The Reading-Berks Central Labor Council and members of the United Steelworkers District 10 Rapid Response team hosted a town hall on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Following the September CLC meeting members of the public and delegates of the council stayed to hear an informative panel discussion on the impact NAFTA has had on Pennsylvania’s manufacturing jobs as well as on standards for production and the environment. Panelists included John Jeffers, Director of the PA Fair Trade Coalition, Reverend Ken Love, Joanne Kilgour Director of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, and a staff representative Connor Corpora from U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s office who read a statement.
Dean Showers of USW Local introduced the panelists and remarked on the trade deals effects locally. “NAFTA has had a huge, direct impact on thousands of jobs in Berks county alone.” NAFTA was passed and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The statement issued from Senator Bob Casey’s highlighted the fact that any renegotiation of NAFTA should make a better effort to put working people first. “We are not going to rebuild manufacturing by asking workers for concession after concession. No, we are going to rebuild manufacturing by having their back”, the statement read.
John Jeffers, Director of the Pennsylvania Fair Trade Coalition and USW member, noted the correlation between the passage of NAFTA and the dissolution of the U.S.’s middle class. As a former president of USW Local 8183, John also discussed stories of the personal ramifications of the job losses on his members, including the impacts on mental health, relationships, and suicide. Jeffers also spoke of the impact NAFTA has had on Mexico’s working people and the fact that manufacturing workers there make on average $1.83 an hour, nowhere near a living wage.
Joanne Kilgour of the Sierra Club made it clear that the interests of the labor and environmental movements align. “Lower wages, worse working conditions and difficulty organizing workers go hand in hand with pollution and worse environmental conditions”, she said. “We cannot pick one or the other, labor or the environment, and expect to have livable communities at the end”. Reverend Ken Love, a long-time UAW member and local president, worked at GM for 25 years. Rev. Love spoke about the economic injustices perpetrated by unbalanced trade deals. “We do not need more free trade, we need fair trade”, he stated.
Across the board, panelists agreed that the first major step in renegotiating the trade deal was ensuring transparency and that working people had a seat at the table. There was uniform agreement that any new trade deal cannot be merely a reworking of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). We need strong labor and environmental laws that are enforceable. We need stronger country of origin rules, and better protection for American made products through Buy American standards.
If you’d like more information on the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s position on the renegotiation of NAFTA, please read President Rick Bloomingdale’s op-ed.