Living with NAFTA

Ports up and down the west coast were forced to close due to a multi-city action sponsored by a faction of the Occupy movement on Monday, December 12th, raising the question: What are the protesters protesting? Answers are complex, of course, and cannot be reduced to one simple root problem. In Longview, Washington, for instance, protests and anger were raging for months before the Occupy movement began in earnest, due to a large grain exporter’s insistence on hiring plant operation labor from a non-local union. However, international trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, approaching its 20th anniversary in 2012, must play some role in the current strife, as they work to govern port operations everywhere in the United States. It is perhaps the undercurrents of cost-cutting and betrayal in cases like the one in Longview that have resonated with disenchanted workers everywhere, stoking the fires of the Occupy movement at a time when it had reached a crossroads.

The action on the 12th, called the West Coast Port Shutdown, included among other cities San Diego, Seattle, Oakland, Portland, Longview and Vancouver, and aimed to shut down operation of port facilities, at least temporarily. Some port workers’ unions, whose disputes with corporate use of the ports have helped to inspire this coordinated action, have not endorsed the protest, fearing that their negotiations will be set back. Nevertheless, it now seems undeniable that the Occupy movement is at once broadening their focus from the financial industry to take account of other major corporate arenas, while also narrowing in on specific local realities, which seem more open to direct change.

Arthur Stamoulis, a trade policy analyst speaking on December 10th outside the Portland World Trade Center, attempted to explain the effects of NAFTA on Oregon communities. Stamoulis stressed that, “since NAFTA and these other trade agreements were enacted, our trade deficit has exploded. It was over $800 billion in 2008. If things continue on their current course it’s soon going to be over a trillion dollars a year. A trade deficit that large means job loss and depressed wages for working people in this country.” Stamoulis believes that established trade policies—NAFTA being the biggest among them—tend to favor the goals of international corporations over the needs of individual workers and local communities. For him, the actions on the 12th were designed to prove that “the real economy only operates with the good graces of the working class.” Similarly, the ports “aren’t just a symbol of corporate power—they’re actually a hub, a central spot where corporate power is exercised.”

As NAFTA approaches 20 years of existence, the debate still rages about the labor, economic, environmental and immigration ramifications of the agreement and other policies in line with the general global trend towards free trade. But how does NAFTA affect Salem and the surrounding areas directly? As area window shoppers browse for presents for families and friends, holiday cooks choose between local produce or food from Canada or Mexico, and job-seekers desperately search for employment in a stagnant economy, it is important to address this question.

A free-trade economy is an economy without (or with limited) barriers, taxes and tariffs in an effort to allow open transit of goods, labor and capital across country borders without, or with little, hindrance. Proponents of free trade believe that protectionism (the opposite of free trade) hinders economic growth by stymieing exports and drives prices of goods sky-high by eliminating international competition for market share.

Opponents of free trade in the United States often use various platforms: that it has moved manufacturing jobs outside of the U.S. (de-industrialization), that it has lowered wages and decimated the middle-class in the United States by creating a surplus of labor through immigration and by weakening unions and labor’s negotiating power through the threat of outsourcing jobs, that it has put a strain on government resources through free-trade-related un-documented immigration, that it contributes to the exploitation of people and the destruction of the environment in developing countries, that it contributes to overuse of fossil fuels by the unnecessary lengthy transit of goods, and that it allows corporations to avoid appropriate taxation by propping up bogus headquarters in places like the tax-friendly Cayman Islands.

In terms of gross domestic product, NAFTA is the largest free-trade bloc in the world, and has a direct effect on Salem and the Willamette Valley. Our highway, rail, air and river systems link Salem to Portland’s international hub, and from there to virtually every other community on earth. It is impossible to know for sure how a specific city or region like Salem or the Mid-Willamette Valley would be different if NAFTA was repealed or had never existed. Nevertheless, we must constantly ask ourselves, “Do free trade policies such as NAFTA produce effects that we want to see in our local communities?” (Not to mention their effect on communities not our own.)

At this time of year, we find ourselves in the middle of the desperate, frenzied end to the holiday shopping season. As local producers struggle to compete with the low prices of international competitors who do not have to abide by U.S. labor and environmental policies, we as patrons can make conscious decisions to buy local and inject money (and jobs) into our local economy.

Whether or not NAFTA and other free-trade policies have a positive net gain for Oregon’s economy through the strength of exports, it is hard to argue that buying local wouldn’t help the Mid-Willamette Valley’s economy. For example, if a Salem resident buys Willamette Valley produce from a locally owned store like Roth’s, LifeSource, or E-Z Orchards, where does that patron’s money end up compared to if that same person bought produce imported from Mexico at Wal-Mart? Besides the fact that less fossil fuels were expended (because of fewer miles traveled) and the produce has likely retained more nutrients (because of a shorter transit time), the patron has also supported the local economy. Unfortunately it is impossible to use this example regarding many manufactured goods, because it is not possible to purchase locally-made products if they don’t exist.

If “go local” and other like-minded movements and promotions increase in popularity, it would encourage investment in local businesses and industry and increase exposure of local products at area boutiques, department stores and supermarkets, lessening at least a part of the suggested ill effects of NAFTA and other free-trade policies.

Unfortunately not all of the suggested detriments of NAFTA and other free-trade policies can be stymied by “go local” marketing alone. Portland State University instructor and former Executive Director of Greenpeace USA Barbara Dudley concluded in her 2003 article “WTO, NAFTA, and Oregon,” that “even the most ardent free trade supporters often agree that the global agreements governing trade need revision,” and that “nation states are uniquely responsible for the regulation of corporate behavior” but are “far less able to effectively regulate corporate behavior in the era of multinational corporations and a global economy.” In other words, there’s always the threat a corporation will skip town to a more business-friendly state or country if they don’t like the policies, which discourages laws that protect workers and the environment.

As one can see from the educators interviewed alongside this article, NAFTA (and free-trade as a whole) is still hotly debated after nearly 20 years after its inception. Things may never go back to the way they were when imports were a novelty, whether delicacy or necessity, but by informing the public about the political-economic tendencies at play in our age, we can make better (or at least more informed) decisions when we go to spend our money or vote in November. Maybe the question should be: “what would we like the Mid-Willamette Valley to be like, and how can we make that happen as a community?”