US: who knew NAFTA had so many enemies?

By Jonathan Tasini

I passed on watching the debate last night (it’s just not that interesting, frankly) but, after hearing that NAFTA was attacked by both candidates, I had to go back and read the transcript. My conclusion: neither Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama understand the issue of trade, or they will be unwilling to make the break from so-called “free trade” that we need.

To start out on a positive note, it is extraordinary, in one sense, that the debate over NAFTA took up so much time. After all these years, NAFTA just can’t get any respect. All of a sudden, it’s the whipping post in politics–at least, on the Democratic side. If anything is true it is that politicians respond to what they think voters want to hear–and the real people out there understand, at a pocketbook and life experience level, that so-called “free trade” is a disaster.

As I’ve pointed out here some time ago, the question of trade offers a huge opportunity to the Democratic Party: overwhelmingly, voters are rejecting so-called “free trade” because they see the real-life consequences of corporate-style trade deals. Even Republicans are tossing so-called “free trade” over the side.

From last night’s debate, let’s first hear from Sen. Clinton on NAFTA:

You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I’ve said it was flawed. I said that it worked in some parts of our country, and I’ve seen the results in Texas. I was in Laredo in the last couple of days. It’s the largest inland port in America now. So clearly, some parts of our country have been benefited.

But what I have seen, where I represent up-state New York, I’ve seen the factories closed and moved. I’ve talked to so many people whose children have left because they don’t have a good shot. I’ve had to negotiate to try to keep factories open, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, because the companies got tax benefits to actually move to another country.

So what I have said is that we need to have a plan to fix NAFTA. I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take that time to try to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we’ll have core labor and environmental standards in the agreement.

We will do everything we can to make it enforceable, which it is not now. We will stop the kind of constant sniping at our protections for our workers that can come from foreign companies because they have the authority to try to sue to overturn what we do to keep our workers safe.

This is rightly a big issue in Ohio. And I have laid out my criticism, but in addition my plan, for actually fixing NAFTA. Again, I have received a lot of incoming criticism from Senator Obama. And the Cleveland Plain Dealer examined Senator Obama’s attacks on me regarding NAFTA and said they were erroneous. So I would hope that, again, we can get to a debate about what the real issues are and where we stand because we do need to fix NAFTA. It is not working. It was, unfortunately, heavily disadvantaging many of our industries, particularly manufacturing. I have a record of standing up for that, of chairing the Manufacturing Caucus in the Senate, and I will take a tough position on these trade agreements.

And, not to be outdone, Sen. Obama weighed in:

Well, I think that it is inaccurate for Senator Clinton to say that she’s always opposed NAFTA. In her campaign for Senate, she said that NAFTA, on balance, had been good for New York and good for America. I disagree with that. I think that it did not have the labor standards and environmental standards that were required in order to not just be good for Wall Street but also be good for Main Street. And if you travel through Youngstown and you travel through communities in my home state of Illinois, you will see entire cities that have been devastated as a consequence of trade agreements that were not adequately structured to make sure that U.S. workers had a fair deal.

Now, I think that Senator Clinton has shifted positions on this and believes that we should have strong environmental standards and labor standards, and I think that’s a good thing. But you know, when I first moved to Chicago in the early ’80s and I saw steelworkers who had been laid off of their plants — black, white, and Hispanic — and I worked on the streets of Chicago to try to help them find jobs, I saw then that the net costs of many of these trade agreements, if they’re not properly structured, can be devastating.

And as president of the United States, I intend to make certain that every agreement that we sign has the labor standards, the environmental standards and the safety standards that are going to protect not just workers, but also consumers. We can’t have toys with lead paint in them that our children are playing with. We can’t have medicines that are actually making people more sick instead of better because they’re produced overseas. We have to stop providing tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States of America.

And if we do those things, then I believe that we can actually get Ohio back on the path of growth and jobs and prosperity. If we don’t, then we’re going to continue to see the kind of deterioration that we’ve seen economically here in this state.


I am entirely not interested in what the candidates said in the past and whether they have changed their positions. Not because it isn’t relevant and a legitimate debate. Rather, I think that that focus simply spirals into a pointless rhetorical back-and-forth that obscures this–it is important to focus entirely on what they say TODAY about the future and what they will do about NAFTA.

And there I think lies the true danger. Both candidates are talking about renegotiating NAFTA, using the club that the U.S. will opt out of NAFTA if enforcement is not toughened up on labor and environmental standards. To recap, Sen Obama: “I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.” Sen. Clinton: “I have put forward a very specific plan about what I would do, and it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards”.

