Free vs. fair 

Blues and greens unite to oppose trade agreement

On November 20 and 21, trade ministers from the 34 countries included in the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) will meet in Miami to negotiate. As they did prior to the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), labor, environmental, human rights and social justice groups from all over the world are airing concerns that the new trade agreement will undermine working people, current laws and the environment of the Western Hemisphere. To draw attention to their cause, representatives from these groups are staging a “March to Miami” protest which will travel the U.S. diagonally from Seattle to Miami, stopping in hundreds of cities to gather petition signatures to deliver to the FTAA meeting. On Oct. 3, the march will pass through Missoula, and at least 19 local groups have joined in a coalition of resistance to what they consider unfair trade pacts.

Twelve Missoulians and six Bitterroot residents will travel to Miami for the meeting. Missoula resident Maureen Essen says she’s going because she is “sick and tired of learning about corporations screwing people over,” and feels the FTAA would “undermine all of what we know as democratic.” Prior to the November meetings, the coalition’s goal will be to educate the public on the negative impacts of NAFTA, and the ways in which these impacts may become more widespread under the FTAA.

“We haven’t seen any benefit from NAFTA in Montana—at all,” says Mark Anderlik, organizing director of the Montana Community Labor Alliance (CLA).

Just as with NAFTA, proponents of the FTAA claim that it will bring about more jobs and exports for the U.S.

But Jerry Driscoll, executive secretary for Montana’s AFL-CIO, doesn’t buy it.

“Where are [the jobs] at? I mean, how long since we had the first free trade agreement?” says Driscoll. “Canada’s bringing in soft wood, cattle, wheat, and I’d be surprised if the plant they’re building in Great Falls for barley doesn’t use Canadian barley. So how has that helped us? What have we exported besides jobs?

“If there is some foreign company out there that is making something or growing something that we need, there should be fair trade,” Driscoll says. “But when it’s just our corporations calling themselves a new name and moving down there to build a factory and hire people for less, what have we created? Nothing.”

Under NAFTA, Montanans have lost jobs, says Missoula’s Democratic State Sen. Jon Ellingson.

Especially in the soft wood industry, Ellingson says. “The regulatory environment in British Columbia and Alberta is a lot less strict than the regulatory environment in Montana and the States. They’ve flooded the U.S. market with soft wood that is cut and processed up there, and workers in Montana’s forest products industry have been laid-off. That’s one example of where NAFTA has been counterproductive for employment in Montana.”

Other examples include Montana’s grain growers and livestock producers, who have been undercut by foreign competitors without the same regulatory requirements, says Ellingson.

Aside from the potential for job losses, Ellingson is also concerned about how the FTAA may effect Montana’s legal sovereignty. Ellingson explains that under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, “we ceded a great deal of authority to control our own regulatory environment to a trade tribunal that is non-elected.”

Does this mean, hypothetically, that if a multinational corporation built a plant in Missoula that contaminated the Clark Fork, it could be exempt from local lawsuits under the trade protections of the FTAA?

“The answer is yes,” says Ellingson. “It’s my belief that under Section 11, they might have the opportunity to invalidate the [Montana Constitution’s clean and healthful environment] regulation with respect to them as some kind of an infringement of their rights under NAFTA as determined by this non-elected tribunal. So it strips away what have traditionally been the powers of the state,” says Ellingson.

Were the FTAA to follow the NAFTA blueprint, as expected, the result would likely be an expansion in the number of companies empowered to challenge local, state and federal laws. This worries Bryony Schwan, the Missoula-based national campaigns director of Women’s Voices for the Earth, who will speak, along with Ellingson and Driscoll, at a Missoula FTAA panel on Oct. 3, from 7–9 p.m., at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

“We have a ban in Montana against cyanide heap leach mining. Now, no one has actually challenged that…but the FTAA could certainly open us up to a trade challenge,” Schwan says.

Opposition to the FTAA is bringing labor and environmental groups together in what has been termed a “blue-green alliance.”

“The FTAA represents issues that strike at the core of what different constituencies would see as building a good life…and not only labor and environmentalists, but also people concerned with human rights, democratic processes and democracy in general, agriculture, peace and justice—all those issues are affected,” Anderlik says.

Arnie Sherman, director of the UM-based Montana World Trade Center, believes that the FTAA could open beneficial trade doors for Montana, though he concedes that the current draft is “not a perfect document.”

“On one hand, you want to continually improve it so that it’s best for workers and citizens and carries out the best principals of human rights with health care and all those other things,” says Sherman. “On the other hand, a trade agreement among 34 countries can’t resolve all of the social, economic and political problems that exist in the region. And trying to make this document some kind of edict for resolving everything would make it the equivalent of the Bible or the holy tabernacle for the region, which is impossible.”

Montana Sen. Max Baucus has assured Montana labor groups that he will support only trade pacts that will stimulate job growth. Yet both he and Sen. Conrad Burns, as well as Rep. Dennis Rehberg, have approved a “fast track” vote on the FTAA once it reaches Congress, meaning that no amendments can be made; congressmen must vote the entire proposal up or down.

“All three [members of Montana’s delegation] voted in favor of that, which is basically giving up their rights as congresspeople. It’s very disturbing on that level,” says Anderlik. “All three of them have expressed support for the basic thrust of where the FTAA is going,” Anderlik continues. “We are unconvinced of Baucus’ argument that he will be able to make it fair to farmers and workers and to the average person, because that hasn’t panned out [with NAFTA], and the proof is in the pudding.”

  • Email
  • Print

More by Mike Keefe-Feldman

© 2015 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation