NAFTA debate offers no solace to working class


The tone at the table was wistful, with an overlay of bitterness. The vice president and the rich man were swapping telegenic postures in lieu of new information on this great big foreign trade agreement, and now everybody at the table started mentioning names of the dearly departed.

"Sparrows Point," said a prematurely retired fellow who worked there when the big steel jobs were passed like heirlooms from one generation to the next.

"Crown Cork and Seal," said a cabdriver who remembered a time when the jobs there were bountiful and life seemed secure.

Around this table now, in an East Baltimore restaurant, the names were flung about: Standard Oil and American Can, Bond Bread and Esskay and all those companies that once flourished and now find themselves downsized and struggling, or deceased, while the people who worked there and thought it would never end now feel overwhelmed by the unseen forces undoing their lives.

The names of the dead and dying companies rolled off their tongues, not merely as a roll call of another time, but each as an accusation of broken faith. An implicit deal had been broken. You went to work for a company, and you did your job, and the company was supposed to look out for you. That's the way the country was supposed to work, only now it didn't any more.

But the men on the television set weren't getting around to this. They were striking these attitudes, but they weren't talking directly about the thing that was happening in the places like East Baltimore, the removal of old assumptions which seem threatened anew by this NAFTA business.

The rich man on the television, named Perot, seemed peevish and petulant, like some adolescent roused from sleep against his will. The vice president of the United States, named Gore, struggled for restraint but, in the process of fending off verbal snipes, never quite got to the heart of this trade proposal: How will it affect the jobs of people already terrified that their working days are at risk?

"NAFTA," said a man at the table lucky to find work with the city after his old job at Bethlehem Steel disappeared. "NAFTA's one more way we get nailed. I don't know how it'll happen, but it will. That's just the nature of things today."

On television, Vice President Gore had a list of names which seemed to move exactly no one: he four living ex-presidents, former Cabinet members, prize-winning economists, business leaders, all of them backing NAFTA.

The attitude around the table was: Who's going to trust those guys, who held power while our jobs were disappearing?

The nation is divided, more and more, between haves and have-nots. The richest 1 percent of the country has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The president talks of an economic comeback, which hasn't manifested itself in jobs.

The kids come out of school today, and there is no work for them. The veterans wonder if they can hold on to what they have. An unspoken attitude prevails: Anxiety, which sweeps the country like some social disease.

"At my place," says a restaurant owner in Canton, "I've got a guy tending bar who's got a master's degree."

The television debate never calmed people's fears, which the unions grab and work like a sledgehammer. And why not? They operate in an atmosphere of bared teeth, and trust no authority figures.

The vice president needed to address this: not merely the implications of free trade, but the modern lack of trust, based on a generation of working people feeling sold out. The anti-NAFTA people talk of 500,000 jobs lost. They talk of Mexican workers earning just one-seventh what American workers earn, so why wouldn't the big American companies relocate south of the border?

Yes, Gore might have said, but here's how we're going to replace those jobs.

And here's how we're going to create new jobs in their place that call for 21st century skills, and 21st century security.

"The trade unions are wrong," said Gore.

But they didn't hear him around the table in East Baltimore. Here, they talked of jobs already gone, and security that went away, and lies they were told. And nobody was convincing them this wasn't just one more lie.

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