Trump and the NAFTA Effect

President Trump has blamed NAFTA for eliminating manufacturing jobs for U.S. workers but it also caused economic dislocation in Mexico, driving some desperate Mexicans northward to the U.S., as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

By Dennis J Bernstein

During his campaign and his presidency, Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement if Canada and Mexico refused to renegotiate a “much better deal.”

Donald Trump and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana speaking to supporters at an immigration policy speech at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. August 31, 2016. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

“A Trump administration will renegotiate NAFTA,” Candidate Trump declared at one campaign stop after another, “and if we don’t get the deal we want, we will terminate NAFTA and get a much better deal for our workers and our companies; 100 percent.”

But as with many issues, the reality of Trump often doesn’t measure up to the rhetoric. I spoke to noted labor journalist and photographer David Bacon about the prospects for NAFTA and free trade under Trump, and the devastating impacts that such policies have had and will continue to have on workers and undocumented workers in particular.

Bacon’s books include The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration. I spoke to him on Nov. 1, 2017 for Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio.

Dennis Bernstein: During the campaign, Trump talked about getting rid of NAFTA.  Where are we now in “free trade land”?

David Bacon: Trump promised that he would renegotiate NAFTA, but, after all, Obama made the same promise when he was running for office.  They were appealing for the votes of people who were hurt by the agreement here.  NAFTA did have an enormous impact on working people in this country.

The Economic Policy Institute says that NAFTA cost the jobs of about 680,000 people in the US.  The Department of Labor used to keep track of job losses because people who could show that they lost their job because it was moved to Mexico were entitled to get extended unemployment benefits.  By the time Bush became president, that number had already reached about half a million people and Bush told the Department of Labor to stop counting because it was becoming politically embarrassing for all the politicians who had voted for the treaty.

There is no question that NAFTA did have an impact on people here and in many ways it led to a kind of displacement here that was similar to what we saw during the Depression, with people coming from the Dustbowl, but also what we are seeing with people coming here from Mexico.

Although the rhetoric of Trump and the Republican Party pits workers in this country against workers in Mexico–because we lost jobs, Mexicans must have gained those jobs–the reality is that Mexico lost many more jobs than they gained.  But one of the things that did happen to people in this country is the migration of people internally in the United States.

When the Green Giant plant shut down here in Watsonville and moved operations to Mexico, a thousand immigrant Mexican women lost those jobs so that Green Giant could then pay women in Mexico one-tenth the wage to do the same work.  Many of the women who lost their jobs had to go somewhere else to find work, the same way that people had to who lost their jobs in auto plants.

We also saw the same thing happen with people coming here from Mexico.  About 3 million farmers in southern Mexico lost their jobs because of corn dumping by big US agricultural corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, and many of those people ended up coming here to the United States.  One thing that progressive unions are trying to do is point out to people the similarity of experiences on either side of the border and that the only way to deal with the impact of treaties like NAFTA is by reaching across the border in solidarity.  The idea that the Trump administration is going to force General Motors to bring jobs back to the United States is just ridiculous.

Dennis Bernstein: So Trump hasn’t brought back thousands of jobs yet?

David Bacon: No, and he’s not going to.

Dennis Bernstein: What has been the trend with NAFTA , where do you see this going?

David Bacon: Trade policies are very much bipartisan.  NAFTA was negotiated under the [George HW] Bush administration, the Clinton administration pushed it through Congress, then we saw the Bush II administration follow the same policies.  These are all trade policies designed to enhance the profits of corporations and that is not going to change.  So long as both parties are serving those interests, nothing is going to change.

The only person in the political establishment who has had anything different to say is Bernie Sanders.  He said that a corporation that was responsible for relocating jobs should not be entitled to bid on federal contracts.  That would obviously have an enormous impact on a company like General Motors.

Dennis Bernstein: How does forced migration happen?  In the corporate media it is portrayed as all these people wanting to get the good life in the United States.  But this is not really going on.

David Bacon: Let’s take the corn farmers in Mexico as an example. When NAFTA was passed it pulled down the barriers that had been in place to prevent US corporations from dumping produce in Mexico.  So Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and the Continental Grain Company took subsidies that Congress gave them in the Farm Bill and used them to subsidize their sale of corn in Mexico.  They were selling corn at 19% below their own cost of production.  They were trying to drive Mexican producers out of the market.

Remember that the cultivation of corn started in Oaxaca. The first domesticated corn was found in a cave outside Oaxaca City.  So we owe the fact that we are able to eat corn at all to these communities.

