WHAT IS free trade? Its most basic definition is simply this: the unrestricted flow of goods and services between countries. More precisely, the North American Free Trade Agreement envisions a huge continental market based on that precept embracing Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Eventually, NAFTA will boast a trading area with 360 million people and an economy worth $6 trillion.
But as far as the labour left in Canada is concerned, free trade is nothing less than a devilish plot by capitalist governments and cigar-chomping plutocrats to disenfranchise the working class.
At least that's what the earnest contributors to Crossing the Line: Canada and Free Trade with Mexico would have us believe. Edited by Jim Sinclair, a labour organizer for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union in British Columbia, this collection of articles is ostensibly aimed at exposing the nefarious "corporate agenda" of the NAFTA negotiations and its concomitant assault on progressive social policies.
As might be expected, all the usual suspects from the Canadian left are represented here in one form or another. The ubiquitous Bob White of the Canadian Labour Congress, the radical feminist Judy Rebick, and the conspiracy journalist Linda McQuaig appear on the back cover praising the book's "hard-hitting" analysis of NAFTA.
The actual contributors, aside from the professional free-trade disinformationist Maude Barlow, are virtually unknown. Nearly all of them are union activists of one sort or another. They probably know each other, however, and that's handy when you produce a book that preaches to the converted. And that's what Crossing the Line does with humourless imprecision, mendacious innuendo, and deliberate misrepresentation.
Divided into three sections, Crossing the Line is designed as a sort of combination picture-book and high-school text. The effect of NAFTA on labour, women, the environment, agriculture, fresh water, Medicare, and anything else the authors can dream up are included. The narrative tone ranges from dull didacticism to shameless self-advertising for the Action Canada Network, an anti-free-trade coalition.
Naturally, the maquiladoras - the Mexican free-trade zones - figure prominently in the book's anti-NAFTA demonology. As the Dark Satanic Mills of unfettered commerce, they are a convenient target with their poorly enforced labour laws, relatively low wages, and abysmal working conditions. One article refers to them as "neo-liberal disaster zones.
Oddly, the same item also points out that thousands of Mexicans are lining up to work in the zones with stoic celerity. The reason is plain enough. In the harsh reality of Mexico, any wage is preferable to the economic annihilation awaiting the jobless in the slums of Mexico City. Which is why the maquiladoras recruited an astonishing 467,000 workers in 1990, up from 120,000 in 1980.
Sinclair himself ruefully notes that those who can't find jobs in the maquiladoras risk their lives trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States at the rate of some one million people each year. Yet he has enthusiastically produced a propaganda book whose aim is to destroy the one mechanism that offers a faint glimmer of hope to Mexico's poor. It doesn't seem to occur to Sinclair that NAFTA may work the other way and force companies to clean up their act and bring their factories into line with North American standards.
Perhaps he prefers the slums? Interestingly, his Mexican contributors do not. Although they are likewise aligned to the labour movement, they are not opposed to NAFTA in principle. "It would be misleading to say that the majority of Mexicans oppose NAFTA," says one of them, "[but] an increasing portion of Mexican society criticizes its terms and the concessions being offered to achieve it."
This is light years away from the free-trade defeatism, insularity, and pettiness of Canada's redoubtable labourites such as Sinclair. Most Mexicans support free trade because they have lived in an economic depression for 12 years. To them, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's liberalization program represents real hope that Mexico's endemic economic corruption and inefficiency can be shaken up.
Indeed, Mexico's own tragic experience with protectionism and narrow economic nationalism has contributed mightily to its impoverishment. Yet Crossing the Line patently ignores the history of protectionism in India, China, Burma, the former
Soviet Bloc, and numerous other Third World nations. None of these attempts has been successful. Most have been disastrous.
That this has escaped the notice of people like Sinclair, Barlow, and White should give one pause about the reliability of the book's contents and the labour lefts contradictory agenda of fostering "economic democracy" through big unions, sprawling government, and arbitrary bureaucracy.