Wanted: A Trade Agenda That Values People Over Corporations

The Rexnord Corporation can trace its manufacturing roots all the way back to 1892. For generations, the workers at its Indianapolis ball bearings plant earned decent wages that enabled them to support their families. But no longer. This year, Rexnord Corporation is laying off hundreds of workers so it can move their jobs from Indiana to Mexico, where it can pay a paltry $3 an hour. Those lost jobs and shattered lives in Indiana are just another consequence of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Both the United Steelworkers union and the Sierra Club have opposed NAFTA since it was first proposed in the 1990s. In the ensuing decades, our fears have been realized time and again. NAFTA has undercut workers and environmental protections everywhere — from Manitoba to Mexico — by allowing corporations to cross borders in a continuous search for not only the lowest wages but also the weakest labor and environmental standards. It is in large part because of NAFTA that families on both sides of our borders have been exposed to more air and water pollution.

Recently, the Trump administration published its plans for NAFTA renegotiation, yet again it offered no specifics on what it hopes to accomplish. One thing should be clear by now, though: To prevent another disastrous corporate giveaway, we need a trade agenda that values people — not just profits. Any agreement that replaces NAFTA must improve the lives of workers, ensure clean air and water, and support healthy communities in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Workers do not want another trade deal that pollutes our air and water any more than environmentalists want one that eliminates more jobs.

The example of Rexnord illustrates what’s at stake. Last year, company executives informed workers at its profitable Indianapolis factory that it would move their jobs to Mexico so it could “operate in a more cost-effective manner.” In this case, “cost-effective” translates to more easily exploiting workers, given that Mexico’s wages are low, its labor standards are weak, and its unions are often controlled by corporations instead of workers. At the same time, by sending jobs over the border from Indianapolis to Monterrey, Mexico, Rexnord will also benefit from extremely lax environmental standards. According to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency, there were more than 16,000 federally regulated facilities in Mexico’s border region last year (an increase of more than 10,000 facilities in just eight years). Yet in 2015, Mexico conducted fewer than 600 federal inspections of those facilities for compliance with environmental laws.

Rexnord Corporation’s move to Mexico may mean a bigger bonus for its CEO, who earned nearly $1.5 million last year. But it also means that 300 American workers are losing good, family-supporting jobs, and that American taxpayers will be expected to pick up the pieces to support those workers until they can find new jobs. Unfortunately, studies show that most of those workers will never find be able to find jobs that pay as much as those they lost.

Why did we end up with a trade deal that continually prioritizes corporate profits over community values, workers’ rights, human health, and an unpolluted environment? Because it was corporations that were represented at the negotiating table. NAFTA was written behind closed doors, with hundreds of corporate “advisors” given privileged access to secret texts. Throughout this process, the public was kept in the dark.

After enduring the consequences of NAFTA for more than two decades, workers and communities across North America deserve a fresh start, not tweaks to a deal that was struck for billionaires. The only way to get a trade agreement that benefits real people is to insist that it be negotiated in the open, not in corporate boardrooms. Workers, environmentalists, health advocates, human rights groups, and consumer organizations must all have seats at the table, and negotiating texts must be transparent to the public for input, review, and debate.

If NAFTA is to be renegotiated, then we must seize the chance to replace its race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards with a race to the top. A successor to NAFTA must support good union jobs, living wages, healthy communities, clean air and water, and a more stable climate. Any trade agreement that doesn’t meet those basic criteria will only lead to outcomes like the one in Indianapolis: more lost jobs, more harmed families, and more polluted air and water.

Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. Leo Gerard is president of United Steelworkers.

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