In the United States, President
Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade
Agreement, arguing that only a businessman like him can bring back
manufacturing and restore jobs that long ago left for Mexico.
But it’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is leading the way for workers in NAFTA negotiations. In late August, Trudeau told members of Canada’s United Food and Commercial Workers union that he’d deliver a trade agreement they could be proud of.
"This modernization [of NAFTA] has been a long time coming and we're going to get a fair deal for Canadian workers," he said. “After years of neglect, organized labor finally has a strong partner in Ottawa, and we will not let you down.”
When NAFTA became law in 1994, it was the beginning of an unprecedented exodus of manufacturing jobs from the U.S. – more than 700,000 according to some studies. But the trade deal resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of Canadian jobs as well.
The ability for manufacturers to offshore jobs to Mexico, where labor standards and wages were well below that of the U.S. and Canada, proved too tempting for American and Canadian manufacturers to resist.
“The thing is, Canada didn’t just lose jobs to Mexico,” said First District international representative and Political Action/Media Strategist Matt Wayland. “Canadian manufacturers moved jobs to the American South and to right-to-work states as well.”
That’s why Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland demanded during the second round of negotiations in September that the U.S. roll back right-to-work laws that limit the power of American workers to negotiate for fair treatment and better wages.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Wayland said. “If Trump and the American negotiators want to claim that underpaid Mexican workers are stealing their jobs, then our government has just as strong a case to make that laws like right-to-work depress U.S. wages and undercut Canadian workers.”
Right-to-work laws, which allow workers to opt out of the fees associated with union membership while still requiring the union to represent them, depress wages in the 28 U.S. states where they are in effect. Canada doesn’t have similar laws, although the idea has been floated by conservative politicians in several provinces.
According to studies, U.S. workers in right-to-work states earn $6,109 less on average than their counterparts in free-bargaining states. Employees in right-to-work states are also less likely to have health benefits, more likely to live below the poverty line and have a nearly 50 percent higher chance of being killed in a workplace accident.
“The Canadians are giving America a wake-up call,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote in an October op-ed for CNN. “As negotiations continue, the United States should take a close look at how our own broken labor policies are hurting American workers -- and fix them.
“A nation that cares about its workers shouldn't need foreign negotiators to sound the alarm,” she wrote. “It's a national embarrassment -- and it should spur us to action.”
Trudeau also gets high marks for open channels of communication with stakeholders on all sides of the Canadian trade spectrum, including organized labor.
“We’ve been asked for input from the beginning,” said First District International Vice President Bill Daniels. “After every round of negotiations, the Liberal government has made sure to update us on progress and to listen to our concerns.”
Wayland says that outreach included a meeting with labor leaders and Freeland before negotiations began in August, a September meeting with Canadian negotiators after the third round of talks in Ottawa and regular conference calls with updates after each round.
While U.S. negotiators have “ticked the box,” by talking with labor throughout the process, insiders characterized the Trump administration’s outreach as much less robust than that of their Canadian counterparts.
Still, labor leaders are hopeful that a deal can be reached that elevates working people and levels the playing field, while still facilitating strong international trade and strong economies in North America.
“Trade deals should work for all the parties involved, but NAFTA was flawed from the beginning,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “Now we’ve got a chance to fix it, to raise standards for working people in the U.S., Canada and in Mexico as well. We hope negotiators on all sides will follow Prime Minister Trudeau’s example and put the interests of working people front and center as the negotiations go forward.”