The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 03, 2019

Dem presidential candidates make pitch to trades - and all stay right over the plate

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)-The ruling Democrats on a key congressional committee on trade issues are dubious - at best - about the labor provisions of GOP President Donald Trump's "new NAFTA." And they're letting Trump's U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, know it.  

And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is warning lawmakers that voters will oppose any lawmaker who votes for a "quickie new NAFTA" - those who favor a quick vote on legislation implementing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement before Mexico has both enacted stronger worker rights and put in place the systems and people to implement them. The agreement has not been ratified in Canada, Mexico or the U.S. 

The Democratic majority on the House Ways and Means Committee doesn't like the so-called "free trade" pact's environmental safeguards either.

"As our committee prepares to consider the renegotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, we write to express our concerns regarding whether the new agreement will lead to meaningful and lasting labor reform in Mexico," the Democrats, led by Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., wrote. They authored a similar letter about environmental issues, too. 

President Trump and his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, are working on the implementing legislation. Trump urged passage of the new NAFTA, "so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expanding American agriculture, protecting intellectual property."

But workers interests are not being addressed, said Trumka. "This is an important vote for American workers," Trumka warned. "Seventy-some percent of workers think NAFTA and the progeny of NAFTA" - subsequent so-called "free trade" pacts - "have been bad for workers in this country and for the country itself."

The Dems'  April 11 letter followed a hearing days before, featuring five union officials, plus Thea Lee of the Economic Policy Institute, outlining - in detail - holes in the proposed trade pact's labor provisions, and particularly in enforcement of its worker rights section.

Unlike the current 26-year-old NAFTA, worker rights are in the text of the new pact, formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). But those rights are set to weak International Labour Organization standards, and could still allow rampant worker exploitation in Mexico, especially given Mexico's terrible record on worker rights, "company unions" and outright repression. 

U.S.-based multinational corporations have seized on Mexico's weak labor and environmental laws, low pay, lax enforcement and overall repression to move everything from call centers to car production to Oreo cookies to Mexico. Those moves fulfilled labor's prediction of massive U.S. job losses to Mexico after NAFTA. 

The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations pushed legislation implementing NAFTA through over strenuous labor and worker opposition. Under federal trade law, the Ways and Means Committee must consider - and cannot change - any such legislation, which both houses of Congress must then vote on.

That prospect has led labor to launch a campaign critical of the USMCA. The lawmakers' letter warns the USMCA has no guarantee of enforcement of workers' rights, and says they're still weak in Mexico. 

While USMCA's labor protections are in the pact itself, unlike NAFTA's side letter, the lawmakers reiterated to Lighthizer the "enforcement challenges" the U.S. faced in a "free trade" pact inked after NAFTA, the one covering the Dominican Republic and Central America.

The House must vote on any "new NAFTA" and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., controls the agenda. "No enforcement, no treaty," she told Politico.

"The concerns our members have are workers' rights, the environment and issues related to pharmaceuticals," Pelosi said on April 2. "The overarching concern we have is even if you have the best language in the world in that (deal), if you don't have enforcement, you ain't got nothin'. ... You have to have strong enforcement provisions."