Working families throughout Nevada should take a close, hard look at President Clinton's recent report to congress praising the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The president should talk to the former workers of Empire Brushes in Sparks. Sixty families lost their livelihoods last March when corporate parent Rubbermaid shut down an efficient broom and mop manufacturing operation and shipped the jobs to Mexico. Even workers with three decades' service were terminated with little or nothing to show for it. Some still draw unemployment. Paul-Son Dice moved two dozen Las Vegas jobs to San Luis, Mexico.
The true test of any trade agreement is whether it's good for working families. NAFTA fails on every count despite the rosy picture painted in the administration report. The big increase in Mexican fruit and vegetable imports has mushroomed food safety problems - up to 60% for some produce. Yet, according to the Department of Agriculture, only one or two of every 100 imported shipments gets inspected.
It gets worse. "For the godfathers of the drug trade, NAFTA is a deal made in narco heaven," according to Phil Jordan, former director of intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Jordan says the Clinton administration knew NAFTA would increase drug trafficking but told the DEA not to talk about it.
President Clinton likes to gloss over the numbers, but well over 400,000 American workers have lost their jobs due to NAFTA. So-called free trade has proven very costly. Nancy DeWent of Queens, N.Y., recently saw her $11.58 per hour job go to Mexico, where someone will do what she did - assemble Swingline brand staplers. But her replacement will earn 50 cents an hour.
"The company told us in May that they were shutting the plant - 408 union people will lose their jobs. We were devastated," said Ms. DeWent, 47. "I have been at the plant for 19 years. I am too old to start over and too young to retire." Swingline owner Acco USA, Inc., expects to save $12 million annually, mostly from cheaper labor
"The folks who once said NAFTA would generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs have now fallen back to saying it is break-even, or not too bad either way," Lori Wallach, director of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Trade Campaign, recently said. "The burden of proof" lies with them, she added.
In 1993, the U.S. enjoyed a $1.7 billion Mexican trade surplus. Last year, Mexico sold us $16 billion more than we sold them, a record deficit. They have an extremely small middle class able to buy U.S. goods. NAFTA is shrinking ours to match theirs. Companies downsizing to Mexico are, in effect, firing their own customers.
NAFTA has been good for big business and top executives, but not for the average wage earner whose income remains at a standstill. I'm not against fair trade, but the rules must change to protect the standard of living for working families, not just corporate profits.
Until we change the rules, congress should reject Pres. Clinton's request for "fast track" authority which would eliminate congressional review while allowing him to expand NAFTA to other countries. Such expansion defies common sense and only serves to hasten the day when most Americans won't make enough to afford Mexican-made goods.
Louis E. Martino, Jr., is secretary-treasurer and CEO of Teamsters Union Local 533. This guest editorial was distributed to every Nevada newspaper and has thus far appeared in the Daily Sparks Tribune and Reno Gazette-Journal.
If you work, you get paid a certain amount. Do you know why? Unions are why.
In any community, the skilled trades provide the benchmarks for every workers' wages. The higher the skilled trades rates, the higher everyone's pay. For every 10 percent increase in unionization, the average worker's pay rises by five percent.
The reverse is also true. Lower unionization means lower pay for all. That's why every worker has a stake in a revitalized labor movement.
So many Nevada social problems are rooted in our low-wage economy. Good jobs at good wages mean better communities. As President John Kennedy once said, "a rising tide raises all boats."
That's why northern Nevada trade unions are fighting for area standard wages at the downtown Sparks redevelopment project.
Worker rights are not taught in school anymore. While most people know that a union job is a good-paying job, most don't realize that organized workers parented what are now endangered species: the eight-hour day, the 40-hour week and overtime. The United States today has the most repressive labor laws in the industrialized world. Depressed wages have reflected that for the past 25 years. Families need multiple incomes just to tread water. Nationally since 1981, real (inflation-adjusted) pay has fallen at almost the same rate as union membership. Worker boats have been beached.
This has not gone unnoticed by even the most pro-business conservatives. George P. Shultz held four cabinet positions (state, treasury, labor and budget) under three Republican presidents. He has also served as a director of GM, Boeing, Chevron, Morgan Bank, Tandem Computers and construction giant Bechtel.
In a speech, Shultz said "the whole workplace is changing, the patterns of competition are changing." He added that a balance of power in the workplace remains as necessary as ever.
In "a healthy workplace, it is very important that there be some system of checks and balances...what used to be called the system of industrial jurisprudence...Free societies and free trade unions go together," he said.
"As a society, we have a great stake in freedom and a lot of that is anchored, somehow, historically," in the labor movement, Shultz said.
A free and fair society stands balanced on a tripod of business, labor and government. In this country today, labor has been weakened and government is under constant assault. With only about 15 percent of the workforce in unions, Big Labor no longer exists. As a result, the middle class has withered and families have fractured.
The successful Teamsters strike at UPS reminded workers that they still have rights under federal, if not Nevada, law. It showed that by sticking together as an organized group, American teamwork can still prevail.
Laying aside emotional labels, a union is no more than you and your friends exerting strength in numbers.
When unionization peaked at about one-third of the workforce, Americans enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known. Over the past 30 years, intensifying corporate assaults on worker organizing and labor law enforcement have taken harsh tolls on both pay and hope.
Do we go up or down from here? Ponder that question this Labor Day. It's up to you.
Which side are you on?
Richard E. "Skip" Daly is a lifelong Sparks resident and business representative for Laborers' Union Local 169.
"A Rising Tide Raises All Boats" originally appeared as a Labor Day guest editorial in the Reno Gazette-Journal, 1997.
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