North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)


What is NAFTA?

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect on January 1, 1994 between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Negotiated behind closed doors with hundreds of official corporate advisors, NAFTA was radically different than past trade deals that focused on traditional trade matters, like cutting border taxes. Instead, most of NAFTA's provisions grant new powers and privileges to multinational corporations.

These new powers make it easier for corporations to outsource jobs and attack the environmental and health laws on which we all rely. (Check out our list of the most egregious investor cases here.) NAFTA's "investor protections" create incentives for corporations to relocate production and jobs elsewhere. Indeed, the U.S. has lost more than 970,000 American jobs due to NAFTA, according to the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) database.

Plus, NAFTA guts the Buy American policies that require the government to buy American-made goods when spending our tax dollars. This outsources our tax dollars rather than investing them to create jobs here.

NAFTA has also lowered U.S. wages, increased inequality, and hurt U.S. manufacturing and agriculture in all 50 states. At the same time, it has decimated the Mexican economy, driving millions from their homes.

A Vast Expansion of Corporate Power

At the heart of deals like NAFTA are the outsourcing protections and new rights for multinational corporations to sue the U.S. government in front of a tribunal of three corporate lawyers.

These lawyers can order U.S. taxpayers to pay the corporations unlimited sums of money, including for the loss of expected future profits.

The corporations only need to convince the lawyers that a law protecting public health or the environment violates their special NAFTA rights. The corporate lawyers' decisions are not subject to appeal.

This corporate power grab is formally called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

Taxpayers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars under NAFTA to multinational corporations over toxic bans, environmental and public health policies, and more, with tens of billions pending in ongoing cases.

Rollbacks of Food Safety, Health and Environmental Protections

The dirty little secret of NAFTA is that most of its chapters do not have to with trade at all. One chapter limits food and product safety standards along with border inspections. It lets agribusiness firms sell food here that does not meet U.S. safety rules.

Another gives big pharmaceutical firms new protections against competition so they can raise medicine prices. Another limits consumer protections in the service sector.

This limits what governments can do to keep big banks from causing another financial crisis and requires access to all U.S. roads for trucks from Mexico that do not meet U.S. safety or environmental standards.

The Consequences of NAFTA

Instead of the economic gains for people in all three countries promised by NAFTA’s supporters, the deal has resulted massive job loss and lower wages.

There are more than 970,000 specific American jobs certified as lost to NAFTA outsourcing and imports under just one narrow government program that undercounts the damage.

The Labor Department reports that almost half of the manufacturing workers who lost jobs and were rehired in 2016 experienced a wage reduction, with one out of four taking a cut of greater than 20 percent — an annual loss of at least $7,700. Entire communities have been devastated.

More than 2 million Mexicans engaged in farming and related work lost their livelihoods as NAFTA flooded Mexico with subsidized corn and other agricultural products. Tens of thousands of small retail and manufacturing firms were bankrupted as NAFTA opened the door to Walmart and other megaretailers.

Real average annual wages in Mexico are now lower than they were before NAFTA, and those making the least have been hurt the most, with the minimum wage declining 16.7 percent.

Scores of environmental, health and other public interest policies have been challenged in all three countries. Consumer safeguards, including key food safety protections, have been rolled back.

And NAFTA supporters’ warnings about the chaos that would engulf Mexico, and a new wave of migration from Mexico, if NAFTA was not implemented have indeed come to pass, but ironically because of the devastation of many Mexicans’ livelihoods occurring, in part, because NAFTA was implemented.

Featured Resources:

AnalysisKey Findings of the ITC Report on the Revised NAFTA: Modest Projections Do Not Alter Pact’s Prospects in Congress (April 18, 2019)

Fact Sheet: Phase Two in the Battle to Replace NAFTA and its Ongoing Damage 

AnalysisAnalysis of the NAFTA 2.0 Text Relative to the Essential Changes We Have Demanded to Stop NAFTA’s Ongoing Damage (October 3, 2018)

Report: NAFTA at 25: Promises Versus Reality (December 19, 2018) 

Report: Fracaso: NAFTA’s Disproportionate Damage to U.S. Latino and Mexican Working People (December 4, 2018)

Analysis of NAFTA 2.0:

Videos on NAFTA 2.0:

NAFTAs Legacy Fact Sheets:

Reports and Memos  | Press Room | Members of Congress Speak Out | Civil Society Groups Speak Out Other Resources

Public Citizen Fact Sheets, Reports & Memos

Public Citizen Press Releases & Statements

Members of Congress Speak Out

Civil Society Groups Speak Out

Other Resources

“NAFTA Renegotiation Threats” Fact Sheets:


Poll: How Progressives Can & Must Engage on NAFTA Renegotiations (October 20, 2017)

NAFTA Archives: