Labor Fightback Conference

NAFTA Renegotiation Is a Sham! Cancel NAFTA Now!

by Alan Benjamin

In mid-May of this year, when President Donald Trump announced that the first session of NAFTA Renegotiation would be held in Washington, DC, on August 16-20, he stated that his opposition to NAFTA during the presidential campaign was one of the keys to his election victory. There can be no doubt that Trump’s stated opposition to NAFTA—which has destroyed jobs and entire communities on a massive scale in the United States (but especially in Canada and Mexico)—earned him a hearing among working-class voters devastated by NAFTA’s effects.

On July 17, Trump and his NAFTA Renegotiation team submitted an 18-page memorandum outlining the U.S. government’s objectives in the upcoming round of negotiations. The document, published by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), is titled, “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.”

The language of the USTR memo, and the reactions it has elicited from the business media, underscore this point: Despite the populist (and empty) rhetoric in favor of jobs and labor rights, the Trump administration’s objectives are squarely in the camp of “free trade” and the directives of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Trade Ready blog applauded the Trump administration’s memo in a posting on July 24, noting that Trump has fortunately abandoned his anti-NAFTA stance in favor of a position supported wholeheartedly by Wall Street and the U.S.-owned transnational corporations.

“The 18-page document of objectives,” Trade Ready stated, “match up with the priorities in the TPA legislation established in 2015. Much of the document was also consistent with the U.S.-Canada-Mexico negotiations from the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement] that Trump pulled out of in January.”

Similarly, Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, noted in a recent article that “what the corporate lobby is demanding in NAFTA renegotiation”—and what it has obtained—“is the revival of parts of the TPP.” Wallach went on to note that all labor advisors were shut out of the administration meetings in March through May that prepared this USTR memo. So much for Trump’s claim of transparency!

The Trump administration hypocrisy knows no bounds. As Wallach further noted, “Trump has awarded United Technologies 15 lucrative new government contracts even after they proceeded to cut 1,200 of their 2,000 Indiana Carrier jobs.”

In an attempt to lower expectations, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross noted that, “the new NAFTA will not be a ‘silver bullet’ to save jobs.”

What Does the USTR Memo Call For?

What are some of the more salient objectives put forward in the USTR memo?

Hold it for a second; there is nothing new here! All U.S. administrations over the past 23 years (since NAFTA was first signed) have plundered Mexico in the name of the above-mentioned objectives. They have demanded that Mexico amend its Constitution and reverse all laws that codify attributes of national sovereignty in the name of eliminating “barriers to U.S. trade and investment.”

For example, Mexico has been forced to put an end to cooperative ownership of land in the ejidos, as enshrined in the 1917 Constitution. It has been forced to put an end to “State monopolies”—such as the State-owned telecommunications, transportation, and oil corporation (Pemex). It has been forced to destroy collective-bargaining agreements and trade unions. (All of these were deemed “barriers to trade.”) Mexico has been forced to open its market to farm products from the U.S., which has decimated Mexico’s agricultural production. Today, 45% of what is consumed in Mexico in terms of beans, corn, rice, sugar, and wheat comes from the United States.

What Trump is now seeking to do is impose even more draconian measures upon Mexico in this “new NAFTA.” And he is counting on Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgarary—the man who headed up the privatization drive of Mexico’s public services and enterprises in his former role as Mexico’s Secretary of Finance and Public Credit—to grease the wheels of this not-so-new NAFTA.

The Swindle of Labor Rights in the “New NAFTA”

But this is not all. To succeed in pushing through NAFTA Renegotiation, Trump needs to enlist support from the top leadership of the U.S. labor movement. That is why he has included an entire section on Labor Rights in the 18-page memo, to the point of insisting that such “labor provisions should be brought into the core of the Agreement rather than in a side agreement.”

Specifically, the memo “[r]equires that NAFTA countries adopt … the internationally recognized core labor standards as recognized in the ILO Declaration, including: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; effective abolition of child labor and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.”

This sounds good, but it is a complete swindle aimed at roping in the unwary!

Whether included in the side agreements (which everyone today concedes was a toothless sop thrown to appease the labor movement) or in the core of the new NAFTA agreement, the core labor standards contained in the new ILO Declaration of Workers’ Fundamental Rights are unenforceable and hence they amount to little more than window-dressing.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), which was established in 1919, registered the gains of more than 100 years of labor struggles in conventions guaranteeing the formation of free independent unions without prior authorization of the State (ILO Convention 87), the right to collective bargaining (ILO Convention 97), and the outright ban of child labor (ILO Convention 138), to mention but a few.

All these conventions, which became the law of the land in the ratifying countries, became an obstacle to the "globalization" offensive by the transnational corporations and the financial institutions and governments in their service.

The WTO, which has spearheaded the international drive toward "free trade" and deregulation, demanded a "reform" of the ILO to make it “more adapted to the current needs of economic globalization and competitive deregulation."

For the WTO, those countries that ratified ILO conventions and thereby made them the law of their lands, are in a "comparative disadvantage" on the world market in relation to other countries where production costs are lower and labor laws are more "flexible." The ban on child labor and forced labor, the legal limitations to laying off workers, the very existence of independent unions and collective-bargaining agreements—all these, according to the WTO, are intolerable restrictions on the "normal functioning of open markets."

Beginning with the 1997 WTO Summit in Singapore, the ILO gradually came under the WTO umbrella, thereby making it totally subservient to the needs of global capital.

The seven core ILO conventions that came under attack by the WTO are as follows:

The mechanism employed to sidestep and ultimately do away with the ILO conventions was devious. Heeding the WTO directives—and the pressure from U.S. President Bill Clinton—the administrative committee of the ILO rammed through a "Declaration of Workers’ Fundamental Rights." It’s a document that embodies the "principle" of the seven fundamental ILO conventions.

The problem, however, is that countries are allowed to sign this Declaration of Workers’ Fundamental Rights without actually ratifying the seven core ILO conventions.

And unlike the ILO conventions, which must become the law of the land when ratified, this declaration is not binding in any way. It is a statement of intent to respect certain principles, nothing more. It has no teeth, no mechanism of enforcement. In the hands of governments that are pushing the WTO/IMF corporate agenda, this Declaration is worth little more than the paper it is printed on.

This Declaration of Workers’ Fundamental Rights is simply a public relations maneuver devised by top functionaries of the WTO to mask the drive to marginalize and ultimately get rid of the ILO conventions.  The United States, for example, which has only ratified two of these seven core ILO conventions, signed this Declaration and parades as a champion of labor rights—at the very moment it is pushing "free trade," deregulation, union-busting, and privatization both at home and abroad.

It is therefore no surprise that Trump and his USTR negotiators are wielding this Declaration of Workers’ Fundamental Rights to get the labor movement to swallow the bitter pill of this new NAFTA.

That is why we must make our voices loud and clear: Cancel NAFTA Now!

(Alan Benjamin is a member of the Steering Committee of the Labor Fightback Network.)