The Electrical Worker online
October 2017

Trump Plan Offers Little Relief for U.S. Workers
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Talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement began late this summer in Washington and continued in Mexico and Canada into fall. But the White House negotiators are doing little to protect American workers, and critics argue that the "new" plan looks a lot like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Donald Trump — and the IBEW — opposed last year.

"NAFTA needs to be fundamentally rewritten, not merely tweaked," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, arguing for stronger labor protections.

Meanwhile, union leaders on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border welcomed a proposal from the Canadian delegation that demanded an end to "right-to-work" legislation in the U.S., which they argue leads to lower labor standards and provides an unfair advantage for U.S. and Mexican companies when competing for jobs. The overture was met with silence by representatives of the Trump administration.

NAFTA, the 1994 trade pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, eased restrictions on cross-border trade between the three countries, but mainly enriched U.S. companies while working people paid the price. The deal has been responsible for the loss of more than 700,000 jobs in the U.S., primarily in manufacturing, as American companies packed up and moved south of the border, leaving entire communities in economic collapse.

The deal has had a depressing effect on U.S. wages as well, with companies needing little more than the threat of moving operations to Mexico to force workers to accept lower pay. And a $2 billion trade surplus for the U.S. with Mexico at the time of NAFTA's signing has turned into a staggering $64 billion deficit between the two countries in 2016.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly promised to pull out of the agreement. But he changed course prior to the first round of talks in August. His allies in the corporate world, many of whom have benefited greatly from offshoring American jobs, have cautioned against scrapping it entirely.

"NAFTA's adoption led to a dramatic collapse in American manufacturing," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But if Donald Trump is serious about finding a better deal for American workers, he should stop listening to the giant corporations who have made billions off this awful deal and start listening to the workers whose lives and communities were turned upside down when the jobs left town."

In testimony to Congress, AFL-CIO Trade and Globalization Specialist Celeste Drake said any renegotiation should include binding, enforceable rules on labor standards in the core text of the agreement. "Specifically," she said, "NAFTA should permit cross-border negotiating, establish floor wages and allow border adjustments to prevent environmental degradation and human exploitation to be used for trade advantage." A coalition of labor unions, including the IBEW, also sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in September encouraging him to maintain strong copyright standards that protect the value of content created by members.

Like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was abandoned by the U.S. under criticism from both Trump and Democrats in Congress, the administration's public objectives include support for the anti-worker private justice system for foreign investors known as investor-to-state dispute settlement. That process, which allows foreign investors to challenge local, state and federal laws in front of panels of corporate lawyers, puts corporate rights ahead of workers' rights.

"[ISDS] amounts to little more than crony capitalism," Drake told the U.S. House Ways and Means committee.

IBEW members in Canada have a different perspective. NAFTA is generally viewed more favorably by Canadians, largely thanks to the 75 percent of Canadian exports that travel to U.S. consumers. By contrast, just 18 percent of U.S. exports go to Canada, though that still makes it the single largest importer of U.S.-produced goods.

Canadian officials point to a much smaller trade deficit between themselves and the U.S. than the one with Mexico — just $12 billion, even shifting in favor of the U.S. when services are factored in. One agenda item for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government includes cross-border labor mobility, something that could be especially beneficial to IBEW members who'd benefit when large construction projects near the border need extra manpower.

On that particular issue, the Trump administration has been unresponsive.

"The document is awfully short on specifics," said Director of Political and Legislative Affairs Austin Keyser. "We don't know what the administration's plans are, but we know there are some red flags for working people, and we plan to keep a close eye on the negotiations."


More than $524 billion in manufactured goods crossed the U.S./Mexico border in 2016. Upwards of $544 billion in imports and exports changed hands between the U.S. and Canada. All of it was governed by the rules set forth in NAFTA in the 1990s.