Fostering Solidarity

Perhaps one measure of the success of the demonstrations in Quebec lies in the way established media have responded to them. Advocates of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) defend their push to extend NAFTA principles to the rest of the hemisphere in language that mimics the protests. Some corporate lobbies now promise that the new trade agreements will include labor and environmental protections. Mainstream media have suggested that new global trade agreements are the best way to improve the lot of the poor worldwide.

Nonetheless, globalism will take on a human face only if labor and environmental activists continue to press their case against the president's effort to gain "fast track" authority to negotiate his own deal. These activists in turn are most likely to succeed if they can build alliances with those labor and environmental counterparts who are supposed to secure the most benefits from new global agreements.

President Bush and the global media have made a familiar claim for FTAA. Expanded trade will allow the spread of advanced products and production processes to the entire hemisphere, thereby creating more good jobs for all. Unfortunately, experience with NAFTA does not support such optimistic scenarios.

Working class income showed gains only in the last two years of the Clinton era boom, and a recent joint study by Canadian, Mexican, and US economists published by the Economic Policy Institute [see 5/15/01 PP] show some of the reasons why. The report emphasizes an increase in what the authors describe as the "threat effect'' in collective bargaining, in which companies threaten to move production to Mexico if workers don't make concessions. Such threats have been most prevalent and credible in mobile industries such as manufacturing, communications, and wholesale distribution. These threats gain credibility because NAFTA has eliminated 766,000 US manufacturing jobs, while Canada suffered a net of 276,000 jobs under trade agreements going back the US-Canada deal in 1989.

When labor activists respond to such studies with the demand that future trade agreements include labor standards, they encounter a familiar rejoinder. They are accused of wanting to impose US standards on poorer nations and thereby shut them out of trade and economic development. And the argument is made that labor throughout the so-called developing world supports expanded trade and wants more multinational investments.

Yet as the EPI study points out, Mexico too has suffered under NAFTA. New jobs have been created. Nonetheless, those new jobs have failed to keep pace with the number of peasants displaced by NAFTA-induced removals of agricultural subsidies. In the last decade, the minimum wage in Mexico lost almost 50% of its purchasing power.

Workers in the global South hardly speak with one voice. Some South American unions do seek expanded trade. They are rightly suspicious of US unions, which have had a history of protectionist agendas inimical to South American development. Many of these unions are, however, controlled by their governments and have spawned their own radical resistance. Mexican activists have become increasingly concerned about the ways the "threat effect" is now extended to Mexico itself. Many of the maquiladora industries are now moving or threatening to move out of Tijuana and Juarez to nations with even cheaper labor and more lax environmental standards.

Global trade agreements protect corporate facilities and intellectual property but say little about labor rights. Effective resistance to them will nonetheless require a higher degree of international labor solidarity than has yet been achieved. One start in this direction is a set of proposed international trade standards that guarantee activists everywhere more knowledge about current corporate practices. US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., has introduced HR 460, Transparency and Responsibility for US Trade Health. This act requires US firms to disclose the following information regarding their foreign subsidiaries: 1) Location, address, and corporate name; 2) Financial agreements and investments; 3) Worker Rights practices, working conditions, and labor standards; 4) Age, gender, wages, and number of employees in each facility; 5) Environmental performance, including a listing of all pollutants released and the amount of natural resources extracted

Such a set of requirements does not dictate wages abroad nor does it impose environmental standards. It does, however, provide citizens here and abroad the information needed to assess corporate practices and take action where appropriate. It is very clear that many foreign subsidiaries of major multinationals are able to pay better wages and improve labor and environmental conditions, but such legislation would leave to local governments and citizen activists decisions about when and how to press such demands. Because such an approach would avoid the heavy-handed efforts to impose one-size-fits-all standards, it would hardly be seen as veiled protectionism and it would improve the possibility of more fruitful international ties among labor and environmental groups. Without such ties, the promises of globalism will continue to ring hollow for most citizens everywhere.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and invites comments at

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