Let’s hate NAFTA like we used to

By David Bush and Gerard Di Trolio

Mexican farmers protesting the lifting of the last agricultural tariffs in Mexico in 2008.

In the wake of Britain’s shocking vote to leave the European Union, a recent polls shows that only 1 in 4 Canadians believe that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is good for the country.

This poll was timed to coincide with the “Three Amigos” summit in Ottawa which brings together its signatories, Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The three leaders agreed to further liberalize NAFTA’s country of origin rules despite the lack of popular support for the trade agreement.

Entrenching the status quo of NAFTA will only lead to disastrous consequences.

Leaving the door open to the rightwing

The Brexit referendum and its aftermath in the U.K. has seen as spike in racist rhetoric violence. Meanwhile in the U.S., Donald Trump continues to rail against NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) while doubling down on incitement against Mexicans and Muslims.

But Canada has been no better on issues relating to economic nationalism. The 2013 controversy over the Royal Bank’s use of temporary foreign workers was unfortunately framed as taking jobs from deserving Canadian workers. And though there has been an increase in awareness about the abuses and precarity that temporary foreign workers in Canada face, the government is far from offering what they deserve – automatic permanent residency status.

Thus the problem with so many critiques of free trade agreements (FTAs) and immigration policies is the idea that workers in advanced economies must compete with workers in developing ones. That obscures what’s really going on.

Business is very aware of how migration can be beneficial to the economy. The most striking example of this is in China. Hundreds of millions of migrant workers from rural areas have entered cities in the last several decades. These workers are precarious because of the household registration laws in China. Despite this, wages have steadily increased during the largest and fastest rural-to-urban migration in history. This period has also seen an explosion of wildcat strikes that have been winning better wages and conditions. That’s why solidarity through worker organizing matters.

However, right-wing politicians love to whip up xenophobic and racist sentiment against immigrants and migrant workers. This in turn prevents solidarity being developed and contributes to the economic race-to-the-bottom with wages and benefits.

The problems with FTAs work in both directions. Though some economists would be willing to argue that lowering tariffs between developing economies can be beneficial, eliminating all barriers between developed and developing economies has had negative effects for middle income economies like Mexico and in some of the least-developed countries in Africa.

And tariffs aren’t the only major issue with FTAs. One of the biggest problems with FTAs are investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) protocols like NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11. ISDS provisions allow for corporations to sue governments for potentially lost profits because of government policy in a number of areas, often in environmental and labour policy.

At this moment of increasing economic insecurity and the hate through fear that it generates, it is more important than ever for workers to articulate an alternative economic vision.

Where is the political debate about NAFTA?

The recent poll showing that only 1 in 4 people support NAFTA in Canada also shows that 26 percent of Canadians think NAFTA has hurt Canada. 22 percent believe it hasn’t made any difference and another 27 percent are undecided. 43 percent of Canadians would either want to see the deal renegotiated or abolished versus 35 percent who would like to see it left as is or expanded.

After decades of the mainstream media consistently touting the benefits of the agreement and all major parties supporting NAFTA, it is surprising how little support it actually has.

NAFTA protest, May 2, 2009. Via Ben Goff on Flickr

But where is the NDP and the labour movement in all of this?

The NDP’s outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair supports NAFTA. Since the trade deal was implemented, the NDP has been largely silent on the issue. They have also taken a very soft position when it comes to both CETA and the TPP, refusing to reject these deals outright, and taking a wait-and-see approach. The NDP has even gone so far as to vigorously support FTAs such as the Canada-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

Imagine if the NDP had for the last 20 years strongly and consistently critiqued NAFTA? By filling this political vacuum it would have cemented its popularity while also creating an even stronger political pole against corporate trade deals. We only have to look at the popularity of Bernie Sanders who went from being a fringe candidate in the US presidential race to a viable political force in part because he consistently and powerfully opposed corporate trade deals.

The labour movement must also step up its game in opposing FTAs

The labour movement must challenge new FTAs and demand the repeal or renegotiation of existing ones. Labour must also promote the progressive policies, like expanded public services and stricter regulations on business, that are at risk from FTAs. In the last number of years the trade union movement has not put forward a coherent strategy to fight FTAs. It split on opposing the Korean Free Trade Agreement and has only put up a paper opposition to the TPP. If the labour does muster opposition to FTAs, it can’t simply fall into protectionism or the nationalistic rhetoric of ‘Canadian jobs for Canadian workers’.

The labour movement in Canada must promote an internationalist agenda. There must be demands for an international economic order based on fair trade and international labour standards that including a global minimum wage. The Korea Free Trade Agreement is only a year old but Korean trade unionists are suffering a brutal government crackdown right now, with union members being jailed and beaten in the streets for opposing attacks on union rights. At the very least, union leaders should be on the media circuit raising hell over this.179ewz

If the labour movement and the NDP continue to abandon the field of actively opposing NAFTA and corporate FTAs it will only leave more space for the rightwing to oppose these unpopular trade deals in the future. This breeding ground for racist and reactionary politics can only be challenged if labour and the left get back to hating FTAs like we used to.

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One thought on “Let’s hate NAFTA like we used to

  1. Herman Rosenfeld


    Great to see someone raise the question about free trade, while Justin Turdeau’s government and trade minister seem to act as if there never was any debate about NAFTA or any of its progeny. The problem in this piece is that it totally leaves out one of the central problems with these agreements: they make it extremely difficult to limit the free movement of capital, and block democratic capacities to shape and eventually plan economic activity. Free movement of capital does not create healthy (or sustainable) economic activity in developed countries or the global south. I find it quite incredible that this central issue seems not to be an issue in this otherwise positive piece.

    And, of course, I continue to wonder why there are any illusions about the NDP standing up to one of the key pillars of neoliberalism (which they accept and facilitate in their policies and actions when in power).

    Herman Rosenfeld

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