For those of us that fought the introduction of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the even more menacing NAFTA, there is an even bigger threat on the horizon and it is rolling this way. It comes in the form of an even more extensive free trade agreement, known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) essentially an extension of the principles laid down in the NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere.
Since 1994, governments from every single country in the Americas (except Cuba) have been negotiating a new trade agreement that repeats and extends the terrible precedent already set by the NAFTA. The proposed but still secret FTAA has been, we are told, modeled on other similar arrangements such as the NAFTA and other agreements reached within the World Trade Organization (WTO). This discussion is scheduled to intensify when Trade Ministers from each invited government meet in Qub0065c City on April 20-22nd for the Summit of the Americas.
The two governments pushing these talks most forcefully are the United States and Canada. The official sales pitch for this agreement promises the same things that previous trade agreements have promised: more good jobs, economic growth, access to new markets for Canadian exporters, and access to cheaper goods imported from abroad.
Of course, the fact is that we know these promises to be hollow. CUPE, the labour movement, and an impressive range of popular and social movement organizations are intent on bringing thousands of citizens of the hemisphere to Qub0065c City. We will be using this Summit as an opportunity to say loudly and firmly that we know that these promises disguise a different agenda, and that we are opposed to these secretive negotiations. We want to use the events in Qub0065c City to express our demand for an altogether different and more democratic model for fair trade, environmental protection, and economic development.
In confronting this proposed FTAA, it is worth reflecting on our recent experience with trade agreements to consider why it is that this Summit of the Americas has become a target for what we expect will be one of the largest political demonstrations in Canadian history.I. The Real Record of Past Trade Agreements
The reality is that we were offered the same promises when the FTA and NAFTA were introduced. We now have real lived experience under these agreements to evaluate. First of all, both of those trade deals had a dramatic impact on our manufacturing base. Literally hundreds of plants and offices were shut down and re-located into either the United States or Mexico. The unemployment that resulted made the terrible recession of the early 1990s even worse and this was felt first and foremost by workers, who either lost their jobs or had their job security seriously undermined. The threat of re-location became a new and very powerful weapon, used by employers to force workers into accepting punishing wage cuts and other changes to working conditions. Since that time, labour relations in general have shifted harshly against workers and their unions.
The trade deals came to represent a full-scale restructuring of our economy into one which is more competitive, and more deeply integrated within a single, continental economic space. In this context, becoming competitive came to mean something much cruder than having developed more infrastructure, better transportation networks, higher technology production processes, or a better educated workforce. It came to mean lower wages, pure and simple. The reference point for competitive wages shifted to those paid in the southern U.S. right-to-work states and then to Mexico.Race to the Bottom
This race to the bottom was also taken up by governments in an assault on every single one of our public programs, from Unemployment Insurance, to Medicare, to the Canada Pension Plan. Each of these pillars of our social safety net came to be a target in the 1990s push for greater competitiveness. In that regard, the worst fears of the opponents of the original FTA have been more than realized.
Of course, workers came to realize that this model, centred on the trade deals, was really about companies achieving higher levels of profitability at their expense. As several recent reports have shown, workers wages have been nearly flat in the thirteen years since the FTA was introduced, despite the fact that the economy has in fact grown. The distribution of both income and wealth has continued to shift in favour of the wealthy.
The impact of all of this has not been exclusive to the private sector. The recession and high unemployment of the early 1990s also led to a ferocious assault on public sector workers. Citing rising budgetary deficits, governments of all stripes and at all levels moved to slash their program spending, and freeze or even roll back the wages of government and public sector workers. Once again, workers were being forced to bear the brunt of the economic shock treatment ushered in by the trade deals.Impact on Public Sector
In fact, the so-called free trade agreements had a particular impact on the public sector itself. Public services came to be viewed as just another service offered in the marketplace. They became viewed as mere commerce. By implication, this meant that governments were viewed as competitors to private corporations seeking to enter those same markets, and government regulation was viewed as an unnecessary burden and an obstacle to trade.
