Monthly Archives: December 2018


Donald Trump was right when he said that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a disaster for the United States and promised to renegotiate it when he became president. However, the renegotiated NAFTA-2 is worse than the original NAFTA and should be rejected.


On December 1, NAFTA-2 was signed by President Trump, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nietos. This started the process of approval by the legislatures of each country.

Our movement for trade that puts people and planet first now has two synergistic opportunities: We can stop NAFTA II and replace corporate trade with a new model that raises working conditions and protects the environment.

Stopping NAFTA-2

When NAFTA became law on January 1, 1994, it began a new era of trade – written by and for transnational corporations at the expense of people and planet. President George H.W. Bush failed twice to pass NAFTA. During Bush’s re-election campaign, independent Ross Perot described NAFTA as the “giant sucking sound” that would undermine the US economy.

President Clinton was able to get it through Congress. The Los Angeles Times described that vote as “a painfully divided House of Representatives” voting a 234-200 for NAFTA. A majority of Democrats 156-102 opposed NAFTA. During the debate, protesters were ejected when they showered fake $50 bills that said “trading pork for poison” from the visitors gallery.

In the 2016 election, President Trump showed he understood what the United States experienced — NAFTA was bad for the people undermining manufacturing and agriculture. People want it repealed. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Trump had his finger on the pulse of the population.

NAFTA-2 is another trade agreement designed for corporate profit. Trump trade fails to provide enforceable protections for workers or the environment. In this time of climate crisis, it does not mention climate change. It fails to protect the food supply and will result in increased cost of medicines.

Citizen’s Trade Campaign writes, there are positive labor standards “but only if currently absent enforcement mechanisms are added.” As the Labor Advisory Committee states, “Unenforced rules are not worth the paper they are written on.”

The Sierra Club reports NAFTA-2 takes a significant step backward from environmental protections included in the last four trade deals by failing to reinforce a standard set of seven Multilateral Environmental Agreements that protect everything from wetlands to sea turtles.

NAFTA-2 allows intensely-polluting oil and gas corporations involved in offshore drilling, fracking, oil and gas pipelines, refineries, or other polluting activities to challenge environmental protections in rigged corporate trade tribunals. Trump Trade preserves a NAFTA rule that prevents the US government from determining whether gas exports to Mexico are in the public interest. This creates an automatic gas export guarantee, which will increase fracking, expand cross-border gas pipelines, and increase dependency on Mexican climate-polluting gas.

Food and Water Watch summarizes: “The energy provisions will encourage more pipelines and exports of natural gas and oil that would further expand fracking in the United States and Mexico. The text also provides new avenues for polluters to challenge and try and roll back proposed environmental safeguards, cementing Trump’s pro-polluter agenda in the trade deal.”

NAFTA-2 undermines food safety and health by making it more difficult to regulate and inspect foods. It limits inspections and allows food that fails to meet US safety standards to be imported. NAFTA-2 serves Monsanto and other giant agro-chemical corporations by allowing unregulated GMOs, rolling back Mexico’s regulation of GMOs, and letting chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow keep data on the risks of their pesticides secret for 10 years. NAFTA-2 is designed for agribusiness, not family farmers and consumers.

NAFTA-2 increases the cost of pharmaceutical drugs through intellectual property protections that go “significantly beyond” NAFTA. Trump’s NAFTA-2 gives pharmaceutical companies a minimum 10 years of market exclusivity for biologic drugs and protects US-based drug companies from generic competition, driving up the price of medicine at home and abroad.

All the ingredients that led to a mass movement of movements that stopped the Trans-Pacific Partnership  exist to stop NAFTA-2. Citizens Trade Campaign sent a letter signed by 1,043 organizations to Congress outlining civil society’s shared criteria for a NAFTA replacement. The requirements outlined in this letter have not been met.

Just as it became impossible across the political spectrum to support the TPP, we can make it impossible to support NAFTA-2. Democrats are signaling NAFTA-2 is not going to pass in its present form. After Robert Lighthizer met with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi last week, she described NAFTA-2 as “just a list without real enforcement of the labor and environmental protections,” that would be unlikely to pass in its present form. We can stop NAFTA-2.

