Last week, diverse organizations from across North America came together to discuss the human impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on its 20th anniversary. The multi-sectoral Trinational Forum, hosted in Mexico City Jan. 28–31, was an opportunity for activists focused on labor, the environment, mining, farming, consumers, women, land and human rights to share their experiences under the NAFTA model, weigh the losses against the benefits and articulate a new vision for increased cooperation and action to achieve equitable growth and shared prosperity. On the last day, some 65,000 people marched in Mexico City to demand an end to policies that benefit corporations and elite investors at the expense of communities. Simultaneous protests were also held in more than 50 cities in Canada and the United States.
As the participants explained, the NAFTA model has benefited multinational enterprises and elite investors but has hurt working families, rural communities, women and young people in all three countries. The NAFTA model makes it much easier for corporations to shift operations across borders in search of the lowest possible wages and labor standards, undermining efforts to ensure workers are paid a living wage and treated with respect and consideration. Under NAFTA, wages in all three countries have remained stagnant while productivity has increased, union jobs have been replaced with precarious employment that lacks security or benefits (in other words, temp jobs), and inequality has dramatically increased. Speakers told how labor activists from the U.S., Mexico and Canada face retaliation and repression for trying to organize for better pay and working conditions.
In addition, the influx of subsidized agricultural goods into Mexico after NAFTA destroyed millions of small farmers’ livelihoods, driving mass migration and a loss of food security. Strict intellectual property rules increased the cost of vital medicines. Regulations to protect consumers and the environment have been attacked by corporations through a process known as investor-to-state dispute settlement, which lets investors challenge state, local, or federal government measures that interfere with profits - even expected future profits – in some conceivable way.
Despite the evidence of its failure to create good, family-wage jobs, reduce cross-border inequality and increase prosperity for all, the NAFTA model has been replicated for 20 years in agreements with many other countries, and is now serving as the basis for current negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP),which will include all three NAFTA countries, along with nine others. As in the past, thesenegotiations are being conducted completely in secret. On Feb. 19, President Enrique Peña Nieto, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet in Toluca, Mexico to discuss trade, investment, and economic policies—the TPP is sure to be high on the agenda. The extensive corporate privileges and limitations on democracy that appear to be contained in the TPP were also the subject of mass protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). This public opposition managed to defeat the FTAA and hold back some of the most harmful WTO proposals. But the corporate lobby is not taking these defeats lying down—the TPP appears to be part of the same agenda to constrict the choices that democratic societies can make.
The Trinational Forum demonstrated of one of the few positive results of NAFTA: An increase in communication, coordination, and solidarity between social movements in the three countries. This cross-border organizing is vital, both to confronting the predominant trade model that provides privileges to investors at the expense of communities, and to building a new model that creates living-wage jobs, promotes food security and farmer autonomy, protects consumers and the environment, promotes local economic development instead of forced migration and fosters equality and shared prosperity.
Workers and communities don’t win when they are pitted against each other to provide global corporations with the lowest wages and weakest protections for workers and the environment. There is a better way.