Steelworkers organizer comes up with great anti-New NAFTA line
Maria Somma, the Steelworkers Organizing Director, told AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at a trade forum in Pittsburgh that she needed an anti-NAFTA soundbite to get her in the door to talk with workers about the pact’s problems. He offered “If it isn’t enforceable, it’s useless.” Her better line: “If ya can’t enforce it, why are ya gonna pass it?” AFL-CIO screenshot photo via PAI Photo Service.

PITTSBURGH—Steelworkers organizer Maria Somma came up with a great line for unionists to use when urging lawmakers to defeat GOP President Donald Trump’s “new NAFTA.”

“If ya can’t enforce it, why are ya gonna pass it?” she asks.

Somma’s summary for workers to tell their lawmakers revised the answer she got from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at a June 17 town hall meeting in Pittsburgh on the “new NAFTA,” formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Trumka hosted two other town halls on the “free trade” pact, one in Cleveland and the other just outside Detroit, in the following two days.

Somma, the union’s Organizing Director, told Trumka that as an organizer, she needs a quick and simple soundbite “to get me in the door” so she can sit down with workers and their families to explain the multitude of problems with the proposed pact. “Put on your organizing hat,” she urged.

“If it isn’t enforceable, it’s useless,” Trumka replied after thought. Somma did better.

Enforceability, or lack of it, is a big problem with the USMCA, Trumka, a southwestern Pennsylvanian and former coal miner and Mine Workers president, told the standing-room-only crowd. He seriously doubts Mexico can meet the USMCA’s targets for total revision of Mexico’s pro-corporate anti-worker structure in the pact’s 4-year time frame for that achievement.

The requirements range over everything from hiring thousands of new worker rights inspectors to getting rid of company unions and the 700,000 pro-corporate contracts they negotiated. Other problems with the pact include its goal of enforcing higher North American content on new cars and trucks, and that those cars and trucks must be made by workers averaging at least $16 an hour.

“If you’ve got a U.S. worker making $29 and a Mexican worker making $3.50” for chunks of the same car, that car qualifies under the USMCA, Trumka said. And the requirement still leaves Mexico’s low-pay no-standards regime in place, he explained.

The USMCA could also hurt consumers in all three countries, said Trumka, by giving Big Pharma a big bonanza: 10-year exclusive rights to new drugs, while barring development of competing cheaper generics. Exclusivity would drive up drug prices in all three nations, Trumka told Service Employees Local 668 retiree Linda Andrews. Many drugs are already sky high here, he said.

The town halls are part of organized labor’s push to get the USMCA’s enabling legislation rewritten to include strong pro-worker and pro-consumer language before Trump sends the measure to Congress. Lawmakers can take up or down votes on Trump’s bill – not the USMCA itself – but they can’t change it. And solons can’t change the pact after it takes effect, Trumka told one questioner.

That’s just as bad as the 25-year-old current NAFTA, which GOP President George H.W. Bush negotiated and Democratic President Bill Clinton pushed through a Democratic-run Congress, narrowly, over enormous labor opposition. Unions forecast, correctly, NAFTA would cost hundreds of thousands of U.S. factory jobs. Current calculations range from 770,000-1 million. And that doesn’t include white-collar jobs, such as in call centers, which companies also moved to Mexico.

At least Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, listens to workers’ complaints about the new NAFTA, and considers its 137 pages of proposed changes, Trumka told the crowd. Trumka speaks with Lighthizer at least weekly, and the two often meet. And Lighthizer has inserted some provisions to protect workers. By contrast, Democratic President Barack Obama’s trade rep gave labor the cold shoulder on trade talks, for the new NAFTA and other pacts, Trumka said.

But the changes haven’t been enough, yet, to let organized labor get on board the new NAFTA. Business is strongly pushing the extremely pro-corporate Trump administration to enact the pact’s legislation by the end of July, before the congressional recess – and the 2020 campaign.

As might be expected, those politics entered the discussion, too. Some pro-worker analysts contend workers’ long memories of Bill Clinton’s role in pushing the current NAFTA through led unionists in the key Great Lakes states that narrowly went for Trump – Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – to distrust Hillary Clinton and vote for the GOPer. Those states’ electoral votes gave Trump the Oval Office.

“if you don’t talk about kitchen table issues they (workers) are going to tune out,” Trumka told SEIU Pennsylvania member Gabe Kramer. That includes strongly backing the new pro-worker labor law rewrite the federation and its Democratic allies have introduced on Capitol Hill and lawmakers’ stand on the new NAFTA, too.

“Look ‘em in the eyes and see where they stand,” he urged the workers in confronting lawmakers. “You know when they’re giving you malarkey, or when they mean it in their heart.”

“And then, after that, we have to be issue-oriented,” he advised. “Here’s our issue. If you stand with us, we’ll support you. If not, have a good rest of your life.”

And the new NAFTA is a big one in that issue basket, including slowing it down, which Trumka says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., plans to do.

“What’s the rush?” Trumka asked. Since the new NAFTA/USMCA would be in place for at least as long as the old one, “Don’t get it done fast. Get it done right.”


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.