Defeat of NAFTA-2 Creates the Opportunity to Transform Trade

The defeat of NAFTA-2 will show that corporate trade will no longer be approved by Congress.  Trade must be transformed to uplift workers, reduce inequality, confront climate change and improve the quality of our food and healthcare. The defeat NAFTA-2 opens the space to make transforming trade a major issue in the 2020 presidential campaigns.

President Trump has signaled that he will withdraw from NAFTA to pressure Congress to ratify NAFTA-2. Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA should not be feared but embraced. It will create an opportunity for trade transformation.

A smart presidential campaign will use the defeat of NAFTA-2 as an opportunity to begin a new era of trade transformed for the public good, serving the many, not the few. Politicians running for president in 2020 can put forward a vision of trade that the people will support.

Already, Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) has taken initial steps in this direction. In a speech to American University, Warren said she opposed Trump’s NAFTA-2 agreement, challenged the bipartisan embrace of “free” trade, and called for starting “our defense of democracy by fixing” corporate trade. In discussing trade she said, “Wow. Did Washington get that one wrong.”  She described trade as delivering “one punch in the gut after another to workers…” She urged, “We need a new approach to trade, and it should begin with a simple principle: our policies should not prioritize corporate profits over American paychecks.” This is a start, if she adds the environment, climate change, healthcare, food safety, sovereignty and Internet freedom, she will put forward a vision of smart trade that will bring millions to support her.

Warren is not alone, Senator Sherrod Brown (OH), who easily won re-election in Ohio and is considering a presidential run, has been a longtime advocate for trade that lifts up workers and challenged agreements that failed to do so. Brown sent a letter to the president eight days after the 2016 election urging Trump to keep his trade promises. Brown voted against NAFTA in one of his first acts as a member of Congress in 1993 and wrote a book entitled “Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.”

Transforming trade, by rejecting corporate trade, creates an opportunity for candidates to turn a negative issue into a positive one. The movement needs to demand candidates put forward a new vision for 21st century trade.

A Vision for Trade for People and Planet

We must put forward the vision for trade we want to see as part of the campaign to stop NAFTA-2. Trade in the 21st century needs to confront multiple crisis issues made worse by trade designed for corporate wealth. Transformed trade needs to focus on the public interest.

Pubic interest includes shrinking inequality within the United States and between nations. It means workers having a livable wage, encouraging worker-ownership of businesses so they grow their wealth not just their incomes. Trade should strengthen the rights of workers to organize, create unions and adhere to International Labor Organization standards.

Trade should aid in preventing transnational corporations and wealthy individuals from avoiding taxes. Trade should end tax havens and require transparency, end banking abroad or locating corporate charters offshore to ensure wealthy individuals and corporations pay their taxes. Countries can negotiate a global tax collected to solve global problems like poverty, homelessness, lack of healthcare and environmental degradation.

There are numerous environmental crises that trade needs to address. Three reports, the dire October 2018 IPCC report, warning we have 12 years to transform the energy economy to prevent climate catastrophe, the November 23, 2018 4th National Climate Assessment, which warned of the serious impacts of the climate crisis and the Global Carbon Project which reported carbon emissions are at record highs, show climate change must be central to trade policies.

International trade needs to be re-formulated to protect the labor, human rights, economy, environment and domestic industry of partner and recipient nations so local industry and agriculture has the advantage over foreign corporate domination. Trade needs to guarantee people their right to public ownership and control of their own resources. Trade agreements must protect the rights of nations to establish stricter standards for health, safety, human rights and environmental protections.

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Trump to notify Congress in ‘near future’ he will terminate NAFTA and replace it with remarkably similar NAFTA ‘deal’

US. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he will give formal notice to the U.S. Congress in the near future to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), giving six months for lawmakers to approve a new trade deal signed on Friday.


“I will be formally terminating NAFTA shortly,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on his way home from Argentina.

“Just so you understand, when I do that – if for any reason we’re unable to make a deal because of Congress then Congress will have a choice” of the new deal or returning to trade rules from before 1994 when NAFTA took effect, he said.

Trump told reporters the trade rules before NAFTA “work very well.” NAFTA allows any country to formally withdraw with six months notice.

Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto signed a new trade agreement on Friday known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Trump’s decision to set in motion a possible end to largely free trade in North America comes amid some skepticism from Democrats about the new trade deal.

The U.S. landscape will shift significantly in January when Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, after winning mid-term elections in November.

Presumptive incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi described the deal as a “work in progress” that lacks worker and environment protections.

“This is not something where we have a piece of paper we can say yes or no to,” she said at a news conference on Friday, noting that Mexico had yet to pass a law on wages and working conditions.

Other Democrats, backed by unions that oppose the pact, have called for stronger enforcement provisions for new labor and environmental standards, arguing that USMCA’s state-to-state dispute settlement mechanism is too weak.

A 2016 congressional research report said there is a debate over whether a president can withdraw from a trade deal without the consent of Congress, and there is no historical precedent for the unilateral withdrawal from an free trade deal by a president that had been approved by Congress.

The issue could ultimately be decided by the U.S. courts.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said last year that exiting NAFTA without a new deal could devastate American agriculture, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and “be an economic, political and national-security disaster.”

The leaders of the three countries agreed on a deal in principle to replace NAFTA, which governs more than $1.2 trillion of mutual trade, after acrimonious negotiations concluded on Sept. 30.

Trump had vowed to revamp NAFTA during his 2016 presidential election campaign. He threatened to tear it up and withdraw the United States completely at times during the negotiation, which would have left trade between the three neighbors in disarray.

The three were still bickering over the finer points of the deal just hours before officials were due to sit down and sign it.

Legislators in Canada and Mexico must still approve the pact.

Trump had forced Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the 24-year-old agreement because he said it encouraged U.S. companies to move jobs to low-wage Mexico.

U.S. objections to Canada’s protected internal market for dairy products was a major challenge facing negotiators during the talks, and Trump repeatedly demanded concessions and accused Canada of hurting U.S. farmers.

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Food insecurity: A denial of human rights

As the 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) came to a close in Geneva, the U.S. government was conspicuously absent.

corn_11152018gettyWhen the U.S. pulled out of the UNHRC in late June, it was reminiscent of the petulant child in the sandbox who doesn’t want to compromise with others and goes home instead. It’s just one more reminder of the Trump Administration’s ongoing attempts to eschew multilateralism – a foreign policy to restore and maintain a peaceful world order. Whether it’s taking pot shots at Canada’s prime minister after the Group of 7 summit, or embracing dangerous foes, the current administration continues to refine its practice of not just exiting the sandbox but stepping on toes in the process – while threatening to carry the sand away, too.

For many Americans it might seem that we have little to lose by not engaging with other nation-states in defending human rights. After all, the U.S. is one of the few states that has yet to adopt any international human rights into its domestic legal structure, despite the role the U.S. government played 70 years ago in drafting and advocating for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While we may not be host to a civil armed conflict leaving millions at risk of starvation or the systematic annihilation of entire populations based on how you pray, human rights are being violated on a daily basis.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation flagged the utility cut-offs in Detroit in 2014 as a violation of the right to water. With 1 in 8 Americans struggling to put food on the table, there are countless violations of the human right to nutritious food. Our absence in this highly visible global policy making space sets a dangerous precedent, potentially undermining the human rights obligations that all states have to global citizens and turning a blind eye to the worst perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

The U.S. is sending a clear message that diplomacy is easily jettisoned in today’s world order, so the question remains: who is the U.S. accountable to?

All signs point to corporations as having undue influence on how the U.S. behaves in policy making spaces – from the Human Rights Council to the halls of Congress. This clear allegiance goes beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that corporations can claim legal personhood. It is found in less direct ways as well, for instance, in the actions of the representatives the U.S. government appoints to different negotiating spaces affiliated with the United Nations. The new shift in U.S. representation to the Rome-based UN agencies, including FAO, WFP, and IFAD, as well as the CFS, clearly indicate the direction the administration wants to take in global food security. Kip Tom, an agribusiness man recently nominated to serve as the US Ambassador to the United Nations for Food and Agriculture, has, according to recent reports from ActionAid USA, large farming operations in Indiana and Argentina. He is also one of the largest suppliers of GMO seed for Monsanto-Bayer and Dow, as well as a major producer of biofuels, in addition to his position on the board of Growth Energy, a major agrofuels trade association.

This long-standing allegiance to corporate interests, which has taken an even stronger turn in the current administration, also plays out at home in the food and agricultural sector. The USDA has become rife with conflicts of interest, as corporate actors and interests are entering the public policy sphere.

With these corporate-vetted players in place, we can be sure that core decisions that impact food security and nutrition, including the right to food, will continue to have a more explicit focus on benefits for large corporations and powerful industries, rather than the needs of those most impacted by hunger and malnutrition.

Passing off the responsibilities of its citizens to the private sector has been in play in the U.S. and has deepened over the last 30-40 years in the form of the eroding social safety net put in place to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Trump’s recent budget proposals include a 30 percent cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which will largely impact the unemployed, the elderly, and low-income working families with children, 4 million of whom will lose these benefits altogether.

Research clearly shows that hungry people are 2.9 times more susceptible to poor health, and have a higher likelihood of chronic conditions, including hepatitis, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and other diet-related health problems.

The annual health care costs associated with hunger are estimated to be $130.5 billion in the U.S. alone, showing that addressing food insecurity and poor nutrition is a necessary step for the health of our communities.

Even though there is a scientific link to what people eat and how they feel and function, much of the anti-hunger work in the United States remains preoccupied with quantity over quality. In terms of quantity, we are feeding more people, but the quality of life isn’t improving, and Americans are not healthier or living longer.

Charitable food programs (food banks supported by the private sector) combined with “entitlement” programs, which are still subject to the prevailing ideology in Congress, cannot accomplish the goals of ending hunger and food insecurity. There is no popularly conceived, comprehensive plan in place in the US with measurable benchmarks to assess the success or failures of the present approach.

Withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council, coupled with appointing former corporate executives with a clear conflict of interest to cabinet positions, provides further clarity to the world that, as a nation, the U.S. is continuing down a path of compromising democracy.

Now is the time to follow in the footsteps of community-led organizations and social movements worldwide and build power together to demand that nation-states the world over divest from corporate influence. WhyHunger, FIAN-International, our partners, and our regional and national alliances cannot do this work alone. With policies and practices that threaten human rights unfolding at a rapid pace, we need to build power together and stand up for and with our community-based partners and social movements worldwide who are working together to build a just, hunger-free world where governments are first and foremost accountable to their citizens.

Finally, let’s demand that the United States get back into the sandbox with its toys in tow and attitudes refreshed. Human rights are standards that allow all people to live with dignity, freedom, equality, peace and justice. In principle, they are to be granted to every human being, regardless of their sex, race, nationality, religion, caste or age. However, with 41 million Americans and 821 million people worldwide experiencing food insecurityand hunger it’s clear that their right to adequate food is being denied.

Alison Cohen is the senior director of programs at WhyHunger. Emily Mattheisen is the Coordinator of the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition at FIAN-International; follow her on Twitter@EmilyMattheisen.

The Social Economy of Rojava: A Primer on the Co-op Model

Since the 2011 liberation of the northern Syrian region commonly known as Rojava, the de facto leadership of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria has begun a program of ground-up direct democracy, women’s liberation, and socially-owned means of production.


This article will examine the economic conditions of Rojava, by way co-operative ownership, so that an evaluation with historical context may be available.

Background on Rojava

After the liberation, the people of Rojava were faced with a post-colonial, monoculture economy with little industry available for refined goods. The Ba’athist regime had limited agriculture in the three cantons to only a single crop and allowed for no means of processing these crops. Around 80% of farm land was held by the government, the rest held by private businesses (Knapp 2016, 192).

