Fast Track - Back from the Dead
By David Bacon
SAN FRANCISCO -- On September 12, fast-track came back from
the dead. The proposal to give the Bush administration new
trade negotiation authority, which had no chance of passage
through Congress earlier this year, was resurrected from the
political boneyard in the new post-9/11 world. Today, fast
track is alive and well, and Congress seems more ready to
approve it than it has been for years.
The difference? The administration has cast it as an issue
of national security, and included it in a host of other
pro-corporate measure it says are necessary to improve an
economy already in a tailspin into recession.
Fast track legislation would allow the administration to
negotiate an extension of the North American Free Trade
Agreement to include all of the countries from Canada to
Tierra del Fuego -- the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the
Americas. The new treaty would then be reported back to
Congress, which would only be able to vote it up or down. No
changes or amendments would be permitted.
That's what happened in 1993, when the Clinton
administration got NAFTA through Congress. The cost of that
experiment in trade libaralization is still playing out
along the border, as well as in closed factories around the
country. Plants from Price-Pfister's plumbing supplies
factory in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley to the country's
last television factory -- Zenith's facility in Missouri --
all relocated production south to take advantage of low
Since the treaty was signed, the US Department of Labor has
certified more than 500,000 workers for special extended
unemployment benefits, because NAFTA cost them their jobs.
According to Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, since
NAFTA passed the number of times has more than doubled in
which US employers have told unions across the bargaining
table that if they didn't agree to give up wages and
benefits, their factories would move production out of the
Critics of the treaty at the time predicted that NAFTA would
pour gasoline on the fires of economic change in Mexico,
leading to escalating poverty and displacement of people.
The country lost a million jobs in the year after the treaty
took effect, and under new President Vicente Fox, another
half-million jobs have disappeared. The ubiquitous signs
advertising for workers on the gates of maquiladoras have
disappeared for the first time.
NAFTA's critics called the protections proposed by its
defenders (the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation
-- the so-called labor side-agreement) so weak and
ineffective that workers' rights would inevitably be
sacrificed in the interests of providing a favorable climate
for investment. Strikes at the Han Young factory in Tijuana
were suppressed in 1998 and 1999, and efforts to organize
independent union in the maquiladoras broken all along the
border. When the Clinton administration made its own fast
track proposal in 1998, then-House Whip David Bonior used
those border battles as examples of free trade-gone-awry,
and handed Clinton a humiliating defeat.
Until September 11, Bush was facing the same prospect. After
seven years, the results on the border continue to be hard
to miss. It's harder than ever to use the Mexican legal
process to organize an independent union and strike, and the
income of maquiladora workers has plummeted. The pressure on
workers to cross the border and find jobs in the North has
increased, and every year hundreds die on the trek across
the desert. Of course, free trade means free passage for
money and goods -- not for hungry and desperate people.
NAFTA and other free trade agreements, touted as a means for
the world's poor to lift themselves from poverty, have had
the opposite effect, according to a recent study by
Washington's Economic Policy Institute. EPI found that the
income of the world's 400 million poorest people, which was
79 cents/day in 1990, decreased to 78 cents/day in 1999.
Meanwhile, the gap between the world's rich and poor
mushroomed. The median income of the richest 10% of
countries, which was 77 times greater than the poorest 10%
in 1980, was 122 times greater in 1999.
Statistics be damned, however -- the push for fast track
Within two weeks of the horrifying events in New York and
Washington, the proposal was back in the House Ways and
Means committee, which voted it out in early October. The
administration told its allies that expanding free trade
agreements was necessary to entice other countries into its
Republican lawmakers hope to get the full House to debate
the proposal during the World Trade Organization meeting in
Doha, Qatar, which opened today. A spokesperson for House
Speaker Dennis Hastert, John Feehery, said it was "pretty
likely" that the bill would be taken up this year, and gave
it an 85% chance of passage. The Business Roundtable has
prepared a radio advertising blitz, targeting 20 uncommitted
House legislators, mostly pro-free trade Democrats. Their
votes, added to the Republicans the administration knows it
can count on, could make up a majority.
In '93, the Clinton administration passed out dams, freeways
and anything else it could find a way to fund as enticements
for the votes it needed to pass NAFTA. The wheeling and
dealing on this one is just starting.
Copyright (c) 2001 David Bacon. All Rights Reserved.