Kerry’s Trade Winds

Kerry’s Trade Winds

Senator John Kerry has promised a revision of Clinton-era trade policies to insure that future agreements contain stronger, enforceable labor and environmental standards.


Senator John Kerry has promised a revision of Clinton-era trade policies to insure that future agreements contain stronger, enforceable labor and environmental standards. Even such a pro-corporate free-trading Clintonista as former trade czar Mickey Kantor now agrees that NAFTA needs “freshening.” And Charlene Barshefsky, another former Clinton trade representative, admits that the views of critics like Senator Ernest Hollings, once denounced by the Administration as protectionist, have become more attractive.

Kerry thus has joined the Democratic Congressional leadership and constituency groups making up the party base in opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The Kerry platform promises a 120-day trade policy review with a general commitment to including enforceable labor and environmental standards in trade agreements that now protect only private investors. The Democratic platform also acknowledges the full range of critics’ concerns–from privatizing and deregulating public services, to outsourcing government work, to impacts on the environment and food safety. Kerry has also declared that both the executive branch and Congress should work to ban the billions in current public subsidies going to government contractors employing sweatshop labor.

If implemented, these initiatives would represent a departure from the Democratic Party’s recent glorification of free trade, though it would be a minimal return to reforming and regulating corporate practices in developing countries, a New Deal approach to the global economy. Not by accident, if one considers the history of third parties, the Democrats have edged toward Ralph Nader’s policies–even as they are doing all they can to destroy his candidacy.

How has this happened? First and foremost, NAFTA has proven to be sharply different from what it promised to be. The rich-poor divide has widened in Mexico, with the minimum wage there down by 20 percent since NAFTA was implemented. The 800,000 maquiladora jobs created in Mexico after plants left the United States are now rapidly disappearing to China, with a third already gone. Manufacturing jobs in such venerable towns as Goshen, Indiana, the widget capital of the United States, are vanishing along with a community way of life. Millions of software, engineering, accounting, legal, architectural and other service jobs are now being outsourced to Asia. In addition, a growing clutch of US judges, including chief justices in many states, are startled to discover that NAFTA tribunals were empowered to second-guess their rulings and force payment of US tax dollars to foreign investors, who argue that their property rights under NAFTA supersede domestic government laws and regulations.

Smart politicians and policy-makers adjust to reality. As the Democratic primary candidates traveled the country in places like Iowa, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, they came face to face daily with the victims of a failed US trade policy–people who have lost their jobs or farms, suffered a crash in their wages and standard of living or seen their community poisoned and who are demanding a better future.

The New York Times, still pushing editorially for CAFTA, had to acknowledge in its news coverage that “Globalism Minus Jobs Equals Campaign Issue” and “Farmers and Labor Press Global Trade as a Campaign Issue.” In February, echoing his rivals John Edwards and Howard Dean, Kerry embraced enforceable labor and environmental standards. He began to argue for closing tax loopholes that encourage corporate outsourcing as well.

Global justice activists have called on Democrats to adopt a “prudent pause” on implementing trade agreements that do not meet core democratic policy goals like access to safe food, affordable medicines, healthcare and education as well as protection of the environment and promotion of labor rights. They demand that Kerry’s vague proposal for a trade policy review be developed into a review of the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, CAFTA and related trade mechanisms by labor, environmental groups, family farmers, consumers, clergy, women’s groups–and the business sector.

If Kerry wins, his mandate should usher in a climate beneficial to social movements. But activists for global justice will have to battle for real progress instead of token policy tweaks. Meanwhile, the corporate free traders will wring their hands over any steps to regulate the global economy, calling it “protectionism,” which they fear will revive the anticorporate image of the Democratic Party among its donors.

Regardless of which candidate wins, Iraq will cast a shadow over efforts to refocus on trade and domestic policy. The antiwar movement may link itself more strongly to the trade debate, since it has now become clearer that Paul Bremer’s mission as US proconsul in Iraq was to employ “market shock” to force open the economy to foreign interests like those of his friends at Kissinger Associates. Bush’s 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States” had already wed military unilateralism to economic unilateralism, promoting free trade, lower taxes and “pro-growth legal and regulatory policies” in its national security policy.

If Bush wins, the anti-empire struggle surely will intensify globally. Bush’s vision for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, for example, faces powerful pressure for reform of the free-traders’ “Washington Consensus” from elected governments in Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, as well as raging popular resistance to the whole project of neoliberalism. Voters in India recently shocked the global elite by throwing out a government that pushed free-trade fundamentalism. The hostility to corporate outsourcing will continue to deepen among working- and middle-class voters here at home, causing a crisis for Democratic Party centrists, whose remedies, such as retraining, sound like so much hot air, as jobs vanish to cheap labor markets. The challenge for Democrats will be to find a resonant voice on populist and class issues or drift further toward becoming the liberal wing of an ascendant Republican majority.

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