Free Trade in East Austin
You don’t have to travel to other countries to recognize the impact of free trade and capital mobility, says Susana Almanza. “All we have to do is look at East Austin to see what’s happening throughout the world,” says Almanza, director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), an environmental justice group. On April 20, she spoke to 200 demonstrators who had gathered at the state Capitol to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) trade agreement, on the same day that leaders from 34 Western nations convened in Quebec City to negotiate its terms. “In my community we have billion-dollar transnational corporations like Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices, and SEMATECH, yet we have the highest poverty rate in the city. While Austin has a two to three percent unemployment rate, we have close to 16 percent unemployment in our community.”
Workers and local residents often suffer the negative effects of corporate investment without receiving any of the benefits, Almanza says. While transnational corporations have relocated their assembly-line manufacturing to places like Mexico, at their Austin plants they generally hire highly skilled technicians and engineers who are not from the local community. It’s a common pattern: People in low-income communities have lost traditional high-wage manufacturing job opportunities, yet they are not the beneficiaries of the high-paying skilled jobs created when multinational corporations come to town.
While corporations like SEMATECH and AMD have brought semiconductor manufacturing jobs to East Austin, local residents often lack the educational level and basic training to qualify for even entry level positions.
Meanwhile, those communities suffer the environmental consequences of corporate investment, such as high levels of industrial emissions, groundwater pollution, and commercial traffic. In East Austin, PODER has been active in grassroots organizing against hazardous corporate operations. In a battle that ran from 1995 to 2000, the group fought successfully to relocate the recycling facilities of Browning Ferris Industries, one of the world’s largest waste management firms, by negotiating new zoning regulations with the city.
Corporate investment often carries unintended consequences, Almanza points out. For instance, under the current system of school finance in Texas, it has caused East Austin schools to lose funds. Public schools are financed through local property taxes, with transfers of funds from affluent school districts to poor districts in order to reduce inequalities in resource allocation. Because corporate investment has swelled the tax base of Austin Independent School District, the district is now required to transfer resources to other, relatively poorer school districts throughout the state. That, in turn, has forced AISD to cut back on special programs for East Austin schools, which had been initiated because of the inequity within the district between East Austin and other parts of the city
That loss of funding wasn’t caused by a trade agreement, but it’s an example of why citizens and community organizations, not just corporations and governments, have a stake in corporate investments: Communities often require special considerations to protect existing programs and institutions.
Meanwhile, the negotiations for the FTAA have been conducted in secret, despite public concerns about the impact of the treaty. As former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower warned at an Austin teach-in about the FTAA on April 16, “FTAA extends corporate sovereignty into the public sector, so corporations will be allowed to use the FTAA to force privatization, from everything from public hospitals to social security.”
“It’s important to say that none of us are against trade or internationalism,” says Hightower. “What we’re against is greed. We’re against being shut out by the powers that be, who seem to think that they’re the top dog and we’re just a bunch of fire hydrants.”
Activists from a number of progressive organizations, including Global Exchange, Greenpeace, and Campaign ExxonMobil will meet May 27th through 30th in Dallas for a conference on corporate accountability. Workshops will focus on how local organizers and community groups can monitor and influence corporations’ environmental and labor policies. For more information, contact Campaign ExxonMobil at (512) 479-0335 or on the Internet at www.empoweringdemocracy.org.
Mitchell Deacon is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.