Dem Leaders Dubious about New NAFTA Labor Rules

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The ruling Democrats on a key congressional committee on trade issues are dubious – at best – about the labor provisions of GOP President Donald Trump’s new NAFTA. And they’re letting Trump’s U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, know it. 

Not only that, but the Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee doesn’t like the so-called free trade pact’s environmental safeguards either.

“As our committee prepares to consider the renegotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, we write to express our concerns regarding whether the new agreement will lead to meaningful and lasting labor reform in Mexico,” the Democrats, led by Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., wrote.

“Our question also stems from the fact that congressional Democrats concerned with whether trade agreement labor provisions will be meaningful have always been required to take a leap of faith: Vote first and hope to see changes later.  This time needs to be different,” they warned.

Their April 11 letter followed a hearing days before, featuring five union officials, plus Thea Lee of the Economic Policy Institute, outlining – in detail – holes in the proposed trade pact’s labor provisions, and particularly in enforcement of its worker rights section.

Unlike the current 26-year-old NAFTA, worker rights are in the text of the new pact, formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But those rights comply with weak International Labour Organization standards, and could still allow rampant worker exploitation in Mexico, especially given Mexico’s terrible record on worker rights, company-controlled unions and outright repression.

U.S.-based multinational corporations have seized on Mexico’s weak labor and environmental laws, low pay, lax enforcement and overall repression to move everything from call centers to car production to Oreo cookie baking to Mexico. Those moves fulfilled labor’s prediction of massive U.S. job losses to Mexico after NAFTA.

The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations pushed legislation implementing NAFTA over strenuous organized labor opposition. Under federal trade law, the Ways and Means Committee must consider – and cannot change – any such legislation, which both houses of Congress must then vote on.

That prospect has led labor to launch a campaign critical of the new NAFTA.

The lawmakers’ letter warns the new NAFTA has no guarantee of enforcement of workers’ rights, and says they’re still weak in Mexico.

While the new NAFTA’s labor protections are in the pact itself, unlike original NAFTA’s side letter, the lawmakers reiterated to Lighthizer the “enforcement challenges” the U.S. faced in a free trade pact inked after NAFTA, the one covering the Dominican Republic and Central America.

The then-Democratic Congress forced those worker protections into the CAFTA text 12 years ago, but there’s been only one enforcement action, against Guatemala, and it failed. Though the letter did not say so, the AFL-CIO, not the government, brought that complaint against Guatemala.

The problems “include instances where freedom of association, including in Mexico, has been denied through violence and threats,” they said.

“Reflecting on the history of our concerns with NAFTA, we question whether there is reason to believe the” new NAFTA “will lead to meaningful change and real improvements for labor standards in Mexico. Our questions relate to both the specifics of the language of the new labor provisions and their enforceability in particular.”

“For instance, there are particular concerns regarding the enforceability of the violence and intimidation provision.  In addition, while the new Agreement incorporates footnotes that attempt to address shortcomings in labor chapter language exposed by” the Guatemala case, “it is difficult to say whether these will be sufficient.”

“We are also concerned the dispute settlement mechanism applicable to the new Agreement’s labor – and other – obligations, are designed to be easily frustrated and will be ineffective. If and when disputes over labor obligation compliance arise, will they ever lead to resolutions that can improve worker protections or result in the satisfaction of the new agreement’s labor requirements?” the lawmakers asked.

“The new agreement should be breaking new ground and incorporating more flexible and versatile enforcement tools. It should be obvious enforcement in an improved, new NAFTA cannot rely on the broken elements of the existing NAFTA’s dispute settlement procedures.”

Stronger Mexican labor law that is enforced is a necessary first step to securing our support,” for the new NAFTA, the lawmakers warned.

The Trump administration has yet to send legislation to Congress implementing the proposed trade deal, but the lawmakers’ letter outlines their requirements for it.

“We look forward to engaging with you on addressing our concerns.  Our interest is in replacing NAFTA with an agreement that remedies NAFTA’s flaws by, among other things, providing tools to ensure that workers’ rights will be effectively protected and promoted throughout North America,” they concluded. Both letters are on the committee website.



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