North American Unions Unite to Fight for a Pro-Worker NAFTA

U.S., Canadian and independent Mexican union leaders said they and their members will jointly fight for a strong, pro-worker, not pro-corporate, new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But if they can’t achieve that, they’ll fight equally hard to beat it.

And the leaders – including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa, Canadian Teamsters President Francois LaPorte, and Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, president of the independent Mexican metal workers and miners union, Los Mineros – drew strong support for that stand from top congressional Democrats at a joint press conference on October 12.

“We actually have a chance to rewrite the rules to benefit working people,” not just in NAFTA but for trade pacts in general, Trumka said. “That’s why we stand together united.”

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Sandy Levin, D-Mich., Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Keith Ellison, DFL-Minn., all emphasized how the current NAFTA has cost U.S. jobs, just as unions predicted a quarter of a century ago. And if a new NAFTA doesn’t raise Mexican wages above current exploitative levels and better workers’ rights in all three nations, they promised to strongly fight it and defeat it.

The leaders and the lawmakers spoke as bargaining for a “new NAFTA” continued across the Potomac River from D.C., in Alexandria, Va., just after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met GOP President Donald Trump and lawmakers to discuss rewriting the 25-year-old so-called “free trade” pact. The talks are scheduled to continue through October 17.

The shape of the “new NAFTA” is important to workers in all three countries, Trumka and the others said. The current NAFTA, written behind closed doors to, they said, benefit multinational corporations, cost the U.S. at least 1 million jobs, according to Labor Department figures, they pointed out.

“I call that social dumping,” said Gerard. He specifically cited the case of Carrier, a subsidiary of United Technologies, taking hundreds of union jobs from an Indianapolis furnace-making plant to Mexico, despite the “deal” then-President Elect Trump trumpeted to keep Carrier jobs in the U.S. 

Gerard also demanded “sunset” provisions in a new NAFTA. Had the old one had them, it would have been junked for failing to meet its promises, he added.

NAFTA’s also produced a “race to the bottom” in all three nations, Trumka said. Since it took effect, Mexican real wages fell 9 percent and half of Mexicans live below their nation’s poverty line, speakers said. Wages in the U.S. and Canada have declined or been flat, they added. “Mexican wages are in some cases lower than those in China,” Gerard said.

“We want to have a NAFTA that increases standards across the board,” in wages, working conditions and the right to unionize, in all three countries, Hoffa said. “Wages at Goodyear” in Mexico “are $1.78 an hour. Who can compete with that?”

And in a statement, Auto Workers President Dennis Williams said U.S. bargainers “must comprehensively focus on balanced trade that provides real wage growth” in all three nations. “Suppressed wages” of Mexican workers “are harmful for all three countries.

“We must stop allowing companies to abuse their workers to gain a competitive edge. Toothless labor chapters from failed trade agreements will not get the job done. We need an innovative approach. If not, NAFTA will continue to fail workers as it has.” The UAW has seen car and parts firms transfer tens of thousands of jobs to Mexico due to its low wages and lax environmental laws.

Trumka faulted “politicians from both parties” for promising higher U.S. wages and more jobs from the current NAFTA, or to fix it. “None have delivered. This coalition is solidarity in action, raising the floor so all workers can get ahead. And that starts in Mexico.”

The union leaders flatly said strong worker rights, including protecting the right to organize in all three nations and the right to independent unions in Mexico, along with higher wages there and strong enforcement in all three nations, must be written into a “new NAFTA.”

The current NAFTA just has unenforceable and unenforced labor “side letters.” They don’t bar Mexican government- and industry-controlled unions, which negotiate sweetheart deals for the multinationals and keep wages low. Los Mineros is the exception to that pattern.

“We are the victims of exploitation,” Gomez Urrutia said of Mexican workers. “The government of Mexico, in alliance with the multinationals, has systematically denied rights to Mexican workers. And it supports corrupt unionism. And U.S. and Canadian workers will not make progress until Mexican wages increase, not U.S. and Canadian wages decline.”

The Canadian government is pushing for strong worker rights south of the U.S.-Canada border, not just in Mexico, but in the U.S. It says weak U.S. labor laws, and in particular so-called “right to work” laws, disadvantage Canadian workers. After union lobbying, Canada demands RTW repeal in a new NAFTA.

Trudeau reiterated his government’s strong pro-labor stand, though he did not specifically mention RTW, in talks with the trade-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Levin, a veteran panel member, told Press Associates Union News Service afterwards. There was little reaction from the GOP-run committee and no time for Q-&-A, he added.

Trump told Trudeau he wanted “a fairer deal,” but was not specific, reports said. The union leaders and the lawmakers were. Without specifics, and without strong labor language in a “new NAFTA,” they and their workers and constituents would oppose it, they warned.

“A renegotiated NAFTA must include an ambitious new labour chapter that will protect workers’ rights and act a model for future trade agreements,” LaPorte said. “We support Canada’s labour proposal, and we emphasize enforcement is essential. New rights under NAFTA won’t be worth much without trade sanctions to back them up. NAFTA was successful for corporations. Now it’s time to win for workers.”

Ellison warned, however, that lawmakers and unions must undertake a massive education job to force pressure on U.S. bargainers to produce a new, pro-worker NAFTA.

“If you’re not in a union, this is your issue as well,” said the Minnesotan, known for his street-level organizing chops. “We’re asking folks to get involved, to have community meetings, to use social media” and to force production of a pro-worker NAFTA, or defeat of an anti-worker pact, he added.

Trumka said unions will take the same tack. If the new NAFTA includes strong and enforceable worker rights, increases Mexican wages, protects the right to organize, eliminates a pro-corporate secret trade court and accomplishes other goals – including increasing domestic content in North American vehicles – “we’ll gleefully, gleefully support it,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll try hard to amend it.

“And if we can’t, we’ll defeat it.”