Fast Track back from the dead

SAN FRANCISCO – On Sept. 12, Fast Track came back from the dead. The proposal to give the Bush administration new trade negotiation authority, which had no chance of passage through Congress earlier this year, was resurrected from the political boneyard in the new post-Sept. 11 world.

Today, Fast Track is alive and well, and Congress seems more ready to approve it than it has been for years.

The difference? The administration has cast it as an issue of national security and included it in a host of other pro-corporate measure it says are necessary to improve an economy already in a tailspin into recession.

Fast Track legislation would allow the administration to negotiate an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement to include all of the countries from Canada to Tierra del Fuego – the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The new treaty would then be reported back to Congress, which would only be able to vote it up or down. No changes or amendments would be permitted.

That’s what happened in 1993, when the Clinton administration got NAFTA through Congress. The cost of that experiment in trade libaralization is still playing out along the border, as well as in closed factories around the country.

Plants from Price-Pfister’s plumbing supplies factory in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley to the country’s last television factory – Zenith’s facility in Missouri – all relocated production south to take advantage of low wages.

Since the treaty was signed, the U.S. Department of Labor has certified more than 500,000 workers for special extended unemployment benefits, because NAFTA cost them their jobs.

According to Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, since NAFTA passed the number of times has more than doubled in which U.S. employers have told unions across the bargaining table that if they didn’t agree to give up wages and benefits, their factories would move production out of the country.

Critics of the treaty at the time predicted that NAFTA would pour gasoline on the fires of economic change in Mexico, leading to escalating poverty and displacement of people. The country lost a million jobs in the year after the treaty took effect and under new President Vicente Fox another half-million jobs have disappeared. The ubiquitous signs advertising for workers on the gates of maquiladoras have disappeared for the first time.

NAFTA’s critics called the protections proposed by its defenders (the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation – the so-called labor side-agreement) so weak and ineffective that workers’ rights would inevitably be sacrificed in the interests of providing a favorable climate for investment. Strikes at the Han Young factory in Tijuana were suppressed in 1998 and 1999, and efforts to organize independent unions in the maquiladoras were broken all along the border.

When the Clinton administration made its own Fast Track proposal in 1998, then-House Whip David Bonior used those border battles as examples of free trade-gone-awry, and handed Clinton a humiliating defeat.

Until Sept. 11, Bush was facing the same prospect. After seven years, the results on the border continue to be hard to miss. It’s harder than ever to use the Mexican legal process to organize an independent union and strike, and the income of maquiladora workers has plummeted.

The pressure on workers to cross the border and find jobs in the North has increased, and every year hundreds die on the trek across the desert. Of course, free trade means free passage for money and goods – not for hungry and desperate people.

NAFTA and other free trade agreements, touted as a means for the world’s poor to lift themselves from poverty, have had the opposite effect, according to a recent study by Washington’s Economic Policy Institute. EPI found that the income of the world’s 400 million poorest people, which was 79 cents a day in 1990, decreased to 78 cents a day in 1999.

Meanwhile, the gap between the world’s rich and poor mushroomed. The median income of the richest 10 percent of countries, which was 77 times greater than the poorest 10 percent in 1980, was 122 times greater in 1999. Statistics be damned, however – the push for Fast Track is on.

Within two weeks of the horrifying events in New York and Washington, the proposal was back in the House Ways and Means committee, which voted it out in early October. The administration told its allies that expanding free trade agreements was necessary to entice other countries into its anti-terrorism coalition.

Republican lawmakers hope to get the full House to debate the proposal during the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, which opened Nov. 9. A spokesperson for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, John Feehery, said it was “pretty likely” that the bill would be taken up this year, and gave it an 85 percent chance of passage.

The Business Roundtable has prepared a radio advertising blitz, targeting 20 uncommitted House legislators, mostly pro-free trade Democrats. Their votes, added to the Republicans the administration knows it can count on, could make up a majority.

In 1993, the Clinton administration passed out dams, freeways and anything else it could find a way to fund as enticements for the votes it needed to pass NAFTA. The wheeling and dealing on this one is just starting.