Free Trade and the Presidential Campaign

by Fran Ansley

In this ugly election season, at least one piece of news contains a seed of hope I believe is worth pondering. Voters across the political spectrum have made it clear to elite movers and shakers in both major parties that they are fed up with the economic policies and ideological assumptions that underpin so-called “free trade” agreements like NAFTA and the TPP. It is past time those in power heard this important message and took heed.

Concerns about corporate-led globalization are not paranoid or ill-informed. Nor are they far from home. Over 25 years ago I was part of a local effort here in Knoxville to pull back the curtain on new global manufacturing strategies just then coming to light. Factory workers in Tennessee had endured shock after shock as plants closed and moved to Mexico.   In response, a labor-faith-community coalition called the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network launched a series of worker-to-worker exchange trips so that factory workers on both sides of the border could visit each other, hear each other’s stories, and see for themselves what was happening as multinational corporations re-ordered the international division of labor in search of ever lower wages and ever more lenient standards on the environment, consumers, human rights, financial speculation, and workplace standards.

Returning from our first trip to the border in 1991, we travelers threw ourselves into the campaign to defeat NAFTA — a deal then being hatched by Presidents George Bush Sr. and Carlos Salinas. Our group explained we were not against trade, nor were we in favor of protectionism. Our objection was that NAFTA represented a new undemocratic legal order, one negotiated in secret that gave commanding rights and remedies to multinational corporations while disempowering workers and local communities. Our visit to the maquiladoras of Mexico had shown us that the results of such a deal for blue-collar families in both the U.S. and Mexico would be devastating. And we were right.

Experience in the decades since has demonstrated time and again that large multinationals and those allied with them will defend the record of these deals and press on for new ones. They point to the value of U.S. exports and the benefits of in-coming foreign investment, often shaking their heads at those apparently too short-sighted or ignorant to wait patiently for the promised benefits to trickle down. Recent articles in this paper include examples of these lines of reasoning.

I am in full agreement that some of the arguments advanced against our government’s current trade policy are wrong-headed — even wrong-hearted. Donald Trump, for instance, invites American workers to blame their economic insecurity on a horde of dark and dangerous outsiders, and to put their hopes for positive change into building a fortress against the rest of the world. Such invitations are poison. Meanwhile the candidate’s astounding record on distorting the facts and mistreating his own employees and associates belies the sincerity of his announced concern for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

I am also in full agreement that people should view with caution Hillary Clinton’s stated commitment to overhauling the corporate-friendly approach now hard-wired into existing trade deals. When she takes office — as I fervently pray that she will – those of us who want to see a fair economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few, must continue to bring forcefully to her attention a call for more democratic, transparent and inclusive rules of the road in the global economy.

Meanwhile, whatever else this campaign may mean, let it mark a wake-up call about the importance of economic justice for our whole nation’s future.

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