Under NAFTA, 3 million farmers had to leave home and look for work elsewhere.  They went to Mexico City, they became workers in maquiladoras [manufacturing operations], in the export farms in Baja, California, and here in the United States.  The number of farm workers in California rose from about 20,000 to about 165,000 during the period of NAFTA.  In fact, they have become an enormous part of the farm labor workforce all along the Pacific Coast.

In many ways, this is a very sad story.  These communities were the ones who started corn cultivation.  These are very stable communities going back many thousands of years.  People don’t get up and move for the fun of it.  It takes the forces of survival to get people to leave.

Marker for Border Crossing 2. San Ysidro, San Diego, CA 2012. (Flickr U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Not all the consequences for us in the United States have been bad.  For instance, workers coming from Oaxaca have been the source of a movement to organize farm workers.  We now have a union of farmworkers in Washington state that was formed by workers from Oaxaca.  Here in California at a blueberry farm near Delano about 500 workers organized themselves into a union.  The reason is that people are coming from communities with a very stable culture of mutual support.

A demographer named Rick Mines did a survey of indigenous farm workers in California and found that a third of workers he interviewed reported earning wages that were less than minimum way.  Clearly people are not happy about the situation and try to organize to change it.

So this massive movement of people as a result of NAFTA is also leading to a rebirth of union organizing among farm workers in California.  But while this has had a very positive impact on working class life here, it has come at a terrible cost.  The uprooting of communities of people forced people to make some terrible choices.

A friend of mine is a high school teacher in Oaxaca.  He says that it is very difficult to stand up in front of his class and urge his students to get an education in Oaxaca when the students themselves have family members and friends working in the United States making more in real wages than he is making as a teacher.

This process of forced migration is robbing people of a future in the communities where they live.  This has terrible consequences for these communities.  There are towns in Oaxaca now where most of the working age population is living in the United States and the people who remain are surviving on the remittances being sent home by their family members here in California.  That is not a very stable situation and doesn’t promise much for the future.

That is what The Right to Stay Home is about.  People in Oaxaca are saying that there is nothing wrong with migration but it should be a voluntary choice.  The choice of whether to leave home and come to the United States should be voluntary, not something that is forced on people by hunger.

What has to change in order for that to happen?  The trade agreements must be changed to eliminate the dumping that leads to forced migration.  We need political change in both countries to give people the freedom to migrate, equality and decent jobs.  But we also need to ensure that the towns that people are coming from are places that are able to offer a future to their young people as they are growing up.

Dennis Bernstein: Has the situation gotten appreciably worse under Trump?

David Bacon: Unquestionably, the Obama administration did do terrible things.  We saw the deportation of 300,000 to 400,000 people a year, the growth of these privatized detention centers.  But the rhetoric of the administration and the ability of people to pressure the government is different.

The whole reason we have DACA to begin with is because young undocumented people organized themselves against deportation and were able, through action, to get people out of detention, finally sitting in in Obama’s campaign office in Chicago in 2012 and getting them to issue an executive order that gave legal immigration status to about 800,000 young people.

Now we have people in power like Jeff Sessions and Jim Kelly who are saying they are going to undo the kinds of advances that people made in the last eight years.  A lot of what Trump is talking about is undoing what immigrant rights activists and unions and progressive people have fought for over the last eight years.

Another thing is reinstituting these cooperation programs between the police and the immigration authorities that we were able to get rid of in California and New York.  Now here comes Trump and Sessions saying that they are going to reinstitute it.

In fact, the rate of deportations in the first months of the Trump administration have been much higher than in the last part of the Obama administration, when popular pressure was able to force the administration to stop this kind of cooperation between the police and immigration authorities.

Dennis Bernstein: In the 45 seconds remaining, what is your version of humane immigration reform?

David Bacon: It means that everybody has a legal status here in the United States. We need to decriminalize migration and get rid of the detention centers. We need to demilitarize the border.  And we need to stop the process by which people are being forced to migrate in order to survive.  Changing the trade agreements, including NAFTA, is another crucial part of humane immigration reform.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at

19 comments for “Trump and the NAFTA Effect

  1. Mild-ly - Facetious
    November 14, 2017 at 01:20

    — “Now we have people in power like Jeff Sessions and Jim Kelly who are saying they are going to undo the kinds of advances that people made in the last eight years”– Arby

    2 Timothy 3:1-5King James Version (KJV)

    This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.

