Biden official says trade deal is pro-worker
President Biden's U.S. Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, says the U.S., Canada, Mexico agreement was crafted with worker input. | Sarah Silbiger/AP

WASHINGTON—The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement—the three-way trade pact that replaced jobs-destroying NAFTA—is an example of pro-worker trade, crafted with a lot of worker input, the Democratic Biden administration emphasizes and will continue to do so.

So says Katherine Tai, Biden’s new, labor-lauded, U.S. Trade Representative, speaking to an AFL-CIO-sponsored virtual Zoom “Town Hall” on trade on June 10.

The federation hosted Tai at its headquarters, which is slowly reopening after a year-plus shutdown to prevent the super-spread of the now-apparently receding coronavirus pandemic.

Organized labor had a big role in writing the new USMCA during the GOP Trump government, Tai explained. That resulted in new and enforceable labor standards, including a quick mechanism, already in use, to challenge worker exploitation in Mexico, a fast dispute resolution system, and 75% guaranteed North American content for vehicles.

It also establishes controls over supply chains and mandates Mexico rewrite its labor laws to let workers establish and run their own independent unions, rather than company- and government-controlled unions that dominated our southern neighbor for decades.

Those “unions,” like “yellow-dog” unions in the U.S., keep wages artificially low, don’t defend workers’ rights, and allow rampant capitalist exploitation. The result was a mass migration of U.S. firms south of the border in search of cheap labor and no regulations.

The USMCA is designed to change all that, and be a model for other trade pacts and trade policy in general during the Biden-Harris administration, Tai said.

“The president has been clear trade policy will play a critical role in carrying out his vision for an economy where, as he puts it, ‘Everyone is cut in on the deal,’” said Tai. Unions will have “a critical role” in pursuing “worker-centered trade policy.”

In an explicit criticism of trickle-down economics and so-called “free trade,” including NAFTA, Tai said “past promises made to workers on trade were not met. Certain sectors of the economy have done well. But far too many communities and workers were left behind.

“The consequences for families when factories closed and jobs were sent overseas were real. And they were real for the workers who lost their jobs to unfairly traded imports, too. This created a trust gap with the public about free trade.

“This wasn’t because of trade agreements alone. Tax policy favored corporations over workers. Tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations never trickled down. President Biden knows this, which is why he wants them to pay their fair share.”

The result was stagnating real wages for workers, an explosion in wealth for the 1% and in pay for corporate CEOs, a growing white-Black wealth and pay divide—and declining private sector unionization, all deliberately driven by U.S. tax, trade, and labor policy, she added.

That’s the same theme the AFL-CIO, and tens of millions of U.S. workers, union and non-union, have been sounding for years. “This inequality isn’t fair or sustainable. It didn’t happen overnight,” Kai commented. “It is the result of along pursuit of tax, trade, labor, and other policies that encouraged a race to the bottom.”

Biden “wants an economic policy, including a trade policy, that delivers shared prosperity for all, not just profits for corporations.  We want to make trade a force for good that encourages a race to the top.”

Doing so means bringing workers to the table in trade talks, big time, she said. It also means reforming multilateral trade organizations, notably the World Trade Organization, whose extreme corporate tilt prompted mass protests even before its creation decades ago.

And it means “getting close to a global minimum tax” on multinational corporations, Tai said.  Under the 2017 Trump-GOP tax cut, many huge firms have escaped paying U.S. taxes altogether, or gotten refunds.

“And we will utilize the full range of our trade rules to protect all worker rights,” Tai said.

“When workers are at the table” in the WTO and elsewhere, “wages go up and workplaces are safer,” Kai declared. She pledged both she and Biden would push that goal, starting next week when she joins the president in Brussels, Belgium, for talks with European trading partners.

Biden, she said, “looks to broader, more meaningful policies” including trade policies, tax policies, and pushing passage of the Protect The Right To Organize (Pro) Act, to help workers. “We want to come listen to, and learn from, workers,” said Tai.

The ProAct, labor’s top legislative goal, is the most pro-worker rewrite of U.S. labor law since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act, faces extreme business opposition and GOP hate, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his filibuster threats.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who introduced Tai, praised the administration’s plans. “Tai values workers’ voices and believes in workers’ rights,” he said. Labor knows “trade is a vital part of a modern global economy. But the global economy must work for working people.

“Our choice is not whether trade and economic globalization are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The choice is this: Are U.S. trade policies ensuring workers share in the prosperity we generate? Or, are we making the same decisions that have created a race to the bottom?”

But not all is hunky-dory, yet, as one question showed.

Steve Alexander, of Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 42 in Atlanta, told Tai of the devastation when the Mondelez conglomerate closed its big snack plant there, moving the jobs to low-wage Monterrey, Mexico, months ago.

“The company raked in record profits and told us they were moving the plant” because the Mexican workers earn little and “are not represented by an independent trade union.

“How can we address this unfair trade practice?” he asked.

Tai said she’s familiar with the case, which also saw Mondelez, maker of Oreo cookies and other snacks, close its plant in Fair Lawn, N.J.—on top of a prior move of its Oreo production line from Chicago’s South Side to Monterrey.

“If companies move to Mexico to keep wages down, we will be active on the rapid response” to such exploitation, she replied. Labor helped build that rapid response into the USMCA. “My team will follow up with your union on that issue.” That, too, is a contrast.

When Mondelez first demanded the Chicago workers cut their wages to Mexican levels and give up pensions and health care, the BCTGM local said no. The union’s late president, David Durkee, asked Democratic President Barack Obama, a fellow Chicago South Sider, to intervene to keep the Oreo production going there. Durkee never got an answer.

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CONTRIBUTOR

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.

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