The Battle for Fair Trade

California Trade Justice Coalition

Twenty years ago, environmentalist and Earth Island Institute founder David Brower, then 87, attended a protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO), an intergovernmental group that regulates international trade. This protest, which became known as the Battle of Seattle, was a seminal moment — it had environmentalists standing alongside activists from labor and human rights groups in a show of opposition to WTO policies they viewed as harmful for both people and the planet. It marked a turning point in a global movement for trade justice that believed in putting jobs and the environment ahead of corporate profits. Twenty years later, the legacy of the Battle of Seattle lives on through the work of Earth Island Institute and projects like the California Trade Justice Coalition. Twenty years later, a new generation fights the same battles.

photo of a mural
David Brower (depicted above) was part of the early movement for trade justice that developed in the 1980s and ’1990s. That movement continues today as campaigners work to improve NAFTA. Photo by Jeanne Menjoulet.

The movement that came together in Seattle was one born in the wake of so-called “free trade” deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico, and Canada, which came into force in 1994. It was one of the first trade deals designed explicitly to put the profits of multinational corporations ahead of the livelihoods of working people and the protection of the planet. The pain from neoliberal trade deals like NAFTA has endured in the United States and around the world. Since its inception, almost a million jobs have been lost within the United States due to NAFTA, according to the federal government’s own records. Promises to have strong labor standards in the original NAFTA fell flat, which resulted in lowered labor standards in all three countries and incentivized outsourcing to places where workers made less and had fewer rights — namely, Mexico.

Aside from the wall on the border, President Trump’s biggest campaign promise ahead of the 2016 election was to renegotiate NAFTA. Trump took advantage of widespread pain related to job losses, pitting working people in the US against working people in Mexico. He claimed — falsely — that Mexico hoodwinked the United States into NAFTA. It was the US that coerced Mexico into an agreement that decimated family farmers by flooding the Mexican market with cheap US-subsidized corn, and by making it virtually impossible to set strong and enforceable environmental and labor standards.

Last year, the Trump Administration’s trade representative announced that a tentative deal had been made between the three countries on a renegotiated NAFTA — NAFTA 2.0. This proposed deal entirely ignores the climate crisis and makes it easier for corporate polluters to fuel environmental and economic inequality by outsourcing jobs and pollution across borders. Even more alarming, Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 deal would lock in policies that give multinational corporations an unprecedented ability to undermine sovereignty in all three nations and would make any future Green New Deal in the US ineffective. For example, Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 includes binding regulatory rules that would ensure corporate polluters could challenge and strike down any proposed environmental regulation in any NAFTA country before they were finalized.

Trump’s NAFTA even includes language lifted straight from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal he claimed to oppose during the 2016 campaign. This includes language that would lock in high drug prices by implementing an even longer patent exclusivity period, a huge giveaway to Big Pharma. If implemented, the agreement would make it even more difficult for affordable, generic versions of lifesaving medicines to enter the market and would drive up the cost of prescription drugs throughout the US, Mexico, and Canada.

What’s more, the Trump Administration’s proposed NAFTA revision doesn’t fix major problems in the original NAFTA, like the absence of strong and enforceable labor or environmental standards. Contrary to his claims, Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 won’t stop the ongoing job outsourcing that is devastating communities nationwide.

Unfortunately, the Mexican and Canadian governments have essentially rubber-stamped this deal. Since the Republicans have kowtowed to the Trump Administration, NAFTA 2.0 will likely pass through the Republican-controlled Senate. This means that the real fight will be in the US House of Representatives. The Trump Administration knows this, as does Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has tasked Democratic members of Congress to form a working group to address labor-, environmental-, and healthcare-related concerns. This working group has submitted counterproposals to the Trump Administration over the last several months — so far, aside from a few small concessions, they have largely gone unanswered.

A coalition of environmental, labor, and other progressive organizations remains committed to ending NAFTA’s damaging impact on working people and the environment. We have spent the last year trying to force the Trump Administration to actually fix NAFTA by adding measures that would improve working conditions in all three countries, eliminating provisions that threaten food safety and food labeling, and incorporating strong provisions against currency manipulation. President Trump has repeatedly blocked progress by refusing to remove terms benefiting pharmaceutical companies, and refusing to add stronger environmental and labor standards. He’s also pushing back against the real enforcement provisions that are necessary to counter outsourcing of jobs.

Enforcement measures are critical — without them, rules are just words on paper. This is most apparent in Mexico, where side agreements included in the original NAFTA were meant to improve labor standards and protections. There was no enforcement mechanism added to these standards, and to this day, workers continue to be kidnapped and murdered for trying to do basic things like form a union. The House of Representatives should wait to vote on NAFTA 2.0 until these enforcement provisions are incorporated.

The California Trade Justice Coalition has joined together with activists and leaders from the labor and environmental sectors to meet with numerous congressional Democrats throughout California, many of whom recognize the damage caused by the original NAFTA and have made commitments to fight for a trade deal that uplifts people. We are asking these Representatives to ensure that there is no vote on a new NAFTA unless and until it’s fixed.

Learn more about this Earth Island project at

This December, the California Trade Justice Coalition will partner with colleagues from the Washington Fair Trade Coalition to commemorate the Battle of Seattle. As we look back on decades of activism, it’s important that we look forward to a future in which people and the planet are prioritized over corporate profits. The battle for fairer trade deals is one that intersects with every progressive issue and one that will ultimately determine the future of these movements.

Corporate lobbyists from Big Pharma and Big Oil, the same folks who have outsourced hundreds of thousands of US jobs under NAFTA, are the only ones supporting Trump’s NAFTA 2.0. Not a single environmental group, union, or consumer group supports Trump’s deal. It’s up to Trump to decide whether he supports corporate interests or the interests of the American people.

After two decades of NAFTA-related damage, we cannot afford to pass another corporate driven trade deal that continues the harm caused to working people and our planet. The House shouldn’t vote on the new NAFTA until its serious shortcomings are addressed. Please reach out to your congressional representative to tell them that there should be no vote on Trump’s new NAFTA proposal unless and until it includes strong and enforceable environmental and labor standards and the monopoly protections for pharmaceuticals are removed.

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