NAFTA Renegotiation Must Prioritize Public Interest Over Corporate Power

Posted Aug. 30, 2017

MP3 Interview with Melinda St. Louis, international campaigns director with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, conducted by Scott Harris


After a contentious national debate, The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, came into force on Jan. 1, 1994. The trade treaty between the United States, Canada and Mexico, granted new powers and privileges to multinational corporations. Key provisions in NAFTA made it easier for U.S.-based corporations to outsource jobs to cheap labor markets overseas, where governments don’t protect workers' rights. NAFTA also permits corporations to challenge government regulations that protect public health, consumer safety and the environment – and launch lawsuits to recover lost profits.

Economic studies conclude that NAFTA cost hundreds of thousands of good-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs, and played an important role in decimating America’s middle class. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in contrast to the pro-free trade Republican party, denounced NAFTA and pledged that if elected, he would either scrap or renegotiate NAFTA.

In office for seven months, the Trump administration recently completed a first round of talks to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA, and is scheduled to begin a second round Sept. 1 in Mexico City. In speeches, Trump regularly threatens to withdraw from NAFTA if Canada and Mexico refuse to sign on to provisions that would bring back American manufacturing jobs. Between The Lines Scott Harris spoke with Melinda St. Louis, international campaigns director with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, who discusses what must be changed in NAFTA to restore the balance between corporate and public interest, and expresses doubts that the Trump agenda on transforming the treaty will benefit American workers.

MELINDA ST. LOUIS: Progressives like us and the labor and environmental community, have been very critical of NAFTA since the beginning. And we have been very clear that we have a list of demands of things that must come out – such as these investor protections and incentivized job off-shoring, and what must go in, which is strong and enforceable labor, environmental and human rights protections. That has not been a part of it and a whole host of other things.

Now, Donald Trump has also said that NAFTA was a disaster. But, you know, he talks about this in terms of America First. He has scapegoated Mexicans in a whole host of areas – he talks about building a wall and also in the context of this, so this is antithetical to a progressive vision.

He has stated that his goal is to reduce the trade deficit, which is important in terms of helping to create jobs in the United States, particularly manufacturing and other jobs that have been hollowed out in in the NAFTA era. But unfortunately, what we've seen so far is the same closed process. We have not seen the texts that that they're planning to put forward. The same closed process with 500 corporate advisers is intact while the public is being locked out and so what's really important now is to call out in whose interest is this renegotiation going to happen?

We have been calling for NAFTA to be replaced since the beginning, but at this point it's really important to look at the process and to make clear what the demands are – that a tweak of NAFTA is not going to cut it in any way. The devastation that NAFTA has wrought in terms incentivizing (jobs) offshore – we've seen more than 900,000 jobs that have been officially certified by the Department of Labor as being lost to NAFTA, and we know that's a severe undercount because it's a very narrow program.

And at the same time, there have been these provisions that allow multinational corporations to attack public health, safety, environmental safeguards and we've seen nearly $400 million of taxpayer money has been paid to corporations by these tribunals already under NAFTA.

So those are the things we need to watch to see. Are they going to eliminate these provisions that incentivize jobs offshore and allow corporations to attack our laws? Are they going to eliminate the provisions that undermine our "Buy American, Buy Local" policies that are in NAFTA? Are they going to eliminate the provisions that push this deregulatory agenda so we can't regulate Wall Street and we can't our food imports, etc. And will there really be the types of policies and strong standards in environment and labor that lift up standards in all three countries, instead of encouraging this race to the bottom that we have seen, particularly in Mexico?

BETWEEN THE LINES: Melinda, during the negotiations over the TransPacific Partnership Agreement, a very powerful coalition emerged made up of civil society groups, labor, environmental, human rights organizations all coming out in opposition to President Obama's pushing the TPP. What's the coalition look like now, that is pressuring the Trump administration and Congress to ensure the pro-worker planks are part of the NAFTA renegotiation here?

MELINDA ST. LOUIS: Well, you're right that there was an unprecedented coalition opposing the TPP that was large both in its numbers and its breadth of different sectors. And that coalition has pivoted to NAFTA. Now I will say that in the Trump era, many of the organizations, like the environmental organizations, labor organizations, human rights groups and immigrants' rights groups are under attack in a whole host of areas. That is a real problem because everyone's having to fight on multiple fronts.

But I will say that same coalition – there's the Citizen's Trade Campaign that brings together family farm, environment, labor, faith groups, consumer groups – that coalition is mobilizing. There's much more to do to counter this narrative that unfortunately has been pushed in this era, which is, either you are for free trade or you're a protectionist. And what we need to be clear about is who have been the winners and who are writing the rules and for whom. And we need to make sure that it's the public that is center there, and not just big corporations.

For more information, visit Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch at .

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