Labor reform advocate discusses FTAA and Miami protest

By Julie Fann
star staff

While a large percentage of the country's population focused on Michael Jackson's arrest last week, on Nov. 20 approximately 9,000 people surrounded the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami, where a massive steel fence separated them from a meeting of international delegates privately discussing the fate of millions.
   Trade officials met in Miami to discuss possible future implementation of FTAA, an expansion of NAFTA from three countries to 34 - what those who oppose the plan refer to as "NAFTA on steroids". The Free Trade Area of the Americas, proposed for 2005, is "the cornerstone of President Bush's vision for trade in the Western Hemisphere ... with a combined GDP of nearly $13 trillion in 34 countries," according to the United States Trade Representative Web site.
   About 65 percent of U.S. imports would be duty-free to other countries either immediately or within five years according to the proposal, and all consumer and industrial tariffs would be eliminated by 2015.
   However, key concerns for those who are opposed to FTAA include an increase in dependence of foreign countries on the United States, loss of jobs for U.S. workers, absence of regulations that protect workers and that guarantee them a living wage, and irreversible environmental damage to participating nations - problems which already exist with NAFTA.
   Larry Proffitt, area organizer for the Tennessee Economic Renewal Network, a state coalition aimed at promoting economic policies for workers, took, ironically, 34 TERN members to the Miami protest, where he said police presence was beyond intimidating - it was disturbing.
   "There were a total of only about 200 people there in the morning, and the police surrounded a handful of them and caused a commotion ... We had people who went with us that, it scared them so bad they hid from us all day because they thought they'd be hurt. There was approximately one police officer there for every three people," Proffitt said during a recent interview.
   While local news media painted a more realistic picture, national television stations, such as CNN, depicted a protest that was horrible in terms of a threat of violence, according to Proffitt. "We were overshadowed by police in terms of getting our message across," he said. "It was a very peaceful demonstration."
   Proffitt said the focal point of concern for the Miami protesters, including TERN members, is a growing awareness that the few are taking advantage of the many.
   "The majority of this is about corporate greed. The money is going in the corporations' pockets. A Cadillac Escapade that is assembled in Mexico still costs $35,000 ... The money goes in someone else's pocket, not the workers," Proffitt said.
   According to the USTR Web site, FTAA promises an estimated $814 per year income gain for a family of four. Advocates of the new trade agreement say the pay increase would amount to more than that in foreign countries where American currency has greater value. However, according to Proffitt, families in other countries still struggle to feed themselves in spite of factory jobs created by NAFTA. A Domino's pizza in Mexico costs the same as it does in the U.S., according to Proffitt, yet Domino's employee wages for one day barely cover the cost of one pizza.
   "The average working day (in Mexico) is 10 hours; the average pay is $14.50 a day; they still aren't able to feed their families. This (NAFTA) was supposed to help the Mexican people come out of poverty, and it has not. It has not done one thing but exploit them," Proffitt said. "I've seen it."
   "When things don't sell, the Mexican economy falls faster than ours does. They're not even able to build their own stuff, either. They are 100 percent dependent on the U.S.; we forced them into factories, and the factories don't pay them a living wage."
   The result of FTAA negotiations in Miami was encouraging to Proffitt, who said several countries refused to align with the United States because of the negative effect they have seen NAFTA have on the independence of foreign nations.
   "What it's doing is threatening to move what few jobs they have in their own country somewhere else too. It's killing the farmers; a lot of these countries support themselves through farming, and it's killing them because they can't compete with big companies, mostly located in the United States," Proffitt said.
   How all of this will effect the global economy and the relationship the United States has with other countries is devastating for Proffitt to consider, he said. "What is really bothering me now is it's getting harder and harder to survive. Companies can't see that not only are they keeping wages down, but they're also losing their selling power."
   Proffitt also referred to American corporations that threaten to move labor to other countries if employees refuse to except cuts in wages, decreases in health insurance coverage, and reduced pension plans.
   "If you follow the whole story, they (the media) will tell you that the economy is recovering without the people going back to work. And it's true. When you raise production and lower hiring; if you do away with 20 full-time jobs and put 50 part-time in, you may have saved money, but what have you done to the worker?"
   The U.S.-proposed FTAA offer has been extended to 14 nations in the Caribbean basin; Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Central America; the Dominican Republic and Panama; Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela; Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
   Canada, Chile and Mexico are existing FTA "partners" of the United States, according to the USTR Web site.