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US Labor Activists Petition to Stop Free Trade Push

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - Labor rights activists in the United States are trying to organize a nationwide campaign to push Congress to oppose the Bush administration's plans to promote new free trade agreements.

"U.S. trade policy is not working for the majority of Americans," said campaigners in a petition signed by thousands of people who think that free trade agreements have failed to raise standards of living in the United States and abroad.

Calling for the Congress to place an immediate moratorium on new free trade agreements, the signers said: "It's time to change course in our policy," because it is causing deficit and job losses as well as eroding labor standards.

The demand for a moratorium comes as the Bush administration is trying hard to get Congressional approval for new agreements with South Korea, Panama, Colombia, and Peru.

Campaigners also want Congress to modify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a demand that the Bush administration has already rejected, offering no indication of flexibility.

"By declaring a moratorium and not approving fast-track authority for new agreements, the Congress can heed the message of the majority of people," said a spokesperson for Global Exchange, a rights group that organized the campaign.

The California-based group said a moratorium "will give Congress, the executive branch, and the public an opportunity to deepen democratic debate and develop a new long-term trade policy as part of a coherent economic and foreign policy."

Critics say the current trade policy is deeply flawed because it does not enforce international labor, human rights, and environmental standards.

May also decry the agreements' economic impacts on working people, both in the United States and elsewhere. NAFTA, for example, has resulted in the loss of 1 million manufacturing jobs in the United States, critics argue.

NAFTA, which was signed in 1994, allows free trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.


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Last August when U.S. President George W. Bush met the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon at a Quebec resort complex, scores of activists, trade unionists, and farmers took to the streets to protest the trade policy.

It seems that the massive participation of labor and rights activists in those protests has not only strengthened the current campaign, but has also brought about a shift in the views of a large section of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Currently, all the Democratic presidential candidates appear to be in opposition to the NAFTA trade deal. Some have openly said it is unfair to workers while others have expressed their strong skepticism.

"NAFTA and the way it has been implemented has hurt a lot of U.S. workers, said Hillary Clinton, the presidential front-runner on the Democratic side. "So, clearly we have to have a broad reform in how we approach trade," she told thousands of union workers in Chicago in August.

Barack Obama, Clinton's main rival for the Democratic nomination for president, has also issued similar statements, saying the free trade agreements had tilted against workers, because "corporate lobbyists" had too much influence.

Analysts say despite their strong rhetoric, the Democrats may not be willing to roll back NAFTA completely, but their push for its overhaul could lead to more aggressive implementation of U.S. enforcement.

Even small-scale trade deals with individual Latin American countries are in trouble, after Democrats insisted that countries that sign free trade deals with the United States must introduce tough labor laws.

"The U.S. public and policy makers deserve comprehensive studies on the results of free trade agreements before pushing blindly forward," said Global Exchange.

The anti-poverty group said the studies should measure the impact of the free-trade model not merely by gauging growth in trade and investment, but also by its success or failure in job creation, shared development, and sustainability.

"At present there is no public consensus regarding benefits to society, and considerable evidence to the contrary."

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