Government says it will use trade pacts to advance worker rights internationally
A man works in a shoe maquiladora, or factory, in Leon, Mexico, Feb. 7, 2023. The Biden administration claims the USMCA has been raising wages in Mexico. | Mario Armas / AP

SAN FRANCISCO—Building on the provisions of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact, the White House says the Biden administration launched a “whole-of-government initiative,” via an executive order, to use trade pacts and other leverage to advance worker rights worldwide.

Biden’s objective, said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, is to expand and increase worker rights and incomes abroad. When those rights advance and incomes advance, those workers benefit—and U.S. workers do, too, the two said.

That’s because advancing workers’ rights and wages abroad also removes low-wage exploitation which corporate chieftains use to export U.S. jobs and undercut U.S. workers.

“In support of workers and our national security interests, my administration will consider actions to integrate and elevate workers’ rights and the promotion of high labor standards in our foreign, international development, trade, climate, and global economic policy priorities,” Biden’s executive order declares.

Biden’s order suggests the continuation of a gradual retreat from neoliberal-dominated—indeed capitalist-urged and often imperialist—trade policies by presidents of both parties. Some of those policies date back to the Gilded Age.

Those pacts and policies emphasized exploiting labor forces in developing nations, from the Philippines to Panama, by U.S. and other Western multinationals. Authoritarian right-wing governments led or lead many of those nations, which feature few or no worker rights, low pay, and little environmental enforcement.

For trade pacts, worker exploitation was cloaked as “opening markets” for U.S. goods but was really opening workers to abuse and, where needed, repression. Think of the “banana republics” of Central America, long under the domination of United Fruit, and you get the idea.

That exploitation included NAFTA, the predecessor to the USMCA, pushed through a Democratic Congress by pro-corporate “New Democrat” Bill Clinton, over strong union opposition.

Now, Biden has claimed he’s pivoting the whole government in the other, pro-worker direction, and that draws cheers from the union leadership in the AFL-CIO. Its then-top trade expert, Deputy Chief of Staff Thea Lee, led the crafting of tougher, enforceable worker rights into the USMCA during the GOP Trump regime. Legislative directors from the Steelworkers, the Auto Workers, and the Teamsters helped.

Labor then worked with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a prime congressional nose-counter, and other pro-worker lawmakers, to ensure those tough standards remained and the USMCA passed. Tai noted it’s led to large growth in Mexico in both independent unions—as opposed to company and pro-government unions—and rising wages there, notably in the auto industry.

With that as a model, as Tai and Su pointed out, Biden’s executive order framework “will reshape how U.S. government agencies conduct international diplomacy by putting workers’ rights and standards at the center,” Federation President Liz Shuler said.

“Across the globe, working people are united in our fight against growing corporate overreach and abuse, low wages, attacks on organizing, the absence of strong benefits, and poor working conditions. This new strategy is a major victory for workers everywhere and underscores workers’ rights are essential to our country’s national and foreign policy, and national and economic security.

“This framework will leverage diplomacy to promote internationally-recognized labor rights and worker organizing, create measures that enable swift responses to violence and threats against trade union leaders, activists, and organizations, improve the capacity of U.S. agencies and foreign missions to engage with workers and their representatives to improve the lives of working people and enhance and enforce fair trade practices.

“The directive recognizes that no matter where we live, all workers deserve dignity and respect on the job. We need a global economy that puts working people at the center.”

“Every worker deserves a just day’s pay for a hard day’s work,” Su, a Californian, declared at the ceremony before a union-packed crowd in San Francisco.

“Every worker should come home healthy and safe at the end of the day,” Su continued. “And every worker should have a right to join a union. These are not just American values. They apply to workers around the world.”

While Shuler and other union leaders cheered the executive order, the top of the corporate class was silent, at least initially. A check of their three top lobbies, of the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Federation of Independent Business—a key cog in the right-wing fog machine—disclosed no immediate comments.

But Su warned that Biden’s executive order to all federal agencies to push worker rights worldwide, together, isn’t enough. “Corporations are global. So, workers, and worker power, and the way we think about workers have to be global, as well,” she explained.

“So, when some corporations cut corners and contract out work to low-road businesses that exploit workers around the world, it creates an unfair playing field for every responsible business that does right by its workers.

“When global actors are allowed to evade labor laws in one country by exploiting workers in another part of the world, this undermines workers’ rights everywhere.

“And when workers are harassed, discriminated against, and attacked as they produce things sold all around the world, we cannot simply look away and ignore the ways our global economy brings with it global responsibility.

“What happens in Bangladesh,” where garment workers have been on strike for fair and higher monthly minimum wages—and where some have been killed—affects workers “from Birmingham (Ala.) to Boston to Bellingham (Wash.),” Su explained.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.