One of the nation’s oldest and largest labor unions is praising new, bipartisan legislation that would withdraw the United States from NAFTA, and vanquish one of the biggest enemies of American organized labor for more than 15 years.
A remarkably broad coalition of lawmakers from across the political spectrum came together Thursday to sponsor a bill to repeal U.S. participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“The lives of average workers in Mexico and in the U.S. have gotten so much worse since NAFTA,” says Jim Hoffa, head of the Teamsters, which represents 1.4 million American workers. “When you realize you’ve made a bad deal, you try to get out of it.”
A trade agreement by the United States, Canada and Mexico, NAFTA eliminated tarrifs and other trade restrictions that had been in place. The deal was originally negotiated during the term of president George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton later embraced it over the objections of many Democratic allies, including organized labor. Clinton, in fact, had to rely on Republican votes in Congress to pass the legislation that ratified the treaty.
More than 15 years after NAFTA went into force, supporters of repeal argue that the agreement directly has eliminated about 5 million American jobs and cost U.S. manufacturing nearly a third of its previous strength.
“We were sold a bill of goods about NAFTA,” Hoffa says. “We were told it would create export jobs because they were dying to buy our refrigerators, they were dying to buy our cars. None of that happened. Instead we lost nearly 600,000 manufacturing jobs. Our $1.7 billion trade surplus with Mexico in 1993 turned into a $64.7 billion deficit in 2008.
“Nobody ever said the idea of NAFTA was for American corporations to move out of America, go across the Rio Grande and build a factory, exploit the Mexican workers and then ship cars and refrigerators back here to sell,” Hoffa adds. “Now it’s obvious to most people that that’s what it was all about.”
The lawmakers united behind the repeal legislation, designated H.R. 4759, don’t often agree on much else, as the coalition includes progressive Democrats, more-conservative Democrats from the Rust Belt states that have bore the worst of the NAFTA-inflicted job losses, as well as conservative Republicans.
The co-sponsors of the repeal are: Democratic Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Bart Stupak and Dale Kildee of Michigan, Michael Arcuri of New York, Joe Baca and Bob Filner of California, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Steve Kagen of Wisconsin, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Mike Michaud of Maine and Peter Visclosky of Indiana; and Republican Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.
Their legislation would repeal the approval of NAFTA and instructs the president to notify Canada and Mexico of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty. It has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee for further consideration. The drive to repeal NAFTA outright also is a change in itself, where previously lawmakers had sought mostly just to reform the agreement.
“I voted against this legislation in 1993 because I knew that this trade agreement would lead to a decline in jobs and our industrial manufacturing base,” Taylor says, adding that NAFTA has cost 93,000 in his home state alone.
“Timing is everything in life and it’s the right time to pass this legislation,” Taylor adds. “Proponents have had more than enough time to make this work – It didn’t.”
Things are much the same in North Carolina, according to Jones, one of the GOP supporters of NAFTA repeal.
“The American people are suffering,” he says. “NAFTA has resulted in significant U.S. job losses. One of the major reasons Americans are working for lower pay and fewer benefits is that free trade agreements like NAFTA have pushed millions of good paying jobs outside our borders. This just is not what the people of this country need or deserve. We need to bring jobs back to the American people.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.