NAFTA hearing airs access issues in trade debate

The U.S. recently concluded the third round of NAFTA renegotiation talks in secret. As talks toward a possible revamp of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico free-trade pact proceed, vigilance and a vocal presence by the journalism community are vital to ensure press freedom and, to the extent possible, journalists’ personal safety. The Trump Administration intends to finish all talks by December and will not be allowing the opportunity for public comment before signing a new agreement. 

In response, grassroots organizations across the country are organizing a series of public hearings calling for transparency and for a NAFTA that better supports working people. We emphasized this message on behalf of the Pacific Media Workers Guild during a recent hearing organized by the California Trade Justice Coalition, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and graciously hosted by Communications Workers of America Local 9415 in Oakland. Lee, who represents northern Alameda County, serves on a pair of House Appropriations subcommittees with input into U.S. trade relations: Labor, Health & Human Services, Education and Related Agencies; and State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs.

We are both active members of the San Francisco-based union, the NewsGuild’s largest West Coast local with bargaining units in California, Hawaii and Denver, Colo., including media units, interpreters, translators and educators.  Richard Knee is California vice president of the Guild, and chair of the local’s political and legislative affairs committee. David Bacon co-chairs the Guild Freelancers unit.

During our presentations, Bacon cited a litany of worker abuses that the North America Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, has enabled corporations to get away with. Gary Hughes, senior California advocacy campaigner with Friends of the Earth, painted a similarly grim picture of NAFTA as a protector of profits over the environment.

Bacon made the connection between the Trump administration decision to revoke the legal status of young people in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and the administration’s proposal for renegotiating NAFTA.

“In a just world, U.S. trade negotiators would rewrite the treaty to repair the damage done to communities on both sides of the border, especially in Mexico. They would ensure that those forced to migrate – dreamers and other migrants – have legal residence where they now live. They would change the rules of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, so that the income and lives of working people and the poor aren’t sacrificed to produce profit opportunities for big corporations. And their new agreement would punish those corporations responsible for the vast increase in poverty resulting from NAFTA’s passage.

“While the Trump administration and a Republican Congress are certainly not going to negotiate any changes like these, the first step in making change possible is telling the truth. Nowhere is this more important than in relation to NAFTA and immigration policy.  It’s impossible to understand the outrageous injustice of deporting the dreamers without acknowledging the reasons why they live in the U.S. to begin with,” Bacon said.

According to Bacon, the treaty had an enormous effect on Mexico, producing a wave of forced migration of millions of people. The World Bank in 2005 found that the extreme rural poverty rate of 35 percent in 1992-94, prior to NAFTA, jumped to 55 percent in 1996-8, after NAFTA took effect.  In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican migrants had come to the United States.  A decade later, that population more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million.  About 9 percent of all Mexicans now live in the United States.

“In renegotiating the agreement, the AFL-CIO is right to say that ‘all workers, regardless of sector, have the right to receive wages sufficient for them to afford…a decent standard of living,’ and to prohibit export of products made by companies paying less,” Bacon urged. “Progressive Mexican unions and community organizations support this, because it would give workers and farmers a future at home, where they live.”

Our audience could be best described as 30 strong – not overwhelming in size but clearly engaged in the conversation and eager to learn how to help make NAFTA an instrument of socioeconomic and environmental justice.

Going into the hearing, one of those who had invited the Guild’s participation suggested mentioning a relationship between NAFTA and attacks, several of them lethal, on journalists in Mexico. Organizations that advocate for journalists’ safety and press freedoms, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, offered no evidence of such a link.

In Mexico, however, journalists have been killed covering protests that have roots in the social crisis to which NAFTA has contributed, according to human rights activists. Both Oaxacan reporter Elpidio Ramos Zarate and U.S. journalist Brad Will were killed by police during protests by teachers over corporate education reforms and attacks on their union.

Last year the Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that authorities investigate the murder of Marcos Hernandez Bautista, a freelance reporter who also worked for Noticias, a Oaxaca newspaper often critical of the government and its free-trade policies. Hernandez had recently covered popular resistance to a dam project, part of the government effort to build infrastructure to attract foreign investment, at the expense of indigenous communities. The committee also demanded investigation and action in the deaths this past year in Oaxaca of Filadelfo Sánchez Sarmiento and in Veracrua of Armando Saldaña Morales. Freelance photographer Rubén Manuel Espinosa Becerril fled Veracruz in 2015 to Mexico City, where he was murdered.

And that doesn’t necessarily close the topic. As Azam Ahmed, New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean reported in late April, “[A]ccording to (Mexican) government data, public servants like mayors and police officers have threatened journalists more often than drug cartels, petty criminals or anyone else in recent years, imperiling investigations and raising questions about the government’s commitment to exposing the culprits.

“Cases include journalists tortured or killed at the behest of mayors, reporters beaten by armed men in their newsrooms on the order of local officials, and police officers threatening to kill journalists for covering the news.

“But of the more than 800 serious cases of harassment, assault or homicide committed against journalists in the past six years, the federal office created to prosecute crimes against the freedom of expression has convicted suspects in only two.”

Journalists face increasing abuse and threats in the United States as well, a trend long pre-dating Donald Trump’s political ascent. In May 2016, for instance, San Francisco sheriff’s deputies physically attacked four who were covering a demonstration inside City Hall, sending two of them to the hospital. Ten years earlier, freelance videographer Josh Wolf spent nine months in a federal detention center for upholding the principle of an independent Fourth Estate.

NAFTA negotiators can address the issue by establishing sanctions against countries that don’t at least try to make it safe for journalists – and other workers – to do their jobs.

There are other areas that merit journalists’ attention:

  • Notwithstanding a vow of transparency by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, negotiating texts are being kept secret.
  • NAFTA permits participating countries to adopt and enforce measures to ensure security and confidentiality of messages and to protect the privacy of telecommunications users. The language should be changed to require the countries to establish those protections.
  • Readers will recall that Congress gagged itself on component provisions of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership; it could only accept or reject the entire package. And there is a TPP provision sufficiently objectionable to make it a deal-killer in the Guild’s eyes: Article 18.78 requires the member countries to establish civil and criminal penalties for unauthorized disclosure of corporate trade secrets, meaning reporters and other whistle-blowers could face stiff fines and prison terms for exposing pollution, defective or dangerous products, shady financial practices or other corporate misdeeds.

NAFTA has no such provision, nor should it; it should instead have language requiring member countries to enact federal-level protections, including shield laws, for journalists and others who expose public- or private-sector wrongdoing. And if the revised pact includes no such mandate, Washington should enact safeguards for journalists and whistle-blowers within the United States.

Ultimately, if the lives of journalists in Mexico are endangered because of their efforts to cover the social crisis caused by the treaty, then the roots of the crisis itself must be addressed. Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a professor at UCLA and leader of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, which fights for immigrant rights in the United States, says, “We need the ability to stay home with jobs and incomes that can support families – the right to not migrate. Without changing U.S. trade policy and ending pro-corporate economic reforms, millions of displaced people will continue to migrate, no matter how many walls are built on the border. If people bring their children with them, that’s no more than any of us would do to avoid the breakup of our families.”

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Pacific Media Workers Guild

We are the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Local 39521 of The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. We represent more than 1,200 journalists and other media workers, interpreters, translators, union staffs and freelancers.

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