Trumka warns lawmakers: Don’t vote for quickie ‘New NAFTA’
Richard Trumka | AP

WASHINGTON—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is warning lawmakers that voters will oppose any solon who votes for a “quickie new NAFTA,” so to speak.

That means workers would oppose lawmakers who favor a quick vote on legislation implementing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement — before Mexico has both enacted stronger worker rights and put in place the systems and people to implement them.

Even a stronger Mexican labor law, but without enforcement in place, won’t satisfy U.S. workers, or the U.S. labor movement, he adds.

Trumka forecast such electoral retribution in an April 1 telephone press conference on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), also known as NAFTA 2.0 or the “new NAFTA.” The GOP Trump administration negotiated it with – Canada would say strong-armed it on — the other two North American nations to replace the 25–year-old original NAFTA.

Then-Democratic President Bill Clinton pushed that current NAFTA through a balky Congress over strenuous worker opposition. Unions and workers predicted it would cost tens of thousands of well-paying jobs, especially factory jobs. They were right. NAFTA cost 770,000-1 million industrial jobs alone, plus thousands more in the service sector, the Economic Policy Institute calculates.

Congress must vote on legislation to implement the USMCA, not the pact itself, and that measure – which lawmakers cannot change once GOP President Donald Trump sends it to Congress – needs only simple majorities to pass.

Trump and his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, are working on the implementing legislation. And that’s where workers’ interests and impact comes in, Trumka says.

“This is an important vote for American workers,” he warned. “Seventy-some percent of workers think NAFTA and the progeny of NAFTA” – subsequent so-called “free trade” pacts – “have been bad for workers in this country and for the country itself,” Trumka stated.

“Anybody who votes for such a bill” implementing a USMCA without extensive pro-worker revisions in the implementing legislation “will face the scorn of those voters,” he said.

“And we will surely educate the public and our members on the bill, and on who supported it and who helped us strengthen it and who helped make it good for workers – and who hasn’t.”

“This deal is incomplete. A vote would be premature. And any effort to force it through as is will be met by nationwide opposition from the labor movement. To move forward now would be a colossal waste of an important opportunity. But, there’s still time to take advantage of that opportunity. There’s still time to fix this deal,” he said.

Trumka’s comments about the politics of the new NAFTA came a week after five union officials, including AFL-CIO trade specialist Celeste Drake, plus EPI chief Thea Lee, spent hours before the House Trade Subcommittee discussing the huge problems in the current NAFTA and subsequent trade pacts – including the USMCA (see separate story).

The biggest of those problems, Trumka said on April 1, is Mexico. Its weak labor laws, virtual company unions, low wages – and lies about low wages – and lack of enforcement, lead to worker exploitation there, he said.

“I don’t think it” – the new NAFTA – “will go forward until all of us are satisfied that the Mexican government actually changes its laws and its infrastructure to enforce those laws,” Trumka added. That’s what the federation is lobbying for in talks with Lighthizer.

The union officials also told lawmakers that corporate migration to Mexico also drives down wages and standards in the U.S., and often lets businesses choke off organizing drives via corporate threats to move south of the border.

Trumka admitted there is still one path the Trump administration, and Lighthizer in particular, could take to make the “new NAFTA” palatable to unions and workers: A total rewrite of the implementing legislation, in all three countries – but especially the U.S. and Mexico – to greatly strengthen labor laws and, especially, their enforcement.

The original NAFTA “did exactly what it was meant to do,” Trumka said. “It’s exploited workers in Mexico and disrupted lives here at home. It’s taken money out of our pockets and put it in the hands of a few billionaires.” The solution, he declared, can’t be a “new NAFTA” modeled on the old one.

The AFL-CIO is telling Lighthizer the implementing legislation “needs more work – and that” the pro-worker provisions inserted into the USMCA ‘have to be enforceable,” Trumka said.  “We’re willing to commit to that work to get something for everybody.”

But all that can’t be done quickly, or on a timetable that gets the USMCA through Congress before the 2020 election campaign gets into full swing.

“Because this” new NAFTA “is so important, we’re not willing to say ‘let’s pretend and hope’” Mexico would pass and enforce stronger labor laws, including raising wages, Trumka said. “They’ve got laws on the books – but they never get enforced.”

That same sequence has happened not just in Mexico, but with other U.S. “free trade” agreements since NAFTA, Trumka warned, singling out pacts with Colombia and Peru.

“It’s like Lucy, Charley Brown and the football,” Trumka said, referring to the frequent Peanuts comic sequence where Lucy always promises to hold the football as Charley runs up to kick it, but yanks it away as he crashes to the ground. “This time, we’ll kick the football.”


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.