Unions throw cold water on Trump’s NAFTA deal
When the Trump administration announced Sunday it reached a new NAFTA deal, unions might have been expected to be shouting from the rooftops.
But union leaders who spent years criticizing NAFTA’s inadequate labor protections have struck a uniformly guarded tone. As of Monday, five major union leaders who met with President Donald Trump in August to discuss NAFTA — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, International Association of Machinists President Robert Martinez and United Automobile Workers President Gary Jones — were careful to neither praise nor criticize the new agreement.
In public statements, union leaders cautioned that the so-called U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement might not amount to a significant improvement for American workers. Though they acknowledged improvements, the labor chiefs warned that the Trump administration could easily fail to enforce labor protections in the new agreement.
With a month until midterm elections, where Democrats could wrest back control of one or both chambers of Congress, their response is certainly political. But it also reflects a deep distrust among unions that a Republican administration — one that has repealed scores of workers’ safety protections, canceled raises for federal workers and sought to weaken government unions — will remain a steadfast ally on trade.
“Even when you have good content [in trade deals], we’ve seen a failure to enforce by both Republican and Democratic administrations, which is just as important as the words on paper,” said Thea Lee, a trade economist and president of the Economic Policy Institute. “The lack of specifics is why you’re seeing people withholding some of their praise.”
Unions scrambled Monday to make sense of the agreement. In a blog post, AFL-CIO trade policy specialist Celeste Drake lamented that the text of the agreement is incomplete.
“In some places, the text is still in draft form,” Drake wrote. “In other places, important terms remain bracketed (unresolved) and in some cases, including with respect to the government procurement schedules, there is no text to review.”
While the agreement includes some favorable provisions for unions, they didn’t get one of their major asks. Unions have long sought the right to pursue labor complaints independently of the U.S. trade representative, similar to the right that corporations have under a process called investor-state dispute settlement.
The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement would eliminate investor-state dispute settlement with Canada and limit it with Mexico, which unions view as a positive step. However, unions still wouldn’t be able to pursue labor claims on their own.
Virtually every union leader who commented on the agreement Monday was noncommittal.
“The key question now is whether this new agreement, when final, will make a measurable difference in workers’ lives and whether workers will have confidence in the new provisions and the commitment of government to enforce those provisions,” Gerard, who served as chairman of USTR’s labor advisory committee, said in a statement.
Congress must approve the deal — though a vote wouldn’t happen until next year, after the midterm elections, where Democrats are poised to make significant gains. If that happens, unions may be able to exact more favorable terms.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who is in line to become Ways and Means chairman if Democrats win control of the House in November, said he’s concerned about “the enforcement and enforceability of the agreement’s provisions,” particularly in protectionsfor workers and the environment.
“The bar for supporting a new NAFTA will be high,” Neal said in a statement.
“We don’t know what Congress will look like next year,” said one union official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But we hope there will be a fair-trade majority. I think they will have a pretty strong leverage position.”