    For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,

    Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good,

    Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;

    Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

  2. November 11, 2017 at 09:34

    “Now we have people in power like Jeff Sessions and Jim Kelly who are saying they are going to undo the kinds of advances that people made in the last eight years. A lot of what Trump is talking about is undoing what immigrant rights activists and unions and progressive people have fought for over the last eight years.”

    Exactly! I finished reading John Dinges’s (damage control) book, “The Condor Years” last night. As you might guess, he wraps up by looking at how all of those nasty police states in South America were pushed aside to make way for left-leaning or leftist (which probably means something different to John than it does to me) governments that were not inclined to abide by the self-serving amnesty laws that assorted Condor members put in place to protect them from the people who they care so much about. Except that that’s now being reversed. The utterly lawless, hyper violent uncle Sam has a lot to do with it of course. But the point here is that this evil all stems from choices that we, as imperfect human beings, are free to make. We can’t guarantee that whatever progress we make will not get reversed. It could even happen very quickly and doesn’t even require a change in personnel. Look at what happened in Greece with Alexis Tsipras!

    It will take a new green, godly and humane system of things – guaranteed by a higher power than man – in which those who are willing, as we will forever be free to do, to do evil can’t inflict it on others and the system of things itself.

  3. November 11, 2017 at 09:12

    It’s a shame that we have to seriously discuss and analyze the rhetoric of a clown. Thanks deep state!

  4. November 11, 2017 at 04:05

    There is no question that NAFTA did have an impact on people here

  5. bobzz
    November 9, 2017 at 14:16

    “Bacon’s books include The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration.”

    I do not think of Mexicans as ‘migrants’ but as ‘refugees’ forced out of their country by America’s economic greed. They were content to stay in Mexico prior to the economic meddling benefitting the powerful.

  6. Hank
    November 9, 2017 at 11:19

    It was the protective tariffs that insulated Corporate America for a hundred years or more. Yet after WW2 when these same corporations went even more global, we see them push for the elimination of tariffs for their own advantage. The article above did not disclose the “Subsidized” US corn farmers were able to under sell their Mexican counter parts who had to come to the US looking for jobs. Today the Corporatocracy has bought our congressmen, write our laws, and buy influence in order to thrive-the Private FED banks much owned by foreign entities continue to milk the masses everyday for more power. Yet the media is mostly owned by these very corporations and rarely reports too much negative news related directly to them. Trump mouthed a lot of truths while running for President- either he never had any intention of doing anything to change this situation or he has found one has no choice but to go along or suffer the consequences. Which may be the reason Gore, Kerry, and Clinton did not protest the election results. As inside players they knew their careers would be ruined,

  7. Tom
    November 9, 2017 at 02:23

    What David Bacon fails to communicate is that Obama’s DACA order was destined to be ruled as unconstitutional and thus vacated as was his other presidential immigration order. All Trump did was to extinguish an unlawful order and put the onus on congress to come up with a new lawful plan. Any other description of it is nothing more than political rhetoric.

  8. Superman
    November 9, 2017 at 01:47

    Nice piece… I just laugh when people talk about immigration and they have no idea that one major reason they come is because of NAFTA. I guess policy should be made for the benefit of agribusiness and not people. Sometimes I fell like just saying.. God Bless the United Corporations of America and Long Live Goldman Sachs! XOXO!

  9. Mild-ly - Facetious
    November 8, 2017 at 15:14

    Is Trump’s TTP shoot down a blunder in China’s favor?

    Beijing may be calm before the Trump trade storm

    He may have come east in peace, but it won’t last. The US president remains determined to turn the clock back to 1985, when currency tweaks and tariffs bent everyone to Washington’s whims

    NOVEMBER 7, 2017

    Odds are, frustration will lead Trump back to Navarro’s zero-sum worldview of 45% tariffs. Abe is demurring on Trump’s bilateral trade push, while Moon isn’t proving the pushover Trump hoped. Trump’s claims that he and Xi enjoy the “best relationship of any president-president” look hollow as China goes its own way on North Korea.

    At every failed legislative turn, Trump resorts to executive actions that make headlines and remind everyone who’s boss. Irked that Xi isn’t falling into line, Trump may follow this pattern and move to choke the flow of Chinese goods.

    That would be yet another self-inflicted wound. The first was killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Turning his back on history’s biggest trade pact, one incorporating 40% of world gross domestic product, was a colossal Trump gift to Xi. Another wound: reneging on the multilateral Paris climate-change deal.

