First, how does the headline, “Is NAFTA not so bad for us?,” set up the reader for what the story is about? Nowhere is the story does the reporter actually explain what the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA ) is nor who it means when they use the word “us.” The second sentence gives readers the impression that Senator’s Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are “hammer(ing) the trade pact for its lack of environmental and worker safety standards.” The reporter never verifies that the two Democratic Presidential candidates are actually making critical comments about NAFTA, even though the group Fact Check has critiqued this idea with regard to their recent debate in Cleveland. The third sentence quotes Governor Granholm saying that NAFTA and CAFTA was bad for Michigan at a rally last year. Again the reporter does not provide any details of why Granholm would make such a comment, nor whether or not her administration took an active role in trying to defeat the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) when the US Congress voted in favor of it in 2005. The story also never explains CAFTA.
The bulk of the article provides readers with five perspectives–four that are in favor of NAFTA and one that is opposed. The four in favor of NAFTA are Tom Maguire with the US Department of Commerce, Craig Meurlin, chairman of the Michigan District Export Council West, and representatives from Steelcase and Herman Miller Inc. The two business representatives simply say that NAFTA has been profitable for them. Craig Meurlin of the Michigan District Export Council West said, “Conditions for some Mexican workers and their plants’ environment are improving because socially conscious corporations are demanding it.” Again, the reporter never verifies such a claim.
Sue Levy, with the UAW, is the only anti-NAFTA perspective presented. The quotes the Press used present little evidence of how this trade agreement has been negative, particularly for workers. At one point, Levy says that the UAW supported the recent Peru Trade Agreement because “had environmental and labor standards.” Again, there are is no verification of this claim. There are no workers who lost jobs due to NAFTA in this story, nor the perspective of people and organizations who have actively campaigned in West Michigan against both NAFTA and CAFTA.
For some West Michigan workers, NAFTA is a four-letter acronym.
The 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement is getting lots of ink this week, as Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hammer the trade pact for its lack of environmental and worker safety standards.
And last year, Gov. Jennifer Granholm told a rally, “NAFTA and CAFTA have given us the SHAFTA!”
So, just how evil is the pact that opened the markets of Canada and Mexico to West Michigan manufacturers?
Depends on your vision.
“There are always winners and losers in any trade agreement,” said Tom Maguire, of the U.S. Department of Commerce. From his angle, the deal was a good one.
“I think the NAFTA agreement has been very good in spite of what you and I hear,” Maguire said.
Greenville hit hardest
But it is not without pain as the region faces the equivalent of another industrial revolution.
The coldest cut came in 2005, when Electrolux abandoned Greenville for a Mexico border town, leaving 2,700 West Michigan workers in the dust.
“NAFTA began it. We see nothing good about it,” said Sue Levy, of United Auto Workers Region 1-D. “It’s been used as a way to eliminate manufacturing jobs in the U.S. for low wages and no environmental protections.
“Electrolux is a perfect example,” she said. “It was a money-making factory. It’s just a matter of greed.”
UAW wants labor standards
Not all trade agreements are equal, in the eyes of the union.
“The UAW just supported the Peru Trade Agreement,” Levy said. “It had environmental and labor standards. Some people say, ‘No trade,’ but the UAW is not saying that.
“We’re saying agreements have to have those standards; they have to be enforceable.”
Conditions for some Mexican workers and their plants’ environment are improving because socially conscious corporations are demanding it, said Craig Meurlin, chairman of the Michigan District Export Council West.
His worldview matches Maguire’s: “NAFTA generally is a good thing.”
Meurlin acknowledges the painful losses hitting Michigan factory workers, describing the Electrolux shutdown as an “unfortunate reality.”
“Michigan is doing particularly badly economically, but in some sense, I would argue that is not because of free trade,” he said.
The pressures are global and are testing the region’s ability to embrace change.
“That (Electrolux) job went to Mexico, but that job probably was going to go somewhere anyway, because of the labor costs involved,” Meurlin said. “The only question was: where?”
Grand Rapids has benefited
NAFTA actually is helping preserve jobs in Grand Rapids, said Renee Goetzinger, import/export manager for Steelcase Inc.
Last year, 13,000 Steelcase products qualified for duty-free NAFTA status.
“We saved millions of dollars in duty savings,” Goetzinger told a gathering of export planners Friday. “NAFTA is the No. 1 free trade area we participate in. There were 30 percent duties in Mexico. We would not be cost-competitive unless we were NAFTA-certified.”
Without the free trade relationship, companies such as Steelcase would be pressed to shift more production to Mexico or Canada, to sell products there more easily.
Herman Miller Inc. has a similar upbeat view of NAFTA.
“Unequivocally, it’s been a positive for our business and for our employees,” spokesman Mark Shurman said. “We don’t produce in either market. We ship to both markets, and our sales have been better.”
Other sectors are likely to take a bigger hit, Shurman said.
“Across West Michigan, I think it’s going to vary by company and by nature of the individual business,” he said.
Across the vast Amway global network, free trade agreements saved the corporation more than $7 million in duties, according to Bob King, manager of import/export customs compliance for Amway’s Access Business Group.
“It’s clearly been good,” King said of NAFTA. “No. 1, it has lowered our costs, and No. 2, it kept manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and opened markets where we would not have been as competitive.”
Amway had 1,900 products qualifying for NAFTA export last year.
“NAFTA overall has helped,” King said.
“Whether you want to address it or not, we are in a global economy. I’m a big exporter, and the free-trade agreements are beneficial to us as a manufacturer.”
Although the UAW opposes NAFTA, Levy said the bigger problem lies beyond North America.
“The loss of manufacturing jobs? I think that has more to do with China,” Levy said. With demands for global pricing, automakers and the world’s biggest retailer are pushing their suppliers to run around the world for the cheapest sources.
“The Big Three and Wal-Mart have changed the landscape tremendously, that’s for sure,” Levy said.