October 5, 1987 was a fateful day for Canadians. That was the day that Canada’s Tory Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, handed the country over to U.S. multinational corporations. That was the day he signed the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the U.S. and Canada.
The FTA binds every Canadian citizen to it. It can strike down domestic laws that protect health, jobs, and the environment. It gives U.S. businesses access to the air above, minerals below, and water running through Native lands.
And the FTA experience leaves no doubt that the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico would be a disaster for the workers of all three countries.
These pacts are weapons of class warfare. Faced with global recession and shrinking or impoverished markets, today’s multinationals are scrambling to save their profits. Degrading labour is their only solution, and the FTA and NAFTA are means to this end. An international workingclass united front is the only force capable of upsetting their plans.
FTA’s violent impact. The FTA has created a mine field of calamities for poor and working people.
• Mulroney pledged that the FTA would bring “jobs, jobs, jobs.” But since FTA’s implementation in 1988, more than 1.6 million jobs have gone, gone, gone. Permanent unemployment hovers above 14 percent. Canada’s manufacturing sector has shrunk 28 percent, the result of companies moving operations to the southern U.S. or Mexico, where labour is cheaper, regulations more lax, and environmental standards lower.
• Industries where women workers are clustered – textiles, food processing, electronics, light manufacturing, clerical, teaching, healthcare – are hardest hit.
• Companies are using threats to shift plants south as leverage to try to win huge wage and benefit concessions.
• Intensified competition is causing small businesses, which employ the majority of Canada’s workforce, to go bankrupt at a rate of 75,000 per year. Small farmers are losing their land to U.S. agribusiness at bankruptcy sales.
• The government advertised that the Ff A would bring prices down. Instead, costs are soaring.
• U.S. business claims that programs like Canada’s healthcare system, which ensures that everybody gets treatment, give Canadian companies unfair advantage. Free abortion, AIDS services, and pre-and post-natal care are all under the gun.
• The number of suicides is up sharply. So is violence against women, people of color, immigrants, and lesbians and gays. Rightwing parties and the fascist movement are growing, as desperate people seek quick answers to Canada’s ills.
Pushing as low as they can go. If NAFTA passes, social programs and ecological standards among the three trading partners must be “harmonized” – that is, they will fall to the least common denominator, hurting women and children most. (The sidebar agreements on labour and the environment are vague, full of loopholes, and lacking means of enforcement.)
While harmonization of wages isn’t mandated, corporations will use the trade agreement to pit workers in each country against each other nevertheless.
Some proponents claim that NAFTA will “even out” North American wages, stating or implying that NAFTA will actually benefit the lowest-paid workers.
This is a lie. In recent years, Mexico has gone on a privatization binge in order to attract more international trade. The consequences for Mexican workers have been devastating. Under NAFTA, this downward spiral will worsen in Mexico, and it will envelop Canada and the U.S. also.
Tri-country united front can nix NAFTA. Canadian unions have organized against the FTA and NAFTA. But they are critically hampered by their refusal to clearly identify the fundamental goal of North American capital in cutting these deals: to gain a chokehold on the working class of the whole continent and raise the degree of exploitation to unprecedented levels.
FTA/NAFTA can only be beaten by a united front that is thoroughly workingclass in its aims, unwavering in its international solidarity, and willing to confront the inhumane profit system head-on. A coalition like this can bring together the whole spectrum of groups that “free trade” is out to ruin: unions, First Nations people, family and cooperative farmers, small businesses, and the environmental and civil rights movements.
U.S. workers have a key role to play in this united front because they live in the command center of imperialism. But to realize their incredible potential power, they need an anti-capitalist party of labour.
Who will rise to the challenge of forming such a party? It will be the most oppressed and least corruptible workers women, lesbians and gays, people of color—the same workers who in each country possess the integrity, influence, and initiative to bust NAFTA and ensure that in winning this struggle all of North American labour rises together.