Will The New NAFTA Benefit Ordinary Citizens or Corporations?
Angelo DiCaro of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, Melinda St. Louis, of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, and Prof. John Ackerman of the National Autonomous University of Mexico analyze the negotiations that began this week.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Trade negotiators for US, Mexico, and Canada initiated the renegotiation of the NAFTA Treaty on Wednesday. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, has been in place for 23 years, since 1994. It became a campaign issue for candidate Donald Trump when he criticized it for being one of the world’s worst trade deals the US has ever signed. Let’s listen.
DONALD TRUMP: NAFTA was the worst deal ever made in the history of the world. It was a one way highway, out of the United States. If we don’t get the deal we want, we will withdraw from NAFTA and start all over, and get a much, much better deal than we ever had before. Anybody ever hear of NAFTA? I ran a campaign somewhat based on NAFTA, but we’re going to start renegotiating on NAFTA, on immigration, and on security at the border, and Mexico has been terrific actually, terrific, and the President has been really very amazing. I think we’re going to have a very good result for Mexico, for the United States, for everybody involved. It’s very important.
SHARMINI PERIES: One of the main reasons for this claim is that US has a sizable trade deficit with Mexico. This, Trump says, has allowed Mexico to benefit disproportionately from the deal, hence his reference to this “two-way highway” business. The US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, made his point during the opening of the first negotiation sessions. Let’s listen.
BOB LIGHTHIZER: Views of the President about NAFTA are well known. I want to be clear that he is not interested in a mere tweaking of a few provisions and a couple of updated chapters. We feel that NAFTA has fundamentally failed many, many Americans and needs major improvement.
SHARMINI PERIES: And as for the NAFTA negotiations, as far as the Foreign Minister of Canada is concerned, Chrystia Freeland, this is what she had to say.
CHRYSTIA FREELA: Our objectives are clear. To reinforce NAFTA as an engine of job creation and economic growth, to cut red tape and further harmonize regulations, to make NAFTA more progressive, and to uphold the elements in NAFTA that are key to our national interest.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining us now to analyze the NAFTA negotiations are three guests. First, Angelo DiCaro, who is the National Staff Representative with Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. Thanks for joining us, Angelo.
ANGELO DICARO: [inaudible 00:02:58].
SHARMINI PERIES: And we have Melinda St. Louis, who is International Campaigns Director with Public Citizens Global Trade Watch, and good to have you with us, Melinda.
MELINDA ST LOUIS: Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And joining us from Mexico City is John Ackerman. John is Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Editor in Chief of the Mexican Law Review, and columnist with both La Jornada Magazine and Proceso Magazine. Thank you for joining us.
JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you, Sharmini. A pleasure, as always.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let me first go to Melinda here. Melinda, Robert Lighthizer, you heard his opening statement. Give us a sense of what the Trump administration is trying to do here. What are they undoing? Because this is a situation where NAFTA has been criticized from the right and from the left, and yet, in these negotiations, at least the progressive sector is looking for some possibilities of negotiating in greater favor of at least the workers and in terms of ordinary citizens here in the US.
MELINDA ST LOUIS: Well again, thanks for having me. I think right now we’re at a stage where it’s still very much an open question of what is going to happen. As US Trade Representative Lighthizer said, they claim to want to do more than just tweaks of the NAFTA. However, other people within the same administration, within the cabinet, such as the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, has said that they would use the TPP or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a starting point for the NAFTA renegotiations, which would not be much of a change at all. In fact, would double down on the status quo and expand the current model.
Citizens groups have been demanding for decades a different model, and a replaced NAFTA to benefit working people on the planet. There are very clear list of things that need to be in and need to be out of NAFTA in order to deliver on this campaign promise that President Trump said to many of his voters, to make NAFTA a lot better for working people. But unless they open up the process, which so far they have not been willing to do, they have continued a very secretive process that has 500 corporate advisers advising them, and so it remains to be seen in whose interests really they are going to be negotiating this deal.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. John, let me go to you. Earlier this week we saw various farm worker organizations organizing demonstrations, urging that NAFTA be scrapped entirely. So, what is the reaction in Mexico to the negotiations and what is the position of the state versus what these farm workers are arguing here?
JOHN ACKERMAN: Well, from a Mexican perspective, it’s really important for people in the United States and Canada to be aware that the role of the Mexican government at this point will be 100% negative, if the NAFTA renegotiations culminate in December, during this semester. We have elections coming up next year, federal elections, presidential elections in July of 2018. It is the last gasp of the sitting presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, and he is desperate to hold on to just about anything. He is going to accept anything that Trump proposes, imposes, gladly. In many cases, Enrique Peña Nieto is a Trump of himself, very much in the pocket of the corporate class.
