THE BUSH administration's attempt to create a huge "free-trade zone," which would allow manufactured goods from Mexico to enter the U.S. without tariff, would be a catastrophe for American workers and the U.S. economy in general.
Such a U.S.-Mexico agreement is likely if Congress by the end of this month extends the seven-year-old "fast-track" procedures that require the president to consult with Congress during trade negotiations and Congress to accept or reject an agreement, with no amendments, when it is submitted.
This is hardly an exercise in democracy, but neither is the campaign to allow the Mexican economy to absorb U.S. jobs. Rather, both are the product of sophisticated industrial practice. To continue to please bottom line-oriented stockholders, multinational corporations based in the U.S. must find cheap labor closer to Western markets than Taiwan and other countries in Asia that have taken away hundreds of thousands of American jobs.
Mexico is closer. Mexican labor is as cheap as labor can get. So it's on to Mexico.
By looking at the wages and living conditions of those Mexicans already employed by U.S. companies south of the border, we can see the future under free trade. Wages are shockingly low. Environmental conditions along the border are so hazardous they would not be tolerated anywhere in the U.S. Some of America's glitziest corporations -- General Electric, Honeywell, AT&T, Kodak, Levi-Strauss -- are there, surrounded by splendid cities of cardboard boxes unfit for human habitation. I have seen this future, and it is pretty scary.
Could this be the Baltimore of tomorrow? We are told by free-trade supporters that somehow we will be better off for the experience and that money "saved" by employing people in subhuman conditions in Mexico will be spent on retraining Americans to do the jobs Mexican workers can't do. Sadly, there have been no substantial retraining programs in this country for years. With millions of workers unemployed, hundreds get retrained.
Already, Baltimore and other industrial cities have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, many of them highly skilled, to other countries. Baltimore's economy has shifted from manufacturing to service. There may be more jobs, but this is employment with lower pay, often with few or no fringe benefits, often part-time and too often with little worker satisfaction. A recent study by Tom Juravich, a professor at Penn State University, charted the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. today: burger-flippers, toll booth sitters, migrant farm workers, janitors, electronics assemblers and telephone marketers.
Transferring more manufacturing jobs to Mexico certainly will not improve the situation for American workers, nor will it help Mexican workers. It will simply accelerate the erosion of income and standard of living in both countries. Depression follows. We are seeing it develop now, live and in living color.
It is wrong, and racist, to blame Mexican workers, as people have blamed Japanese workers, for wanting to work. They did not ask to take our jobs; they do not choose to live in filth and sadness. We need to organize with them, politically and economically, to fight to improve living conditions, to eliminate unemployment and to resurrect self-reliance and self-confidence on both sides of the border. Stopping the fast-track procedure and killing the free-trade fantasy will not accomplish all of these goals, but it is one good place to start.
We are in the midst of Operation Baltimore Storm. In a landscape rutted with unemployment, blackened by empty factories and blighted by bankruptcies, the "free-trade" sortie will be devastating.
Bill Barry is Baltimore regional organizing director of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union.