By CHARLENE OBERNAUER
Over 150,000 workers lost their jobs between 2008 and 2012. And it wasn’t because of a bad economy, the great recession, or increasing taxes. It was because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Every time employers choose to move their business outside of our borders to cut back labor costs, U.S. workers and the economy suffer. Implemented 20 years ago, NAFTA was sold by the U.S. and Mexico as a way to increase affluence on both sides of the border, but it’s actually a constant drain on the U.S. economy, and all talks of its negotiation have disappeared.
If you listen closely enough, you can hear the steady faucet of U.S. manufacturing jobs dripping out of the country and into sweatshops abroad. And yet labor unions haven’t fought to reform NAFTA again since Obama abandoned the issue in 2009. As immigration reform proposals make their way through committee and start to emerge, NAFTA will likely remain untouched. Now could be the moment labor unions have been waiting for, the time to simultaneously get back lost jobs and ally themselves with the fastest growing demographic in the nation: Latino workers.
“Sin Maíz, No Hay País”: The Impact of NAFTA on the Working Class
Although not passed until 1992, NAFTA has its roots in the Reagan era, with the first free trade agreement passing in 1985 between the U.S and Israel. In 1987, Reagan the de-regulator pushed through another agreement between the U.S. and Canada. When Mexico got on board, Reagan’s idea had reached full fruition: George Bush Sr. tried to push NAFTA through but ran out of time in his presidency. Clinton merely took a red pen to it, adding weak worker and environmental protections, and it passed with bi-partisan support. Almost as many Democrats voted for NAFTA as Republicans.
In Mexico, the public was ready to take to the streets against to NAFTA. Low-income Mexicans were outraged by the repeal of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. NAFTA opened up communally owned peasant land and gave corporations what they wanted: full and unregulated access to Mexico. On January 1st 1994, the day of NAFTA’s implementation, 3,000 members of the newly formed Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared armed war on the Mexican government, presenting a list of their demands and a vision for a new future.
In the meantime, the United States began to work on militarizing the border. Clinton understood that as NAFTA snatched jobs out of the hands of Mexican citizens, more people would come to the U.S. in search of job opportunities and a chance at survival. From 1993 to 1997, the number of border patrol agents increased by 83%. But immigrants still got in. The number of Mexican immigrants entering into the U.S. nearly doubled. Today, nearly 60% of undocumented workers in the U.S. are Mexican – a direct result of the poverty caused by NAFTA.
The U.S. working class and labor unions that protect them bore the brunt of the blow. Union workers in U.S. factories now saw their jobs moving to Mexican maquiladoras (sweatshops), their labor bought out by a cheaper bidder. Maquiladoras increased by 15.5% in NAFTA’s first ten years by buying out U.S. jobs and taking indigenous Mexican land. The U.S. lost nearly 700,000 jobs, 61% of which were in the manufacturing sector; Mexican families lost their farms and primary modes of survival.
With poverty increasing on both sides of the border annually, workers need labor unions now more than ever; but unionized labor is at an all-time low. Reforming NAFTA is one key way to guarantee that we will save hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and breathe new life into a labor movement that needs to be reinvigorated.
Re-igniting Our Labor Movement and Aligning with Immigrant Workers
Protests sprung up all over the United States in the years to follow NAFTA’s passage, as they did after new free trade agreements were introduced from Colombia to Peru to Korea. While the protests were instrumental in the birth of the movement against neoliberalism, they didn’t stop any free trade agreements from moving forward, and they did not have the support they needed from labor. A few small non-profits in the United States are still focused on reforming “free trade”, but the fight is half-hearted because too few are involved.
The left—labor unions, immigrant rights groups, community organizations—is armed with a shrug instead of a sword. And as long as NAFTA remains, the future flow of immigrants into the United States will be inevitable, as will the exodus of U.S. jobs. Workers will continue to risk their lives crossing the border if it gives their families a chance at survival.
I recently gave a presentation in a musty union basement about immigration reform, where a man stood up and yelled, “We shouldn’t reward illegals for breaking the law!” He was a blue-collar white guy, dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a faded union hat that he probably got at a rally.
I asked him if he supported Rosa Parks when she broke the law and sat in the front of the bus. Or if he supported the NAACP when they broke the law by eating in white-only restaurants. He said yes, that made sense, but that it was different. I reminded him, “As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’”
To me, forcing people to starve to death in their home country is an unjust law. Creating policies that ensure that U.S. workers will lose their jobs is an unjust action. And profiting off of a system that relies on worker poverty is unacceptable. We can either amend the law to protect workers on both sides of the border, or we can guarantee that people will keep on breaking it.
If the labor movement put their weight behind reforming NAFTA, we would not only be organizing to bring critical manufacturing jobs into the United States, but we would be continuing to bridge the gap between the labor and immigrant rights movements. It’s an investment in the future of the United States and the future of labor: immigrant workers. True, we might end up having some difficult conversations with the Democrats who approved and continue to draft free trade agreements. But these are conversations worth having. The future of the working class—our members—is at stake. And it’s in our hands.