But he’ll accept even stuff that is directly against Mexicans best interest. Definitely against the environment or working class, insofar as this means that NAFTA will still exist and he’ll be able to maintain that until the election next year. The grassroots in Mexico is very active and definitely would be interested in actually broadening, democratizing NAFTA, as your other colleague mentioned. But there’s no possibility of that actually happening from a Mexican perspective in the short term, and so yes, it would be definitely more positive to have from our point of view, grassroots point of view, to have no NAFTA, for this to be thrown out the door, than for it to get one step worse with a lightning negotiation, fast track negotiation, in these two months under this condition.
SHARMINI PERIES: Angelo, let me go to you. What is the reaction in Canada? What is Unifor standing for, giving Chrystia Freeland’s preamble in terms of what she intends to do in the NAFTA renegotiation?
ANGELO DICARO: Yeah. I guess let me start with reflecting on the last two guests and the situation Canada’s in. Unlike the US and Mexico, it seems from a government point of view, there’s a bit of a luxury here for Canada where getting this deal done really wasn’t top of the agenda for the Trudeau government to begin with. It was very much brought under the agenda by the Trump administration, and through Trump’s campaign. We’re still two years more out from our next federal election, so this government with a strong majority really doesn’t feel much pressure to get this done, and I think in some ways that works in their favor from a bargaining perspective.
It’s an interesting dynamic here in Canada with respect to how the government’s treating this, but I think there’s a general sense among the liberal government that NAFTA is vitally important. There’s a great chorus of people in the mainstream economists and in news outlets that will say the sky is falling if something was to happen to NAFTA, that the pact would be dismantled. Other research has come out recently in Canada to suggest that even if it does, worst case scenario and we have to work back to WTO line terrace, actually in fact things aren’t that bad. But that’s a whole other conversation.
The interesting thing for Unifor and our predecessor unions, the CAW, the Auto Workers, and the Energy Workers, was that NAFTA’s been a total disaster in terms of a model for trade. So we have long called for a renegotiation on are a complete repealing of the NAFTA. It was a bit awkward watching the Trump administration get into office, basically trumpeting the same lines that we’ve heard unions talk about for many years. I still think we hold firm on that, and one thing we’re trying to distinguish ourselves in our position in this matter, is that we’re not really opposed to trade. We’re not opposed to trade deals necessarily, but trade deals built on the model of NAFTA, which is very, very tilted into the pro-investor camp, agreements that really undermine our democracy through various measures, and simply look at market access as the be all and end all objective of a trade agreement.
That’s not where things fly with us, so we have long advocated for reforms to NAFTA, particularly on enhancing worker’s rights. And I guess to our benefit right now, at least at this stage in the game, we have a liberal government who is trumpeting their own version of a progressive trade agenda, hasn’t really been defined well yet by this government, but clearly they have put enhancing labor rights, environmental standards, indigenous rights and women’s rights front and center on this negotiating table. We don’t know where this is going to go, but to hear that kind of rhetoric is welcome for us, so we’re cautiously optimistic on this front, but we’ll see where things land.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, let me go to Melinda next. But feel free to jump in if you want to expand on her point of view, or you have something to say. Melinda, in terms of where you’re coming from as an advocate that wants to have trade deals that obviously favor the public interest, what are the kinds of things you would like to see renegotiated in this deal and what would you advocate that the US focus on?
MELINDA ST LOUIS: Well, first and foremost, in order to have a deal that rebalances and puts the public interest ahead of corporate interests, and I think it’s really important for us to make clear that our position is that the NAFTA benefited the largest corporate interests in all three countries and hurt workers and the environment in all three countries. This was not an us versus them agreement or deal. But I would say the first thing that must happen is that at the heart of NAFTA were these special investor rights that incentivized job offshoring in the United States, and then it also allowed multinational corporations to attack public interest, environmental, public health and safety laws before tribunals of three corporate lawyers, and to demand unlimited amounts of taxpayer money over our laws, at the local, state, and federal levels.
This mechanism, called Investor State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, under the Chapter 11 of NAFTA, is the ground zero, really points out, really in whose interest this deal was negotiated for. It was for multinational corporations to be able to challenge laws, and in order for us to even be able to look at a renegotiated NAFTA to see if it’s rebalanced, that must be taken out. The first thing these special investor rights that incentive offshoring have to go out. The other thing is that we, as other speakers have said, the importance of raising labor environmental standards and human rights in all three countries, the NAFTA had these side agreements that were unenforceable on labor and environment.
