For more than 20 years (including in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address), America’s workers have heard that we need new trade agreements so we can export more and create jobs. It’s a great theory. It’s just that—because of the way our trade deals are negotiated, finalized and executed—it doesn’t work in practice.
Back in 1992–1993, workers were told that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would create jobs, increase our trade surplus and solve Mexico’s economic problems. But that’s not how it turned out. As Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute writes:
Clinton and his collaborators promised that the deal would bring “good-paying American jobs,” a rising trade surplus with Mexico, and a dramatic reduction in illegal immigration. Instead, NAFTA directly cost the United States, a net loss of 700,000 jobs. The surplus with Mexico turned into a chronic deficit. And the economic dislocation in Mexico increased the flow of undocumented workers into the United States.
Part of the problem with NAFTA—and the reason it was so harmful to working people in all three NAFTA countries, even though some large corporations benefited disproportionately—was the way NAFTA was negotiated. NAFTA was negotiated under fast-track authority, behind closed doors, without enough input and scrutiny from average Americans representing their local communities, family farms and small businesses. Those representing workers and their unions, those representing the parents who wanted to keep the air and water clean for their children, and many others didn’t have a fair chance to influence the deal.
Then, once the deal was complete, the “fast track” process ensured that the deal could not be amended, improved or fixed in any way. Congress could only vote yes or no. (Of course, it did add labor and environmental “side agreements” to try to tamp down some of the criticism—but these auxiliary agreements turned out to be ineffective and wholly inadequate to address the challenges of NAFTA, including wage suppression, union-busting and abuse of migrant workers.)
In addition to the nearly 700,000 jobs displaced because of NAFTA, the United States has lost more than 2.7 million jobs because of trade with China since it joined the World Trade Organization. Preliminary figures suggest another 40,000 have already been displaced due to the U.S.–Korea trade deal.
We know from experience that once legislators have the fast-track ticket in their hands, they are likely to finalize a trade agreement that will send jobs overseas, hold down wages, harm small businesses and give global corporations even more influence over our economy.
We deserve better. Let’s get off the fast track to job loss and come up with a new approach to trade that can bring benefits to us all, not just a privileged few.
Celeste Drake is a trade and globalization policy specialist at the AFL-CIO. This post originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Now blog.