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What Has NAFTA Meant For Workers? That Debate's Still Raging

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What Has NAFTA Meant For Workers? That Debate's Still Raging

What Has NAFTA Meant For Workers? That Debate's Still Raging

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

It has been 20 years since the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Back then, the strongest critics of the deal were members of labor unions. They warned of manufacturing jobs going to Mexico and of lower wages for U.S. workers. Today, unions feel as strongly as ever that NAFTA was a bad idea.

NPR National political correspondent Don Gonyea covered the NAFTA debate in the early 1990s and has this report.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was 1993 and the labor movement was mobilized against the creation of a massive Free Trade Zone, including the U.S., Canada and Mexico.


PROTESTERS: Not this NAFTA. Not this NAFTA. Not this NAFTA...

GONYEA: That was in early December of that year at the U.S. Capitol. There were similar union-backed protests around the U.S., especially in the industrial Midwest and in big manufacturing states. In Lansing, Michigan that fall, Ruben Burks of the United Auto Workers Union addressed a big crowd.

RUBEN BURKS: Do we care about our jobs?


BURKS: Do we care about our brothers and sisters in Mexico and Canada?


BURKS: Brothers and sisters, we're going to stop this NAFTA.


BURKS: You're darn right we are.


GONYEA: Except, they didn't. President Clinton was in his first year in the White House, having been elected with help from traditional Democrats, including union members. But he disagreed with labor on NAFTA. Unions predicted disaster for U.S. workers, a flood of high-wage American factory jobs moving to Mexico. In a radio address that fall, Clinton spoke to that worry.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Well, if we don't pass NAFTA that could still be true. The lower wages and the lower cost of production will still be there. But if we do pass it, it means dramatically increased sales of American products made right here in America.

GONYEA: So, during the NAFTA debate, labor unions squared off against a Democratic president. That wasn't necessarily a rare thing. But here's what was unusual, according to Harley Shaiken, a labor analyst at the University of California at Berkeley.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: Trade debates from World War II up to NAFTA tended to be rather sedate; important issues but left to the experts. NAFTA put the debate onto Main Street, into union halls, into community groups, as well as into Congress.

GONYEA: And since NAFTA, trade has regularly been a contentious topic, prompting debate and protests. Globalization has become a term to be praised and scorned. Still, quantifying NAFTA's impact is nearly impossible. There are many different reasons for job losses and for job gains. Some parts of the U.S. have been winners, some losers. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined significantly in the past two decades, especially in places like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

Ask current UAW President Bob King about NAFTA 20 years on and you'll get a blunt answer.

BOB KING: It's been a disaster to me.

GONYEA: King says he sees it at the bargaining table.

KING: Unions like UAW, like the steel workers, like the teamsters, were really undermined in our collective bargaining power by NAFTA. Because now, we go in and we bargain with parts companies and they say: Well, we can go to Mexico and make this cheaper here.

GONYEA: And he has a response for those who point to millions of jobs added to the U.S. economy since NAFTA.

KING: We are not growing good middle-class jobs in America. I'd like to know, where are the jobs, what are they talking about, Wal-mart, what are they talking about all these temporary part-time jobs?

GONYEA: The UAW is only about half the size it was two decades ago. Again, that can't all be attributed to NAFTA. GM and Chrysler went through bankruptcy and now survive but are much smaller. And the share of the car and truck market U.S. car companies command is down as well. In Mexico, the auto industry has boomed.

Again, Harley Shaiken.

SHAIKEN: Since NAFTA was enacted, it's been replicated in other trade agreements that the U.S. has signed throughout the world. And it's that broader expansion of the NAFTA model that has absolutely put a pressure on manufacturing employment, and has been a factor on manufacturing wages being either stagnant or declining in so many industries.

GONYEA: Labor unions argue that NAFTA promotes a race to the bottom. NAFTA advocates say its impact has been overwhelmingly positive. The disagreement is as pronounced as it was 20 years ago.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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