We saw the global race to the bottom that is part of what has driven the hollowing out of manufacturing in the United States and precarious jobs in Mexico where nearly a million manufacturing jobs in the US have been specifically certified as lost due to NAFTA, under narrow government programs, and so we need to have not only enforceable standards in the core of the agreement, but they have to actually be enforced, because we haven’t seen that in past deals. And we need to get rid of the crazy giveaways for corporations in terms of expanding monopolies for pharmaceutical companies, that keep drug prices high.
We need to get rid of the rules that allowed for imports of food that don’t meet domestic safety standards, and we need to get rid of the rules that just push this deregulatory agenda that make it difficult for our governments to regulate Wall Street, to regulate other services such as trucking and energy. Those are just a few of the list of demands that civil society has been very clear about for decades, and in fact, the Citizens Trade Campaign, which is a broad coalition of US organizations from across sectors, sent a letter to President-Elect Trump before he even took office, with a very clear list of what a replaced NAFTA would need in order to benefit workers and the environment.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Keeping in mind, John, the fact that this has never been a very equitable deal for Mexicans, especially Mexican workers, Mexican farmers. Now, the US is moving to reassert its hegemony and its corporate hegemony in terms of a trade deal, give us a sense of your reaction to this and what Melinda just said.
JOHN ACKERMAN: Yeah, well NAFTA’s already been pretty negative for Mexico as well. I mean, it’s really [inaudible 00:15:58], fragmented, destroyed our possibility for national development and sovereignty. Not only has it not brought us a real economic growth, but this economic growth has been terribly distributed, but the most important thing is that it’s really separated our economy. There’s very little linkages between these international corporations coming into the national economy. There’s almost no protection for unions or for labor rights, and so they’re just using this cheap labor to increase corporate profits and this over the long term, has had a real toll on the Mexican working class and on the economy.
On the agricultural side, things have also gotten quite tragic. I mean, the reason why there’s been so much migration from the Mexico to the United States, got up to almost over 700,000 people a year at the end of the ’90s. Still was around 300, 400, 500,000 Mexicans a year in the first decade of the 21st century. It’s come down now for various reasons, but this massive out flood of Mexicans towards the United States and Canada has to do with the basic collapse of the agricultural sector, small farmers, due to NAFTA.
This is creating an incredible level of poverty as well in Mexico and we have no supports within our national economy to recover. That’s what we need to start to build. That’s the project for López Obrador, the leftist candidate for next year’s president’s election. The problem is that this point, things are just going to get worse. I mean, I really would encourage you guys in Canada. You guys sound sort of optimistic having this President at least saying that he’s in favor of these progressive ideas, but if you guys don’t have solid support from south of the border in Mexico, even you might be able to chip away and get a few symbolic positive achievements, but you’re not going to be able to get very far with two against one.
Trump/Pena duo against Trudeau. I really would encourage you guys to wait, really pressure the Canadian government to wait until after the Mexican President elections to have a more just and fair deal for workers and for the environment, and these progressive issues, in 2018.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Angelo, I’ll have to give you an opportunity to respond to that, and if you could also factor in if there’s any solidarity in terms of the union sector with the Mexican unions in terms of what you’re pressuring your government in Canada to hold up, as far as worker’s rights are concerned.
ANGELO DICARO: Sure. Yeah, no, and excellent points. I know our union was involved in some tri-national solidarity efforts linking up grassroots movements across North America to put a baseline standard of what organizations wanted to see through this renegotiation exercise. Also working in collaboration with sister unions like the UAW to just re-envision what trade in the auto sector, for instance, might look like, and what some new concept … Although, this terminology, but a new vision for a North American auto pact and what that might look like.
Yeah, believe me, we’re not holding our breath on anything up here in terms of what the outcomes are going to be. What is encouraging is taking the opportunity to change this dialogue around what trade ought to do. This is something we haven’t seen come out of a federal government in Canada in a long time. NAFTA is not the only peace of trade policy that we’re dealing with right now. Canada is kicking the tires right now on a potential trade pact with China, which would be an extraordinary undertaking, and very concerning for a number of different reasons.
We’re just implementing a very worrisome trade agreement with the European Union which sets a different model. More progressive on some ends, and very damaging on other ends, in addition to other trade talks that are winding through, including possible resuscitating the TPP. So, the fact that a government appears at least to be listening to what progressive groups are saying in Canada, this is a test for us politically to make sure that they’re going to walk the walk and not just talk the talk when they’re talking about labor rights, indigenous rights, and women’s rights in trade agreements. We would love to see where this goes, and we’re going to be pushing them with our own ideas about what this should look like.
