Labor Rights in the Global Economy A Case Study of the
Stephen F. Diamond
Congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at the end of 1993 inflicted upon the American trade union movement its most visible and demoralizing defeat in recent years. Hoping against hope that a Democratic president would signal a turnaround in the fate of organized labor, trade unionists were stunned to find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades from an administration that had won the election on a nominally pro-worker ("It's the economy, stupid!") platform. But the President did pledge that NAFTA would only be put through after "side agreements" on labor and the environment were hammered out in new negotiations with Mexico and Canada. The labor side agreement, formally known as the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), was a second-best compromise worked out in the last few weeks of negotiations.
Given the open hostility expressed by American labor leaders upon NAFTA's passage, it seems unlikely that the relatively weak provisions of the NAALC will be taken at all seriously by the labor movement. I think that this would be a serious mistake on the part of organized labor. It is the purpose of this essay to explore the emerging field of regulating trade between nations through social provisions such as the NAALC. I want to suggest that such provisions, no matter how weak, are essential to effective organization of an increasingly transnational economy. Further, the full and active participation of interested parties is critical to realizing the sociopolitical potential in such regulatory provisions. This is especially true in the case of institutions like trade unions, which have long been considered central to our very concept of democratic pluralism.