With the intent of establishing a social economy, the land was handed over to local, municipal units called communes for distribution for co-operative ownership by workers. 2,500 hectares have been distributed to the co-ops as of 2015, with 1-4 being reserved for individual use. No large land-owners have been allowed access to the seized land (Knapp 2016, 199).

Beyond land and agriculture, co-operatives focused on simple industries have been organized in cities to increase the self-sufficiency of Rojava. These include bread-baking, textiles, clothes production, dairy production, and selling cleaning supplies (Knapp 2016, 200).
Historical Context

To best examine how the co-operatives of Rojava may thrive, we would need to look at past examples as a basis for future predictions. One of the most cited examples of a successful cooperative is the Spanish Mondragon Co-operative Corporation. The organization, which dates to 1956, was founded from several co-operative organizations that joined together in 1991 to form the international corporation it is today. The co-ops showed remarkable staying power, with most of the 100 original co-ops surviving to form the united corporation. Employing upwards of 3% of the Basque region’s workforce over multiple industries, the co-operatives showed that alternative corporate models could be successful when they were previously untested on a large scale (Harding 1998, 61).

However, the Mondragon example also points to a critical failing of co-ops. Mondragon has shed many of its original ideals to remain competitive with other international businesses as the globalized, capitalist economy has developed. This includes creating non-co-op subsidiaries abroad and decreasing the number of co-operative employees to 29.5% as of 2007 (Bretos 2017, 155). This example of the most well-known and well-studied co-operative falling back into a more capitalistic model would suggest that the co-op model is not sustainable in the long term.

Mondragon’s change did not occur in a vacuum of some static economy. The co-operative began to require modification after the fall of the fascist Franco government, the liberalization of Spain’s economy, and the opening of European free trade by way of the European Common Market and later the European Union (Harding 1998, 62). We can see from this mix of pro-capitalist institutional changes that external stress on co-operatives would result in failures or the need for structural changes.
The Rojava Difference

The situation in Rojava currently precludes such stressors. Only 20% of arable land is held by private owners, with a moratorium on any new private landowners (Knapp 2016, 199). There was little to no pre-existing industry, with most small business owners having fled when the revolution began. As such, most of all business is co-operative and directly supported by the local governments. The pressure is on private businesses to offer co-operative grade work or lose the ability to function to co-ops. Moreover, the embargo in place on Rojava by neighboring Turkey and South Kurdistan limits the possibility of inclusion with free-trade economics (Knapp 2016, 196).

Co-operatives within the Rojava system are inextricably tied to the commune system of self-governance. They are specifically forbidden by law from becoming independent private businesses. As such, local communes elect the co-ops’ leadership; the economic commissions throughout the administration supports the co-ops’ production. In exchange, the needs of the greater society and local commune are served by the co-ops (Knapp 2016, 205).

Local co-ops alone are obviously insufficient to meet every commune’s need. They therefore pass their needs on to economic committees at the federal level. Surplus production from other regions is allocated to communes lacking in some areas, while surplus production is likewise given for distribution outside of the native commune (Knapp 2016, 206).

The Movement for a Democratic Society is one of the overlapping organizations that guides the development of co-operatives and other aspects of the emerging social economy. Their Economic Committee issues a pamphlet concerning how these co-ops are to be run (The Movement for a Democratic Society 2016). Of interest is the division of profits. Twenty percent is given over to the commune to handle any needs of the commune, 30% reserved by the co-op to purchase more goods, machines, and other capital, and 50% to shareholders. Workers received a monthly salary as well as their share of the profits yearly or when a major goal is completed.

Those who work in the co-op are considered shareholders and receive the highest allocations from net profits. Members can also contribute capital of some sort to the co-op to receive a payout, but to a lesser extent than workers.
People over Profits

Understanding the difference between this social economy and the ubiquitous capitalist economy will require a recap of labor theory and surplus-value. Karl Marx explains that the value of commodities sold on the market can be separated between the use-value of the item and the surplus-value of it. The surplus is the source of worker exploitation, where the worker is not receiving the whole possible value of their work. Allowing workers to keep the full value of their work eliminates this exploitation. Methods by which the workers can retain surplus value are varied, with no single answer for the best possible way.

