AFL-CIO, House Democrats Want Workers’ Rights in Trade Deals

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By Tyrone Richardson

The head of the AFL-CIO and House Democrats are hoping President-elect Donald Trump and his recent pick for U.S. trade representative will put workers’ rights at the top of the list of demands during trade negotiations.

A group of lawmakers and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka made the case during a news conference at the Capitol Jan. 3, a day after Trump said he will nominate Robert Lighthizer, a Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP lawyer, as U.S. trade representative. Trade may be one of the few policy areas in which Trump and labor advocates—who have criticized previous agreements for being soft on worker protections—can agree.

“When Donald Trump was elected, I made clear that the labor movement would work with him when possible, consistent with our values,” Trumka said. “And while many of the president-elect’s nominations signal an alarming anti-worker agenda, trade is an area where gains seem possible.”

Trump promised while campaigning to renegotiate trade deals he dubbed unfair and said have caused U.S. job losses. He specifically criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed 12-nation deal that Trump has promised to scrap when he takes office.

Optimism About Trade Representative Pick

Labor provisions have historically been “weak” in trade deals, mostly because other countries have shunned “enforceable labor provisions,” Douglas Irwin, a Dartmouth College economics professor who worked on trade in Ronald Reagan’s administration, previously told Bloomberg BNA.

Trumka and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) Jan. 3 criticized many of Trump’s Cabinet nominations. That includes billionaire investor and NAFTA advocate Wilbur Ross, who has been tapped to serve as commerce secretary.

Lawmakers like DeFazio voiced some optimism over Lighthizer as the nation’s chief trade negotiator.

“We know he did name a special trade representative yesterday who has taken a less conventional view of trade, but not necessarily coming from the same progressive position we are in, in terms of really benefiting American workers,” he said. “But in naming him, Trump said he wanted to fight for trade deals that put American workers first, and so do we.”

Worker-Friendly Wish List

The group of lawmakers Jan. 3 also unveiled the “21st Century Workers’ Bill of Rights” they want to see included in future trade deals. They said the U.S. should negotiate agreements with the following objectives in mind:

  •  Eliminate incentives to send jobs overseas;
  •  Scrap investor state dispute settlement procedures, which unions have dubbed as unjust “corporate courts”;
  •  Require strong, enforceable labor and environmental standards and bans on currency manipulation;
  •  Require strong rules of origin on cars, auto parts and other manufactured goods to dictate how much of a certain product must be made in a participating country to avoid tariffs;
  •   Eliminate procurement provisions that weaken the Buy American clause, which mandates the percent of products to be manufactured in the U.S.; and
  •  Eliminate tribunals that undermine U.S. trade enforcement laws.

Officials at Trump’s transition team did not respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment Jan. 3.

Trade Representative a Labor Ally?

Trump, announcing Lighthizer’s nomination in a written statement, touted Lighthizer’s negotiation skills on bilateral trade agreements when he was deputy U.S. trade representative during the Reagan administration.

“He has extensive experience striking agreements that protect some of the most important sectors of our economy, and has repeatedly fought in the private sector to prevent bad deals from hurting Americans,” Trump said in the statement.

Just how much power Lighthizer will have is still unclear. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and other Democrats said they’re “concerned” Ross as commerce secretary could have an “expanded” role in trade talks.

“Wilbur Ross has a much different philosophy with approaching a trade agreement, so I think it still remains to be seen what will happen here, and what is the scope and what is the discretion that the trade representative will have,” DeLauro said.

Labor unions and their advocates have a voice in the trade process, including through the U.S. trade representative’s labor advisory committee. Trumka said he was heartened by Lighthizer’s previous criticism of China’s trade practices but uncertain about Trump administration trade policy.

“That’s been encouraging, but we don’t know what his marching orders will be,” Trumka told Bloomberg BNA following the news conference. There are “marching orders, no matter what his personal views. He will be part of a team and the marching orders could be to renegotiate this thing, but make it more corporate friendly and less worker friendly, and then it’s not going to be good for America.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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