This past November, along with six other members of the US Congress, I visited Mexico on a Teamsters-sponsored trip in order to assess what NAFTA has done to Mexico. What we saw and heard was not pretty. We encountered horrendous poverty, environmental degradation and a lawless and corrupt environment. We talked with mothers who couldn’t afford to send their kids to school, workers who were fired for the crime of trying to organize a union and religious workers who were trying to protect young women from the murders and rapes that were taking place in Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso. We also met people who displayed enormous courage and tenacity.
In the Anapra colonia of Juárez we visited the dilapidated shack of a young mother: one light bulb, a dirt floor and no healthcare available for her sick child. Not an uncommon situation for that community, where tens of thousands of Mexicans had migrated from the southern and even poorer part of the country in search of a better life. As these people flooded into the Juárez area in search of maquiladora jobs, the infrastructure crumbled and the already low quality of life deteriorated. At a health clinic in the area we were told that many of the illnesses they dealt with resulted from malnutrition and other dietary problems.
In a nearby home another mother feared for the well-being of her older daughter, who traveled an hour and a half to work in a maquiladora factory–where she earned $35 a week. (Maquiladoras mostly hire women because they think they will be less likely to fight back against poor wages and working conditions.) Would she make it home safely or become another “disappeared” woman whose body would be found in the desert? In talking to law enforcement officials in Texas we were told that police and governmental corruption were rampant in Juárez. At least one high-ranking US law enforcement official told us that he would not go south of the border for fear that he might be killed.
In the city of Puebla we met with textile workers at one maquila who made blue jeans for export to the United States. They had the radical idea that they should have minimal rights on the job and be compensated when they worked overtime. They also wanted protection against chemicals that colored their hands and hair. When they attempted to form an independent union to negotiate for them, they were fired. (In Mexico, almost all union workers are represented by “official” unions, which are authorized by the government and sponsored by the companies. They do nothing to represent the interests of workers.) In Puebla we also met with the leader of one of the few independent unions in the country, José Luis Rodríguez Salazar, secretary general of the Independent Union of Volkswagen Workers. His union, under very difficult circumstances, has managed to negotiate a contract with VW that pays most workers there $25 a day–a very good wage in Mexico. They are currently struggling against downsizing and fear that in years to come, globalization could mean a reduction of auto manufacturing in Mexico as companies move to countries with even cheaper labor.
In the countryside, we met farmers whose communities had been devastated by the importation of subsidized, cheap corn from US agribusiness corporations. Since the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico’s agricultural sector has lost at least 1.3 million jobs. In the community that we visited there are almost no young workers left on the farms. Most of them are either in the cities or in the United States illegally. In an attempt to get a decent price for their corn, some of the farmers have created a cooperative business in which local corn is made into tortillas and sold in the cities. While they were cautiously optimistic about this new enterprise, they were distressed by the destruction of a way of life that their families had experienced for hundreds of years.
In the US Congress, a funny thing is happening with regard to trade policy. With NAFTA resulting in the loss of almost 900,000 decent-paying American manufacturing jobs, more and more members, Republicans and Democrats, are finding it harder and harder to defend unfettered free trade. I know of a number of members who voted for NAFTA who now see that vote as a mistake. I know of no member who voted against NAFTA who regrets that vote. Interestingly, since I recently introduced legislation to repeal Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, fifteen conservative Republicans have joined forty-two Democrats as co-sponsors.
The immediate task in Congress is threefold. First, we need to place a moratorium on the passage of all new free-trade legislation that the President is negotiating. Why should we exacerbate an already bad situation? No Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), no trade agreement with Australia, no Central American agreement (CAFTA), no bilateral agreements with individual countries. Second, we must move to terminate those trade agreements that currently exist and that are causing us huge job losses–such as NAFTA and PNTR with China. Third, we need a national conversation and appropriate legislation to create trade policy that works for the average American as well as our trading partners throughout the world.
The word is getting out and the momentum is building. Unfettered free trade has been a disaster not only for Americans but for the working people of Mexico and Canada as well. Our difficult but important job now is to build a new coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, small-business owners and manufacturers who put the people in their communities ahead of corporate America’s reckless search for profits. Included in that coalition must be white-collar and high-tech workers who are also seeing their jobs move to low-wage countries.
If we join together we can create trade policies that expand the middle class in this country, protect the international environment and improve the lives of poor people in developing countries. Together, we can and must end the disastrous race to the bottom that we are currently experiencing.