AFL-CIO). Lacy is currently working on the Global Justice Media Project, and doing progressive communications work with Massey Media LLC.