The following article was written by Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, and originally published in Spanish on March 19th, 2015 in La Jornada, Mexico City’s leading daily newspaper, considered by many scholars as one of the last remaining independent newspapers in the Americas.
The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor), which represents 13.5 million worker members
from leading trade unions, led by President Richard Trumka, held its Executive Committee
conference from February 22nd to 25th, 2015. The events took place in Atlanta, Georgia at the
Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, and I was invited to be an active participant, adding my
contributions to those of other distinguished leaders, politicians, writers and intellectuals, among
them Professor Robert Reich, author of 13 books and Secretary of Labor under the
administration of President Bill Clinton.
The topics discussed are vitally important to today’s world, and most of them have to do with
growing inequality and injustices, as well as the objectionable practices of many multinational
companies which try, together with conservative governments, to do away with democracy and
trade union freedom of association.
There was a great debate related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty, which 11 nations
– among them Mexico – are about to sign. So far, nobody knows the extent of this new free trade
agreement, but by looking at the negative results of the one signed 20 years ago between
Mexico, Canada and the United States, the great majority of participants were against it, because
it would deepen inequality within and between signatory nations, because it is an instrument of
geopolitical intervention, the hidden objective of which is to try to put the brakes on China’s
expansion, but most importantly because it will open up the floodgates to trade without limits, to
the thoughtless exploitation of natural resources. It would have a direct impact on permanent
employment and the unionization of workers, by making the labour market more flexible,
meaning that companies will vie for cheap labour until it becomes a case of quasi-slavery
dressed up as employment.
The trade union leaders in attendance expressed that when economic policy decisions are taken
behind closed doors, this is done to shore up the preferences of the political and business elite,
rather than for the benefit of the great majority of the population. Many trade policy strategies
have long been made in this way, leaving workers, rural workers and farmers, along with small
businesses and domestic producers, to pay a high price.
In today’s world, trade agreements go far beyond imposing tariffs and quotas. More often, they
are used to promote foreign investment, reduce barriers to business and widen support and
distribution networks in favour of big retail chains and service providers. Trade agreements can
have an impact on environmental safeguards, labour rights, incentives to socially necessary
investments, food safety policies, as well as antitrust policies and many more besides.
This was why trade union leaders attending the Atlanta AFL-CIO conference expressed that
when governments talk about trade policy, they need to ensure that the negotiation process is
transparent, democratic and inclusive. Participating governments must avoid using their powers
such as trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as fast track negotiating. It is more
democratic to establish the direction and standards of the trade relationship openly, as opposed to
imposing them in secret.
Delegates questioned the fact that fast track had never been used to promote increases in the
minimum or average wage, or to grant full rights to women or even to open up free health and
social security benefits, among other key issues for furthering gender equality of the general
wellbeing of the majority of the population.
Thanks to economic crises, misguided commercial policies and a lack of opportunities to live
and work with dignity, the middle class in the United States has shrunk by half over the last ten
years. If we look at the case of Mexico, equality has unquestionably suffered an even more
significant decline, as pre-existing problems have been compounded by the waste of public
resources, a lack of safety, high levels of corruption and inefficiency, large debts and the
weakness of public finances, as well as the crisis of image, credibility and confidence that is
having a profound effect on the country. The Centre for Private Sector Economic Studies
(CEESP by its initials in Spanish) has already spelled it out: the complicated environment the
country finds itself in is reflected in business leaders’ uncertainty around investing. In its
publication, entitled none other than “Crisis of Confidence”, CEESP indicates that confidence is
fundamental to economic performance, and calls for clearer legal regulation to lend certainty.
This is why it is the critical task and unavoidable duty of this Mexican government to prevent
failure by respecting and enforcing the rule of law, and to do so with honesty and transparency.
More than this though, and this requires a statesmanlike vision, the government needs to do
everything in its power to improve people’s general wellbeing and living standards. The key
challenge is how to reduce inequality immediately, rather than increase it. The results of these
efforts will determine the place the Mexican nation will take in history.