Tuesday, May 18, 2010

For OOIDA, NAFTA’s still a ‘top drawer’ mission

For many years, one of my reporting “beats” for Land Line was NAFTA. I covered it from the early ’90s until our Senior Editor Jami Jones joined our staff in 2004. In her first week, I handed over an armload of files.

Fifteen pounds of files moved from my top drawer to her top drawer, and she officially inherited all things NAFTA. Of all the issues we cover, NAFTA still occupies the most file drawer space. At OOIDA, getting the trucking provisions right has simply been an immense mission.

“When Mexican trucks are allowed to operate in the U.S., they will be required to follow virtually all the same regulations that U.S. truckers do.”

We’ve heard these words for nearly two decades – and while some progress has been made, it’s obvious that truck safety isn’t a priority in Mexico.

Looking back at our early coverage, it was a developing situation that demanded 10 times the hours in research that it did to report. Understanding the implications for truckers was complicated. But at my desk at OOIDA headquarters, I was in the best place a reporter could be.

When President George H.W. Bush declared NAFTA negotiations complete on Aug. 12, 1992 – it was already under fire by OOIDA President Jim Johnston. OOIDA executives, our board members, attorneys and our regulatory people had already been making trips to the border and beyond to learn what we could.

I recall Jim and Todd poring over the Land Transportation-related provisions of NAFTA and the alarm bells going off over the obvious inequities for U.S. truckers.

NAFTA was going to hugely complicate trucking.

One of our board members was a cattle hauler from Texas. He testified before numerous congressional committees and subcommittees, telling them about the 21 trips he made to Mexico City hauling livestock. Charles Holman knew more about the Mexican trucks, the roads and the drivers than any task force.

For guys like Holman, it must have been astounding for FHWA – the then-agency watchdogging trucking – to be telling truckers how it was in Mexico and how everything was going to be so great.

In January 1993, President Clinton was sworn in, inheriting NAFTA. We knew he was lukewarm over some aspects of the agreement, but he was a centrist – trying to make all sides come together. Plus, the pressure was on for quick approval of the whole thing.

In a measure designed to step up full consent, Mexico used a tactic that it likes to employ. It began enforcing a 33 percent tariff on goods purchased in the U.S. and carried into Mexico by Mexican citizens.

We reported that the tariffs sparked a heated protest at border crossings and resulted in a 50 percent reduction in business in border towns like Laredo. It was a full court press for a fast OK – sort of like the tariff bullying they are doing now.

Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act in December 1993 after it was passed by Congress. In January 1994, NAFTA officially went into effect.

Things were quiet at first, with the FHWA saying the only impact on trucking was the Mexican ban on 53-foot trailers. Mexico quickly lifted that ban, making an allowance for them to travel into Mexican border states.

The president of Mexico at that time was Carlos Salinas De Gortari. When U.S. trucking interests began to raise concerns on issues that lacked clarity in the agreement, he flatly stated that negotiations were closed and “any adjustments should be carried out by the businessmen involved within the framework of the agreement.”

OOIDA expressed to President Clinton grave concerns over safety implications and the effect of lower paid Mexican drivers. The latter issue was also the focus of the Teamsters.

I recall the summer of 1994 as a volatile one. Federico Peña was the U.S. Secretary of Transportation at that time for the Clinton administration. By then, the devil’s details regarding NAFTA and the trucking industry were erupting in full force.

Hailing the creation of “the largest and richest free trade zone in the world” was one thing; doing it efficiently while maintaining safety standards, security, etc. was another. Washington was teeming with activity related to NAFTA’s impact on transportation.

We were engulfed in a quagmire of summits, briefings and meetings where the government was saying “this is going to be SO swell” and the people actually assigned to plan and implement the cross-border trucking were saying “how the hell are we supposed to do this?”

Our executive VP Todd Spencer was in Texas in the spring of 1994. He was at a rally in Buda, TX, where he was a speaker, along with Peña. NAFTA wasn’t the only talking point, but given the time and place, it was a hot topic. Todd came back and said the word was that Clinton wasn’t sure about the wisdom of letting Mexican trucks “come across.”

Dec. 17, 1995, was on the calendar as the big day. Mexico and the U.S. were due to allow unlimited cross-border access within the border states of both countries for the delivery and backhaul of international cargo.

Does anyone remember that day? On the morning it was supposed to happen, we had OOIDA members there in Laredo, reporting to us the action, or lack of. Todd’s info was on target.

Without notice, President Clinton delayed it. It was reported to be because of the pressure of OOIDA, Teamsters, as well as environmental and consumer safety folks.

During those early years, OOIDA had the best eyes and ears of all watching Mexican trucks both on the border and deep into the interior. We had truckers. We had photos, anecdotal stories and actual incidents. My NAFTA files had grown to nearly one-third of the top drawer of my huge file cabinet.

One of OOIDA’s regulatory people spent some time in Mexico interviewing Mexican drivers, who told us that while the Mexican government claimed to have regulations, that wasn’t necessarily the end of it. For instance, the Mexican government told us it had weight regulations, but Mexican drivers would tell us “nobody ever weighs us.”

I recall doing a story titled “Trucking in Mexico: the way it’s supposed to be and the way it is.” It was based on information gathered by OOIDA’s Director of Regulatory Affairs, who was sent to Mexico by Jim Johnston.

I also recall a number of meetings either on the border or in Mexico, including a CVSA Senior Strategic Advisory Committee meeting in Ixtapa, Mexico, which was attended by Jim Johnston. That was about 1996 or 97, when Phil Vasquez was president of CVSA.

Although CVSA was OK with opening the border – and that was a surprise – many were not, including members of Congress. More than 225 members of Congress signed letters to Clinton urging him to keep the border limitations in place until the president could guarantee the American people that Mexican truckers can and will operate safely in the United States. A number of those congressional seats have changed, but the will of the lawmakers has not. They still feel the same.

This week – as we anticipate an announcement from the Obama administration regarding a new plan for cross-border trucking – it’s hard to think it’s been more than 18 years that OOIDA has been actively battling half-baked provisions of this trade “agreement.” During those years, OOIDA has fought it on all levels – in the regulatory arena, before Congress and in the court.

And there’s still plenty of room in that top drawer.