U.S. Needs To Rethink Free Trade Agreements

Michigan, in the last month, has seen its fair share of low-wage workers walk off the job to protest pay and working conditions. But those demonstrations pale in comparison to what is going on a continent away in Colombia. And U.S. policymakers should take notice.

For weeks Colombian farmers, truck drivers, health workers, miners and students have taken to the streets in cities across the country to demand changes in their government’s economic policies. The unrest has led to at least two deaths and more than 250 arrests.

What does that have to do with Michigan and the U.S.? Well, Colombians are rising up against their government for its implementation of a “free” trade agreement with America that has made it impossible for farmers there to compete with the crops and livestock imported under the deal. Others are complaining about an increase in fuel, transportation and production costs.

Protesters there are calling for the Colombian government to suspend and renegotiate its trade agreement with the U.S. and to grant support for agricultural production and access to land. They also want the ability to practice small-scale mining and additional investment in rural communities that includes education, health care and infrastructure.

While citizens of the South American country were promised a financial windfall under the trade pact, that hasn’t happened. In fact, exports to the U.S. fell 4.5 percent between May 2012 and March 2013. The deal, quite frankly, hasn’t delivered.

Michigan and the U.S. face a similar problem with the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Congress is expected to consider in the coming months. Supporters of the 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal said it will lead to greater U.S. exports and job growth. But we’ve heard that before.

Not only has Colombia seen that such trade deals don’t work out for regular workers, Michiganians have too. Remember the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)? Michigan has lost nearly 288,000 manufacturing jobs since its enactment nearly 20 years ago, 36 percent of the state’s total, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hardworking people in Michigan and across the U.S. can’t afford to be fooled again. It is time to see through the rhetoric repeated by politicians and look at the TPP with eyes wide open.

There’s one common factor to all of these trade deals: Workers on both sides of the deal get screwed while corporations rake in record profits. Like low-wage workers in the fast food and retail industries, workers must join together to let Congress know that the TPP is not the right path for the U.S.

It is time America’s major import wasn’t cheap foreign goods and its major export wasn’t good U.S. jobs.

The productivity of American workers should show up in their paychecks. That means no more unfair trade deals.

Deals like the TPP will destroy local manufacturing. And as the Colombia protests show, workers on both sides of these deals are getting the raw end of the bargain.

James P. Hoffa is general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.