This is a frame of thinking that says, really, let’s tinker around the edges. Neither candidate is willing to say: we have to abandon so-called “free trade” and start our thinking from scratch. While the two focused a lot on trade and environmental provisions, the real danger, as John Edwards pointed out, are the Chapter 11 provisions in so-called “free trade” agreements like NAFTA that give huge, broad rights to corporations irrespective of the side agreements on labor and the environment.

Edwards took a huge swing at the corporate lobbyists by singling out the NAFTA-like Chapter 11 rights. I explained this briefly (and Public Citizen has a detailed explanation) but the upshot of Chapter 11 rights is this: Let’s say a company doing business in a country that is a party to one of these so-called “free trade” agreements believes a law violates rights or protections the company has under the trade deal. The company can take its case before a trade tribunal, which can, then, rule that a law–say an environmental law or labor–is illegal under the so-called “free trade” regime and award tax-payer dollars to corporations. And this tribunal operates behind closed doors, with no public input or scrutiny and none of the basic due process or transparency one would expect in open courts.

This is really huge. These Chapter 11 rights are one of the most odious provisions of so-called “free trade” deals. They allow companies to undercut our democracy–laws that are passed by the people we elect can be overridden by an unaccountable, unelected tribunal.

Until we have a president willing to declare that, from this moment on,  trade agreements will be built around the rights of communities and workers, and not corporate rights, we will not end the cycle of so-called “free trade” that is powered by Chapter 11 rights that effectively allow undermining of basic wage levels and social safety nets. It is that simple.

I can’t climb into the minds of Sens. Obama and Clinton to understand what makes them really tick on trade. Is it a real belief in so-called “free trade” and the so-called “free market” that have worked so well (note the heavy sarcasm) for people here and abroad? Is it simply a fear that they cannot alienate political contributors, so they must tread lightly on any deep critique of so-called “free trade”? Or both?

I would hope that the partisans for both candidates, rather than attack their opponents, would, instead, try to figure out some of way of talking to their respective candidates on this issue. Because, at this point, we should not be happy with either vision for the future of trade.

There has been a lot of obsession about whether John Edwards will endorse or not. Frankly, I hope he simply speaks up on trade–regularly and repeatedly right to the convention and beyond. There is a long way to go on this fight.

4 Responses to “US: who knew NAFTA had so many enemies?”

  1. 1 theunionnews February 28, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Wow, thank you for writing this.

  2. 2 Frank February 28, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Mexico and Canada were never the problem some claim they are. The problems are the Pacific Rim countries, not so much for their manufacturing prowess, but what would happen if we, all-of-a-sudden, decided to take care of our own.

    Iraq and Afghanistan are being financed by China – they buy our commercial paper and wait. If our actions were to anger them, they could simply dump their holdings on the market and send our economy into a tailspin.

  3. 3 Todd Weiler March 1, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Dear Mr. Tasini:

    Please let me know whenever you are ready to attend one of my classes on NAFTA Chapter 11.

    You may be amazed to learn that the kind people working for Mr. Nader sometimes exaggerate their claims to get people such as yourself riled up. Visit and you will be able to read all about the cases that you have been told are held in secret, including all of the submissions and transcripts from the hearings.

    Then I’d like you to do me the favour of pointing to the US court web sites where I can not only find final judgments but also all of the parties’ submissions and hearing transcripts.

    By the way, I don’t think I saw you there last Fall when I was co-representing a US Indian Tribe as amicus participants in an open hearing in DC for the Glamis v. USA NAFTA case. There were lots of open seats, had you wanted to drop by and watch the hearings live.

    And finally, as for your comment about “unaccountable, unelected” tribunals I have two quick observations: (1) how would you have them accountable, or were you just engaging in hyperbole; and (2) I hate to break it to you, but in the rest of the common law world, and even a large number of US States, the idea that one would elect a judge is held as utterly moronic. How exactly can justice be seen as being done when the adjudicator is forever worried about looking bad before his/her electorate?

    My advice to you would be to learn a little bit more about the facts before you take such strong stances, and perhaps get out of your country for a vacation a little more often.

  1. 1 Bienes Raices El Salvador » Blog Archive » US: Who Knew NAFTA Had So Many Enemies? Trackback on March 18, 2008 at 6:08 pm

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