Those Giant Sucking Sounds

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

The Editors

WHAT THE RULING class wants, it gets. That’s why the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed the House of Representatives by a 34-vote majority, to the professed amazement of the pundits and counters who, until the moment the debate opened, tabulated enough committed votes against to ensure NAFTA’s defeat This conventional NAFTA-math was all wrong, for one reason: On this issue, to a degree highly unusual in legislative battles, corporate capital knew what it wanted. Not only for narrow economic reasons but for ideological and global strategic ones, capital wanted NAFTA. This explains why elite editorial opinion across the board supported the agreement, regardless of the irrelevant wishes of the U.S. population. It also explains why Democratic President Clinton was so zealous in support of the former Republican President Bush’s deal that he was willing to ram it down his own party’s throat.

It further explains why President Clinton could brazenly and blatantly buy congressional votes with everything from special pork-barrel projects to promises of protectionist restrictions (curious free-trade agreement, that!) on Canadian agricultural exports. It’s not that presidential bribery is so unusual—consider, for example, the just-opened elevated train line from Chicago’s downtown to Midway Airport, financed by federal dollars released by Ronald Reagan in exchange for Illinois Congressman Ed Lipinski’s 1986 vote for contra aid—but the sheer scale of Clinton’s “NAFTA Claus” giveaways lent the usual squalor of bourgeois politics a certain corrupt grandeur. The pliant media responded to the spectacle by noting how successfully Clinton had salvaged and expanded his leadership stature.

Why, exactly, was corporate capital even more unified for NAFTA than it was for, say, the 1991 Gulf War? It’s hardly that all big capitalists, or even most of them, benefit directly from shipping & U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico, or from expanding U.S. banking services to Mexico to serve that. nation’s burgeoning yuppie sector, or from the flood of Farm Belt exports that will complete the destruction of Mexico’s indigenous farmers. For the U.S. capitalist class as a whole, these are worthy and laudable goals, but not paramount At least as important are several more far-reaching objectives.

First: The pressure of NAFTA will serve to lower wages and other labor costs throughout the U.S. economy, especially in manufacturing. Even companies for whom it makes no particular sense to move operations to Mexico stand to profit from the threat of doing so. Some may also find further incentives to move work to low-wage southern states that are closer to the Mexican border.

Second: The NAFTA regime enables capital to accelerate and deepen the neoliberal agenda of deregulation. In all three countries, many possibilities of achieving social and environmental protections through national legislatures stand to be interpreted under NAFTA as “illegal trade restrictions.” The benefits here to all capital, from the giant multinational down to your local sleazeball toxic polluter, are enormous It’s tragic that the labor movement generally failed to bring this out this during the debate; only a handful of commentators, notably labor economist Harley Shaiken of the University of California, did so.

Third: NAFTA gives the U.S. administration clout to carry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks, which are essentially a showdown with European farming interests, and into negotiations with the Asia! Pacific Rim states. With NAFTA in place, on the other hand, the entry of other economic blocs into the North American markets becomes a carrot to be offered in exchange for concessions to U.S. capital elsewhere. Without NAFTA, it was feared that Mexico would make its own deals with (for example) Japan. (As this issue went to press, the GATT talks reached agreement after a predictable few weeks of crisis-mongering.)

Fourth: NAFTA consolidates the stability of the longest-running one-party regime on the planet, the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico. The Mexican party-state is thoroughly committed to its role as a junior partner of the United States not just in establishing NAFTA but extending it throughout Latin America. Since neoliberal policies inside Mexico include the destruction of Mexican peasant agriculture, with the potential dislocation of up to 20 million poor farmers including their families, a strong and effectively repressive Mexican police state is clearly necessary to assure this “stability.”

Fifth: NAFTA afforded a first-rate opportunity to a unified business class to give organized labor a good, solid political kick in the face. It did so in several ways, not only by winning the vote but by having Clinton on network television denouncing the “musciebound” anti-lobbying efforts of the very same labor movement that worked so hard for his election.

In short, those giant sucking sounds were a lot louder than the few hundred thousand jobs that U.S. workers might directly lose. It was politicians sucking up to their ultimate master, the capitalist ruling class, that made the real noise.

Labor and Politics Afta’ NAFTA

Equally loud were the expressions of outrage from the labor leadership when the vote was in. If only they were as vocal, or spent as much money, on the Decatur Staley workers or the American Airlines flight attendants whose livelihoods and futures are on the line in desperate struggles against wage-slashing and union-smashing employers! Or in the political arena, imagine the possible impact of a labor mobilization for a single-payer national health care system. That possibility, tragically, is blocked by the labor bureaucracy’s overriding imperative—to avoid “embarrassing” Clinton, a concern that is dearly not reciprocated.

