Union leaders wary as “New NAFTA” talks start
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has warned that unless the new NAFTA helps workers labor will lead the movement to trash it. | AP

WASHINGTON — Union leaders in the U.S. and Canada are casting a wary, skeptical eye on Trump and Trudeau administration negotiators as talks on crafting a “new NAFTA” opened in Washington on August 16. And while Mexican unions, almost all government-aligned, are silent, Mexican workers are not: Up to 10,000 took to the streets of Mexico City to protest the new pact.

The five days of talks to replace the 23-year-old extremely pro-corporate “free trade” pact between the three nations began in D.C. just after Canada unveiled its negotiating objectives for the new NAFTA. Mexico’s government, its economy minister says, stands pat.

But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and the Canadian Labour Congress are not standing pat. Trumka says a new NAFTA must guarantee workers’ rights in its text and “a fair return on our hard work” for workers in all three countries. And the Fed launched an on-line petition to pressure U.S. bargainers towards those goals.

Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yousseff and his colleagues told Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland the day before the talks began that if Canada doesn’t achieve its bargaining goals – including workers’ rights, women’s rights and indigenous peoples’ rights — she should walk away. Freeland unveiled Canada’s goals in an August 14 speech.

In a stand U.S. unions strongly take, Jerry Dias, president of Unifor — the Canadian union that includes its auto and auto parts workers — said “Workers and their communities must be at the core of the new deal being negotiated.” He added: “Without strong and enforceable protections” for workers, “Canada should walk away from the table.”

The renegotiation replaces Republican President Donald Trump’s original campaign pledge to scrap NAFTA, which he called a disaster for the U.S.

That’s one point where U.S. unions agree with Trump, as studies calculate the current NAFTA benefits multinationals and the rich. They have exploited Mexico’s weak labor and environmental laws and low wages to export 700,000-1 million U.S. jobs — mostly well-paying factory jobs, but also call center jobs — south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Trump switched gears, to “new NAFTA” talks instead, then held hearings on U.S. bargaining goals. The Federation, the Teamsters, the Machinists and the Auto Workers all testified – as the only workers in a parade of corporate lobbyists – but saw few aims adopted. That upset union leaders and their members.

Trumka warned on August 14 that unless the new NAFTA is negotiated out in the open, and unless it helps workers, labor will lead the movement to trash it.

“We need to replace benefits for the few with a fair deal that raises wages, stops outsourcing and provides a path to the middle class, no matter where working families live or what their background is. America’s working people have earned this. We deserve nothing less,” he declared.

“How we do it” – bargain a new NAFTA – “matters. The administration can choose to…benefit working families, or it can further rig the rules to favor corporations and CEOs.

“We are setting the bar high. We will only accept a deal renegotiated the right way. That means having a transparent process in which working families have a seat at the table, and ensuring our freedom to stand together is protected and that all of us can receive a fair return on our hard work,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO’s online petition makes similar points. It urges Trump’s lead bargainer, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, to stand fast for “higher wages and the freedom to join together to negotiate for a better life” in all three NAFTA countries.

That’s not what he may be doing, says Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.

“The USTR seems to be backing the same priorities that guided trade agreements since NAFTA was first negotiated, promoting corporate interests and leaving workers behind. This is not what workers who supported President Trump in the election expected: They assumed he would renegotiate NAFTA to create better paying jobs for them and their families, rather than chasing higher profits and greater protections for corporate interests,” Gerard said.

“Washington remains out of touch with working people. Our members will fight for trade policies that advance our interests and those of our fellow workers in North America. We will hold the administration accountable to its promise to truly fix NAFTA, and if the renegotiations fail to advance the concerns of working people, we will fight like hell to defeat them.”

Freeland said besides writing worker rights, women’s rights and indigenous peoples’ rights into the trade pact’s text, the Canadian government wants to include cultural protection against overwhelming U.S. influence. “Progressive elements are also important if you want a free-trade deal that’s also a fair-trade deal,” she told a questioner after her speech.

But unlike the AFL-CIO and the Trump administration, Canada would modify, not scrap, the pact’s Investor State Dispute System, a secretive pro-business “trade court” with power to unilaterally override labor and environmental laws – everything from job safety and health to Buy American rules – if they could harm present or future corporate profits. Canada also wants the new NAFTA to outlaw those Buy American rules, especially in construction, Freeland said.

One Canadian exception to the ISDS would keep anti-dumping and countervailing duties – tariffs on illegally subsidized goods – but apply them “only when truly warranted.” The other would still let firms sue governments over lost profits, but would “give governments an unassailable right to regulate in the public interest.”

In Mexico City, farmers and workers demanded President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party keep his campaign promises to defend them in a new NAFTA. Instead, they declared, the current NAFTA has ruined their livelihoods – a stand proven by statistics of slow Mexican growth, no wage growth in a quarter-century and high migration.

Some 2 million Mexican farmers have lost their land since NAFTA was enacted, and U.S. agribusiness so overwhelmed Mexico that the nation now imports half of its food. The Mexican poverty rate, 52 percent, is virtually unchanged in 23 years.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.