New Competition for Teamsters, as Obama Allows Mexican Truckers into U.S.

Mike Elk

Administration implements NAFTA clause, even as public support for unions rising 

When the North America Free Trade Treaty passed in 1994 there was a clause allowing truckers from all three nations to freely transport goods throughout the continent. However, for the last 17 years, forces in organized labor — led by the Teamsters — have worked to delay implementation of this rule, claiming that Mexican trucks are unsafe and the truckers are paid significantly less than American truckers.

In 2007, the Bush Administration started a pilot program to allow a few truckers into the United States to see how the safety concerned worked out. In 2009, with Democrats back in power of the White House and Congress, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) led an effort to defund the pilot program monitoring the safety of the trucks crossing it. This move stopped Mexican trucks from coming across the border. Mexico, upset by this move, slapped more than $2 billion worth of tariffs on 100 American products – putting pressure on the Obama administration from agricultural state politicians.

Earlier this month, Obama administration announced that it would start a new program to allow Mexican trucks to ship goods across the United States border. The Mexican trucks would be subject to strict safety controls. After 18 months of monitored operations within the United States, Mexican truck companies that meet the standards would be allowed to operate freely inside the United States.

Many union advocates believe this is problematic because Mexican trucks could transport goods around the country while paying Mexican wages significantly below American wage standards. The likely result? Lower wages for American truck drivers.

I am strongly opposed to this agreement,” Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Jr said in statement. Why agree to a deal that threatens the jobs of U.S. truck drivers and warehouse workers when unemployment is so high?”

Some opponents of allowing Mexican trucks cross the border have stressed that those are less safe than American trucks. But federal statistics on Mexican trucks indicate otherwise. For instance, In the border zone during the last quarter of 2005, according to federal statistics, about 19 percent of Mexican vehicle inspections and 18 percent of U.S. vehicle inspections led to vehicles being pulled off the road because they failed safety tests.

Union officials debate the validity of these statistics, claiming the number of unsafe trucks in the border zone might skyrocket if the borders were fully opened.

While it’s debatable whether or not Mexican trucks are less safe than American trucks, the likelihood that Mexican truck drivers will drive down U.S. truckers’ wages is very high. It also a sign of how strong the free trade agenda in the United States is that the Teamsters union is forced to resort to fights over safety issues in order to protect American jobs from Mexican competition.

What’s even more troubling is that at a time when union support is surging in the wake of Wisconsin, President Obama is working behind the scenes against the interest of union members by pushing to open the border to Mexican trucks.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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