On Monday, 17 July, the Office of the United States Trade Representative released a document detailing their 5 priorities for the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The re-negotiation of NAFTA follows President Trump’s denunciation of it as “the worst trade deal in history” during the 2016 election campaign. NAFTA has been very good to the American capitalists overall, but not, it is true, to American manufacturing workers, or some sections of domestic American capital. Capitalism is a doubly contradictory system. Overall, Gross National Product can increase while standards of living for workers can remain stagnant and decline. Between sectors, policy changes that allow some to benefit and grow can undermine others. Free trade deals can thus benefit exporters while harming domestic manufacturers that rely on home markets and cannot compete with cheaper imported goods. Sectoral contradictions explain the splits that sometimes open up with the ruling class between proponents and opponents of free trade. Since workers tend to lose out either way, (having to attenuate wage demands in exchange for job security or just losing their jobs as domestic manufacturing proves uncompetitive), nationalist arguments like Trump’s always resonate.
During the election, Trump, like a host of right-wing populists before him, from George Wallace in the 1960s to Ross Perot in the 1980s and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s effectively exploited real working anxiety about job loss and stagnant wages by tying it to demonized foreigners. While Trumpmanagaed to win strong working class support in some areas, it was still a shock to read that one of the administration’s 5 key objectives would be reading labour rights directly into the agreement. The text in full:
– Bring the labor provisions into the core of the Agreement rather than in a side agreement.
– Require NAFTA countries to adopt and maintain in their laws and practices the
internationally recognized core labor standards as recognized in the ILO Declaration,
• Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
• Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
• Effective abolition of child labor and a prohibition on the worst forms of child labor; and
• Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
– Require NAFTA countries to have laws governing acceptable conditions of work with
respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not waive or derogate from their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards in a manner
affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Establish rules that will ensure that NAFTA countries do not fail to effectively enforce their
labor laws implementing internationally recognized core labor standards and acceptable
conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health laws through a sustained or recurring course of action in a matter affecting trade or investment between the parties.
– Require that NAFTA countries take initiatives to prohibit trade in goods produced by forced labor, regardless of whether the source country is a NAFTA country.
– Provide access to fair, equitable, and transparent administrative and judicial proceedings.
– Ensure that these labor obligations are subject to the same dispute settlement mechanism that applies to other enforceable obligations of the Agreement.
– Establish a means for stakeholder participation, including through public advisory
committees, as well as a process for the public to raise concerns directly with NAFTA
governments if they believe a NAFTA country is not meeting its labor commitments.
These principles are clearly in the interests of workers everywhere, but we have to remind ourselves that they both originate from workers struggles from below and are only enforced by those same struggles. The Office of the United States Trade Representative is not interested in the well-being of workers anywhere, but they are interested in ways of reducing the competitive advantage of unorganized, low wage Mexican labour. Hence the inclusion of these principles in their statement of objectives. Like other fine sounding constitutional principles, they can and will be sidestepped, weakened, or simply ignored when they are not actively defended by workers themselves.
We can be quite sure that no party renegotiating NAFTA will be serving the interests of workers, because the whole point of treaties like NAFTA was to free capital as a whole from the constraints that national trades union movements had successfully imposed upon it from the late nineteenth century to the early 1970s. Of course, these trade deals can work against the sectional interests of some domestic capitalists, but, overall, they have greatly facilitated the mobility and growth of capital as a whole and funded the spectacular rise of inequality that even mainstream economists can no longer ignore.
So, can workers look to existing trade unions to protect their interests? A few days before the document from Office of the United States Trade Representative was made public there was a joint statement from the Canadian union representing auto workers, Unifor, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the US. It more or less adopted the same position on labour rights as the US government document, but gave them a different political interpretation. The Unifor/UAW document states that
It’s essential for auto workers in the United States and Canada to not be persuaded by those who wish to portray Mexican auto workers as the problem. Workers in every country have the right to develop their economy, advance social conditions, and to seek a higher standard of living. But for far too long successive Mexican governments have failed to protect and advance workers’ fundamental rights and auto companies have been all too willing to reap the windfall of repressed wages and weak standards. The future of North American auto workers is already intertwined, and the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all.
