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America@Work - AFL-CIO
December 2003

By James Parks

A massive grassroots coalition of union members, students, environmentalists, farmers and religious and political activists converged in Miami in November to stop the world’s largest free-trade deal in its tracks—and after four days of energetic, rousing Stop FTAA events protesting the Nov. 18–21 closed-door meetings of trade ministers discussing the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), they came away closer to that goal.

Among the tens of thousands traveling to Miami were workers such as Dave Bevard and his wife Pat, who have worked at the Maytag refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Ill., for 30 years and 29 years respectively. This year, they learned they will be out of jobs when the company announced it will close the plant and build a new one in Reynosa, Mexico.

“Our community gave Maytag millions in incentives to stay, and workers took concessions in three straight contracts—and the company still left,” says Dave Bevard, president of Machinists Local 2063. It’s bad enough some 500 Maytag workers will lose their jobs, but the ripple effect of the closing could cost 10 times more in lost jobs among suppliers and local merchants, he says.

“NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] allowed Maytag to commit premeditated murder on our community. Now they want to take the show on the road with the FTAA,” adds Bevard. If approved, FTAA would create the largest free-trade zone in the world and expand NAFTA’s legacy of job loss and lack of protections for workers and the environment to 34 countries in the hemisphere with a combined population of 800 million people.

10 years of NAFTA: 10 years of loss for U.S. workers

Bevard was one of eight workers from North, Central and South Americas who participated in a Global Workers’ Forum Nov. 19 to discuss the impact of NAFTA and FTAA on workers throughout the hemisphere. The forum was one of a series of Stop FTAA events sponsored by the union movement, culminating in a 20,000-strong march against FTAA on Nov. 20. Workers also took part in educational workshops and a People’s Gala featuring members of the Tell Us The Truth Tour, a group of activist musicians who are raising awareness about jobs, trade and media reform issues in a 14-city tour sponsored by the AFL-CIO and other groups.

To ensure trade ministers didn’t hear only from Big Business—which has lobbied hard for the trade deal—working families brought to Miami hundreds of thousands of Stop FTAA ballots they collected throughout the summer and fall, casting their symbolic vote against the bad trade deal.

Since NAFTA launched 10 years ago, U.S. workers lost 879,280 jobs and real wages in Mexico have fallen, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. Manufacturing has been especially hard hit, accounting for nearly 80 percent of U.S. jobs lost because of NAFTA.

“Before NAFTA, we could only speculate on what its impact would be, but now we have hard facts to go on,” says economist Robert Scott with the institute. “Ten years of NAFTA have meant 10 years of net losses for America’s working families.”

FTAA Lite: ‘Sign of weakness’

Despite the Bush administration’s expectations for finalizing FTAA, trade ministers failed to reach a comprehensive binding agreement, choosing instead to let individual nations opt out of trade requirements they find unpalatable, a move some observers called “FTAA lite.”

“The United States has, in fact, suffered a setback in Miami, because it did not get the sort of binding comprehensive FTAA that it’s wanted all along,” says Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based advocacy group for sustainable development. Because U.S. efforts to create the FTAA deal have stalled, the United States has been negotiating bilateral deals and on Nov. 19 announced it will launch negotiations for bilateral free-trade agreements with Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.

“I would say that [the bilateral negotiations are] more a sign of weakness than strength of the United States,” says Sarah Anderson, trade analyst of the Institute for Policy Studies. By announcing the bilateral deals, the Bush administration is “admitting they can’t get what they want via the FTAA, and that’s because people and governments are resisting throughout the Americas,” she says.

‘We had to march’

Marching through the Miami streets Nov. 20, more than 20,000 unionists, environmentalists and activists demonstrated that opposition to the effects of globalization crosses geographic, racial and political borders. Teachers marched beside students; U.S. steelworkers walked alongside Brazilian steelworkers; and maquiladora workers from Mexico joined U.S. union presidents.

Shouting “No to FTAA” and “FTAA, Don’t Take Our Jobs Away,” they marched peacefully and without incident amid a phalanx of police in riot gear on every corner. More than 2,500 police amassed for the events in Miami, funded by an estimated $16.5 million, including $8.5 million in a special homeland security measure approved by Congress. Police turned away or diverted at least 13 of 25 buses packed with retirees headed for Bayfront Park Amphitheater prior to the march. Although the union-sponsored march was peaceful, union members and AFL-CIO staff say they were attacked with pepper spray and shot with rubber bullets after the march wound down.

