Public Pressure Needed to Include NAFTA Labor and Environmental Protections

Interview with Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, as one of the worst trade deals ever made. He pledged to renegotiate the pact in order to protect American jobs and restore U.S. manufacturing. Trump’s critique of NAFTA found a receptive audience in the rust belt states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those states, it turned out, provided Trump the narrow margin of votes he needed to win the presidency through the Electoral College.
Now after months of talks between the U.S. and Mexico to renegotiate key provisions of NAFTA, a draft agreement was announced in late August.  The agreement includes a requirement that 75 percent of a car’s value be manufactured in North America, up from NAFTA’s current level of 62.5 percent. Another provision would mandate that 40 percent to 45 percent of cars sold in the hemisphere be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.
The Canadian government of Justin Trudeau, however, has balked at some of the changes proposed by Trump, who has threatened to leave Canada out of the deal altogether if Ottawa doesn’t accede to U.S. demands. The main sticking points include Washington’s insistence on getting increased access to Canada’s dairy market, repealing one of NAFTA’s dispute-resolution sections and relaxing protections for cultural industries.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and founder of the Citizens Trade Campaign, who assesses how the ongoing NAFTA negotiations will likely impact workers and the environment.

LORI WALLACH: I think there are a lot of people in every part of the country who personally were damaged by the outcomes of NAFTA. To start with, just under one narrow government program, there are over 950,000 – just under a million jobs – officially government certified, as lost to NAFTA. And now, 25 years after NAFTA, you don’t just have the million U.S. jobs lost, but in Mexico, unbelievably, workers’ wages are lower than they were before NAFTA – and they were not a living wage before NAFTA. The manufacturing wage is down over two percent and the minimum wage in real terms is down 14 percent. So a lot of damage to a lot of people. A handful of very big companies have enjoyed some benefits.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As we talk about the current negotiations that Trump started, tell us a bit about what was hammered out between the United States and Mexico, and what’s the status of things with Canada because Canada resisted signing on the dotted line when Trump tried to impose a deadline on negotiations. Tell us a bit about the status of negotiations, if you would.

LORI WALLACH: The U.S. and Mexico have initial ,have completed an agreement and there has been some notice of intent to sign it, which would happen at the very end of November. They have finished an agreement that actually includes some elements of the changes that progressives and unions have been demanding for decades.

So probably the biggest change is that the investor state dispute settlement system – those outrageous tribunals where multinational corporations can attack domestic laws and court decisions and demand unlimited compensation to be paid by taxpayers over any claim to violation of their extraordinary foreign investor rights provided in NAFTA – this is a system under which $392 million has been paid out by taxpayers to corporations after successful NAFTA attacks on environmental and energy policies, health policies and toxic bans, land use policies – you name it with respect to Canada, which has been the source of most of the attacks, Canadian companies had been attacked in the U.S. – that system is thrown out.

With respect to Mexico, there’s sort of a new replacement system that would allow compensation, but only after you spent 2 1/2 years in domestic courts if the government actually took your property, actually expropriated it and you couldn’t get your money back in the domestic system. So all in all, we’re waiting for the text which is supposed to be published at the end of September, so we can all see all of the details, but there’s some important improvements. But the bottom line is, we’re not there yet.

Absent swift and certain enforcement of labor standards, NAFTA still is going to continue to outsource jobs, it’s gonna push down wages, U.S. companies are gonna go to Mexico to pay poverty wages, dump toxins and then bring those products back here for sale. So more more work needs to be done, but there’s some important improvements.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What is critical for people to contact their legislators about in terms of the bottom line issues that need to be improved in any renegotiated NAFTA agreement?

LORI WALLACH: So number one thing I would recommend for folks to do is go to a website called www.replacenafta.org. It’s a campaign website that lots of the different groups in this fight are sharing and it lays out in bullets the changes that have to happen and that is also where you can sign up to send a petition to your member of Congress. That petition lays out the biggest things: those investor rights, investor state dispute settlement has to be out and inserted have to be strong labor standards with swift and certain enforcement. Those are the two biggest bottom line changes that have to happen to make a difference, and I do want to make clear to folks you’re going to hear at the end of September that the text is out, the text is out, the negotiations are done. This is a long process. It’s not the end of the road, so keep pushing to make sure, because especially if the Democrats take a majority in the House and there are things that we just can’t abide, but there are other things that are good – they can ask the administration to go back and fix the stuff that doesn’t cut it.

NAFTA’s ongoing damage is what we’re up against.

For more information on Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, visit citizen.org/trade and visit Citizens Trade Campaign a citizenstrade.org/ctc/.

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