Corporate out-of-control

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With her talk of worldwide corporate control of the planet, sneaky trade agreements and—holy H20!—the privatization of public water supplies, Antonia Juhasz is scaring me. I can only hope she’s exaggerating or just misinformed.

Then again, given her credentials—degrees in public policy from Georgetown and Brown universities; her job as project director for the International Forum on Globalization, not to mention her past gigs as legislative assistant for trade policy to two U.S. Congressmen—it’s likely she knows what she’s talking about.

I’m sitting on the squishy couch at Sierra Nevada Community Access Television’s Media Center. In an adjacent TV studio, the cameras are running. Juhasz is talking to Tom Stoneburner of the Alliance for Workers’ Rights in Reno. Two TV shows are taped for airing on SNCAT.

Juhasz describes the North American Free Trade Agreement as yet another tool to help a few get richer while keeping workers from getting ahead. She talks of lawsuits I’ve not paid much attention to.

One example: Maybe you’ve heard something about MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a gasoline additive that abates air pollution while disgustifying your drinking water. A few years back, those nutty Californians tried to ban MTBE because of its tendency to contaminate water supplies and thus cause cancer. Sounds fair enough. Government doing what government is supposed to do, looking out for our health and safety. A similar ban has been discussed on a national level. Excellent.

But the manufacturer of one of MTBE’s toxic ingredients got a bit uptight about the ban. The Canadian company, Methanex Corp., sued the state of California, citing Chapter 11 of NAFTA, a bit of law that says local governments can’t adopt rules that keep the corporations from making a profit. The company sued for about a billion dollars in damages.

Now the state is potentially faced with the dilemma, Juhasz says, of paying up or making the rule go away.

That’s the kind of power NAFTA may have—the clout to nullify any regulations locals come up with.

Stoneburner asks Juhasz: “One of the things NAFTA was supposed to do was help the average laborer. Did it help?”

Well, no, Juhasz says. She’s heard some theorize that recent profuse job losses in the United States might be OK—if the wealth is being spread to the less fortunate in other countries. Sounds good, but it simply isn’t working that way.

“The worst part about globalization in developing countries is that the worst aspects of [industrialization] are transferred to these countries,” she says. In some countries, low-paid factory workers who try to unionize are murdered. Working environments are “heart-rending,” she says, and employees have few rights.

If a government tries to adopt regulations to improve work environments—and if that messes with a business’s profit, the government could get sued.

Then there’s water. Investment magazines call the privatization of water one of the next big ways to make money in the coming decades.

“Imagine if Reno’s water were privatized, and a big Canadian company bought the system,” Juhasz says. Local governments might stipulate that the company must guarantee water to everyone, since water is a basic need. But under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, the company could not only challenge this dictate to provide water for all—it could actually sue, say, Washoe County for even suggesting such a thing.

“They could pump up the price, and people would have to pay because they have to have it,” Juhasz says.

Maybe you think this could never happen here—the way it already has in many other developing countries. I hope you’re right.

We must pay attention.