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What does "NAFTA-gate" mean for social movements?

Rabble News | March 13, 2008

What does "NAFTA-gate" mean for social movements?

by Blair Redlin

(Photo: Teamsters)

On March 5 — the day after the Ohio Democratic primary in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was such a vote determining issue — activists, legislators and academics from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada gathered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. to take a critical look at NAFTA and the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) and what might be done about them.

The importance of the political moment was not lost on the participants. It isn’t only in Ohio that NAFTA is generating intense opposition.

In Mexico, antipathy to NAFTA is widespread. On January 31 of this year, an estimated 200,000 farmers from all over Mexico descended on Mexico City for a major protest against NAFTA and its recent requirement for removal of corn tariffs.

In the United States, there is a growing awareness that NAFTA has contributed to the destruction of one in four U.S. manufacturing jobs and prompted a decline in real wages. The promise by both Democrat frontrunners to open up and renegotiate NAFTA is a reflection of growing public concern.

Here in Canada, the Harper government found itself facing strong political heat for its interference in the U.S. primaries on the NAFTA issue in a scandal now dubbed "NAFTA-gate."

But that heat should be situated in the context of the large protests in Canada against the SPP Leaders Summit in Montebello just last August and the consistent community organizing in this country against the alphabet soup of investor rights agreements and proposals like the now stalled FTAA (remember Quebec City?) the MAI, the WTO and the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) between Alberta and B.C.

Fourteen years after the signing of the NAFTA in 1994 and twenty years after the signing of the Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988, corporate trade agreements remain as controversial as ever. Citizen groups continue to work hard to undo their damage.

The meeting in Washington D.C. was part of that work. Participants heard about the strong link between the economic problems that NAFTA has caused in Mexico, the migration and immigration challenges facing the U.S. and the problematic foreign guest worker program in Canada.

Mexican Congressional Deputy Victor Quintana from the State of Chihuahua noted that since 1994, one quarter of the rural population of Mexico and 2 million jobs have left the countryside. This has sharply accelerated migration to the U.S. Quintana said that in the 1970s, the average annual migration to the U.S. from Mexico was only 29,000 people, whereas in 2006, 455,000 Mexicans moved north.

In Canada, increasing numbers of vulnerable temporary workers are being brought to our country through a guest worker program that encourages low wages, poor working conditions and limited worker rights.

New Democrat Member of Parliament Peter Julian talked about the huge increase in income inequality in Canada since the signing of the first Canada/U.S. Free Trade Agreement. While income is up for the wealthiest 20 percent of Canadians (who now take half of all income) it has dropped for everyone else. Those earning between $40,000 and $60,000 per year have lost the equivalent of a week’s worth of wages since 1989 and those earning between $20,000 and $40,000 have lost two weeks.

Legislators from all three countries issued a joint news release in Washington announcing the creation of a Task Force on Renegotiation of NAFTA. They intend to introduce similar legislation on NAFTA in all three parliaments, as well as motions to stop the SPP.

But Pierre-Yves Serinet of the Quebec RQIC network against hemispheric integration (Réseau Québcois sur l’Intégration Continentale) noted that NAFTA has actually been revised several times since it was first signed. The national governments use administrative mechanisms to quietly amend NAFTA on issues like rules of origin, with little public notice. In light of this, it’s more than a little hypocritical for the Harper government to complain about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama promising to open up the deal.

Indeed, the current discussion of renegotiation presents a challenge for social movements, many of which prefer abrogation. What kind of renegotiation will make a meaningful difference if done in the context of secretive SPP processes and corporate influence on governments? At a minimum, we will need to see the elimination of NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which allows corporations to sue governments for their public policies. Some at the Washington meetings argued that the current moment offers social movements a unique opportunity to articulate a people centred vision for a better, more democratic North America.

One thing the discourse on renegotiation definitely offers is an opportunity to organize, particularly given that the next SPP Leaders Summit will be held in New Orleans, April 21 and 22. So a strategy session was held March 6 at Georgetown University, led by the Alliance for Responsible Trade of the U.S. along with the networks from Quebec, Canada and Mexico that are part of the Hemispheric Social Alliance.

Given the secretive panels of corporate CEOs that are driving it, the SPP is fundamentally about the privatization of public policy. The irony of holding the next SPP Summit in New Orleans is obvious. New Orleans was referred to as "a laboratory of the SPP," given the militarization, privatization, gentrification, lack of democracy and demolitions of public housing that the people of New Orleans have suffered since Hurricane Katrina.

The strategy session heard from representatives of the Grassroots Global Justice coalition in New Orleans, who explained that the situation remains desperate for many residents of that city. The social movements in New Orleans are proposing that a popular summit be organized in New Orleans to help educate people both about the SPP as well as the impact of Bush administration policies on the people of the Gulf Coast.

While awareness and concern about the SPP is high in both Canada and Mexico, there is less awareness of it in the U.S. To the extent there is knowledge of it in the U.S., it often comes from right-wing complaints about the so-called "North American Union."

The New Orleans Summit in April offers an excellent opportunity to better inform citizens of all three countries about the ultimate "public/private partnership" that is the SPP. As well, given the current political moment of controversy about NAFTA in all three countries, this is a crucial chance to strengthen social movements by slowing down the SPP and demanding transparency around its deliberations.

Blair Redlin is a researcher and project manager for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

 source: rabble