Some Thoughts Prompted by the book NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism by Tamara Kay

I’m just the book reader – the book guy.

NAFTA book coverYesterday, at the Urban Engagement Book Club for CitySquare, I presented a synopsis of this book: NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics), Cambridge University Press, 2011, by Tamara Kay

I present synopses of business books every month (at the First Friday Book Synopsis), and books on social justice and poverty issues for the Urban Engagement Book Club. I choose “by myself” (with input from many people, and places) the books to read for the First Friday Book Synopsis, but a group of three of us (Larry James and Gerald Britt, from CitySquare, and…me) make the selections for the Urban Engagement Book Club.

This is a great learning experience for me. I certainly read some books I would have never discovered on my own. But, sometimes, the books feel pretty “foreign” to me. Meaning, they represent an issue, and an academic discipline, that is truly new to me. Like I said, I’m just the book guy – the book reader.

This book was one of those books. Am I glad I read it? Yes. But, it is not a “for a popular audience” book. It’s an in-depth look at labor issues leading up to and after the passage of NAFTA:

The North American Free Trade Agreement is an agreement signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, creating a trilateral rules-based trade bloc in North America. The agreement came into force on January 1, 1994. It superseded the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Canada.

Here are a few excerpts from the book (I put one excerpt in bold; especially important):

NAFTA – the concrete embodiment of globalization in North America – had the unanticipated consequence of catalyzing labor transnationalism, defined as ongoing cooperative and collaborative relationships among Mexican, U.S., and Canadian unions and union federations.

…new ties of cooperation and networks of protest.

…and chip away at racist attitudes against Mexicans and immigrants that permeated their organizations.

To summarize my argument, transnational political opportunity structures emerge from transnational institutional fields that create spaces where activists come together, mobilize, and develop their interests and identities in relationship to each other.

One of NAFTA’s most enduring lessons is that, in an era of globalization, drawing sharp distinctions between the local and the global becomes increasingly anachronistic. 

The facts are these: immigrants are not the cause of America’s declining wages and the export of good jobs overseas. Immigrants are not responsible for the “downsizing” that is sweeping through many U.S. industries and throwing millions of Americans out of work. And immigrants cannot be blamed for the fraying of the country’s social fabric that so many Americans perceive with uneasiness and alarm.

Labor transnationalism in North America is in its initial stages. 

Here are some thoughts that I included in my handout:

1) Laborers are going to have to work together, for what matters to all laborers.
2) The “cross-border” differences will have to be overcome as fully as possible.
3) Over the long haul, building effective labor transnationalism will be a slow process. But, it will be better than continuing division based on racism, mistrust, and lack of cooperation. Surprisingly, Labor’s response to NAFTA has helped accomplish this, to a great extent.

And, the book includes this:

The NAALC {The North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) established eleven “guiding principles” each signatory agreed to promote:

#1 – freedom of association and protection of the right to organize
#2 – the right to bargain collectively
#3 – the right to strike
#4 – prohibition of forced labor
#5 – labor protections for children and young persons
#6 – minimum employment standards
#7 – elimination of employment discrimination
#8 – equal pay for women and men
#9 – prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses
#10 – compensation in cases of occupational injuries and illnesses
#11 – protection of migrant workers.

The book provided a great catalyst for a discussion of: workers’ needs, workers’ safety, workers’ rights; the ripple effects on labor of globalization, especially as seen through NAFTA. And, I really do think the issue of how workers are treated, and how transnationalism impacts the environment, are important issues.

This was a helpful discussion. I’m glad the book was on the list for this year…


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