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U.S.-Mexico agreement creates bitter disagreement over trucking issue

President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced a trade agreement Thursday, making good on an aspect of the 1994 NAFTA pact that has long been a point of contention between the U.S. and Mexico. Yet the announcement has had a mixed reception among those it will affect. Its supporters say it could be a much-needed boost to the struggling American trucking industry; its detractors say it could signal nothing less than the end of the industry.

The new agreement puts an end to food tariffs that Mexico first levied in 2008 as a response to complaints that the U.S. never made good on a 1994 promise to allow Mexican tractor-trailers into the U.S. In exchange for agreeing to end the tariffs, Mexico is now allowed to send truckers over the border. The American Trucking Association issued a press release saying it was pleased with the announcement and hoped that it could spur further commerce between the two countries and inject some capital and opportunity into the American trucking industry.

Though the trucking industry is in the midst of a slight and hesitating recovery, with 3,200 new trucking jobs added to the economy in January, the tenth month in a row that has seen such a climb, employment levels have tanked in the last several years. Trucking has hemorrhaged 200,000 jobs since its all-time high in January 2007.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers’ Association, which represents more than 150,000 American truck drivers, is concerned that the still-vulnerable position of the industry could be shaken by the agreement. In a statement, organization Vice President Todd Spencer called the deal “simply unbelievable” and “tantamount to rubbing salt in wounds already inflicted.” The statement says that it threatens the livelihood of truckers across the country but does not explain OOIDA’s beef with the arrangement, and, in fact, criticizes the Obama administration for failing to prevent the initial enactment of tariffs — which the arrangement would end. Like Teamsters President Jim Hoffa, Spencer cites safety concerns, the same reason the government has given for holding up the deal to begin with, to explain his objections. However, NAFTA safety statistics show that the Mexican truck drivers who have been allowed on U.S. roads actually have a higher rate of passing inspections and a considerably lower rate of drug and alcohol and moving violations than their American counterparts.

The real reason for an objection to the deal may be hinted at in the margins of the debate, for example, in some of the angry comments aimed at the bloggers of Mexico Trucker Online, a website very much in favor of allowing Mexican truckers on American roads. There and in other corners of the Internet, some American truckers have expressed concerns that the agreement will result in massive job loss for domestic truckers because companies would jump to take advantage of the considerably lower wages standard in Mexico.

Such concerns appear to be unfounded, as the agreement would only apply to Mexican trucks originating in Mexico and should not cause American trucking jobs to be outsourced in any way; on the contrary, the abolishment of the tariffs should result in more commerce between the two countries. Yet it’s understandable that truckers in a still-recovering economy might look to an industry like construction, where an estimated 17 percent of the workforce (other estimates put it even higher) is comprised of undocumented immigrants and be concerned that an access corridor bringing thousands of experienced truckers into the country might result in a similar wave of immigration that could endanger their jobs.

The agreement requires Congressional approval before it can be enacted, so, as with so much else, this battle may be decided by whichever side lobbies the hardest.

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