“I do think that it would be a good idea if labor and the AFL-CIO and trade staff here in the House and the USTR would get together during the next 10 or 12 days,” Neal told reporters Wednesday after a meeting with the nine-member USMCA working group, which he leads, and Lighthizer. “I think that would be very helpful while we’re back in the district.”
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal is calling for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and his staff to engage directly with organized labor officials in an attempt to reach a compromise over labor and enforcement aspects of USMCA.
The comments highlight how outstanding differences over the pact’s labor standards, as well as enforcement of those standards, has emerged as one of the biggest remaining obstacles to House Democrats reaching a deal with Lighthizer. The two sides have been negotiating for months on changes to the deal in a handful of areas, including environmental aspects and drug pricing provisions.
Neither the AFL-CIO nor USTR immediately responded to requests for comment about whether they would be open to such a meeting or whether any plans are already in the works.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was at the Capitol this week for meetings, first with Neal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and later with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Neal called the meeting with Trumka “very helpful,” adding: “The differences continue to narrow, and I remain optimistic.”
“I think everyone would acknowledge that Trumka is key,” added John Larson (D-Conn.), a member of the working group. “But I would say that while he’s not there yet, he certainly has been very positive about a number of the issues that they continue to discuss.”
One remaining concern among Democrats and Trumka is ensuring that Mexico fully implements its promised labor reforms. Neal added that Democrats also want to see USMCA end up strong enough on the labor front that it becomes a template for future trade deals.
Neal emphasized that the Democratic baseline is getting the commitments outlined in what’s known as the May 10 agreement to be “copper-fastened” in USMCA. The May 10 agreement, named for the day in 2007 that it was signed, requires countries to enforce a series of internationally recognized labor standards, including collective bargaining rights.
House members are scheduled to take a one-week recess starting Friday and will not return to Capitol Hill until Nov. 12. Neal said he made himself amenable to Lighthizer and would be available next week to continue discussions.
He also said he will be traveling to Canada next week to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss USMCA. Neal similarly led a delegation to Mexico City last month to discuss the pact with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The weeklong break and calls for more labor meetings suggest that a deal between Lighthizer and House Democrats is unlikely to happen until closer to mid-November.
“Every week it looks like the end of the tunnel is here,” Larson said, “and then it gets a little bit further.”