Letter to Congress on Fast Track Authority for Negotiations of Trade Agreements and on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), November 5, 1997

Year Published
  • 2018
  • English

November 5, 1997

Dear Representative,

I write on behalf of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the social policy agency of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, regarding the proposed legislation to grant the President "fast.track" authority to negotiate international trade and investment agreements.

At the time of the NAFTA debate in 1993, the Bishops, rather than taking a position on the specific agreement, raised moral criteria which we believe any lasting international economic agreement should meet. In our view, these criteria are as applicable to the pending bill as they were to NAFTA. As in 1993, we take no position on the bill, but we wish to reiterate the criteria and to highlight concerns that have arisen from the NAFTA experience to date and the implications they raise for new trade agreements. Our objective is to contribute to shaping the needed debate on whether such agreements will advance or undermine the common good.

We also note that separate legislation making its way through the Congress would extend NAFTA benefits to the Caribbean and Central America, and key elements of the pending Growth and Opportunity bill for Africa involve trade and investment. We believe that these proposals raise the same kinds of ethical questions as would arise in any agreement that may be negotiated under fast.track authority.

Our primary concern is for the people who may feel the impact of trade agreements most directly .. the poor and vulnerable, and the ordinary workers and their families. We are also concerned that the economic activity stimulated by new trade arrangements be carried out in a manner respectful of our earthly environment, which we are obliged to preserve as stewards of God's creation and which is essential for human flourishing. As religious leaders we are deeply involved in the communities and with the families that could gain or lose much because of these agreements. As part of an international Church we also have strong ties to the Church and peoples of Latin America, Africa and many other areas of the developing world. We are deeply concerned about how economic agreements will affect the welfare and human rights of the millions of poor and disadvantaged in these countries.

From our perspective, therefore, the central question which the Congress must face is whether economic agreements will enhance or diminish the lives, dignity and rights of the peoples of both the U.S. and the trading partners, but particularly the poor. In raising this question, we believe that there is ample historical evidence that increased trade and investment can be truly beneficial, provided that they are structured in a way that helps to lessen, not exacerbate, inequality or injustice. More specifically, our concerns are for

The Poor and Workers: Economic choices should be guided by a priority concern for the poor and by a firm commitment to the dignity of work and the rights of workers .principles central to traditional Catholic social teaching on economic justice. The primary purpose of economic exchange should not be simply mutual gain, but improvement in the living standards of the people in all affected countries, particularly poor and vulnerable workers and their families. Workers are entitled to decent work for just remuneration (wages and benefits) and decent working conditions. Their rights to free association, to organize and to engage in collective bargaining must be respected.

Displaced Workers and Communities: As pastors in this country, we are deeply concerned about the loss of jobs in our own urban and rural communities. It is essential that any trade and investment agreements be accompanied by firm commitments to help U.S. workers, their families and communities cope with both the social and financial strains of dislocations that free trade might bring about. Similarly, our concern for the human rights implications that any U.S. action can have for the people of other countries leads us to urge that economic agreements be accompanied by similarly firm commitments to provide aid, either directly or through international institutions, to displaced workers and their families in all other countries affected by the agreements.

Editable and Sustainable Development: Increasing global economic integration holds potential benefits for all participants, but it should do more than simply regulate trade and investment. The latter should form part of a broader agenda encompassing efforts to promote the integral development of peoples. The essential link between preservation of the environment and sustainable human development requires giving priority attention to protecting the environment, including assistance to poor countries who often lack sufficient technical knowledge or resources to maintain a safe environment. For many poor countries, the agenda should include relieving the crushing burden of external debt. Moreover, trade should support the kind of development which increases self.reliance and broad participation in economic decision.making by the people of each country.

Migration: Our Church has long defended the right of people to migrate when conditions in their home countries prevent them from providing for themselves and their families. If migration is to be reduced, we believe that it must be done through alleviation of the conditions that impel people to leave their homeland. Thus, any trade or investment agreement should be designed in a way that would assure a reduction in the need to emigrate.

Enforcement of Worker Rights and the Environment: Measures to protect worker rights and preserve the environment should be clear enough and the enforcement measures strong enough to insure that an economic agreement does not contribute to unjust treatment of workers and declining environmental quality. We note that the last issue .. enforcement of worker rights and environmental protection has been the focus of most of the "fast.track" discussion. The experience under NAFTA suggests that the side agreements on these issues, while a step forward compared to past practice, have proved weak vehicles for protecting workers from unjust treatment or the environment from degradation. We believe that trade agreements should provide more effective protection against the proliferation of unjust labor and environmental practices that might be unleashed by the competitive pressures resulting from liberalized trade. In a country, for example, which already denies workers (by law or practice), the right freely to associate and to bargain collectively, economic interests seeking to enter new foreign markets or to protect domestic markets from foreign competition will have a strong incentive to continue to deny such rights to workers. The denial of such rights will harm not only the workers and families of that country but also the workers and their families in this country by subjecting them to unfair competition.

We understand the argument that fast track authority is necessary to effective trade negotiations. We also understand the view that expanded trade will lead to higher rates of national income growth which will create conditions conducive to better treatment of workers and the environment. However, how fast the latter will occur, if at all, will depend upon the configuration of political and economic forces in a particular country. In many countries this process may suffer intolerable delay, and we are concerned about all those workers and their families who must suffer inhumane living conditions in the meantime. Our belief that the primary benefit of economic exchange must be improvement of the living standards particularly of poor and vulnerable workers and their families leads us to the conclusion that when our country promotes a liberalized trade agreement with any country, it must assure itself that the citizens of that country have access to effective means to vindicate fundamental worker rights and protect the environment.

We do not believe that worker and environmental concerns raise peripheral issues that would "clutter-up" trade agreements. Workers and the environment are directly impacted when trade is opened up and should receive no less attention than, for example, intellectual property rights. The bill before the House establishes as a "principal negotiating objective" the "strong enforcement of intellectual property rights, including through accessible, expeditious and effective civil, administrative, and criminal enforcement mechanisms." We have no precise formula to offer and no position on, e.g., whether trade sanctions are necessary to assure enforceability, but we do believe that workers and the environment are priority, not secondary concerns, and should receive no less protection in trade negotiations than intellectual property rights.

We note the intention to promote respect for the environment and enhancement of fundamental worker rights through international organizations, and we welcome it as a way of getting all actors in the global economy to play by the same, more humane and responsible rules of the game. Promises to seek an international consensus, however, should be pursued with vigor. International initiatives should aim beyond dialogue, to the establishment of clear and effective enforcement mechanisms. They should be pursued in fora and through processes that will assure that voices from affected sectors of society can be heard and that their interests are reflected in whatever agreements emerge. In any event we see the possibilities of developing a meaningful international accord as at best a long.term proposition, which should be pursued in addition to, and not as a substitute for, bilateral action.

We have no position on the fast.track procedure as such, but we are concerned about the moral and human implications of the parameters to be set in the pending legislation for the negotiation of specific agreements. We hope that these general considerations will be taken into account as you weigh the political and economic, but more especially the ethical, aspects of the decisions facing Congress on these complex issues of trade.


Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick
Archbishop of Newark
Chairman, Committee on International Policy