Of the many big promises candidate Trump made, there’s one even a tax-dodging billionaire can’t afford to break. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Clinton-era trade accord linking Canada, Mexico, and the United States that Trump dubbed the “worst deal” in history, symbolizes for millions of workers everything wrong with the neoliberal global economic order, and Trump convinced millions of voters that he alone could fix it.
Labor, environmental, and consumer advocates hope the talks could initiate a move toward crafting a more cooperative, socially protective trade policy that reins in the power of multinationals rather than boosting their transborder impunity.
Now a coalition of environmental, labor, consumer, and community organizations is seizing the opportunity to advance a NAFTA replacement blueprint, which attempts to remedy some of the social problems that trade was supposed to fix but, in many cases, only deepened: economic fairness, ecological sustainability, and corporate responsibility.
One consensus priority for progressives is that the trade-deal-negotiation process be made transparent and open to public oversight. Trade talks typically take place in secrecy, often in ministerial meetings dominated by corporate lobbyists and consultants. The Citizens Trade Coalition demands “a democratic, accountable, and transparent negotiating process without privileged backroom access for corporate interests.”
But rules are only as good as their enforcement. For corporations that cut corners, activists want to scrap the current quasi-legal system known as the Investor State Dispute Settlement process.
This tribunal structure enables corporations to litigate outside domestic courts against regulations seen as unfairly restrictive on business, like environmental protections and safety rules, and seek financial damages. Replacing the tribunals with a more open judicial process would empower civil-society and labor groups to check multinationals’ efforts to subvert domestic laws.
The major case for a NAFTA overhaul is simply that the rules are outdated. NAFTA was enacted decades before workers or even politicians anticipated the explosion of the gig economies, the explosion of digital technology, or threats of financial collapses, pandemics, or climate change.
The interests at stake in a massive trade deal like NAFTA vary from tariffs to pollution controls—but all civil-society groups demand more leverage to hold multinationals to basic rights standards that would help all trading nations adapt to global economic changes.
Labor unions want to protect jobs and livelihoods however industry evolves. Currently under NAFTA there are few mechanisms for workers and labor groups to raise grievances against multinational corporations for labor violations, which undermines corporate accountability across the supply chain. Instead of a race to exploit lax labor standards and low wages around the world, both US and international labor groups want to ensure a “level playing field” for all economies with binding regulations on all multinationals on wages, occupational safety and health, and freedom to organize.