Mar. 28, 2007 – The southern border has become a political fault line once again, as a plan to open US highways to a select group of Mexico-based commercial traffic runs into opposition. While some labor and safety advocates decry Mexican trucks as "unsafe," others see xenophobia driving the controversy.
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The White House is pushing a year-long "demonstration program" to be run by the US Department of Transportation that would allow 100 Mexico-based trucking firms to drive goods all over the United States. More than 6,000 authorized Mexican carriers already make millions of border crossings annually, but they are confined to narrow areas hugging the border. They shuttle goods across guarded checkpoints into the designated commercial zones and then transfer cargo to US carriers for the rest of the journey.
The DOTâ€™s plan, which would gain for US carriers similar access to Mexico, would set in motion a key provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As part of its purported goal of promoting "free" and open trade throughout North America, the agreement promised mutual highway access for Canadian, US and Mexican trucks. Pro-business groups have supported those measures as a way to facilitate more-efficient transport of cargo between countries.
The program follows over a decade of successful campaigns by organized labor and auto-safety advocates to restrict Mexican truckersâ€™ access to US highways, based on claims that Mexican trucks pose an unacceptable public threat.
Powerful advocacy groups have campaigned to restrict Mexican truckersâ€™ access to US highways, claiming that they pose an unacceptable public threat.
And despite recent evidence to the contrary, those groups continue to apply the same arguments against the pending demonstration program.
Fred McLuckie, a legislative representative for the truckersâ€™ union International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said that expecting Mexican truck drivers to abide by domestic safety regulations on US highways would be "a leap of faith that is not substantially backed by evidence that [Mexican] trucks and drivers are going to be as safe as US trucks and drivers."
But the limited federal data available indicates similarities between US and Mexican truck-safety records, suggesting that the demonstration program would not make highways much more dangerous than they currently are.
In the border zone during the last quarter of 2005, according to the latest federal roadside-inspection statistics for commercial vehicles, about 19 percent of Mexican-vehicle inspections and 18 percent of US-vehicle inspections led to vehicles being pulled off the road for safety violations like faulty breaks or poor maintenance.
While the Teamsters claim that Mexican commercial drivers in 2005 were often cited for failure to maintain hours-of-service logs, US drivers were cited for the same violation about twice as frequently.
The union further warns that Mexican drivers might arrive at the border overworked and fatigued, increasing the risk of accidents. Yet according to US-based inspection data, the violation rate for the US cap on driversâ€™ work hours â€“ 60 to 70 hours within 7 or 8 days â€“ was about eight times higher for US drivers than for their Mexican counterparts.
Some auto-safety advocates say hazardous industry practices do not discriminate at the border.
Joining the Teamsters on the opposition is the consumer-protection group Public Citizen, which has seized on the issue to highlight what it sees as chronically poor safety oversight for all trucks operating in the United States. With the government conducting about 11,000 full safety audits for a pool of several hundred thousand authorized US carriers in 2005, the group says regulation of the domestic commercial fleet is deeply lacking.
Labor and auto-safety groups argue that the Department of Transportation has not completely met safety conditions imposed by Congress. In 2002, US lawmakers required the creation of a comprehensive monitoring system for Mexican truck traffic, including cooperation with Mexican authorities in enforcing US safety rules.
The Transportation Departmentâ€™s Office of the Inspector General reported to Congress this month on some shortcomings in fulfilling those requirements, including still-incomplete cross-border drug and alcohol testing protocols, as well as gaps in statesâ€™ reporting of traffic violations among Mexico-licensed drivers. But overall, the audit found that the main congressional mandates â€“ like hiring and training more state inspectors â€“ had been met.
Nonetheless, at a Senate hearing earlier this month, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa insisted that Mexican trucks are not safe enough to justify the demonstration program.
He warned that inadequate oversight would invite a slew of hazards: Companies might exploit lower-paid Mexican drivers by pushing them to violate hours-of-service limits; drug-abusing Mexicans might slip through inadequate driver-screening procedures; Mexican trucks could even pose a national security threat, because they "could be used to carry weapons of mass destruction, or be used by terrorists as a means to sneak into this country and do us harm."
