AFL-CIO trade expert: Labor section key for “new NAFTA” talks
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland meets for a trilateral meeting with Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, left, and Robert Lighthizer, U.S. Trade Representative, during the final day of the third round of NAFTA negotiations in Ottawa on Sept. 27. | Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press via AP

WASHINGTON (PAI)—With the latest round of “new NAFTA” negotiations scheduled for November 17-21 in Mexico City, the outcome of talks on the labor section of the so-called “trade pact” may be key to whether it stands or fails, the AFL-CIO’s trade expert says.

And the U.S. reaction to Canada’s strong proposal for worker rights in the U.S.—including repeal of so-called “right to work” laws and much more—will help determine that result, adds the specialist, Celeste Drake.

Drake and Lori Wallach, a trade attorney and expert on the workers’ side and head of Public Citizen’s Trade Watch, discussed the upcoming fifth round of U.S.-Canada-Mexico talks in a November 16 telephone press conference.

While business concentrates on the Trump administration’s demands for a lower U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and higher domestic content for cars, Wallach and Drake said the labor provisions will be just as key, because they’ll determine the outcome on Capitol Hill.

The key point for U.S. and Canadian unions and workers is “a serious revision of the rules for NAFTA—including addressing how unscrupulous employers abuse Mexican workers” and use low wages and lax enforcement there to entice firms south of the border, said Drake.

“If we can’t get rights and wages up for Mexican workers,” many of whom are subject to industry-allied and government-controlled sham unions, “then we all lose,” she said.

But Mexico isn’t the only nation of the three in NAFTA with workers’ rights problems. After lobbying by Unifor, Canada’s largest union, the Trudeau government laid down a strong labor rights section demand, including improving and enforcing U.S. worker rights.

Besides banning right to work laws, Canadian negotiators also demand strong U.S. protections against worker intimidation and coercion, against gender discrimination (especially against pregnant women on the job), independent enforcement and monitoring of worker rights in the U.S., extending labor protections to migrant workers, and enactment of laws “to make sure the employer can’t use the exploitation of one set of workers to drive down the wages of others.”

U.S. business is telling President Donald Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer “not to take the labor section seriously,” Drake said. But they must, since “Canada is still a critical trading partner” with the U.S. Federal figures show in dollar terms, Canada is the U.S.’ largest trading partner.

Lighthizer has been listening to labor’s case, more than the Obama administration did during development of U.S. proposals for the now-dead Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation Pacific Rim pro-corporate trade pact that included all three nations. After worker protests and lobbying, Obama shelved the TPP. Trump later officially dumped it.

But listening is one thing; agreeing is another. Drake and Wallach warn Trump could accept enforceable worker rights in a new NAFTA, but the rights would be the weak ones now included in CAFTA, the U.S. trade pact with Central American nations.

“At the end of the round on Tuesday,” November 21, “we’ll have a better idea if there is a better deal” for workers, “a worse deal, or no NAFTA at all. The only thing we can say right now is there won’t be the same old same old,” Wallach concluded.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.