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NAFTA Renegotiation Offers Progressives an Opportunity to Fight for a New Global Vision

Progressives need to use the reopening of NAFTA negotiations to fight for stronger labor rights and environmental protection.

“I received calls from the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada asking to renegotiate NAFTA rather than terminate,” Donald Trump tweeted on April 27. “I agreed.”

Whatever the intentions behind it, the possibility of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) offers an opportunity forprogressives. The burgeoning movement to resist Trump has generated tremendous energy, but unless that energy is channeled productively, it will be wasted. In the case of NAFTA, this means advocating for a trade regime that has far stronger protections for labor and environmental rights than were included in the original version, or in any trade agreement since. An improved NAFTA would, in turn, provide a blueprint for an international system that leads to a better future for all.

Progressives currently are caught between two untenable positions. On one side is a neoliberal free trade regime that drives huge benefits to the .1% wealthiest individuals and some benefits to emerging middle classes in developing countries, but does great harm to many working people in developed countries while trashing the environment. On the other side is aneo-nationalist reaction that lashes out at “liberal elites,” the world’s super-rich and the multicultural tide. These neo-nationalists call for withdrawal into existing social and ethnic groups, like a turtle zipping itself into its shell, paralyzing all movement. To navigate beyond this Scylla and Charybdis, we need a new globalism in a very different form from what we’ve seen; aglobalism based on economic equity, social justice and environmental sustainability.

To get there, we must realize that, although the roadmap that led to NAFTAand similar free-trade agreements, and that underlies the World Trade Organization, is deeply flawed, the answer is not just to withdraw from such agreements. Our economies are by now so interlinked that to simply shut down trade agreements would cause havoc in the current capitalistic system. Instead, we need greatly altered agreements that change the framework by which countries interact. We need to begin with extensive participation of environmental and labor leaders in rewriting NAFTA, and use this as aguideline for recrafting other trade agreements.

Probably the greatest flaw in existing free trade agreements is the existence of Investor State Dispute mechanisms that allow corporations to seek arbitration from governmental decisions that result in lost profits. Cases have been brought against laws protecting public health and the environment, forinstance, by the tobacco company Philip Morris and against the United States for canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. To make matters worse, the courts that judge these cases are composed entirely of corporate lawyers. We need tochange matters so that environmental and labor organizations, as well as local communities, can just as easily sue corporations for violating their rights. The composition of the courts that decide these matters also needs to be changed to include environmental and labor representatives.

While free trade agreements devised after NAFTA include, on paper, stronger protections for the environment and labor rights, these lack enforcement measures. Yet on a planet facing climate change, biodiversity loss and amyriad of other environmental threats, not only do protections need to be stronger, so do enforcement measures. Specifically, some form of environmental or carbon tax or fee should be included in revised free trade agreements that makes polluters pay for the damage they cause. Currently, free-riders that lack such protection gain a “comparative advantage” through harming the environment.

Under a new, progressive framework, countries would be unable to duplicate the “development” path of China, which, once granted most-favored-nation trading status by the United States and in the World Trade Organization, set about industrializing in the most reckless way possible. As a result, China now emits the most greenhouse gases on the planet, and we are all worse off. A new NAFTA could be the first step in renegotiating the entire international trade order in a way that precludes gaining trade advantage by trashing the environment.

Regarding labor rights, as with the environment we have seen a “race to the bottom” in which countries gain a “comparative advantage” by abusing working people. Pakistan, for instance, became a leader in the international garment business by packing their workers into locked factories in a way unseen in the United States in a century. Free trade agreements such as NAFTA need to include provisions that protect basic worker safety, provide reasonable work hours, and protect against child and unpaid prison labor. They also need to recognize and enforce a right to organize. This would preclude laws passed in several US states, beginning in the South but spreading North in recent years, that weaken unions. We need to recognize when not just other countries, but also the United States, gain trade advantages by abusing their workers, and put a stop to it.

The point is that progressive free-trade agreements (as opposed to what we’ve got now) would push all countries to higher standards. Competition would then be over providing the highest quality of work and incentivizing investment in infrastructure and education. International competition, that is, would push all countries to do better, rather than to outdo other countries in abusing workers and harming the environment.

Of course, all of this is a somewhat utopian (and extremely sketchy) roadmap to a better future. The point is that progressive groups need to advocate analternative vision to the devil’s choice we currently face between neoliberal and neo-nationalist options. The reopening of NAFTA negotiations, should it proceed, is an opportunity to present a grand alternative, to show whatprogressives are for, not just against.

While the Trump administration is extremely unlikely to push for such changes, Canada’s current government would likely be more open. Mexico, meanwhile, early signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement and should be amenable at least to increased environmental protection. Of course, none of this will happen without pressure from below, which must come from the burgeoning protest movement.

Even should a progressive version of NAFTA fail, it will set the table forfuture negotiations and future elections. France, for instance, in its current election is caught between a candidate seen to favor neoliberalism and a neo-fascist. This ought to be a false choice, but progressives have not offered aviable alternative. The reopening of NAFTA presents a chance to do so. The astounding resistance movement sparked by Trump’s election will falter unless progressive leaders can present an alternative vision that gives citizens around the planet something to vote for, rather than the lesser of two evils.

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