    China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Belt and Road Initiative and massive investments in renewable energy, artificial intelligence and other industries of tomorrow suggest the Trump presidency is but a blip on Xi’s radar screen
    Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group isn’t trolling Trump with his “China Won” Time magazine cover story and #AmericaSecond hashtag – he’s explaining why Trump has so little leverage as he arrives in Beijing. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Belt and Road Initiative and massive investments in renewable energy, artificial intelligence and other industries of tomorrow suggest the Trump presidency is but a blip on Xi’s radar screen.

    Sigmund Freud seemed to be in the room recently when Trump referred to Xi as “king” of China. Xi knows full well he’ll be at the helm long after Trump vacates the Oval Office, whether that’s in 2021 or sooner, given the scandals and indictments flying the way of his White House. Since Xi’s new Politburo Standing Committee contains no clear successor, there’s every reason to think he may angle to stay on beyond 2022.

    Xi’s “Made in China 2025” vision is in stark contrast with Trump’s determination to drag America back to 1985. China is putting its full weight – and huge financial firepower – behind raising its technological prowess and industrial innovation. It’s promoting domestic brands, working to become a leader in green manufacturing techniques and other technologies to make China a major player in high-speed transportation, medical devices, robotics and space travel.

    Trump is working to make coal great again, reversing course on free trade, cutting taxes for billionaires, freeing bankers to generate the next financial crisis, harping on about exchange rates and threatening trade wars. It’s a ploy to return to the global system that existed in 1985, back when currency tweaks and tariffs could bend everyone to Washington’s whims – and it won’t work.

  10. Zachary Smith
    November 7, 2017 at 19:48

    About 3 million farmers in southern Mexico lost their jobs because of corn dumping by big US agricultural corporations like Archer Daniels Midland, and many of those people ended up coming here to the United States.

    Big Agriculture in the US is already whining about the possibility they can’t keep doing this.

    AG STRUGGLES TO FIND ITS VOICE IN NAFTA DEBATE: U.S. farmers spent nine patient months indulging President Donald Trump’s desire to renegotiate NAFTA with the promise that he would “do no harm.” Now, with Trump growing more bold with his threats to issue a formal intent to withdraw from the deal, farming groups say it’s clearer than ever that their pleas to save the pact are barely registering with a president intent on its destruction.

    “I’ve come to believe this administration is determined to end NAFTA,” said Gordon Stoner, a fourth-generation Montana wheat farmer who leads the National Association of Wheat Growers.

    This sort of dumping destroys local industries. But the people making the big bucks from the deal are never on the receiving end, so they don’t care. There is no way under heaven I can compete with an underpaid child in Vietnam or China. Likewise, there is no way a Mexican farmer can compete with heavily subsidized and totally mechanized US grains. Or an African farmer can compete with heavily subsidized and totally mechanized EU grains.

    I say wipe NAFTA from the law books, then start over fresh. Won’t happen, but it’s a pleasant thought.

    • chris moffatt
      November 7, 2017 at 20:25

      ” say wipe NAFTA from the law books, then start over fresh”. I say wipe NAFTA from the law books and forget it. Let each North American economy find its own new level based on internal markets and whatever new markets they can find overseas. Where is Louis St Laurent when we need him?

      Je me souviens!

      • Zachary Smith
        November 7, 2017 at 21:07

        I say wipe NAFTA from the law books and forget it.

        You may be right. I know little about the scheme, but had assumed it had some measure of redeeming value. That assumption could be incorrect.

  11. Delia Ruhe
    November 7, 2017 at 17:39

    Trump is not an “America First” president; he’s an America-first-and-only president. He whines and complains and rages about how Mexico and Canada have exploited the US but knows nada about how America’s failure to honour the terms of NAFTA (i.e., agricultural subsidies) has driven Mexico to the brink of bankruptcy, ruined Mexican agriculture, and caused millions of Mexicans to escape into the US in order to earn a few under-minimum-wage dollars to send home to feed their children.

    Trump also knows bugger-all about how Ottawa – in the euphemistic name of “harmonization” with American standards and regulations – slashed its once excellent labour, environmental, and food safety standards, and even trimmed our sacred Medicare program to the bone. (It would behoove Americans to have a close look at their own regulations and protections to see what their NAFTA negotiators gave up to “harmonize.”)

    With every change in American administration, Washington slaps a huge tariff on Canadian lumber, forcing Canada to take Washington’s misreading of the Agreement to the WTO court. Canada wins, of course, but it takes at least a year to clear the court, in which interval several more of our smaller mills are forced into bankruptcy. Thus are we quickly moving toward a corporate monopoly of our lumber industry.

