USMCA: Mixed messages from union leaders precede House OK of ‘New NAFTA’
A cargo truck crosses the border between Mexico and the United States in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. New restrictions on Mexican trucks using U.S. roads are one part of the new USMCA trade deal. | Hans-Maximo Musielik / AP

WASHINGTON—Mixed messages from union leaders on the “New NAFTA” preceded the U.S. House’s approval on Dec. 19 of legislation to implement the “free trade” pact, formally called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). It passed by a vote of 385-41.

The measure, HR5430, to put the three-way pact into effect is jammed with tighter and enforceable labor standards, especially applied to Mexico, in an effort to slow the rampant export of U.S. factory and later white-collar jobs south of the border.

Those changes satisfied AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, new Steelworkers President Tom Conroy, and Teamsters President Jim Hoffa.

Hoffa explained the “free trade” pact curbs NAFTA’s permission for rampant roaming of unsafe Mexican trucks all over U.S. roads. The union spent much time in the last two decades in Congress and in court defending U.S. truckers and safety, trying to keep those Mexican vehicles to within 20 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Those Mexican trucks threaten both U.S. highway safety—the vehicles are creaky and the drivers don’t meet U.S. licensing and drug-testing standards—and competitiveness, Hoffa said. A letter exchange between Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, and the Mexican economic minister says Mexico now will adopt and enforce U.S. truck safety standards. They’re much higher than Mexico’s.

“Renegotiation of NAFTA and the subsequent improvements made by Democratic leadership have resulted in a final package that is superior to the original,” Hoffa’s statement said. The Canadian Teamsters President, François Laporte, agreed, emphasizing improved and enforceable worker rights. “Nobody got everything they wanted, but our union has decided not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Trumka emphasized the enforceable worker rights, especially in Mexico. Left undiscussed: An initial proposal, more than two years ago, by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to force higher U.S. labor standards, by banning  U.S. “right-to-work” laws. Trudeau promised that to Canadian auto workers leaders, then quickly dropped it.

“Working people are responsible for a deal that is a vast improvement over both the original NAFTA and the flawed proposal brought forward in 2017,” Trumka’s tweeted statement said, without naming the author of that flawed document, President Donald Trump.

“For the first time, there truly will be enforceable labor standards—including a process that allows for inspections of factories and facilities that are not living up to their obligations,” Trumka added.

Mike Dolan, the Teamsters’ legislative rep who worked with U.S. Congressional bargainers on trucking issues, said in a phone interview that the new trucking language is “more ambitious” than just limiting the Mexican trucks to within 20 miles of our southern border.

“The U.S. can adopt and maintain new restrictions on operating authority” for the Mexican trucks to roll on U.S. roads, he said. And that language was not only in the USMCA but in the implementing bill, too.

Further, if the Mexican trucks undercut U.S. trucking firms and workers economically, the Teamsters—or anyone else—will be able to make a case to the U.S. International Trade Commission and seek economic relief. “We’ll have access to the mediation manufacturing unions had” under NAFTA “and this is a first for a service industry,” long-haul trucking. “We’re very happy with that.”

But the Machinists flatly opposed the USMCA, saying it would do little or nothing to stop the export and outsourcing of factory jobs, especially in the aerospace industry.

And the Auto Workers took an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand stand, even though the pact increases North American content for vehicles to 70% and mandates those cars and trucks must be made by workers whose average pay is $16 an hour. Some Mexican auto workers, toiling at Detroit 3 carmakers’ plants there, make $2 hourly.

“Companies intent on keeping wages down will go to great lengths to keep wages down and jobs in Mexico,” new UAW President Rory Gamble said.

That’s one reason the new pact “is not a ‘fix’ for the many problems” from NAFTA. It also won’t bring back the “hundreds of thousands of jobs” the U.S. lost to Mexico in that pact’s 26 years, he added—despite, though Gamble did not say so, what Trump could claim on the campaign trail in 2020.

“Autoworkers know this to be true from our experience, but experts have also stated so,” he added, a point also made by pro-worker trade pact expert Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Trade Watch (See USMCA analysis story).

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a veteran pro-worker lawmaker and part of the House bargaining team that forced Trump’s hand, agreed. “It is important to understand that regardless of the president’s rhetoric, this agreement will not bring back U.S. manufacturing jobs,” she warned.

But the USMCA also sets up “a labor-specific enforcement mechanism” in Mexico that, she said, starts immediately and “allows for quick, facility-based enforcement and company-wide enforcement of key new labor standards included in the agreement.”

There will also be “a new independent review body to ensure Mexico” lives up to its commitments, DeLauro said. And if firms break USMCA labor standards, the pact imposes penalties, including “for repeat offenders, blocking non-compliant goods at the border.”

Nevertheless, auto and parts worker losses to Mexico will continue, Gamble predicted. Indeed, in the week after Trump’s announcement, Ford said it would move more jobs there from New York.

Still, Gamble called the revised USMCA “significantly stronger” than the original “NAFTA 2.0” Trump promulgated previously. “The original had very weak enforcement mechanisms, inadequate labor standards, and giveaways to the pharmaceutical industry,” the UAW chief explained.

Like Trumka and Wallach, Gamble lauded the new pact’s stronger worker rights chapter, which is written into both the USMCA and the implementing legislation the House passed. But also like them, Gamble said comprehensive, tough, and sure enforcement is the key. That includes eliminating Mexico’s company unions and replacing their 700,000 contracts with real pacts.

“It will be difficult to ensure Mexico’s government fully implement its labor law reforms. And it will take great, sustained political will and their strong financial commitments,” Gamble added.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka together with Democratic lawmakers and supporters speaks about their opposition to Trump’s original NAFTA 2.0 proposal during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 25, 2019. | Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

The Communications Workers also were poring over the pact’s provisions. They’ve engaged in a long campaign to organize workers at U.S. call centers, especially at telecom firms such as AT&T and Verizon. Companies have retaliated by moving thousands of jobs, often located in rural areas where the call center is a small town’s main employer, south of the border.

“As any experienced union negotiator knows, it’s important to read the final text of any agreement before passing judgment on it instead of relying on verbal promises,” union President Chris Shelton said. “The actual revised USMCA text contains some modest improvements over NAFTA for working people in all three countries under this agreement.

“The negotiations over the USMCA have shown our approach to trade policy needs to be fundamentally overhauled to benefit working families, not just multinational corporations. While a net improvement, the USMCA is not a future template for a progressive vision of trade that puts at its core our values of good jobs and rising wages,” he said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.