Thompson gives labor perspective on NAFTA

Pierce County Central Labor Council Secretary Treasurer John Thompson presented a critical view of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during Friday’s World Trade Center Tacoma speaker event for the month of February.

In lunchtime remarks at the Tacoma City Club in downtown’s Wells Fargo Building, Thomspon addressed concerns related to NAFTA.

“It’s had several impacts on the U.S.,” he said. “From labor’s perspective, we see a lot of impacts.”

Issues impacted by NAFTA range from workers rights around the world to environmental concerns to the current war on terrorism, as well as the free trade agreement’s effects on the economy of Washington State in general and Pierce County in particular.

“We need to put a human face to global trade,” Thompson said, a reference to the controversial issues of child labor, prison labor and forced labor in various countries around the world that produce cheap goods sold for huge profits in the West, such as Nike athletic shoes.

“Consumers are not getting the benefit of cheap labor,” he also noted.

NAFTA hasn’t raised wages in Mexico, he said, adding it’s not uncommon to see workers employed in a state-of-the-art factory who have to go home to what he described as a “cardboard city.”

Poverty and pollution are on the rise in Mexico, Thompson said.

“We don’t see it day-to-day here,” he added. “The rights of workers are not fully protected.”

NAFTA allows corporations to nullify pollution laws, Thompson claimed, or at the very least makes governments spend lots of money fighting such lawsuits.

There are 15 such lawsuits currently pending because of NAFTA, he said.

“It has a huge impact on citizens,” he said. “We’re going to pay for it.”

Self-defense concerns are also related to NAFTA, Thompson said, explaining that an expanded war on terrorism – especially into Asia – could be hampered by the fact America imports much of its steel from Asia now.

“We don’t produce steel in the United States any more,” he said. “It’s imported.”

Thompson was also skeptical of the economic growth NAFTA was supposed to promote in Washington state.

Between 1989 and 1993, Washington state lost about 1.5 million jobs, Thompson said. From 1994 (when NAFTA took effect) to 1999, Washington lost 3 million jobs, he noted.

“Who are we providing all this for?” he asked.

Thompson said the focus of NAFTA should be providing jobs for the middle class in the state and in the nation, not the upper class.

“What are they going to do?” he asked. “What jobs are they going to have?”

In Pierce County, there have been 15,000 jobs lost, Thompson said, citing as an example the Abitibi pulp and newsprint mill in Steilacoom that closed a year ago, moving business to Canada.

He asked the audience to imagine how much worse NAFTA’s impact must be on those in who work for only one or two dollars an hour in other nations.

Thompson conceded his stance on NAFTA was certainly not the only view on the controversial subject of how best to implement free trade.

The World Trade Center Tacoma’s speaker event for next month will feature Dennis Madsen, president of REI, who will speak on e-commerce.


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an accord establishing a free trade zone in North America. Signed in 1992 by Canada, the United States and Mexico, it took effect on Jan. 1, 1994. It immediately lifted tariffs on a majority of goods provided by member nations. It calls for the gradual elimination over a 15-year period of most remaining barriers to cross-trade investment and movement of goods and services among the three countries. Supporters believe it allows free and fair trade, and stimulates economic growth by boosting productivity and wages. Critics counter NAFTA provides a legal framework that benefits multi-national corporations at the expense of the rights of workers, the environment and small business.