In terms of our concerns on the NAFTA talks and what’s happening right now, it feels like we have to go back to the bookcase and dust off our old TPP campaign materials, because what’s astonishing is for a President who campaigned calling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I think it was a “job killing machine,” or “the worst trade deal he’s ever seen,” or whatever it was, but then to turn around and craft his NAFTA objectives which were basically wrapping NAFTA in TPP’s clothing is very concerning for us. The same fights around patent laws and what this will mean for Canadian drug prices, issues around our telecom sector and trying to break those regulations down around Canadian ownership, trying to take aim at our supply management system which has already been weakened under the CETA which could get a further hit under a new NAFTA accord. Very, very concerning.
On those fronts, since both Canada and Mexico technically have already signed off on some of those provisions in the TPP tentative agreement, we’re also a bit worried that this is going to be a new fight just with a bit of a more progressive lens, at least on the Canadian side. Lots of concerns in NAFTA, and lots of concerns in other areas of trade policy as well.
SHARMINI PERIES: And another question for you, Angelo. Has the Canadian government and the administration of Justin Trudeau reached out to you, as a union that represents the largest private sector union, reached out to in terms of what the leading issues should be in the NAFTA renegotiations?
ANGELO DICARO: Well, I’ll put this into context, for folks who don’t pay too close attention to Canadian politics, which I find hard to believe, ’cause it’s so very exciting up here north of the border. But progressives came out of 10 years of very difficult political dynamic under the Harper conservative government. We weren’t just subject to attacks by conservative MPs trying to weaken the labor movement in Canada, but we were just outright ignored from a public policy point of view. I guess that’s probably not very different than experiences of our sisters and brothers in both Mexico and the US, but it was a very difficult period.
One of the good things that came out of Unifor’s formation was just before the last Canadian election, is that we helped turn the dial on, the political dial in Canada. We became a real political force for progressive voices in Canada, and the Liberals and the NDP, our more left-wing party in Canada, they picked up on that. In a lot of ways, on the TPP front, going into the election, we really helped turn that deal into something that was politically toxic for opposition parties. We knew Harper, his days were done in power.
So we held the Liberal government to a lot of the promises they made about changing the tune of the Harper government, which was consultations with civil society, and consultations with labor. If you read some of the mandate letters that came out once the liberal government was formed, labor unions were put in there explicitly to say that we have to be part of ongoing consultations. To their credit, we have been invited to tables, we’ve been invited to consultations almost consulted to death on a lot of issues, but it’s a new world for us in terms of access to decision-makers and policymakers.
Again, this is all going to where we are right now, two years into their mandate. We’re hopeful. We’re going to stay optimistic, but this NAFTA renegotiation is maybe the first marker for us to see exactly if they’re going to walk the walk on some of this talk about listening to labor. So, we’ve had countless meetings with the Liberal government, countless meetings with Minister Freeland. We were the last meeting that she had, heads of labor unions, before she flew out to Washington to start NAFTA talks. It seems very much that she’s taking this seriously but we’re going to have to hold her to it.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Melinda, your reaction to what both John and Angelo has just said? Of course, if you could also answer the question has there been any consultation with organizations like yours and labor unions about what should be discussed at the table in terms of the negotiations?
MELINDA ST LOUIS: The first thing I would say is that I very much agree that if this is a rushed negotiation, as they are claiming, that their plan is to try to finish by the end of this year, or in the beginning of 2018, and given their very rushed negotiation schedule, I see a very little chance that this would be a positive outcome for people. The only way I see that happening is that they do, as was mentioned, go back to the TPP texts that have been rejected by civil society in the United States, in the other countries across the political spectrum.
I mean, this was a politically toxic deal for Democrats and Republicans, that’s why it was never able to achieve a majority on Congress in the United States. So, if they go to the TPP where we have seen in areas of intellectual property and others that we know that they’re already going in that direction, this will be a very bad outcome. I actually hope that it’s true, from the Canadian side, that they aren’t in a hurry and that they are willing to hold the line strongly and push for some of these progressive changes to the deal.
I would say that having a chapter on indigenous, or having a chapter on gender, again, we don’t know what these things mean yet, or human rights, wouldn’t go nearly far enough. Unfortunately what we heard from Minister Freeland is initially around these tribunals where multinational corporations can sue governments, that Canada would support keeping that in NAFTA, which I think would be disastrous, and so what we need to look at and what we will be looking at, as citizen’s organizations in Mexico, the United States, and Canada, is the totality of the agreement. In whose interests is it being negotiated?
