20 years on, NAFTA still stings in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Pact not entirely to blame, but many onetime autoworkers say it symbolizes ‘misguided loyalty to free-market capitalism’

President Bill Clinton touted NAFTA as a surefire way of securing a future for American jobs.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

YPSILANTI, Mich. — Some 20,000 people once worked in the auto industry in and around this city 35 miles west of Detroit. Today perhaps 2,000 people do.

The impact of that change is obvious to even the casual visitor. Downtown businesses are boarded up, the parks and recreation department has a budget of zero dollars, and empty, decrepit factory buildings stand as monuments to another time.

Retired Ypsilanti autoworker Bob Bowen is from that era, and even now he and others like him are fiercely proud of the car industry that once defined the town. They don’t take kindly to foreign cars on their turf.

“I don’t dislike the Mexican workers,” he said as he glanced at a parked Ford Fiesta, a car made in Mexico. “But why can’t we make them here?”

Bowen, of course, knows the answer to this question: The economics simply don’t work. Michigan autoworkers are much more expensive then those in Mexico.

But it was not meant to be this way.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, made its way through the U.S. political system 20 years ago on its way to becoming law. It took effect on Jan. 1, 1994. At the time, President Bill Clinton touted the agreement as a surefire way of securing a future for American jobs and American industry in key manufacturing states like Michigan and one-industry towns like Ypsilanti.

“NAFTA means jobs, American jobs and good-paying American jobs,” Clinton said as he signed the agreement.

Back then, Michigan had 288,700 people working in vehicle manufacturing and auto parts. Now, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only some 150,500 people have auto jobs in Michigan.

For people like Bowen, who retired in 1994 shortly after NAFTA went into effect, Clinton’s words still ring hollow. Though Bowen does not entirely fault the trade agreement for his city’s collapse, he called NAFTA a “milestone marker.” It symbolizes his city’s demise caused by a “misguided loyalty to free-market capitalism” and what he describes as a steady march to break unions and organized labor.

Whatever — or whoever — is to blame, he doesn’t see much of a future in Michigan for his five grandkids.

“It’s almost like reading what happened after World War I, where you’ve got a lost generation,” Bowen said. “You had so many people killed. Well in this case, it’s killed opportunities. And we’ve done it through political and economic policy that benefited a handful of people at the expense of everyone else.”

A complex problem

But others find NAFTA and its impact more complex than that.

For some, the existence of a Mexican-made Ford Fiesta — a popular Ford model —  parked on the streets of Ypsilanti doesn’t pour salt on the wounds of American autoworkers. Some say a car like the Fiesta has actually helped salvage the remaining Michigan auto jobs because while it may be made in Mexico, that doesn’t make it entirely Mexican.

Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., described arriving for a meeting with the head of the United Auto Workers in his Ford Fiesta and being told not to park it on union property.

“I pointed out that the air-conditioning system, the motor, the transmission and many other parts were made by UAW workers — his UAW workers — in the United States,” McAlinden said, adding that he was, nonetheless, ordered not to park it there.

His point is that parts are flying back and forth across the border. The U.S. exported about $20 billion worth of auto parts to Mexico last year and imported about $40 billion worth, according to the Transportation and Machinery Office, International Trade Administration.

That’s the way the modern international economy operates — in large part because treaties like NAFTA that were designed to break down borders to trade and encourage a freer flow of goods and companies.

“You now have a much more efficient North American market,” said Claude Barfield, a trade policy expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “So whether it’s a U.S. automobile firm — or an Asian firm such as Toyota or Hyundai, who are now producing here — they produce much more efficiently by being able to use all three economies (Canada, Mexico and the U.S.).”

And U.S. consumers are able to purchase more affordable cars.

But try telling that to the former autoworkers of Ypsilanti — or dozens of other Michigan and Rust Belt cities just like it.

Shirley Poling, a retired Ford and General Motors autoworker in Ypsilanti, doesn’t entirely blame NAFTA for the demise of factory jobs in Michigan either. But she said NAFTA is still a dirty word in her state.

“It comes up all the time,” she said. “The most politically uninvolved people in the plants still understand what NAFTA meant to us.”

‘A different world’

“It’s a very natural way of thinking, but it’s not the whole story,” said Dave Cole, chairman of Auto Harvest, a research group in Ann Arbor.

Cole said NAFTA remains a convenient villain, but factory job losses in Michigan have had more to do with transformational change, namely new technologies in the modern factory. Robots now handle the repetitive work that factory workers used to do — and could do with relatively little education.

“You know what the greatest shortages are of people right now in the auto industry?” he said. “Skilled trades and technicians — people that replace the dies, repair things, deal with the reprogramming of the software … It’s a different world, and people got caught in it.”

That different world is slowly taking shape in Ypsilanti.

“Six years ago, downtown was deserted, seen as a dangerous place,” Mayor Paul Schreiber said.

As he walked around downtown recently, he proudly pointed out new restaurants, shops and downtown apartment lofts.

Schreiber said the city is still home to a lot of autoworkers, many retired. But the city’s new lifeblood is a mix of bohemian artists, middle-class professionals and students from the local college. And many young people have moved to Ypsilanti from nearby Ann Arbor looking for a more affordable place to live.

Despite some aesthetic improvements, Ypsilanti is a far cry from what it once was. He said the city is saddled with a structural deficit and is always looking for ways to reduce it, which, inevitably, means cutting services. It’s a vicious loop. Having fewer services makes Ypsilanti a less attractive place to settle, and a smaller population means a smaller tax base.

Besides being the mayor, Schreiber is also an autoworker — albeit a highly skilled one. He is an electronic engineer who works on radios, but he, too, has concerns about his job.

“I don’t know if ‘worried’ is the right word,” he said. But in the next breath, he said he’s well aware that companies invest in places where they can make money. Or, to put it another way, companies invest in places where they can save money by hiring cheaper workers.

And increasingly, no autoworker — skilled or unskilled — is immune from the demands of global capitalism.

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