For Rojava’s co-operative economy, an initial glance would suggest that worker exploitation remains. The co-op pays the workers a wage and sells their production for a value higher than their combined salaries and the cost of production. As Thomas Sekine enumerates in his work, value theory can be formulated in with a simple c + v + s = end value (Sekine 1997, 129). The value c would represent any constant capital, as in the actual means of production, v would represent variable capital, as in labor-power purchased, and s would be surplus value. Sekine explains that only in the application of labor-power, by way of production, does this end value result. Surplus value alone does not contribute to the end value but is a separate part of the value added by labor-power retained by a capitalist or in this case the co-op (Sekine 1997, 130). As such, there is a part of the workers’ labor-power being removed that would otherwise represent a degree of exploitation under a capitalist system.

But the Rojava system distributes the profits in a way that favors the worker over non-working members. The workers are paid the highest portion relative to the non-working capital contributors (The Movement for a Democratic Society 2016). As such, surplus value is redistributed back to the workers through yearly payouts and amounts given over to the commune used to improve the workers conditions through improving the commune collectively.
The Future of Rojava and the Co-ops

Understanding the function of the co-ops within Rojava is one step in understanding the complex interaction of municipal direct democracy, the social economy, and libertarian-socialist ideals. Historical context suggests that given a stable and supportive political economy within Northern Syria, the co-ops will prove as beneficial and successful as any capitalist model would be able.

Unfortunately, the situation surrounding this experiment may not allow for this. The Ba’athist regime still holds most of Syria, the rebels are hostile to Rojava’s continuation, other Kurdish groups are unsupportive of their efforts, and Turkey has recently begun a campaign of conquest in the most western canton with threats of future invasion. Should Rojava weather this storm, they may face more external pressure from American and European economic imperialism or from neighboring powers such as Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Bretos, I., & Errasti, A. (2017). Challenges and opportunities for the regerneation of multinational worker cooperatives: Lessons from the Mondragon Corporation – a case study of the Fagor Ederlan Group. Organization, Vol. 24(2) 154-173.

Harding, S. (1998). The Decline of the Mondragon Cooperatives. Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 33 No. 1 59-76.

Knapp, M., Flach, A., & Ayboga, E. (2016). Revolution in Rojava : Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. London: Pluto Press.

Marx, K. (1995, 1999). Capital, Volume One. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (

Sekine, T. (1997). An Outline of the Dialect of Capital, Volume One. London: Palgrave Macmillan

The Movement for a Democratic Society. (2016, February 15). The Experience of Co-operative Societies in Rojava. Retrieved from The Hampton Institute:

The Biggest Question Mark for the New Congress

The single most important vote of the 116th Congress will be on trade: specifically, the NAFTA replacement. We have absolutely no idea where the new legislators stand on it.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 11.07.06 AMThe 116th Congress won’t begin for another month or so, but we already know the session’s most important vote. It won’t be about health care or the environment or the technology industry, although it will affect all of those things. It will set the course of U.S. policy, foreign and domestic, for several years, if not decades. And it got very little attention during the midterm campaign.

I’m talking about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the renegotiation of NAFTA that was signed October 1. All participating countries in the deal must ratify it through their legislatures, and with the Democratic takeover of the House, that means the party that rode to victory resisting Donald Trump must decide whether to approve his reimagining of global trade. Since USMCA will serve as a template for future trade deals, the decision will define the United States’ role in the world, at least from an economic perspective, for a long time to come.

The aggressive agendas on health care and voting rights House Democrats are readying have little chance of being approved by the Republican Senate or President Trump. But the USMCA will become law if House Democrats allow it, giving them leverage over something Trump covets. Some Senate Republicans, seeking to avoid letting Democrats have a say in the matter, are urging Trump to rush through the agreement in the lame duck session, but that appears unlikely.