Critics say the political backlash reveals "abysmal asymmetries" and "national chauvinism" under "free trade."
But Mike Noonchester, director of the Border Technology Deployment Center at New Mexico State University, cast doubt on images of Mexican trucks as mobile disasters. Under the demonstration program, he predicted, trucks operating out of Mexico would likely be more modern and better maintained than those currently operating in the border zones: they would be equipped for long-distance driving, as opposed to the short hauls over the border to which Mexican carriers are now limited.
Drawing on both federal data and his consultations with state authorities, he said, "Everything indicates the companies that would be participating in long-distance over-the-road operations will be as safe as most US companies."
From a public-safety standpoint, Russ Rader with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group that tracks truck-safety issues, said hazardous industry practices do not discriminate at the border. "No matter who is operating the truck," he said, "we have the same basic safety problem on the road. And that is tired truckers who are working more hours, and thereâ€™s no effective way of enforcing hours-of-service rules."
Some observers of the controversy say the tone of the campaign against Mexican trucks is driven not by safety concerns, but by US driversâ€™ fears that NAFTA would bring to the sector competition from cheaper Mexican labor. That rationale, critics say, could undercut efforts to build international solidarity against so-called "free trade" policies.
"Workers have a right to protect their jobs, wages, benefits and conditions from employers and governments who would try to undermine them," said Dan La Botz, a labor historian and former Teamster who has researched Mexican labor movements. "But, at the same time," he continued, "protectionism can easily slip into national chauvinism and racism."
Manuel PÃ©rez Rocha with the Red Mexicana de AcciÃ³n Frente al Libre Comercio (Mexican Action Network on Free Trade) said the trucking issue reveals "abysmal asymmetries" in free-trade agreements.
In practice, under NAFTA, PÃ©rez Rocha argued, companies can capitalize on cheaper labor and looser industry regulations abroad, while powerful countries selectively apply standards to their own benefit. "In the name of â€˜competitiveness,â€™" he said, "labor and environmental standards in Mexico are either not enforced or diminished." However, he added, blockading Mexican trucks at the border demonstrates how disparities in social conditions are "used as protectionist instruments the other way round."
Outside the trucking industry, other sectors of the US economy have benefited from policies that shield domestic markets from outside competition despite free-trade commitments. Until recently, prohibitively stringent food-safety regulations, backed by US avocado growers, blocked imports of the fruit from Mexico due to fears of pest infestation. Those concerns were later resolved by pest-control measures, instead of trade barriers.
Similarly, federal subsidies have bolstered US farm industries, even as NAFTA has weakened Mexicoâ€™s rural sector by dismantling domestic policies that protected local farmers.
Tom Barry, director of policy with the progressive think tank International Relations Center, said the United States had an obligation to subject its own economy to the same rules that have impacted countries with less political clout â€“ and to confront the consequences head-on.
"The US government needs to be reciprocal when it says it's going to be," he said. On issues like trucking and food imports, he added, "when there are concerns about safety, and our partner countries don't have the resources to provide the guarantees our government requires, then we should step in and help provide the proper monitoring."
Octavio Ruiz with the Minnesota-based Resource Center of the Americas, who campaigns on trade issues on both sides of the border, said: "We have to see beyond to the fact that this is not really an issue between the workers. The issue is with NAFTA, which is not a trade agreement but an investment agreement that has favored the corporations."
Protectionist tensions, Ruiz said, keep vulnerable workers divided, but US and Mexican workers could defy NAFTA by forming stronger alliances. A formal joint labor movement, he continued, could serve as an institutional counterweight to corporate interests, allowing labor to bargain collectively across borders and hold multinational employers accountable across the continent.
In all industries disrupted by free trade, he said, "the workers have to sit down from both sides, and say, â€˜Okay, how can we solve this together in order for both of us not to get exploited?â€™"