Letter to U.S. Trade Representative Hills on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), June 4, 1991

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

June 4, 1991

The Honorable Carla Hills
U.S. Trade Representative
600 Seventeenth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20506

Dear Ambassador Hills:

As General Secretary of the US Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the US Catholic bishops, I am writing to you about the current efforts to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with Mexico.

While primarily an issue of trade policy, this issue has profound human consequences and moral dimensions, affecting, as it will, the lives of many people and communities in both countries. As pastors and citizens, we believe that the economic choices of our two nations should be guided by a priority concern for the poor in both lands and by a firm commitment to the dignity of work and the rights of workers. These reflections are grounded in traditional Catholic teaching on economic justice.

This teaching, which stresses the dignity and rights of the human person and the principle that market forces must be guided by moral choices, has been emphasized most recently by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. “While it would appear that...the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs,” he writes,”...there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold.”

Therefore, the US Catholic Conference seeks to encourage the negotiation of a trade agreement which will help our two countries achieve several goals:

  • enhance the life and dignity of our two peoples, overcome economic injustice, reduce disparities in our economies, and build bridges of commerce and sustainable economic development between our country and Mexico;
  • offer decent work for just wages and in decent conditions;
  • address the serious problems of unemployment and underemployment in both societies;
  • stabilize immigration flow by discouraging illegal immigration and offering more employment opportunities;
  • respect the right of workers to organize and exercise their rights.

We urge that these questions of economic and social justice receive priority attention in the negotiation, debate, and decisions on the North American Free Trade Agreement. They are not side issues or peripheral matters, but rather concerns that will decide whether such an agreement will contribute to the hopes of its advocates or to the fears of its opponents. The moral issue is not the process used to reach an agreement, but the content of the agreement, determining whether it will advance the common good of both our peoples or benefit the few at the expense of the many.

The increasing economic integration of the United States, Canada, and Mexico holds potential benefits for the people of all three countries. The negotiation of a just trade agreement between the United States and Mexico may well contribute to improvement in the quality of life in all three countries and could possibly provide a model for similar agreements with other developing countries. We feel that applying the principles of Catholic social teaching could help to shape such an agreement.

We believe, as Pope Paul VI said in Populorum Proqressio, that "the rule of free trade, taken by itself, is no longer able to govern international relations… Freedom of trade is fair only if it is subject to the demands of social justice.” Pope John Paul II's emphasis in Centesimus Annus on the strength and limits of the market underscore this principle. Economic choices must seek to advance human dignity and the common good.

These negotiations must inevitably deal with more than simply regulating trade between two countries; they also treat of development, investment, debt, and other vital matters. Trade should support the kind of development which reduces poverty and injustice and increases self.reliance and broad participation in economic decision making on the part of the people of each country. Because the United States and Mexico are at very different stages of economic development, there is a danger of increasing the dependency of Mexico on the United States through trade arrangements that do not lead to mutually beneficial results.

The Presidents of both countries have stated that easing barriers to trade and investment is at the top of the negotiating agenda. Increased trade and investment can doubtless be beneficial if they serve the genuine development needs of the countries and do not exacerbate inequality or injustice. In particular, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in Laborem Exercens, the Church has consistently stressed “the principle of the priority of labor over capital.” In any trade agreement capital should not be given an advantage over labor. Application of this principle, for example, to the mobility of capital, which far outstrips that of labor, requires full and open discussion of effective safeguards for workers.

The purpose of economic exchange should be to improve the living standards of the people involved. This is particularly true of the situation of workers, especially in international exchanges. Both the United States and Mexico have experienced declines in real wages and living standards over the past decade, along with increasing gaps between the rich and the poor. One major result of any trade agreement should be improved living conditions, safety and health provisions, and labor standards. Unemployment and underemployment are also serious problems in both countries; and workers affected by the treaty in both countries should be provided opportunities for retraining and relocation. The trade agreement should unambiguously maintain the US position on international labor rights currently embodied in the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act.

As pastors in the United States we must be especially concerned about the possible loss of employment in our own urban and rural areas. Our 1986 pastoral letter on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy called the nation's attention to the terrible human costs of the loss of our country's heavy manufacturing industries in the past few decades. The ravages of long.term unemployment are still evident in many of our communities, where factories have closed and moved abroad in search of cheaper labor.

Since a new trade agreement with Mexico may create a. shift of jobs from one country to the other and thus may deprive at least some workers and some communities of jobs, it is essential that planning begin now to help the workers and their families cope with the emotional and financial strains of such dislocations. The nation must also make a commitment, as part of the process, that workers and families adversely affected by any, new trade agreement be provided adequate income from unemployment insurance, as well as access to social services, retraining, and other assistance until they are able to work again. We also want to ensure that the impact of any new agreement on cities and other communities on the border, as well as on family farms and rural communities and on the quality of US food imports, is carefully assessed.

It is equally clear, as both our own Conference and the Mexican bishops have pointed out, that immigration will be affected by any agreement. The Church has long been concerned with the migration resulting from the inability of people to provide for themselves and their families in their home countries. For the vast majority of such migrants, the few who are educated or the many who are poor, it is the lack of opportunity to perform as fully productive members of their own societies that provides the impetus for migrating. In the long run a trade agreement could positively affect the problem of migration.

This is the situation for many in Mexico; the lack of economic opportunity because of stagnant development drives them over the border. Within this framework, it is urgent to address the coordination of US and multilateral development questions, so that as the Mexican economy grows, educational opportunities, health care, clean water, sanitation, and adequate housing also increase.

Several important environmental questions also need to be addressed in any agreement: reducing air and water pollution, arresting depletion and degradation of vital natural resources, improved handling of hazardous materials, disposing of toxic wastes, sharing of environmentally beneficial technologies, and providing technical assistance to Mexico to help in enforcing existing environmental laws.

In view of the history of implementing the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement, we are convinced that an effective mechanism for monitoring such an agreement, and especially for resolving disputes arising under it, is also a fundamental requirement.

In preparation for the Europe 1992 project, the Commission of the European Communities has adopted a Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers, which contains many provisions that would be relevant to a US-Mexico or broader regional trade agreement. We recommend that these sections of the Charter be seriously reviewed and adapted for possible inclusion in any trade agreement with Mexico or other developing country.

We are aware of the contentious arguments surrounding this agreement. However, given its importance for all the people concerned, we urge that the procedures adopted for both negotiation and approval of the US-Mexico FTA ensure that the moral and human considerations we have outlined are an integral part of the process. Our basic criterion for this agreement is whether it enhances or diminishes the lives, dignity, and rights of our two peoples -- especially of the poor and workers.

We believe that if the concerns we have outlined can be addressed, a just trade agreement will contribute to sustainable economic development and greater economic justice in both the United States and Mexico.

Sincerely yours,

Reverend Monsignor Robert N. Lynch
General Secretary