This anti-government, right-wing perspective sells us a built-in conclusion: Government should get out of the way, and privatize or commercialize the services it provides. As such, the corporations that advance this perspective have ensured that free trade agreements such as NAFTA, the failed MAI, and now the FTAA, have as their primary agenda the privatization of public services. Whether it is health care clinics, publicly-owned electrical utilities, water treatment, or home care, these trade deals have resulted in the whole range of public services coming to be viewed as just another commercial enterprise, another commodity. So, if a government has a monopoly on such a service, it is now viewed as an unfair trade practice that can be banned by the creative wording of these trade deals.Impact on Regulation in the Public Interest
With the assault on workers wages, public programs, and public services, has also come an attack on the basic right of governments to regulate corporate behaviour in the public interest. While a number of examples of this issue have come to light in recent years, perhaps the most obvious is the case of Ethyl Corporation and their gasoline additive MMT. When the Canadian governments own research suggested that there were enough concerns about the risks posed to human health by MMT, the government banned it. The makers of MMT, Ethyl Corporation, responded to the ban by threatening to use the powerful tribunal process provided by NAFTA to sue the Canadian government. Their claim was that Canada had no proof of its claim that MMT might be harmful. Sadly, the governments response was to back down, pay Ethyl Corporation millions of dollars as a settlement of the dispute, and publicly announce that MMT did not pose a threat to human health. In that case, even the threat of a NAFTA-based lawsuit was sufficient to change the Canadian governments policy. The defenders of the trade deals consider this to be free trade.
At the same time that all of these impacts were being felt, governments around the world have brought the most dangerous elements of these trade agreements to the global stage. In 1994, Canada signed on to a number of global trade deals which together formed the underlying foundation of the new World Trade Organization (WTO), a body whose very purpose is the further expansion of NAFTA-like trade deals to every country and jurisdiction in the world. CUPE, the labour movement, and others around the world are now faced with a wide range of new threats, from NAFTA, to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and a growing collection of other multilateral and bilateral arrangements that aim to lock-in the same basic fundamentally problematic principles to every country on the planet.
Such broad-ranging and powerful movements as this pose daunting challenges. As in the past, CUPE has been rising to these challenges first and foremost by trying to educate and mobilize our own membership and the Canadian public in general.II. Contents of the Proposed FTAAAfter all of the scrutiny and attention paid to previous negotiations of past trade agreements, we dont really know the contents of the proposed FTAA. It has not been made public. In fact, the bureaucrats and corporate insiders busy preparing for the Summit of the Americas in Qub0065c City in April have refused to release any substantive details with respect to the actual contents of the deal. Canadas Minister for International Trade Pierre Pettigrew has recently announced his intention to release the draft text of the FTAA once it is translated, after the Qub0065c City summit. Nonetheless, after years of development, it is galling to learn that the general public must wait a few critical weeks for the translation.
What is known is that the basic premise of the agreement was a continuation and expansion of NAFTA. This includes the central Chapter 11 dispute-settlement mechanism which essentially gives privately-owned corporations the right to sue foreign governments for what they consider to be infringements of their rights. In that regard, the FTAA would be extending these same corporate rights to every corporation in the hemisphere and subject all signatory governments to the same vulnerability.
In broad terms, the concern that is widespread and growing is that the FTAA will bring the agenda of privatization, deregulation, and competitive restructuring to a whole new level, hemisphere-wide. The winners, as weve seen in the past, will be the corporations that will enjoy new rights and freedoms. The losers will once again be workers, citizens, and the basic notion that elected governments ought to have the power to regulate and make policy decisions in the public interest.
More specifically, the objectives outlined by trade Ministers at previous gatherings have included goals such as the elimination of all barriers to trade, the elimination of barriers to foreign investment, the inclusion of services in the coverage of the agreement, and a legal framework to protect investors and their investments (as in NAFTAs Chapter 11). Observers in the U.S. have pointed out that their government has specifically included additional goals such as the liberalization of health care, education, environmental services, and water services.
In fact, the service-privatization component of the FTAA agenda is so strong that the Council of Canadians recently concluded that if it were fully realized, all public services at all levels of government would have to be opened up for competition from foreign for-profit service corporations. This makes the proposed FTAA the most threatening and expansive trade agreement in history.Conclusion: To the Summit and Beyond
Tens of thousands of people from Canada and elsewhere in the Americas are expected to be in Qub0065c City for the events leading up to the Summit of the Americas, and to take part in the parallel Peoples Summit, April 17-21. A range of events has been organized to draw attention to the Summit of the Americas and to get the message out about the real cost of free trade.
The week will end with a massive peaceful demonstration in Qub0065c City on Saturday, April 21. Other events of interest to CUPE members include the labour forum organized by the Qub0065c Federation of Labour that will take place on Wednesday, April 18. In addition, CUPE members in Qub0065c City on April 19 should plan to attend the panel organized by the Common Front on the World Trade Organization entitled Qub0065c to Qatar: Stop the Sell-off! scheduled for that evening.
As a trade union with a deep commitment to social justice, economic security and democracy, CUPE is determined to expose the real agendas built-in to the FTAA and other so-called free trade agreements. We are convinced that the more that Canadians know about the real agenda and the real effects of the FTAA, the more they will strongly oppose it. At the same time, we are confident that with our social partners in Canada and in the developing world, we can develop a much brighter and much healthier trade and development agenda that prioritizes our social and economic objectives ahead of all others.