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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 20:27 GMT 21:27 UK
Mexican truckers fight for US access
President Bush shake hands ahead of the Summit of the Americas
Bush shakes hands with delegates ahead of this weekend's Summit of the Americas
By BBC News Online's North America business reporter, David Schepp

The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) was supposed to create unrestricted access to markets throughout the North American continent.

But seven years after Nafta became law, Mexican truckers still find that they cannot drive their trucks on US highways.

Truck
Mexican trucks are barred from US highways
Nafta called for Mexican trucks to have unrestricted access to highways in border states - Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona - by 1995 and full access to all US highways by January 2000.

But US President Clinton in 1995, motivated by safety concerns raised by unions representing US truckers, blocked the trade agreement's trucking provisions thus refusing entry to Mexican truckers along the two countries' 2,100 mile border.

The issue has been a bone of contention among not just unionised truckers and their companies but environmentalists as well, who raise not only safety concerns but also fear compromising US environmental standards by allowing Mexican trucks on US roads.

Labour leaders continue to press President George W Bush to put off an order to open the American border to Mexican trucks until safety measures are in place.

Mexico fights back

But Mexico's trucking industry is not staying silent in the face of the controversy.

Last autumn, hundreds of truckers in Mexico blocked major highways into and out of the capital, Mexico City, with their lorries to protest what they called unfair competition by US truckers.

Despite US refusal to allow Mexican trucks into the US, American freight hauliers are able to operate freely south of the border.

The head of Mexico's National Freight Transport Chamber, Miguel Quintanilla, said last month that the US should accept the decision of a Nafta arbitration panel that issued a favourable ruling toward Mexico in February.

Mr Quintanilla expects Mexican truckers to have access by the end of the year.

US Chamber of Commerce Vice President Willard Workman has said the safety concerns raised by unions and environmentalists are a red herring, since Mexican trucks already are allowed to go 20 miles into the US.

He says safety measures are in place and disputes union assertions that US Customs officials would be overburdened by the influx of trucks coming from Mexico if they were permitted access.

"The resources are there," he says.

Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO, a federation of 65 labour unions that represents 13 million workers, passed a resolution in February calling for safety measures to be put in place.

"This border shouldn't be opened," David Smith, director of public policy at the AFL-CIO, told BBC Online.

"The Department of Transportation is not ready to enforce US safety standards," he says, quoting the government's inspector general.

James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union, which represents transports workers, among others, has asked President Bush to "go slowly" in complying with Nafta's terms and has called trade sanctions preferable.

"What's a life worth", Hoffa said, noting the union's safety concerns.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has also asserted its opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that is to be negotiated among 34 American nations at the upcoming Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec this weekend.

Giant trading area

Once completed in 2005, the FTAA, will be the largest free-trade area in the world and link nearly 800 million people - about 15% of the Earth's population - to goods and services estimated to be worth more than $11.4 trillion in 1999.

The AFL-CIO's executive council is also critical of the manner in which the FTAA is being negotiated. In its resolution it noted that while union and environmentalists are being excluded from the negotiations, corporations are not.

"Such a process and any agreement it may produce will face fierce and broad public opposition in many countries," the resolution said.

The AFL-CIO's Smith adds that the closed nature of the discussions poses problems.

"[Trade authorities] have appeared to have learned nothing from the failure of previous trade negotiations," Mr Smith told BBC Online. "We have a range of concerns with regard to the direction FTAA is going, but we're not in the room."

The federation is also battling so-called "fast-track" authority, which would permit President Bush to negotiate trade deals with only the approval of Congress.

The AFL-CIO opposes extending such power to the US president and was successful in denying it to former President Bill Clinton.

On Tuesday, President Bush said he would intensify his efforts to obtain fast-track trading authority from Congress after he returns from this weekend's Western Hemisphere trade summit in Quebec.

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See also:

16 Feb 01 | Americas
Mexico's Stetson summit
27 Mar 01 | Business
World trade talks stall
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