    Canada and Mexico have learnt to live with NAFTA – do we have a choice? – even though it delivered to our societies a permanent underclass. Our food banks – of which we had none since the Great Depression – are now institutionalized. Our government accepts as “normal” a 5 percent unemployment rate. Foreign investors are lavished with tax incentives and other subsidies, while our Medicare is now abandoned by the federal government, which turned it over to the provinces and the whims of the used car salesmen and defunct hockey players which too many Canadians love to vote into our provincial legislatures. Of the 3 NAFTA countries, Canada is by far the one with the most investor suits pending, i.e., those few protections we succeeded in hanging on to are costing us more and more every year.

    If NAFTA and all the other “free” trade (i.e., Investors Rights) agreements are so important to our economies, let’s give labour, consumers, and Mother Nature seats at the negotiating table. Maybe then we wouldn’t vote for lunatics with a mandate to throw grenades into them.

    • Sam F
      November 7, 2017 at 18:44

      Yes, If labor and consumers were represented in government the problems would be solved. The problem of “used car salesmen and defunct hockey players” being voted into legislatures is largely due to economic corruption of mass media and elections, a worse problem in the US. Perhaps Canada can yet stop that process.

      In the US we cannot get constitutional amendments to restrict funding of elections and mass media to limited individual contributions, because those tools of democracy are already controlled by the rich. The US will have to pay the full price of democracy again in blood and treasure, because this encroachment was not prevented.

  12. Joe Tedesky
    November 7, 2017 at 17:11

    Unions need to go global.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 7, 2017 at 21:05

      I agree, but only after some serious reform. Unions can be corrupted same as any other outfit.

      Case in point: the UAW has been selling out the people it is supposed to represent for years in exchange for bribe money from the companies. Like with national elections, the Union vote tallies ought to be moved from the back room to a public place where the counting can be closely supervised.


      • Joe Tedesky
        November 7, 2017 at 23:06

        Zachary you mentioning the ‘carpet corridor union bosses’ takes me back to the late seventies early eighties. Back then I drank in bars where in one bar it was filled with all teamsters, and in the other there were a lot of laid off steel workers. The conversations in each bar usually had some mention of corrupt union business agents, and even some shop stewarts, were a particular problem for the dues paying union workers. I always was the independent in the room having never been a union worker, but my own travels proved that my union worker friends weren’t all that wrong, because I had dealings with many a management, and through those connections some of the union accusations had some truth to their merit. Like everything else money corrupts the soul. I honestly think that the corrupt union boss legitimately felt they were just going along with the changing times, so why not. In the end it’s every man for himself, was the fall back excuse.

        I have always advocated to the union worker of how a global union is the only way to go. I feel that in order for the union to stay creditable, that the union will need to keep up it’s pace to run along side the corporate global order. With manufacturing platforms being located throughout all the world a global union solidarity will need to be in place, as to prevent shifting of work orders from one plant to another to avoid a striking location will be strongly needed in order to prevent scab locations from securing, and producing finished product….but if this is to happen it will no doubt only propel the robot generation from it’s taking over of the corporate manufacturing’s global production.

  13. Herman
    November 7, 2017 at 16:54

    No, there shouldn’t be open borders but there should a policy of allowing migrant workers to work in the fields here and do other needed jobs but still be citizens of Latin American countries. There should a US policy of investing in Mexico to create jobs there for, as the article suggests, people would prefer to be able to keep their own homes and their own culture. I think the latter is extremely important and perhaps our politicians who support controlling our borders will add creating job at home in Latin America at the same time. It does not have to be a zero sum game where one side of the border gains and the other loses.

    • Sam F
      November 7, 2017 at 18:21

      We need coherent economic and regulatory analysis of these broad issues, to examine separately the positive effect of US jobs exported to Mexico, versus displacement by subsidized corn exports that should have been prevented.

      To “decriminalize migration and… demilitarize the border” we need trade agreements that provide a unified plan for foreign and US education, training, and employment that:
      1. Precedes import/production changes that force employment changes;
      2. Controls the rates of displacement to prevent injury to workers.

      If those who make the trade agreements cared about the people, they would not slam them around with unplanned displacements. The Repubs and even Dems tyrannize by prescribing “shock therapy” for the unfortunate and luxuries for the fortunate. If they think planning is too complicated, they must get out of government. We do not have humane policies because we do not have a democracy, but instead a tyranny of the rich.

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