Those workers are, indeed, hurting. They have been hit with down-sizing; DuPont's recent announcement that thousands of Nylon production workers will lose their jobs is the latest blow. Many are working longer for lower wages and fewer benefits. They want security. They see the American standard of living under assault from all corners.
But NAFTA didn't do them in. And defeating NAFTA - as many a Labor Day speech implored - will not be their salvation.
The U.S. economy is globalizing and has been for a long time. Foreign competition is a fact of life. Restructuring of U.S. industry is a given. And as the American market stagnates, one of the few ways to keep businesses healthy and workers working is to expand markets abroad.
Already, we sell far more to Mexico than they do to us. And Mexicans spend more per person on U.S. exports than Japanese or Europeans. One of the reasons is proximity - a closeness that gives the United States a natural trading advantage, if we are willing to nurture and manage it.
That is what NAFTA is about - endorsing and expanding a trend that can create export-related jobs here at home and encourage market, environmental and workplace reforms in Mexico.
We'd hardly call that a "sellout." In fact, those are the very reasons that make freer trade appealing to presidents - of either party. From the White House, the perspective is far different than from a single district in recession-battered Michigan or in parts of California, where fear-mongering over immigration is a fact of electoral politics.
Liberated from parochial interests, a president is freer to promote the national economic benefit from a NAFTA: more export jobs, slightly lower consumer prices. Morever, he is charged with a job that your average member of Congress ranks rather low on the agenda - building and maintaining better ties not only with Mexico but also a Latin America whose leaders would see in the rejection of NAFTA a repudiation of their own moves toward modernized economies and foreign investment.
To the losers in the last election - Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan - such matters are of little import. They prey on worker fears with a potent mix of protectionism, nativism and resentment. Consumerist Ralph Nader preys on worries about declining food standards. Out-of-work Central America activists are chiming in, riding the anti-NAFTA bandwagon as if the pact's defeat will
somehow bring balm to millions of jobless Mexicans.
Yes, there will be some hurt from NAFTA. There will be some factories relocated, some jobs lost. But without NAFTA, there will also be factories relocated and jobs lost. Mexico's market will likely shrink. Its commitment to tougher enforcement of worker-safety and environmental rules - expressed in the NAFTA side agreements - will likely ebb.
That might not bother Ross Perot. But for hard-pressed American workers, that's hardly the stuff of celebration.