The North American Free Trade Agreement (NATFA) was the door through which American workers were shoved into the neoliberal global labor market.
By establishing the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell back into the United States, NAFTA undercut the bargaining power of American workers, which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II. The result has been 20 years of stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income, wealth and political power.
NAFTA affected U.S. workers in four principal ways. First, it caused the loss of some 700,000 jobs as production moved to Mexico. Most of these losses came in California, Texas, Michigan, and other states where manufacturing is concentrated. To be sure, there were some job gains along the border in service and retail sectors resulting from increased trucking activity, but these gains are small in relation to the loses, and are in lower paying occupations. The vast majority of workers who lost jobs from NAFTA suffered a permanent loss of income.
Second, NAFTA strengthened the ability of U.S. employers to force workers to accept lower wages and benefits. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began telling their workers that their companies intended to move to Mexico unless the workers lowered the cost of their labor. In the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with unions, some companies would even start loading machinery into trucks that they said were bound for Mexico. The same threats were used to fight union organizing efforts. The message was: “If you vote in a union, we will move south of the border.” With NAFTA, corporations also could more easily blackmail local governments into giving them tax reductions and other subsidies.
Third, the destructive effect of NAFTA on the Mexican agricultural and small business sectors dislocated several million Mexican workers and their families, and was a major cause in the dramatic increase in undocumented workers flowing into the U.S. labor market. This put further downward pressure on U.S. wages, especially in the already lower paying market for less skilled labor.
Fourth, and ultimately most important, NAFTA was the template for rules of the emerging global economy, in which the benefits would flow to capital and the costs to labor. The U.S. governing class—in alliance with the financial elites of its trading partners—applied NAFTA’s principles to the World Trade Organization, to the policies of the World Bank and IMF, and to the deal under which employers of China’s huge supply of low-wage workers were allowed access to U.S. markets in exchange for allowing American multinational corporations the right to invest there.
The NAFTA doctrine of socialism for capital and free markets for labor also drove U.S. policy in the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95, the Asia financial crash of 1997 and the global financial meltdown of 2008. In each case, the U.S. government organized the rescue of the world’s bank and corporate investors, and let the workers fend for themselves.
In terms of U.S. politics, the passage of NAFTA signaled that the Democratic Party—the “progressive” side of the U.S. two-party system—had accepted the reactionary economic ideology of Ronald Reagan
A “North American Accord” was first proposed by the Republican Reagan in 1979, a year before he was elected president. A decade later, his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush negotiated the final agreement with Mexico and Canada.
But the Democrats who controlled the Congress would not approve the agreement. And when Democrat Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, it was widely assumed that the political pendulum would swing back from the right, and that therefore NAFTA would never pass. But Clinton surrounded himself with economic advisers from Wall Street, and in his first year pushed the approval of NAFTA through the Congress.
Despite the rhetoric, the central goal of NAFTA was not “expanding trade.” After all, the U.S., Mexico, and Canada had been trading goods and services with each other for three centuries. NAFTA’s central purpose was to free American corporations from U.S. laws protecting workers and the environment. Moreover, it paved the way for the rest of the neoliberal agenda in the US—the privatization of public services, the regulation of finance, and the destruction of the independent trade union movement.
The inevitable result was to undercut workers’ living standards all across North America. Wages and benefits have fallen behind worker productivity in all three countries. Moreover, despite declining wages in the United States, the gap between the typical American and typical Mexican worker in manufacturing remains the same. Even after adjusting for differences in living costs, Mexican workers continue to make about 30% of the wages of workers in the United States. Thus, NAFTA is both symbol and substance of the global “race to the bottom.”
Here in North America there are two alternative political strategies for change. One is repeal. NAFTA gives each nation the right to opt out of the agreement. The problem is that by now the three countries’ economies and populations have become so integrated that dis-integration could cause widespread dislocation, unemployment, and a substantial drop in living standards.
The other option is to build a cross border political movement to rewrite NAFTA in a way that gives ordinary citizens rights and labor protections at least equal to the current privileges of corporate investors. This would obviously not be easy. But a foundation has already been laid by growing collaboration among immigrant, trade unionist, human rights and other activist organizations in all three counties. If such a movement could succeed in drawing up a new continent-wide social contract, North American economic integration, instead of being a blueprint for worker exploitation might just become a model for bringing social justice to the global economy.