Global village or global pillage?

Third world plunder

Courtesy Shannon Brophy


By Phila Back

These days, the mantra of environmentalists everywhere is “Buy Local” and for many of us, that translates into a weekly trip to the local farmer’s market. But the mantra is bigger than a single market; especially given that the globalization of trade has made nearly every purchase we make an unsustainable proposition.

Although government and big business would have us believe otherwise, free trade agreements have greatly added to our world’s economic and environmental woes. In Pennsylvania and across the U.S., communities are struggling with the massive loss of family-sustaining manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced to foreign countries.

A good illustration of how globalization has transformed the American economy is what happened when U.S. Steel shut down its Homestead Works, near Pittsburgh. The site of the former steel mill is now The Waterfront, a huge retail complex. When the steel mill closed, the area lost 15,000 high-wage, high-benefit jobs. The new retail stores that took its place offer mostly low-wage, low-benefit jobs. Compounding this is the environmental cost. Most of the goods sold at the Waterfront are imported from China and other low-wage countries, which means that they are shipped half-way around the world before reaching our store shelves—an environmentally destructive indulgence.

At the root of the “deindustrialization of America” is a federal trade policy that encourages companies to send jobs overseas. The decline of U.S. manufacturing began in the 1960s but the series of free trade agreements that began with the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has greatly intensified the trend. Now, outsourcing also impacts white collar jobs in areas such as medicine, information technology, and finance. Three million American jobs have been lost in the past 14 years. Pennsylvania alone has lost nearly 185,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. Former thriving manufacturing cities and towns have growing populations of poor and low-income residents. Crime has risen. Local governments and school districts are faced with shrinking tax bases while the need for services grows. Urban decay drives many people to move out into the ever-sprawling suburbs, another troubling and environmentally unsustainable trend.

Free trade agreements that harm U.S. workers often harm foreign workers as well. Under NAFTA, Mexican manufacturing wages declined 23%. Unable to compete with large, subsidized U.S. agribusiness giant exporters, 1.3 million Mexican small farmers have lost their livelihoods. The loss of their jobs means that many of these farmers are now seeking work in the U.S., making our trade policy a driving force behind the influx of both legal and illegal immigration. In Pennsylvania, towns and cities that have lost manufacturing jobs now also have to contend with the problems that arise from having inadequate employment and services to sustain a growing population of immigrants.

Small farmers, which are the vast majority of farmers in Pennsylvania, have also been hurt by NAFTA and similar agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). They too struggle to compete with subsidized agribusiness giants that export commodities below cost. They are also at a disadvantage with foreign produce growers, who have lower labor and regulatory costs. Since NAFTA, tens of thousands of American farmers have gone out of business.

As Americans increasingly consume foreign-manufactured products, the U.S. trade deficit becomes a growing issue. This year the deficit hit another record level. The foreign countries that are accumulating large sums of U.S. dollars are building leverage over our government and our economy through their holdings of dollars, treasury securities and other U.S.-based assets.

NAFTA-like trade agreements undermine our sovereignty by giving foreign investors and states the right to challenge a wide range of local, state and federal laws and regulations as barriers to trade. Such challenges are tried in secret World Trade Organization tribunals which are dominated by corporate interests.

To address the unsustainable trends of globalization, the federal government needs to establish a new model of trade that protects workers, the environment and our democracy. The Citizens Trade Campaign ( is working to achieve this goal. The Pennsylvania Chapter and the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club are in the process of joining the Pennsylvania Fair Trade Coalition, our state’s affiliate of the Citizens Trade Campaign.

Phila Back is the Pennsylvania Coordinator for the Citizens Trade Campaign.


Published November 2007