ROCKVILLE – Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08) convened a panel Saturday afternoon to discuss the effects of NAFTA on the economy of the United States.
“There’s a lot going on and lots of calamities bearing down on us but there are some big structural questions that still need to be addressed,” Raskin said. “One of them is how do we develop a free trade policy that is also a fair trade policy.”
Since being negotiated and signed by then-Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 1993, critics argue the North American Free Trade Agreement fails to address trade deficits, transparency, labor conditions, environmental impacts and workers’ rights.
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President Donald J. Trump and his administration are currently renegotiating the agreement with Mexico and Canada.
“After NAFTA was enacted, we have compelling evidence the promises of more jobs, higher wages, improved conditions in Mexico, cleaner environment, none of that happened,” said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “In fact, the opposite, of what the big corporate coalition that pushed NAFTA through Congress for, actually happened.”
Organizations represented at the roundtable included unions such as the SEIU 500, Communications Workers of America, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the Transportation Communications International Union as well as nonprofits including the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch, Public Citizen, CASA and the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Council.
The US trade deficit with Mexico was a recurring topic among the panelists.
According to distributed material from Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, imports from Mexico and Canada increased while US exports to the two countries slowed since NAFTA took effect. The organization also details the US trade deficit increased from $9.9 billion dollars for goods and services before the agreement came into force to $134.3 billion for services in 2015 and $173 billion for goods in 2016.
Wallach added that the agreement also resulted in a job loss and trade deficit for Maryland. She explained that Maryland’s trade balance went from a $12 billion trade surplus to a $129 billion deficit.
“That means that people in Maryland making that stuff [export goods] and selling it to Mexico or Canada, those jobs are now off shore and we’re importing the stuff we used to make,” she said.
One of the panelists also discussed the effect of NAFTA on Mexico.
“Since NAFTA took effect, the poverty rate increased and real wages have stayed the same as what they were before NAFTA,” said Dan Mauer, the legislative representative for the Communications Workers of America. “The idea was, wages would increase in Mexico and it would allow us to export more as their buying power increased but that’s not what’s happened.”
Mauer explained that Mexican workers are unable to form unions to represent themselves or bargain for higher wages or better working conditions.
He also explained that the lack of wage and labor regulations have allowed manufacturers to relocate to Mexico to reduce labor costs and forgo negotiations with labor unions in the United States.
“If you’re getting paid a decent wage in the U.S., anytime you go to the bargaining table as a union and say ‘we’d like to see our wages increased’ they say ‘we’ll move to Mexico where we can pay a tenth of the cost,’” Mauer said. “That creates a dynamic where sometimes the jobs do move and even if they don’t, it makes it harder to get better wages and benefits.”
Ron Kloos, legislative director of the Transportation Communications International Union, explained the effect NAFTA had on its membership.
“When someone’s been on a job 20-30 years and gets a pink slip, they’re devastated by it … they have no way to support their family,” Kloos said. “They’re given worker retraining, that sounds nice … but it doesn’t replace a good paying union job.”
“There needs to be more discussion about protecting the American workers that are being dislocated as a result of these trade deals,” he added.
Lindolfo Carballo, who represented CASA’s Maryland chapter on the panel, explained the effect free trade agreements have on his home country of El Salvador.
“These trade deals only support corporations,” Carballo said. “Jobs are leaving this country, which is true; more jobs are being created in countries like El Salvador but through sweat shops.”
Carballo added that other trade agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement put locally-owned farms out of business triggering urban migration and overcrowding cities.
The provisions of the agreement are also criticized for being unfairly beneficial to corporations.
“NAFTA grants corporations but not people the right to cross borders,” said Ben Beachy, Director of the Responsible Trade program at the Sierra Club.
Beachy added that many provisions in the agreement allow corporations to bypass environmental regulations.
He explained that when the environmental movement successfully advocated for stricter regulations on reprocessing used car batteries to combat lead contamination, corporations outsourced the process to take advantage of Mexico’s weaker environmental regulations and leading to increased lead exposure in the country.
“NAFTA ensured they could do this free of charge,” Beachy added. “Babies in northern Mexico are being born with elevated levels of lead in their blood.”
Wallach also explained that the agreement also forced Mexico to amend its constitution with regard to land ownership.
“As a condition for entering NAFTA, the US required Mexico to alter article 27 of its revolutionary era constitution which was the land distribution provision,” Wallach said.
Wallach explained that prior to the signing the agreement, the Mexican constitution prohibited foreign ownership and bank foreclosures on indigenous-owned land.
“In course of the first 10 years of NAFTA, almost two million campesino peasant families were displaced and immigration almost doubled,” Wallach said.
“The common sense intuition that underlies people’s skepticism of NAFTA is that we should not force workers making $15 or $20 bucks an hour in America to compete with people making $2.50 in Mexico or other parts of the world,” Raskin said at the conclusion of the event.