WASHINGTON - Free trade, as practiced by the United States, is hurting America's working poor, charged more than a dozen public policy advocates on Capitol Hill yesterday as opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement began to gear up for its 10th anniversary.
Widely known as NAFTA, the trade agreement signed by President Clinton has been sharply attacked as making it easier for U.S. companies to move factories to Mexico, where labor is cheaper.
The AFL-CIO argues that 3 million jobs have been lost under NAFTA, which turns 10 in January, and is worried that the Bush administration has planned free trade agreements with 31 other countries even though the United States imported almost half a trillion dollars worth of goods more than it exported last year.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, said that because of trade liberalization, the number of jobs lost through production shifts to China and Mexico averages between 70,000 and 100,000 each year.
Each plant shutdown “has a ripple effect on the wages of every other worker in that industry and that community.'' In the meantime, she said, the March trade deficit was $44 billion, the second highest monthly trade deficit in U.S. history.
“We are not against trade. But it must be fair,'' said Baldemar Velasquez, head of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is based in Toledo and fights for farm workers in Ohio and Michigan.
He charged the U.S. trade representative's office is “ignoring'' minimum rights for workers and minimum environmental standards.
Labor unions want any country with a free trade policy with the United States to be forced to abide by minimum working conditions and environmental standards. Labor leaders argue workers are being exploited in other countries, the environment is degraded and U.S. workers are losing jobs in companies that move to avoid paying fair wages and meeting U.S. anti-pollution standards.
Mr. Velasquez said that it is imperative that millions of immigrants who come to the United States to work have documents so they have legal status and may travel freely as long as they work, commit no crimes and pay taxes.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said that she wants to hold a religious ceremony on the U.S.-Mexico border this autumn for those who died trying to better their lives in the United States and for Americans who have lost their jobs because of NAFTA.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), a presidential candidate, and the non-profit Institute for Food and Development Policy's Food First project helped organize the forum. U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick was invited but no GOP members of Congress attended.