“We had to march,” says Sondra Kelly, a member of the Alliance for Retired Americans from Jupiter, Fla. “They keep farming our jobs overseas and polluting the environment worldwide. If this doesn’t stop, U.S. workers won’t be able to buy the products they make, because they will all be on welfare, but there won’t be any tax money to pay for social services.”

Larry Lewis, a member of UAW Local 182 in Detroit, says he took part in Stop FTAA events because “it’s not right for the government to use the money workers are paying in taxes to send their jobs overseas and to allow companies to exploit workers.”

For Lawrence Johnson, the issue is one of basic survival. “If the companies send our jobs out of the country, then how are people supposed to live?” asks Johnson, a member of Laborers Local 478 in Miami.

“I’ve only been in the union one year, but I can see that it’s not fair the way they take our jobs and give them away,” says Jorge Perez, a member of Painters and Allied Trades Local 365 in Miami.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson took part in the week’s events. They were joined by other union leaders, including Electrical Workers President Edwin Hill, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, IAM President Tom Buffenbarger, SEIU President Andrew Stern, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and UNITE President Bruce Raynor.

The size of the march and its diversity was important because it delivered a message to working families that unions and their thousands of allies throughout the hemisphere are “standing beside you, fighting beside you and marching beside you” to ensure there will not be an FTAA, says AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.

Workers pay the price for bad trade deals

Workers throughout the Americas are opposed to FTAA because they know they pay the price for free trade, says Francisca Acuña Hernández, who works in a maquiladora in Reynosa, Mexico, and was one of the four Central and South American speakers at the Global Workers’ Forum. Maquiladoras are foreign-owned factories typically employing female workers for low wages in sweatshop conditions.

“Working in a maquiladora is like slavery,” she says. “You are humiliated. They take away your rights, and you have no job security. American companies come to Mexico to violate workers’ rights. It’s all due to NAFTA, and the FTAA would only make it worse.”

Before governments agree to trade deals they should consult those who are affected—the poor and the workers, says Salvador Estrada, who lost his job as a packer with Pillowtex in Kannapolis, N.C., when the company declared bankruptcy this year because it couldn’t compete with cheap textile imports. The Pillowtex closing put 6,450 people out of work. In fact, since April, the nation has lost nearly 50,000 textile and apparel jobs, according to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, an industry trade association.

Estrada moved to North Carolina from California five years ago seeking work after the job market collapsed there. “Now I don’t know what I am going to do,” he said. “There are no jobs. I have small children and no health insurance. We have to stop FTAA before it spreads more misery.”

Allen Long, a USWA member from Hobart, Ind., and Edson de Sant’ana, a Brazilian metal worker, both emphasized workers must be involved in trade talks. “Our governments must show us respect and give us the right to form unions,” de Sant’ana said. Long says including union leaders on panels that develop trade policies would give voice to those who now have none and would create even stronger pressure for strict environmental rules and measures to raise workers’ standard of living.

‘We’re all in this together’

Sparked by the successful 1999 protests in Seattle against World Trade Organization policies, the union movement has built on its strong ties with the religious community and forged new coalitions with environmental and student groups to create a broad-based coalition against unfair trade. By identifying their common interests and agreeing on strategies, coalition members are building and maintaining support for fair trade.

The breadth of the coalition was apparent throughout the week. Religious leaders celebrated their solidarity and common bond with workers during an interfaith vigil before joining a rally with dozens of farm workers who walked 35 miles in three days from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to dramatize the impact FTAA on impoverished workers.

“Solidarity is the new name for faith,” said Rev. Fred Morris, director of Latin American and Caribbean Relations for the National Council of Churches. “The people of Latin America are calling on us to stop FTAA and remove this yoke from their lives. We’re all in this together.”

During a rousing conference for USWA’s Rapid Response team—activists who form a network to mobilize members around key issues—USWA President Leo Gerard cited students’ role in helping raise public awareness of the exploitation of workers in sweatshops as an model of two groups sharing and working together on a common issue.

At the People’s Gala Nov. 19, more than 2,000 students and union members danced, ate foods from different cultures and listened to music and speeches. With police helicopters relentlessly circling overhead, the crowd enjoyed the music of the Tell Us The Truth Tour whose members include Billy Bragg, Tom Morello, Lester Chambers (of the Chambers Brothers), Steve Earle, Jill Sobule and Boots Riley.

“This is a beautiful thing, all these people from different nations, different races working together for one cause,” said Rose Assinthe, a Haitian immigrant and nurse aide in Miami. “If we can keep this spirit and stay together, we will win.”



    is produced in cooperation with the
Mexico-U.S Border Program
of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

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