OPINION: Renegotiating NAFTA an uphill but winnable fight

One of the demands of U.S. workers in the election just past was a renegotiation of NAFTA. Canadian workers have similar concerns. In Mexico, the demand to reorganize NAFTA comes most strongly from small farmers, but is also advanced by workers and the left. It is a winnable, but uphill, fight.

When Obama takes office on Jan. 20, he will, ironically, be the most left-wing head of government of the three NAFTA countries, and the only one of the three who has said anything about renegotiating the terms of the pact.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of the Conservative Party, is a fanatical free trader, and the right wing in Canada has issued dire threats that if Obama tries to reopen NAFTA, Canada will use the opportunity to demand increased prices for Canadian raw materials.

Mexican president Felipe Calderon, of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), has not thought twice about hurting the poorest farmers and workers in his own country rather than violate the “principles” of 'free' trade in foodstuffs. As a result of his policies and those of his immediate predecessors, living standards Mexico were already plunging before the recent financial crisis, which is striking Mexico with brutal force.

Calderon was elected in 2006 in a very fishy election, narrowly defeating a left-leaning, NAFTA-critical candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). But the next presidential election under Mexican law is not until 2012. There are congressional elections on July 1, 2009, but the main left-center opposition party, the PRD, is in utter disarray from infighting.

In Canada, Harper’s Conservatives failed in October to get an absolute majority in Parliament, but remain in power anyway.

Fortunately in each of the three NAFTA countries, the governments are not going to have the only say.

Mexican small farmers and workers are worried that NAFTA undermines agriculture and manufacturing. Subsidized U.S. and Canadian products, especially grains, have driven farmers off the land by the millions, and U.S.-based monopolies such as Wal-Mart have taken over many other areas of the Mexican economy, undermining the country’s economic sovereignty and drastically eliminating the total number of jobs available. In several Mexican states, remittances from Mexican immigrants in the United States now exceed the total income from wages and salaries by up to 50 percent. But the remittances, which peaked in 2007 at about $24 billion, now are dropping sharply, because Mexican immigrant workers are being laid off or paid less due to the financial crisis.

Over the last couple of years there have been anti-NAFTA protests in Mexico, mostly organized by farmers. There has been some support for this movement from the most progressive sectors of Mexican labor, which will likely grow as the financial crisis deepens.

In the United States and Canada, workers and their unions are concerned about job flight under NAFTA. This facilitated Obama’s and the Democrats’ victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other crucial Northern manufacturing states, and the pressure for opening up the NAFTA issue will continue from those sectors. Yet opposition to NAFTA renegotiation is very strong here too.

Can labor, farmers and others in all three NAFTA countries unite to force a renegotiation of NAFTA? Yes, but there are some obstacles to overcome.

In the United States, demagogues have played with the concern about jobs going to Mexico to whip up anti-Mexican feeling. Combining agitation against NAFTA with insults against the Mexican people plays directly into the hands of NAFTA’s monopoly supporters. We must be clear that NAFTA hurts workers and poor farmers in all three countries, and only benefits the monopolies. Cross-border working class and mass unity is the only way to achieve a renegotiation of NAFTA.

In the United States, a coherent approach to fighting for NAFTA renegotiation will come from organized labor, from smaller-scale farmers, from environmentalists, and also from the immigrant rights movement, the most advanced sectors of which have adopted the goal of renegotiating NAFTA because of the pact’s role in forcing people out of Mexico.

A trinational parliamentary working group on NAFTA renegotiation was started this spring by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Canadian Member of Parliament Peter Julian (New Democratic Party), and Mexican federal Senator Yeidckol Polevnsky (PRD). An April 28, 2008, statement from this group indicates a propitious beginning:

“The harsh truth that Bush, Harper and Calderon won’t face is that during the 14 years of NAFTA, the citizens of our three countries have faced growing inequality and stagnating wages. In the case of Mexico the collapse of opportunity has been so severe that out-migration to the United States has more than doubled to an all-all time high of 500,000 people per year. The poor and the middle class have borne the brunt of the damage and dislocation, while the richest few concentrate unprecedented levels of wealth.”

That statement encapsulates the potential for a unified struggle to renegotiate NAFTA; it is up to us to drive home the message.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.