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Saturday, April 13, 2024
The Observer

Meet the new deal, same as the old deal

In August of this year, I traveled deep into rebel territory in Chiapas, Mexico, to the jungle compound of “La Realidad” — a major base of operations for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. I was welcomed by the masked revolutionaries and invited to stay as long as I liked. They called me “compañero” and asked me to write of their global struggle against neoliberal capitalism, which they call the War Against Oblivion. Their 20 years of rebellion began on January 1, 1994 — the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. From union halls in Chicago to rebel villages in Chiapas, the new era of global “free trade” has been denounced as an affront to workers’ rights and human dignity.

This Wednesday, President Obama clashed with labor unions and their supporters over the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Encompassing 12 countries and some 800 million people, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the NAFTA on a larger stage. Including the original NAFTA countries — Canada, the United States and Mexico — plus Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Chile, Brunei, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru and Japan, the TPP promises to rewrite the terms of international trade on a massive scale.

After years of secret negotiations between governments and corporations, the proposed treaty has drawn fire for both its content and the process that has produced it. The Trans-Pacific Partnership takes the framework of the NAFTA, increases the scale and adds provisions even more harmful to the maintenance of a free and fair society.

Signed in December 1992 and effective as of January 1994, the NAFTA was promoted as the future of the globalizing economy. Promises came from the leaders of all three countries involved that the agreement would stimulate economic growth while freeing businesses to import and export to mutual gain. Rises in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were hailed as proof positive that free trade was working.

Unfortunately, you can’t eat GDP. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States as business owners moved their factories to Mexico. Although manufacturing workers in Mexico might have been glad for the new work, corn farmers were devastated as heavily subsidized corn from the United States drove them off their land. Individual workers rose or fell with the NAFTA, but working people at large took a loss as wages and workplace standards fell.

For all the talk of a new era of free enterprise and a global market thriving with innovation, “free trade” bore more bitter fruit — consolidation. New mechanisms for lowering wages, escaping workplace safety regulations and forcing more government subsidies helped the largest conglomerates consume more and more of the international market.

The greatest problem with the NAFTA has been the issue of rights. There is “free trade” for the owning class, while the working class is left behind. The NAFTA provides for the free flow of capital but not of labor, meaning that when jobs move, workers are not free to follow them. Temporary work visa programs exist, but are limited, regulated in ways capital is not, and put even more power over a worker’s fate in the hands of the boss.

Agreements like this serve to assert the supremacy of multinational corporations over the public interest. Provisions in the NAFTA ban member countries from making labor or environmental laws that threaten corporate profits under the agreement’s guarantees and allow corporate interests to sue countries for hundreds of millions of dollars in those cases. The indigenous revolutionaries who welcomed me into their collectivized territory this summer rebelled because the NAFTA stripped provisions for land reform and peasants’ rights from the Mexican Constitution with the full complicity of the state. “Free trade” serves only one master, and that is the small class of individuals who own nearly all the world’s capital.

So enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We don’t know what it says, and the President is asking for “fast track” power to sign it without congressional debate or alteration. From leaked sections, we know it would subject all member states to corporate tribunals with the power to strike down national, state or local laws if they run counter to guarantees made by the treaty to corporations. We know that punitive intellectual property clauses are likely to make the price of vital medicines in the developing world skyrocket. We know that it will lead to a greater consolidation of wealth into a few hands. We know that workers will suffer. So let’s stand up against the march of neoliberalism and let those in power know that we won’t be fooled again.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.