How's NAFTA Working? Ask the People in Avis, Pa.

IN Miami over the weekend, President Clinton justified his call for the spread of ''free trade'' agreements across the Western Hemisphere by declaring that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a tremendous success. By the end of this year, the Clinton administration boasts, NAFTA will create 100,000 new jobs.

The problem is that the administration offered no evidence to support this claim. The job projections were based on the assumption that NAFTA would improve the US trade balance with Mexico. This hasn't happened. While US exports to Mexico indeed have increased during the past year, US imports from Mexico have risen even faster, wiping out any job gains that might have come from exports.

The administration's claims of 100,000 new jobs are repeated by USA*NAFTA, the corporate pro-NAFTA lobby, in a new state-by-state analysis of NAFTA's impact entitled ''NAFTA: It's Working for America.'' Our thorough analysis of the report reveals that only 535 jobs can be traced to NAFTA. Moreover, the largest job creator cited in the study -- Zenith, with 300 jobs -- is an even larger job destroyer under NAFTA. The Department of Labor determined this month that a Zenith layoff of 430 workers in Missour i resulted from a shift of production to Mexico.

The laid-off Zenith workers qualify for a program set up under NAFTA to provide retraining and other benefits to workers who lose their jobs as the result of the agreement. So far, more than 30,000 workers have petitioned for such assistance and 12,122 have been certified. Since many laid-off workers are not even aware of the program, the AFL-CIO estimates that the actual number of NAFTA-related layoffs is closer to 38,000. When presented with these figures, a US Commerce Department spokesman replied me ekly that it is easier to count jobs lost than jobs created.

With all these figures flying about, it's important to remember that the debate over free trade is not just about abstract numbers. The hundreds of thousands of North Americans who came together to fight NAFTA one year ago did so because they saw the agreement as a threat to their communities, their environment, and their quality of life.

In rural Avis, Pa., these fears have been realized. In July, the town lost what had been its biggest employer, sportswear manufacturer Woolrich Inc. As recently as 1992, officials at the 160-year-old company publicly stated that the firm was determined to keep production in the United States rather than move to a low-wage country. However, within the first year of NAFTA, the temptation of Mexico -- where apparel workers earn on average $1 to $1.40 an hour -- was too much to resist. The company closed it s plant in Avis and moved to Mexico.

The 98 laid-off workers in Avis -- almost all of the them women -- face a daunting challenge. Although they qualify for retraining benefits, the big question is, ''retraining for what?'' Job opportunities in the area are scarce, to say the least. Since the Woolrich plant closed, the biggest employer in town is the United Methodist Church, which employs 17 people in its day-care center.

NAFTA isn't working for Avis. It isn't working for the Mexican laborers who continue to see their rights violated. And as toxic dumping continues in the US-Mexico border region, it isn't working for the environment either.

The administration did its best to divert attention from these facts as it lobbied in Miami for the expansion of NAFTA to Chile and other countries of the Western Hemisphere. It's up to the American public to demand that the administration either provide evidence to support its bragging or own up to the shortcomings of NAFTA.

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