The document gestures rhetorically towards solidarity with Mexican workers, but does not lay out an action plan for building it. It does say that Unifor and the UAW would have welcomed the participation of Mexican unions in preparation of the document, but that independent unions do not exist. While this claim is true as regards Mexican autoworkers in the Maquiladora zones, it is not completely true, as we will see below. Given the fact that there was no effort made to reach out to independent trade unionists in Mexico, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than that Unifor and the UAW share the same hopes as American domestic capitalists: that an improvement in working conditions in Mexico would reduce its competitive advantage and reverse the flow of capital. Within a capitalist system, economic development proceeds through competitive advantage, and lower labour costs are a prime source of competitive advantage. This reason explains why any attempt to advance the interests of all workers in a global capitalist economy is bound to fail: the system must put capitalists and workers into competition, and in any competition, the loser will do worse than the winner.
So if the UAW and Unifor are serious when they say that “the best prospect for making gains is to raise conditions for all,” then they need to start mobilizing their members for a long term struggle for a different socio-economic system. However, as soon as one makes that claim one is immediately confronted with the not unreasonable rejoinder: the bills must be paid in the short term, workers cannot afford to indulge utopian dreams.
The objection is not unreasonable because it rests on the truth that life is lived in the present. At the same time, the future is not some void opposed to the now, but is constantly engendered present action. The contradiction between short term and long term, present and future, is overcome by forms of struggle that achieve short term gains by encroaching on the structural power of capital to shape the whole field of human social and political life. Instead of (implicitly or explicitly) allying with domestic capitalists, workers must build links with each other and make demands that cannot be achieved without forcing capital and the state to cede some degree of control over the wealth and resources that capital’s power depends upon.
This claim again sounds very abstract but it is not. It is just a programmatic statement of processes that are always at work, albeit in very fragmented and attenuated ways. In the present case, the coherent advance of the interests of American, Canadian, and Mexican workers starts with the construction of real solidarity between the three. As I noted above, there is an independent Mexican trade union movement, and it has recognized the need to build these links from below. At a meeting in Mexico City three years before the renegotiation of NAFTA was announced, the independent trade unions met to discuss a common response to the failure of NAFTA. A report from the UCLA Labour Center notes their key demands:
- Better understand the lessons of trinational networks to guide future actions.
- Analyze new trinational initiatives and campaigns that build on a culture of transnational labor solidarity between Canada, Mexico, and the United States.
- Develop a collective understanding of labor at the transnational level and the opportunities and obstacles for workers’ struggles.
- Promote the exchange of ideas and strategies between participants to strengthen the culture of solidarity among trade unionists from the three countries.
In contrast to the UAW/Unifor document, the independent Mexican unions start from the need to examine what is actually happening at the level of real interaction and political work between workers and movements from all three countries with an eye to identifying strengths, weaknesses, and areas of development. They do not commit themselves from the outset with working within the established framework of capital and state formations for an undefined “fair share.” Instead, the idea is to build real networked movements that can express and articulate a set of shared demands: a workers counter-project against the ruling class project of free trade, revised or otherwise.
It goes without saying that such a politics cannot solve immediate problems of de-industrialization of Southern Ontario and the US Mid-West, or any of the other myriad problems that beset American, Canadian, and Mexican workers. What it could do, if it were to ever gain traction and numbers, is create a real counter-weight to free trade that could exert political and social pressure on the state to take workers’ interests into account. Capital cannot soar around the world if it has no place to land, and landing rights are controlled by the state. Movements can generate new political forces that can re-shape short term policy, and short term policies that stem from and enhance workers’ power can create the space needed for the imagination and progressive realization of deeper structural changes. As a recent essay from the Canadian Socialist Project put the point:
Third, we must move toward democratic planning. This must be a two-tracked strategy. It means building workers’ struggles in workplaces and in communities for control over investments in infrastructures and plants and the flows of surplus capital and profits. And it means, if these struggles are at all to be successful, directly struggling over – and entering – the state with an orientation to transforming its institutions and building the capacities to allow for the democratic transformation of the economy, with all this necessarily means in terms of transforming social relations.
For democratic planing to solve the problems that free trade deals cannot, it will have to be based in an explicit understanding of what all workers shared life-interests are, framed by the recognition that limitless quantitative growth of output is impossible, and build in some formal mechanism allowing for international coordination of production and trade. Those are not easy problems, but they are ultimately the one’s that working people in America, Canada, and Mexico are going to have to solve.