Key Senate panel OKs ‘New NAFTA’ legislation
Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, says the new NAFTA bill will be the first "free trade" agreement he has ever voted for. | AP

WASHINGTON—With approval from pro-worker lawmakers – including Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan – and the United Steelworkers joining other union backers, the key Senate Finance Committee approved legislation implementing the “New NAFTA,” GOP President Donald Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The vote was 25-3.

What greased the skids for approval was new, tougher pro-worker requirements imposed on Mexico, written into the “free trade” pact itself over U.S. and Mexican business objections. Those requirements included, lawmakers said, strict and quick enforcement of workers’ rights south of the border —  and big penalties for violators.

The Jan. 7 panel vote on the measure, HR5034, is a prelude to expected full Senate approval of that bill to implement the trade pact, after solons get done with their impeachment trial of Trump. But the one-day Senate panel session and easy congressional passage of the legislation also lets Trump crow about keeping a 2016 campaign promise.

It also means one Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., will be explaining her recent switch from opposition to support of the USMCA. She cites its strong enforcement targeted against firms that would try to exploit Mexican workers and violate their rights.

Of the other hopefuls, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., still opposes the USMCA. Like the Machinists, he declares it still wouldn’t stop U.S. corporations from shifting factory jobs to Mexico. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., supports the USMCA. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., opposed the first version of the USMCA but has yet to comment on the rewrite.

Nevertheless, it’s a good deal for workers, Brown and Stabenow, both Finance Committee members, said. Brown added it’s so good that it’s the first so-called “free trade” pact he’ll ever vote for. His opposition to corporate-oriented trade deals dates all the way back to the original NAFTA 25 years ago.

“Last year, when we got an initial draft of this agreement from the administration, it was another betrayal” of workers, said the Ohioan, whose state lost tens of thousands of auto and factory jobs to NAFTA’s incentives for firms to move to Mexico.. Trump’s “first NAFTA draft was nowhere near the good deal for workers… He’d negotiated another corporate trade deal.”

After “months of fighting” and bargaining with Trump’s negotiators, unions and congressional Democrats achieved “real and important steps toward putting workers at the center of our trade policy,” he explained.

“For the first time, we have a provision in the labor chapter that says violence against workers is a violation of the agreement. That sounds obvious, but it’s never been included before.”

“For the first time ever, we spell out workers’ right to strike. Again, it should be obvious, but was never included before.”

Legal language that virtually barred workers from winning unfair trade complaints “was cleaned up,” he said. “And most importantly, we secured our provision that amounts to the strongest-ever labor enforcement in a U.S. trade deal.”

Under the USMCA, “a worker in Mexico will be able to report a company violating their rights, and within months, we can determine whether workers’ rights have been violated, and take action against that company” including “punitive damages when corporations stop workers from organizing, and if they keep doing it, we can stop their goods from coming into the U.S. at all.”

Stabenow, in a statement last month, agreed. Otherwise, she said, the USMCA “would have just been NAFTA all over again” for the U.S. and Michigan. Workers. Under NAFTA, the Detroit 3 automakers and their parts suppliers closed dozens of plants and moved tens of thousands of U.S. factory jobs to low-paying Mexico,.

But Stabenow added the same warning workers and their unions have made over and over again: Any agreement is only good when it’s enforced. “As with any agreement, new enforcement tools are only effective if they are actually used. Even after passage of this agreement, I intend to continue my strong focus on tough trade enforcement in this country,” she warned Trump.

The Steelworkers, who opposed Trump’s first version of the “new NAFTA,” agreed with the lawmakers and endorsed the second one.

“The original USMCA required changes in Mexican labor law that we supported, as they were clearly better than current law. But the agreement had no clear path to ensure that workers’ rights would be safeguarded,” the union said. This version does.

Mexico still has a ways to go, though, USW said – especially in getting rid of corporate-controlled unions.

“In Mexico, there are hundreds of thousands of so-called ‘protection contracts’ signed by corporations with sham unions that have no regard for the interests, rights or needs of workers,” USW explained. “Workers at facilities in Mexico operated by some of the world’s biggest and most profitable corporations are paid only a fraction of what workers get in the United States or Canada for essentially the same work. Workers who have attempted to form democratic unions have faced repression, violence and murder.

Still, “The updated draft agreement now has enforcement provisions that can help make a difference. There is still a great deal of work to do in terms of implementing, monitoring and enforcing the provisions, but the base for progress is there.


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.