NAFTA at 20 Years

Nick Alexandrov

This has already been a rotten year for Washington state’s Boeing workers, who “agreed to concede some benefits in order to secure assembly of the new 777X airplane for the Puget Sound region,” an Associated Press article claimed on January 4. Jim Levitt, a 35-year Machinist at Boeing, gave a shop-floor view of this “agreement,” explaining in a New Year’s Eve piece for Labor Notes that the deal was “rammed down our throats with a calculated voter suppression effort,” the vote slated by the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers for “a day when many, possibly thousands, of our members will not be present.” “Besides losing the defined-benefit pension,” Levitt stated in a follow-up piece, “we’ve lost collective bargaining, for all intents and purposes,” with Boeing’s “new modus operandi” being “Take It or We Leave.” This threat is serious, revealed by the company’s diligent efforts to help eviscerate U.S. labor in recent years. “From 2001 to 2004,” historian Norman Caulfield writes, “Boeing cut more than 35,000 employees from its U.S. workforce,” part of some 3 million domestic manufacturing positions eliminated around the same time.

NAFTA, the so-called “free trade agreement” between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. that turned 20 on January 1, secured rights for investors, and has helped spur this devastation of U.S. manufacturing. It was a bipartisan triumph, Jeff Faux reminds us, “conceived by Ronald Reagan, negotiated by George Bush I, and pushed through the US Congress by Bill Clinton in alliance with Congressional Republicans and corporate lobbyists.” And one of its accomplishments has been “accelerating the offshoring of jobs in the aircraft and aerospace industries,” Caulfield explains, noting that, in 2005-2006, “Cessna Aircraft, Bombardier Aerospace, and Raytheon Aircraft announced plans to move wire harness production from Wichita, Kansas, to various locations in Mexico.” Depicting these developments as “failures,” a common criticism, misses the point, since NAFTA’s supporters shaped it to serve their interests. Activists Kevin Danaher and Jason Mark list “Boeing, General Electric, Motorola, Caterpillar, and IBM, among others” as some of its chief backers–a group, in other words, that most definitely “did not include labor unions, public interest organizations, or small business associations,” sociologists Patricia Fernández-Kelly and Douglas S. Massey observe.

Critics warned immediately that the arrangement would ruin the lives of those excluded from the planning stages. Faux, in 1993, emphasized “the certainty that NAFTA will cause economic and environmental loss to a significant number of Americans,” while Sheldon Friedman, almost a year earlier, concluded that “[t]he victims of NAFTA will be many of the same workers who have already been devastated over the last decade or more by plant closings, permanent layoffs, and real earnings declines.” Furthermore, NAFTA’s proponents were well-aware of its predictable outcomes, having produced scant evidence to counter the grim forecasts. The U.S. International Trade Commission, for example, “found that the highest estimate of a potential NAFTA contribution to employment in the United States was” an impressive “eight one-hundredths of one percent,” Faux pointed out. And the “Hufbauer-Schott study, regarded as the definitive case for NAFTA,” omitted from its final version a table, appearing in a draft, “that showed a job loss over the long term from NAFTA.”

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