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The Teamsters Are Looking Out For You (Right)

By Ruben Navarrette

I've hit a fork in the road in my thinking concerning the unrelenting campaign by the Teamsters to deny Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways.

On the one hand, I recognize that these efforts are deplorable and destructive. They've tarnished the international reputation of the United States as a trading partner; highways in Mexico, Canada and the United States are supposed to be open to truckers from all three countries under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The efforts have weakened the union by revealing how desperate it is to remain relevant amid declining membership. And, to the degree that the Teamsters have delayed the trucking provision of NAFTA from taking effect, the union has hurt both Mexican truckers, who have lost the chance to better themselves economically, and U.S. truckers, who have lost their competitive edge because they're protected from foreign workers.

Yet the union's campaign has also been quite helpful in pointing out what much of the opposition to globalization is really about -- an attempt to artificially inflate wages for U.S. workers by keeping cheaper goods and services off the market and limiting competition. It's so ugly that it helped illuminate just how low some will sink to undermine trade deals by stoking nativist fears and stirring anti-Mexican sentiment. And it's so cynical that it helped make strange bedfellows: Union officials who worry about falling wages and foreign competition are suddenly aligned with conservatives who worry about vanishing borders and a merger of the three nations of North America.

What should worry the rest of us is the tone of this debate. Teamster officials have insisted that Mexican drivers don't speak English and thus can't read road signs. They have also suggested that Mexican trucks could smuggle drugs or illegal immigrants, or even -- in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 -- terrorists.

Baloney. These are just cultural hot buttons that union officials push to try to get the public on their side. They have zeroed in on Americans' fears about Mexico and exploited them. Worried about Mexican drug dealers and illegal immigrants? Concerned that Mexican trucks might be subpar, or that Mexican truckers might drive drunk? Insistent that people who live and work in the United States -- or, for that matter, even pass through -- should learn English? The Teamsters are looking out for you.

Actually, it is Mexican truckers who need looking out for. Even after NAFTA's passage in the early 1990s, they have been on the short end of a double standard. Canadian trucking companies have had full access to U.S. roads, but Mexican trucks could travel only about 20 miles inside the country and then had to transfer their cargo to U.S. trucks. Under NAFTA, Mexican truckers were supposed to be allowed to haul cargo throughout the United States without having to make a transfer. That should have been good news for Mexican truckers and anyone else who thinks the current system is terribly inefficient.

But it's bad news for the Teamsters, which have been fighting to preserve the status quo. So far, the union keeps striking out. First, it tried and failed to keep Mexican trucks out of the negotiations over NAFTA. Then it tried and failed to lobby Congress to ban Mexican trucks and had to settle for Congress setting restrictions. And then last week, in a last-ditch attempt to head off a Bush administration plan to welcome Mexican trucks onto U.S. roads, it asked a federal appeals court to issue an emergency injunction; the court refused.

So now, 15 years after NAFTA was signed, the Mexican trucks are poised to finally hit U.S. roadways -- as soon as the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation signs off and the Mexican government reciprocates by issuing permits to U.S. trucking companies. Both could happen this week.

Excellent. The Teamsters were always in the wrong, and the union only made things worse by taking the low road. What they've been fighting for is the chance to cut in on someone else's deal. Think about it. These trucks load up in Mexico to head north to fulfill a contract. Why should they have to unload and give U.S. drivers a piece of the business? Let the Teamsters get their own contracts instead of trying to poach someone else's.

This controversy should have run out of gas long ago. Now let's roll.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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