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.