May Day, Chicago, NAFTA, and solidarity

Marchers in Grant Park on May Day
Used under creative commons license from jvoves

This week we celebrate May Day, the International Day of Workers’ Rights. The days’ origins are in the Haymarket Affairs in Chicago in 1886, when labor activists were killed for advocating for an 8-hour workday. Today, the day is celebrated in the US with demonstrations in support of immigrant and domestic workers’ rights as one united struggle. This year, 20,000 people marched through Chicago’s streets.

No piece of policy has demonstrated the need for a united front for global workers’ rights more than NAFTA, the deal that set the stage for the global consolidation of corporate power through trade policy.

To be clear, Donald Trump is a racist, xenophobic bigot. Mountains of evidence lay bare the truth of that. And racism, xenophobia, and bigotry will do nothing to improve peoples’ lives. But, even as a broken clock is right twice a day, he understood that trade and immigration policy are inextricably linked. There is an awful dualism being perpetuated in the media and by business groups that you’re either for Trump’s position of closing borders to trade and to people, or you support unfettered free trade and labor flows. Just recently, right across the river from where those labor activists gathered, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released as survey, entitled, “The Foreign Policy Establishment or Donald Trump: Which Better Reflects American Opinion.” While it is tempting to fall into the camp of strict opposition to all things Trump related, this duality is totally false. Indeed, the corporate position and talking points around NAFTA specifically, and trade in general, are just as grounded in structural racism and inequity as the (white) nationalism of Trump and his advisors.

It’s important to remember just how all-encompassing trade policy is. Though it’s most visible in the form of so-called free trade agreements, anytime a good from one country, or with foreign content, ends up being sold in another country, trade policy sets the rules. Though the pickings are rich for probing the inequities of trade policy, in light of the recent workers’ day, I’ll focus on the most visible consequence of corporate led globalization, which has been the movement of production to where the labor costs are the cheapest and the protections for workers, and the planet, are the lowest. Just this week, Rep. Sander Levin, a long-time leader on trade policy, issued a brief, but pointed, demand on the NAFTA talks: raise wages and improve labor conditions in Mexico, and make those improvements enforceable through the trade deal. Start from that point, other solutions follow.

Most people reading this, I’m sure, are a conscientious audience, but history has shown that it’s easy to turn a blind eye when the people who are suffering to make the things you buy are distanced from you. Would you tolerate your sister or brother working a sweatshop? No. Would you tolerate a sweatshop in your neighborhood? No. Would you buy goods from a sweatshop in Bangladesh, on the other side of the world, where lax labor standards resulted in a factory collapse that killed over a thousand people? You probably already did. And it’s a stark example of structural racism: The difficulty in taking action for people who don’t look like you, don’t live near you, and don’t share your language or culture. Asking each individual person to overcome this blind spot requires a fantastical leap of imagination and insurmountable ability to have perfect information. Only governments and laws can make sure tragedies like Rana Plaza never happen again.

But doesn’t industrialization lead to development? Just a few miles south of the Haymarket, a new study out of The University of Chicago indicates that, in Ethiopia, the mere presence of factories doesn’t lift people out of poverty, an experience that has been repeated many times around the world as farmers are pushed off their lands and into urban areas seeking work. Given the choice, the low wages and unsafe conditions of factories in developing countries are an unappealing alternative to “going back to the family farm, taking a construction job or selling goods at the market.” Just as at the Haymarket 130 years ago, the establishment of factories was not the cause of people being lifted out of poverty, it was the workers’ organized response to appalling health, safety and welfare conditions and their corresponding collective action that raised wages, improved work hours, and instituted workplace safety. Then, it was recent immigrants from Prussia (modern Germany and Poland) and Bohemia leading the movement.

Today, when multinational corporations can send their money and production around the globe with ease, due to the willingness of governments to give them that leeway, the collective action of yore has been blunted in many industries. But you can’t offshore land, and for decades, the US agricultural labor force has been made up of immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America.

It was widely predicted during the NAFTA debate that opening up Mexico’s agricultural markets, especially in corn, to subsidized US exports would displace millions of Mexican farmers, spurring waves of undocumented immigration to the US. IATP’s Karen Lehman, who now runs a non-profit on Chicago’s North Side, testified before Congress that NAFTA’s agriculture chapter would displace 600,000 – 700,000 Mexican Farmers. Today we know the estimates are closer to a million, with an additional 1.4 million farm workers displaced as well. With horrible conditions in the Maquiladoras, and a booming US agricultural sector, many came north, by whatever means possible.

Creating yet another brown-skinned underclass of workers has been to the benefit of agribusiness who can quash organizing for better pay and working conditions with threats of deportation, but pointing the finger at immigrants for upending the American Dream for native born workers has been a useful scapegoat in getting workers to assign blame downwards, rather than to the same corporations who send jobs overseas with regularity.

Enter Donald Trump. His promises to close the border and rip up trade deals propelled him to the White House on the backs of Americans who realize “globalism” has left them behind. Trump threw blame in every direction, including at the corporations who are selling out the workers of the world, and promised to put American workers first. But Donald Trump isn’t pulling out of NAFTA just yet. Reports from last week were that the Presidents of Canada and Mexico convinced him not to, but it’s also pretty obvious that the businesses benefitting from cheap labor, and their allies in the administration, have been leaning hard to keep the status quo. Trump lost funding for his border wall in the budget negotiations too. In his first 100 days, his inaction on trade remains the most visible broken promise of his candidacy.

It’s clear that neither Trump, nor his apparent corporate masters, are going to deliver for workers. Yes, we can have increased trade with more open borders for people, but improving the quality of life for people should be the fundament on which policy is crafted, not a hopeful afterthought to inflating profits. Of the thousands of organizations who banded together to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership and won, few of us were protectionists, less were isolationists, but we wanted fair trade, and our voice will continue to be heard as this debate goes forward. We will continue to fight for a global economy in which all people are valued and our quality of life is improved.  And yes, it’s important to protect the rights of migrants once they have crossed the border. Workers of all walks deserve equal rights. But equally as important is to improve conditions among trading partners so that migration is not the only option. As David Bacon puts it, we must fight for the right to stay home.

Trade and immigration are sweeping and complex issues. It’s going to take thousands more organizations standing in solidarity as we put forward a unified vision of North America that puts people and the planet first. We’re working on it and we’ll continue to do so as civil society organizations from Canada, the US, and Mexico meet in Mexico City later this month. The re-focus on trade and immigration in our current political environment is an opportunity for unity that we cannot pass up. As Chicago’s great storyteller, Studs Terkel, said, “In a democratic society, you’re supposed to be an activist.” It’s time to harness the spirit of May Day and act.