The divide over the USMCA, however, is not necessarily left versus right, as both sides see good and bad in the deal. For example, corporate lobby shops like the Business Roundtable and their Republican allies are disturbed by the agreement’s virtual elimination of investor-state dispute settlement procedures, which allow foreign companies to sue national governments for interfering with “expected future profits.” Then again, business groups secured expanded copyright terms and legal immunity for Internet companies that host pirated content.

Labor groups are heartened—carmakers less so—by a minimum wage standard for continent-wide auto production, as well as the bolstering of union protections in Mexico. But they are also concerned that the labor chapter lacks sufficient enforcement mechanisms, without which the bold promises amount to mere words on paper.

Leftists have warned that they would oppose the USMCA over labor enforcement, as well as weak environmental standards: The words “climate change” do not appear in the agreement. As Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach put it in a post-midterms statement, “After this election, only trade deals that can earn Democratic support will get through Congress.”

But a potential leftist roadblock to the deal depends on one critical swing group: the freshman Democrats who will enter Congress in January. And what these new legislators think about trade policy is anyone’s guess. Trade was not an overriding national message in the midterms, taking a back seat to health care, immigration and gun safety.

I looked at the websites of the 40 Democrats who flipped seats in the House, along with eight other incoming members who replaced Democrats in seats considered to be strongly progressive. Not one of these 48 mention trade on their homepages, and just two—Jeff Van Drew and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey—cite trade on “about the candidate” pages. Even there, Van Drew nods only to nonspecific trade “reforms”; Malinowski highlights the need to “protect workers in our trade agreements.”

Eleven of the forty-eight incoming members mention trade on issues pages, but only two list trade specifically as an issue—Jared Golden of Maine and Kim Schrier of Washington state. There are only four references to NAFTA. Not one freshman noted the USMCA renegotiation, even though the text was released well before Election Day. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive darling, only uses the word “trade” on her website in one reference to “trade school.”

Why was trade such a blind spot in the campaign?

The Democrats that manage to mention trade generally vow to protect workers from unfair deals that put livelihoods at risk. Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American replacing Keith Ellison in a Minneapolis district, endorses enforceable labor and environmental standards and an end to investor-state dispute settlement on her website. Schrier’s trade mini-site is detailed, putting U.S. workers and the environment first; Golden points out that “the United States must stop using trade agreements as investment deals for the world’s wealthiest corporations.”

But the vast majority of incoming freshmen either neglect the trade issue entirely, or use the most noncommittal possible language. Antonio Delgado, representing upstate New York, is a good example: his site says he “opposes any trade agreements not beneficial to our region or to American workers,” without any detail for what that would actually mean.

Why was trade such a blind spot in the campaign? As noted, in trying to draw contrasts and move voters, health care and other issues took precedence over technical trade matters. But the composition of the freshman class could also be playing a role. Democrats took seats in the suburbs, rather than the industrial towns beleaguered by NAFTA, or rural areas with agricultural trade concerns. Despite the importance of trade policy to every worker, every consumer, and every taxpayer, those consequences often lie in the background, and may not weigh on the minds of suburban commuters and office-park workers. And while these voters may care greatly about climate change, they may not appreciate the way environmental policy is often enacted through trade policy.

But this creates a real unknown factor to the USMCA debate. How exactly will the freshman class approach it? They may join the faction seeking enforceable labor and environmental standards. Or they may see this as an inoculating vote, a way to show non-partisan points of agreement with Trump in swing districts. They may even use their vote to please business groups, and subsequently as a chance to earn future campaign donations. There’s no real way to predict, given the complete lack of discussion of trade in the campaign.

It’s rare to have this kind of uncertainty in an age of polarized politics. It speaks to a deficiency in our elections that dozens of incoming Congressmembers can get all the way to Washington without disclosing their positions on what will be the most critical vote of their young careers. One hundred and two Democrats supplied the margin when NAFTA passed the House in 1993; far fewer House freshmen could provide the needed votes today. Constituents ought to ask these incoming members where they stand.

From The New Republic