Magazine article The American Prospect

Donald Trump Is No Friend of a Better NAFTA

Magazine article The American Prospect

Donald Trump Is No Friend of a Better NAFTA

Article excerpt

We do need to repair or replace what's wrong with the mother of bad trade deals. But don't be fooled by Trump's posturing.

Canada, the United States, and Mexico are deep into the renegotiation of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. These talks were precipitated by President Trump, who promised as a candidate to tear up "the worst trade deal ever." Neither Canada nor Mexico sought to reopen NAFTA.

Progressives, particularly those of us who fought NAFTA 1.0 for being a tool for corporate interests, find ourselves somewhat caught. Labor, environmental, and social justice groups obviously do not side with the narrow and xenophobic nationalism of Donald Trump. But we welcome the opportunity for open debate on a disastrous trade deal as a way to either fix it or tear it up and start over.

NAFTA accelerated the creation of a precariat in North America, as well as a dramatic increase in wealth inequality, wage stagnation, the hollowing out of the middle class and the weakening of the social safety net. Unionized rates have declined in all three countries and many full-time and secure manufacturing jobs have been replaced by insecure, temporary, and self-employed work.

In the United States, more than 930,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing, were lost to NAFTA offshoring. Between 2000 and 2011, the United States lost 35 percent of its manufacturing jobs, at least half due directly to trade. Canada lost more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the wake of the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (the precursor to NAFTA) and another 547,000 since 2000, many due to trade competition from Mexico and China.

While Trump says these numbers show that Mexico was the NAFTA winner, about two million Mexican farmers and agricultural workers lost their jobs due to subsidized food imports from the United States, creating unprecedented migration. It is true that many jobs and plants relocated to the maquiladoras, particularly in the auto sector, but Mexican workers, who earn one-eighth of the wages paid to American and Canadian autoworkers, were not winners by any definition.

The three governments signed a side agreement on labor that was supposed to protect workers and prevent labor abuses. But not one of the 36 labor complaints filed with the North American Commission for Labor Cooperation even got to the stage of arbitration, and the commission essentially disbanded.

The story is equally dismal on the environmental front. In all three countries, NAFTA led to an increase in large-scale, export-oriented farming that relies on fossil fuels, pesticides, and GMOs, increased the threat to groundwater, and led to more rapid deforestation. Canada dismantled its regulatory regime for its oil and gas industry and signed a "proportionality" clause, essentially obliging Canada to continue to supply the United States with its energy even in times of scarcity. This led to a dramatic increase in the production and export of tar sands bitumen, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions and the dumping of toxic waste into groundwater.

NAFTA inaugurated an era in which environmental laws in all three countries were ignored or dismantled in the name of competition. The post-NAFTA rapid growth in Mexican factories and assembly plants (more than 3,000 now) saw a rapid increase in dumping of toxins on land and water with a concurrent spike in illnesses. Environmental regulations were not enforced and spending on environmental protection drastically declined after 1994, as did factory inspections. The Conservative Canadian government of Stephen Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol and gutted the country's most important water protection laws, all in the name of global competitiveness. Trump has linked his deregulation policies to bringing back jobs lost to NAFTA.

The most egregious threat to the environment is Chapter 11, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision of NAFTA that allows foreign investors to challenge the laws and practices of governments. …

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