Labor Union Leaders Weigh In on NAFTA Renegotiation

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By Tyrone Richardson

AFL-CIO officials and other labor advocates June 28 floated some marching orders for U.S. trade representatives as they start renegotiating the NAFTA trade pact later this year.

Working families could benefit “from a renegotiated deal that prioritizes more jobs, higher wages, a cleaner environment, consumer protections and a stronger democracy,” said Thea Lee, former deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO.

Lee joined the officials from the International Association of Machinists and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to testify at a U.S. Trade Representative public hearing. The union members focused on stronger labor provisions, enforcement of labor law violations, and rules of origin that dictate how much of a certain product must be made in a participating country to avoid tariffs.

“We would ask that all these things that we are talking about—and then some like in the AFL-CIO comments—if they’re not met that negotiators be willing to walk away from NAFTA,” said Owen E. Herrnstadt, who serves as IAM’s director of trade and globalization.

The group of union officials joined dozens of business and trade organizations testifying before the USTR this week. The hearings are part of the required public hearings process leading up to NAFTA renegotiation talks with Canada and Mexico. The Trump administration May 18 notified Congress of its intent to renegotiate NAFTA. That started a 90-day period to gather information from stakeholders before starting trade talks.

Trump and Unions Align on Need to Renegotiate NAFTA

NAFTA was signed in 1994. The trade pact has been highly criticized by labor unions and President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to renegotiate trade deals he dubbed unfair and that he said caused U.S. job losses.

Trump has specifically criticized NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed 12-nation agreement from which Trump withdrew the U.S. when he took office in January. The criticism of the trade deals has been one of the few points of agreement between unions and Trump.

“While NAFTA has provided tremendous benefits to CEOs and global corporations, it has failed the working people of North America,” Lee told the USTR panel. “NAFTA has increased trade flow, but has also increased the U.S. trade deficit, accelerated the outsourcing of good jobs, depressed wages, weakened worker power, undermined democratic decision-making and destabilized communities.”

Union Wish List

Officials at the AFL-CIO, which is made up of 55 labor unions that together represent about 12.5 million workers, have told Bloomberg BNA they are seeking trade pacts that reverse job losses in the U.S. The IAM is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The unions want to eliminate incentives to sending jobs overseas, scrap investor state dispute settlement procedures, which unions have dubbed as unjust “corporate courts,” and require enforceable labor and environmental standards and bans on currency manipulation.

Herrnstadt urged stronger rules of origin measures, especially in the aerospace industry, which includes more than 81,000 IAM members.

“We also need stronger rules of origin for aerospace parts,” he said. “The industry has grown exponentially since NAFTA has been passed in Mexico and those rules of origin also need to be increased as well.”

The list of demands June 28 largely mirrored what AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and some House Democrats outlined during a news conference in January. That event included a “21st Century Workers’ Bill of Rights” they want to see included in future trade deals.

The unions’ June 28 testimony also focused on needs for setting a wage floor in all involved countries. Deputy Assistant USTR Carlos Romero questioned whether this could be accomplished, and Lee responded that it could, comparing it to minimum standards on working conditions and safety.

“So I don’t think it would be a stretch, and I think the (International Labour Organization) has some jurisprudence on that subject on what factors should be considered in determining what wage should be adequate,” she said.

Eyes on Mexican Truck Safety

Michael Dolan, legislative representative for the IBT, June 28 reinforced the union’s demand for elimination of a NAFTA provision allowing long-haul Mexican trucks to operate in the U.S. The Teamsters are also contesting the provision in the courts.

Dolan said there are concerns among the IBT, Sierra Club, and other groups that the trucks are a risk in the U.S. due to failure to meet safety and emission standards, among other issues.

“Focusing on the future of NAFTA, then, our re-negotiators have the opportunity and the obligation to fix this problem once and for all by restricting Mexican long haul carriers” to designated commercial border areas “where their loads will be transferred to U.S. certified carriers and drivers,” Dolan said. “This fix is a precondition for a modernized NAFTA to enjoy the support of the Teamsters, but it is not the only one.”

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; Chris Opfer at

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