Trade Deals for Working Class Americans


Trade deals, like the 1,700-page NAFTA, are incredibly complex and the opinions on them are wide ranging. Trade deals themselves are neither inherently good nor bad and your take largely depends on the perspective you view them from. For example, if you are a transnational corporation that wanted to employ workers in a low wage poisonous environment in order to increase profits, you probably loved NAFTA. If you were a middle class American factory worker in Michigan or New York whose job was subsequently eliminated, you probably thought otherwise.  

NAFTA’s effect on middle class Americans was disastrous. It was not designed in consideration for the American worker. It was not written to protect or improve the lives of blue collar middle class Americans. It was meant to increase the profits of manufacturing companies who wanted to take advantage of low wage Mexican labor and lax environmental regulations. NAFTA removed the barriers of trade without addressing the different labor standards and the result was millions of lost jobs, suppressed wages and polluted environments.

Since the implementation of NAFTA, the U.S. has lost nearly 700,000 good paying manufacturing jobs and the factories that remained have been able to use the threat of moving to low wage Mexico to suppress the wages of American workers and limit the bargaining power of their unions.

The outcome for the Mexican worker was no better. Mexico lost 1.3 million farm jobs as small and midsized Mexican farmers were put out of business by highly subsidized US agriculture and forced into low paying manufacturing jobs. Additionally, the U.S. manufacturing industry polluted and degraded the Mexican environment as it took advantage of the lax environmental standards.

Many of the countries the United States has trade deals with, such as China, have no workers’ rights whatsoever. The workers in these countries have no right to organize, no right to collective bargaining, no right to strike, no right to decent wages or benefits, no right to a safe workplace, no right to be able to sue their employer when injured under unsafe work conditions, no right to retirement and no right to vote in a political process. In the global economy, the rights of all workers are tied together and we must recognized that by continuing to trade under these conditions, the United States is damaging and degrading the rights and lives of, not only foreign workers, but American workers as well. 

The lazy and convenient explanation for the decline in US manufacturing jobs and wages has been that we are now living in the global economy for which we must remain competitive. However, the rules that govern the global economy in which we currently live did not write themselves. The rules that govern the globally economy do not have to include slave labor wages in third world countries. That inclusion was by design to the profit of transnational corporations who have opposite interests to those of U.S. workers.

It is important for us to remember how this current economic environment came to be and to also acknowledge that it was a Democratic President who signed NAFTA and betrayed the interests of blue collar working Americans. We should also remind ourselves that after selling out working class Americans to corporate interests the Democrats lost congress in the very next election.

It is time for Democrats to acknowledge the mistake of NAFTA (along with other trade deals), pledge to cancel it and rewrite new trade deals that protect American workers. The United States must not accept any trade agreements with any country unless those agreements include workers rights, human rights and environmental protections that are at least equivalent to American standards and principles.

On trade, the Democratic Party has failed the American people, but this is not the end of our story. After all, the future has yet to be written. It is time to work towards better policy and a better future.


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