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Working People Need Answers on Latest Trade Deal

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka talks tough on trade deal

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by AFL-CIO on
Oct 15, 2018

It seems every talking head in Washington has been in a frenzy recently, rushing to either glorify or condemn the new North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement. But the truth is that it is still too early to pass any final judgment.

It helps to understand that for a quarter of a century, NAFTA has wreaked havoc on the lives of working people across North America. More than 850,000 jobs in the United States have been shipped overseas. Mexican workers have toiled under poverty wages and repressive conditions, while large corporations have used that labor abuse as a twisted justification to slash pay and reduce benefits in the United States and Canada.

Working people are not standing for it anymore. We have demanded a trade regime that prioritizes those who work the hardest. We have marched and mobilized to build the fairer economy and more just society that we deserve. That is how we fought and defeated the Trans Pacific Partnership. That is how we brought NAFTA back to the negotiating table.

But before anyone can pat themselves on the back, working people need clear answers. We have already suffered long enough under the broken promises of NAFTA. Too many lives have been destroyed, too many jobs have been lost, too many families have been hurt, and too many communities have been devastated by corporate written and unfairly enforced trade deals. We are not interested in shaky promises or standards that rise and fall depending on who sits in the Oval Office.

To be sure, the draft agreement includes some improvements on labor protections, foreign investment, and American content standards. Yet, it is also apparent that the new NAFTA further cedes ground to corporate interests on a range of issues, from food labeling requirements and environmental protections to data privacy and affordable medicine.

There are also significant unknowns. For example, we do not know whether or how Mexico will raise labor standards. If these reforms are advanced and strictly enforced, Mexican workers will be able to join unions and negotiate for better pay, relieving some of the downward pressure on American wages. If the new NAFTA fails to secure those improvements, the entire agreement is a nonstarter for us.

Moreover, we do not know whether or how the parties will monitor and enforce the rest of the labor rules in the agreement. We also do not know how the automobile rules of origin, which are key to protecting industry jobs, will be enforced. These things matter to thousands of people. New rules are meaningless without swift and certain enforcement.

Working people are watching closely. As this trade deal is finalized, we will continue to make our voices heard. We are under no illusion that this new agreement will be perfect. Any grand promise to restore every job lost under NAFTA is as cynical as the rhetoric surrounding the original deal.

However, if negotiators can clearly demonstrate that this new agreement will change the terms of trade, by codifying the fundamental economic rights of Mexican workers and lifting up all North American workers, then it will represent an important step forward. If the new NAFTA ultimately advances the needs and rights of working families, we will fight to make it law. If, instead, it continues to sacrifice our livelihoods to enrich a few chief executives, we will fight tooth and nail to defeat it.

For now, one thing is clear. Working people have flipped the debate on trade. The fact that the national conversation is focused on fixing a bad agreement rather than passing a new one is a victory in itself. It offers real promise that future trade policies will finally put working families first.

Richard Trumka is the president of the AFL-CIOHe previously was its secretary treasurer and is a past president of the United Mine Workers.

This editorial first appeared in The Hill.

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