Again, will they get rid of these tribunals that benefit multinational corporations? Will they get rid of the rules that inhibit our ability to invest our tax dollars locally around procurement, around services regulation, to make sure that we have the democratic power to be able to regulate in the national interest and to benefit the public, which is unfortunately not what NAFTA did. Again, NAFTA was branded as a trade deal, but it included all of these non-trade issues that affect our daily lives.
I mean, I agree that if we went to a deal that was actually about trade, and focused on the specific trade issues, you would see much less of the broad opposition that you’ve seen to TPP and to these deals because again, when it’s negotiated behind closed doors with 500 corporate advisors here in the United States that have access to the text, you’re going to end up with a corporate wishlist. That’s what we are going to be demanding to be different and unfortunately so far, the speed at which they intend to take these negotiations on, and the process that they … It’s been closed. They have not been willing to publish the texts ahead of time so we can see what’s being negotiated in our name.
We will be mobilizing the same coalition that defeated the TPP in the United States, is going to be mobilizing to pay attention to these negotiations, to talk to our members of Congress now, and with the negotiations. So, in terms of your question about the consultations, there was a public consultation “period” set up by the statute during the summer in the Federal Registry. This was a very pro forma consultation. Our citizens groups mobilized and more than 50,000 comments went to the official comment process which overwhelmed them. It shut down the website, they hadn’t seen anything like that before, and yet, we are not seeing the actual texts to see what is going to be moving forward.
We are very concerned that pieces of it we know, that have been tabled, do mirror the negative rules that we saw in the TPP.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And John, let me give you the last word here. Given that Mexican government seems to be a bit more hands-off at this moment.
JOHN ACKERMAN: Absolutely.
SHARMINI PERIES: And also, in terms of what Angelo and both Melinda has said, in terms of the kind of voice that’s necessary at the table, whether it’s through these unions and organizations and civil society input, whether some of that is being conducted in Mexico and is there a place where this could be heard by the Mexican government before and during these negotiations as they are taking place?
JOHN ACKERMAN: The Mexican government is totally closed to any kind of consultation with civil society. They put a website up for anybody to put their comments in, but everybody knows that’s just the equivalent of throwing it down a black hole. Peña Nieto is Trump’s biggest ally in these negotiations and in many other areas here. We’ve been totally locked out. Guajardo, our Secretary of the Economy, who’s the Chief Negotiator, has not published any talking points or even proposals or issues or bottom lines, or projects or vision of a new NAFTA. All they’re talking about is modernizing. That’s the word they’re using for NAFTA, which is basically, as Melinda and your other colleague just mentioned, is building TPP into NAFTA.
The key issue here, as Melinda mentioned, is Chapter 11. I mean, that’s the one that empowers corporations over nation states and over any kind of popular control. That’s what should be on the agenda, but with Peña Nieto out there, that’s not a possibility. Once again, I hear your optimism from Canada, but really, think about it twice. Are you really going to be able to make any kind of real achievements without Mexico being on your side, as well? Is this just about Canada or is it about North America? Let’s slow things down, let’s wait a little bit.
There’s a real possibility that next year Mexico will have a progressive government and we can team up on Trump next year, and that could be a real positive scenario for advancing progressive agenda in North America.
ANGELO DICARO: If I could just jump in on one last thing. I take the point, you’ve raised it a couple of times, and I agree. But one thing on ISDS which is very concerning, too, is understanding what Minister Freeland’s position has been, which is not onside with what progressive groups in Canada have said. Canada has been the most sued nation in NAFTA’s Chapter 11. We’re dealing with these ridiculous lawsuits more frequently than others have done over the history of NAFTA.
This should be, for us, our number one concern but for some reason it’s not, and that is very concerning for us. I don’t know that there’s one progressive group in this country who within their list of demands, not at the top of that list says, “Get rid of Chapter 11.” It’s going to be very difficult to see a deal come back to this country that still has that in there in some form, that’s going to be acceptable to progressives. We’re watching that very carefully.
JOHN ACKERMAN: Wonderful.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Angelo DiCaro and Melinda St. Louis, and John Ackerman in Mexico, I thank you all for joining us today, and we’re going to keep this discussion going as the negotiations proceed and I hope all of you could join us again.
JOHN ACKERMAN: Thank you.
MELINDA ST LOUIS: Thanks.
ANGELO DICARO: Thanks very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.