Trumka on ‘New NAFTA’: ‘Close is not good enough’
Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO | Alex Brandon/AP

BALTIMORE—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is warning both the GOP Trump administration and workers’ allies on Capitol Hill that “close is not good enough” for workers when it comes to crafting a so-called “New NAFTA.”

Trumka’s warning was in his speech Nov. 18 to the Maryland-D.C. AFL-CIO biennial convention in Baltimore, and responded to a prediction by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at a press conference the week before that the controversial trade pact could get done this year.

Trump negotiated – the other two nations would say “strong-armed” – a “New NAFTA,” formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) a year ago. He wants to push the enabling legislation through Congress, though he has yet to send the measure to Capitol Hill, where it must go through up-or-down votes, with no congressional changes.

The USMCA would replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which workers and unions strenuously battled, predicting its corporate-written provisions would lead to a mass exodus of U.S. jobs.

It has, including both 770,000-one million factory jobs – such as, Trumka noted, from the now-closed GM plant in the Baltimore suburb of White Marsh – and white-collar jobs, such as at call centers.

Trump’s USMCA includes worker rights provisions in its text, but enforcement is left to the three nations, and Mexico’s corporate tilt, low wages and worker repression are stumbling blocks. Almost all of the House majority Democrats are dubious – at best – of the USMCA.

Their negotiators, led by veteran pro-worker Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have been bargaining with Trump officials over both strengthening the worker rights provisions of the USMCA and writing them into the enabling legislation before Trump sends it up.

“The goal for the renegotiated NAFTA must continue to be putting working people first,” DeLauro tweeted on Nov. 13. “House Democrats are fighting for strong, enforceable labor & environmental standards, as well as the removal of giveaways to pharmaceutical companies that will lock in high drug prices.

“The substance of the ongoing negotiations will determine the timeline—not politics or artificial deadlines. #ReplaceNAFTA,” DeLauro’s tweet concluded.

That didn’t stop Pelosi from predicting the pact could come up soon, or Trumka from saying “wait.” Other union leaders flat out dislike it.

“I do believe that if we can get this to the place it needs to be, which is imminent, that this can be a template for future trade agreements. A good template,” Pelosi told her weekly press conference on Nov. 14. She agreed with Trumka, by saying worker rights enforcement is the key issue. Still, “I’d like to see us get it done this year. I mean, that would be my goal.”

Getting the USMCA through by the end of this year would leave workers and their allies little time to lobby lawmakers on the pact. Trumka retorted it’s more important to get the USMCA done right than it is to get it done quickly.

“The labor movement jumped at the chance to make trade work for working people,” Trumka explained to the Maryland-D.C. convention delegates.

“We’ve been lobbying the White House specifically on NAFTA for more than two years, slowly but surely moving the ball down the field. But we are not there yet. Let me repeat: We are not there yet.”

“I know from experience this can be one of the most dangerous points in a negotiation. An agreement is in sight so you fold on core issues in order to get across the finish line. I will not allow that to happen.”

But, citing the congressional support for strong workers’ rights in the new NAFTA, Trumka said organized labor is “in a position of tremendous strength,” because lawmakers too “understand getting this done right is more important than getting it done fast.”

And the Trump administration still hasn’t produced enforceable worker rights “in writing (his emphasis).” Until it does, labor can’t back the USMCA, he warned.

“Close is not good enough. Not when millions of jobs are at stake. Not when lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Not after 25 years of devastation and destruction. We are ready for a victory on NAFTA. Bring us a deal that’s good for workers and we will use our voice and muscle to pass it.” But we cannot and will not support any deal that does not deliver for working people.”

Other union leaders were blunt, too.

Trump has been trumpeting the “North American content” requirement in the USMCA for cars and trucks, rising to 62% of a vehicle being made by workers in the three nations whose wages must average out to at least $16 an hour. That didn’t satisfy Trumka in another speech last month. He pointed out that if United Auto Worker members earn $32 for making cars and Mexican workers for the Detroit 3 automakers earn $2, they hit the average.

UAW also gives the new NAFTA mixed reviews.

“Since NAFTA passed in 1994, the Mexican auto workforce grew seven-fold from 112,000 to 767,000 — all but 7% in parts,” its fact sheet on the USMCA says. “In 1994, the U.S. accounted for 82.5%of the workforce and by 2016, that number had dwindled to 51.3.%.”

Mexico’s share of North America’s auto workforce is now 41.3%, because Mexican auto workers make an average of $6.63 per hour and parts workers make half of that, UAW adds. The union also pointed out earlier this month that Ford still has a majority of its workers in the U.S., but GM, the largest of the Detroit 3, doesn’t.

“The UAW wants NAFTA renegotiated. But, it’s a very complicated issue,” the union adds. UAW President Gary Jones, who has temporarily stepped aside for other reasons, said “We want enforcement of labor provisions and a level playing field. That only happens when we hold feet to the fire and judge the ‘New NAFTA’ by how it protects and adds U.S. jobs.”

International Union of Electronic Workers-CWA President Carl Kennebrew was even more caustic in an op-ed earlier in November for the Columbus Dispatch. His union particularly got clobbered when Delphi Auto Parts, predecessor of Aptiv, moved jobs to Mexico – before Delphi went broke and reorganized. Kennebrew is a former factory worker in the Dayton, Ohio area.

“Because of NAFTA, these multinational corporations can easily move American jobs to Mexico, where workers have been exploited, unable to form democratic unions and make $2 an hour or less, and work without any rights or health and safety provisions,” he said.

“Hardworking families on both sides of the border know we need a new deal to replace NAFTA,” but the USMCA “is not acceptable.”  The pact, he added, “relies on too many elements of the failed model of corporate-friendly trade policies that harmed working families in recent decades.”


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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).