The NAFFA debate, to be sure, did result in a big defeat for labor on the political front It must be said, however, that the real defeat didn’t lie in losing the vote, which was essentially inevitable in view of how much bribery and political capital Clinton was prepared to use and the united stand of capital for its passage.

The defeat for labor lay in the fact that the spokesperson for the anti-NAFTA cause was Ross Perot, a notorious antiunion billionaire with his very own faithly free-trade zone on his Texas landholding. This was easily exploited, of course, by Vice President Al Gore in the debate on Larry King’s TV show. But the problem isn’t that Perot lost the debate—it’s very dubious that this pseudo-event changed minds or votes—it’s that labor abdicated its rightful role and allowed the Perot organization to reap the likely populist political harvest of opposing an unpopular deal. Rank-and-file worker anger against NAFTA and Democrats’ betrayal run very deep; yet the only political channel available to capture this sentiment is Perot’s United We Stand organization.

In some cases, anti-NAFTA Democratic politicians considered close to labor were the worst in pandering to racist sentiment. James Trafficante of Ohio, for example, spoke of the U.S. sending industrial jobs to Mexico “in exchange for three baseball players to be named later,” a repulsive politics even worse than Perot’s.

The politics of labor’s anti-NAFTA campaign were an ambiguous mix of progressive social unionism and reactionary nativism. On the whole, it appears to us that an authentic striving for international worker solidarity is gaining strength as opposed, for example, to the ugly Japan-bashing of protectionist campaigns in recent years. A statement by Teamsters International President Ron Carey following the Congressional vote pledged:

“We will expand our efforts to support organizing by independent, democratic unions in Mexico. We have worked closely with them to oppose NAFTA. For the good of working people on both sides of the border, we must strongly support their efforts to win better living standards, decent working conditions and democratic rights.”

Carey and Bertha Lujan, national coordinator of the Mexican independent union federation FAT (Authentic Labor Front), co-authored an op-ed article (Indianapolis Star, November 10) stressing the theme of joint opposition to NAFTA by Mexican and U.S. workers and the construction of linkages between Teamsters and FAT truck drivers.

Teamsters union statements and advertisements, noting that NAFTA “would permit U.S. companies to use Mexican truck drivers and Mexican trucks to move freight anywhere in the United States,” raised the legitimate issues of wages (“Mexican truck drivers make as little as $7 per day”), the age of Mexican trucks and the laxity of safety and work regulations governing Mexican trucks and drivers. One unfortunate concession to nativist politics, however, was the Teamsters’ statement that Mexican truck drivers don’t have requirements for “speaking and reading English.” So what? Traffic signals and instructions are internationally recognized symbols; don’t U.S. citizens who speak and read no foreign languages operate motor vehicles as tourists and workers in Mexico and all over the world?

At one well attended labor antiNAFTA rally in Chicago, a union officer spoke on the theme that “our enemy is not the Mexican worker, it’s the corporations.” The next speaker said, “we’re not here to defend the Mexican middle class, we’re here to support the American middle class.” Both received the same loud applause from hundreds of rank and filers in attendance! The pent-up anger over the economic crisis is both greater and more politically muddled than most observers recognize.

It’s precisely because of this volatility and anger of many U.S. workers that union activists and the movements must reject, as a matter of principle, all the wrong and reactionary reasons for opposing NAFTA and focus the anger on constructing a progressive response. In this regard it was potentially very significant that several union presidents, notably Carey of the Teamsters as well as Bywater of the Independent Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) and Bob Wages of Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), spoke up after the NAFTA vote in support of the idea of a new labor-centered political alternative. It’s a moment that shouldn’t be lost.

What’s desperately needed, in fact, is anew party of and for working people in the United States. Right now, the most important political initiative towards this stated goal is Labor Party Advocates (LPA). It’s important, we believe, to support and build the LPA effort, and at the same time, to seize upon any local possibilities for running independent labor candidates or pro-labor, anti-NAFTA activists in the 1994 elections.

If labor has a post-NAFTA political future it must come from rallying social opposition in its own name. Otherwise, the rightful anger of the moment will simply give way to yet another giant sucking sound—the AFL-CIO bureaucracy once again sucking up to Clinton and the Democratic Party.

January-February 1994, ATC 48