Unions on USMCA: ‘Working people made it better’

Minnesota’s fair-trade movement has kept the heat on members of Congress, and it paid off with improved labor provisions in the USMCA.

President Trump is expected to sign the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) into law at a White House ceremony Wednesday. While it’s sure to be a victory lap for the president, the nation’s top labor leader says much of the credit for getting the deal done should go to working people.

“Make no mistake, we demanded a trade deal that benefits workers and fought every single day to negotiate that deal; and now we have secured an agreement that working people can proudly support,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

Senators voted Jan. 16 to approve the USMCA, but the agreement faced its toughest test earlier in the House, where labor-friendly Democrats won a majority in 2018 midterm elections.

After trade ambassadors for the U.S., Mexico and Canada signed the new pact in November 2018, the AFL-CIO and its allies in the fair-trade movement went to work, pushing lawmakers to demand significant improvements before signing off on the agreement.

The lobbying push, backed by phone calls and emails from thousands of union members across the country, resulted in the first U.S. trade agreement the AFL-CIO has endorsed since a 2001 deal with Jordan.

To improve on Trump’s initial effort, congressional Democrats added language making the USMCA’s labor standards more enforceable, including a rapid-response authority capable of investigating allegations of union-busting or other abuses firsthand.

Trumka called the final version of the USMCA “a vast improvement over both the original NAFTA and the flawed proposal brought forward in 2017.” The agreement also “eliminates special carve outs for corporations like the giveaway to Big Pharma in the administration’s initial proposal and loopholes designed to make it harder to prosecute labor violations,” he said.

While House Democrats managed to improve the USMCA, not all unions share Trumka’s enthusiasm.

In a letter to members of Congress, Machinists Union President Robert Martinez Jr. said the USMCA did not do enough to replace “the current trade template” that has bled the nation’s industrial sector of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

“As we have repeatedly said, to win the support of the IAM, the USMCA must make fundamental changes to NAFTA in order to curtail the massive outsourcing of work in aerospace and other manufacturing sectors to Mexico,” Martinez wrote.

Doug Williams, director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, called the USMCA “the best of bad choices” from a labor perspective.

The agreement already has prompted Mexico to begin raising its labor standards, and the USMCA provides stronger mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement of standards in all three countries. But those mechanisms won’t mean much, Williams said, unless officials have the will to use them.

“On paper it looks great,” the longtime trade activist and Communications Worker said. “But it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, and the entire process relies on the good faith of whatever U.S. administration is in charge of enforcement at any given time. So that makes our presidential elections even more important.”

Labor standards fared better than environmental standards in the USMCA’s final version. Notoriously undemocratic trade tribunals – known as “investor state dispute settlement” systems – are mostly phased out of the agreement, except for those protecting energy companies from pollution laws. And opponents point out that in the USMCA’s 2,000-plus pages, not once does it mention climate change.

“There’s a well-documented record of corporations using NAFTA to dodge environmental standards in the U.S. by shipping out to Mexico,” Williams said. “That’s still going to be a problem.”

While the effectiveness the USMCA and its new labor standards can only be judged over time, the Trump administration’s push to rewrite U.S. trade policy marches on.

Agreements with the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa and the Philippines are in various stages of negotiations. The USMCA creates “a new standard” for any future agreement, Trumka said, thanks to the efforts of working people and their unions.

“President Trump may have opened this deal, but working people closed it,” Trumka added. “And for that, we should be very proud.”

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