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AFL-CIO President Says USMCA Trade Deal Still Needs Improvement


On Wednesday, Mexico became the first country to ratify the USMCA, the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada. It's the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated during the Clinton administration. Now lawmakers in Canada and the U.S. have to do the same for the deal to move forward. But critics are pushing for changes, including labor leaders like Richard Trumka. He is the president of the AFL-CIO, and he's been traveling around the U.S. arguing that the agreement does not do enough to protect workers. And we called him to ask him to tell us more.

Mr. Trumka, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

RICHARD TRUMKA: Well, Michel, it's great to be back on.

MARTIN: So you were recently in Michigan speaking to autoworkers. The Detroit News quoted you as saying that the labor section in the agreement is actually better than NAFTA, but it still needs improvement. So can you just give me one or two ideas of what more needs to be done in your view?

TRUMKA: Well, as it currently stands, the agreement can't be enforced. And there are three levels that it must be enforced at. One, Mexico has to show us not only that it can pass laws but that it has the wherewithal, the infrastructure and the resources to be able to implement those laws and give workers a chance to better their wages and working conditions because if they don't do that, no matter what the agreement says, it's - it won't matter. It won't change workers' lives in this country.

The second part is, the agreement's enforcement provisions need to be dramatically strengthened. The International Trade Commission's report recently confirmed what we already knew - that without a way to hold all three countries accessible, this deal isn't worth the paper it's written on. And under this agreement, any party can block a panel. A panel is the arbitrator that decides the dispute, the trade dispute. And if you can't ever get it decided by a third party, you can never actually implement it.

And then the third level of enforcement is that workers need to be able to enforce this trade agreement to make it better so that it works for us so that if somebody violates the agreement in Mexico or Canada, we should be able to stop their products at the border.

MARTIN: I noted that the agreement was ratified by the Mexican Senate 114-4, and it received cross-party support. And I'm wondering - I mean, I'm thinking that might have been a tough vote for some of them, given particularly this administration's rhetoric around Mexico and immigration and so forth. But they did vote for it. I was wondering if you've heard from labor leaders in Mexico and what they're saying to you about it.

TRUMKA: The labor leaders in Mexico and Canada and the U.S. are all saying the same thing. The agreement is not ready for primetime. It needs to be changed for us to be able to support it. And they want to - they want that to happen. Look. The Mexican model was to keep wages artificially low so that they could suck jobs and investment out of the U.S. And the Mexican workers suffered from all of that. They want not just labor laws passed, but they want to make sure that the labor laws are enforced so that they can actually negotiate. And Canada's saying the same thing.

MARTIN: But it's my understanding that one of the provisions of the new agreement is that 40% to 45%, say, of automobile parts have to be made by workers who earn at least $16 an hour by 2023. Is that one of the provisions that at least makes it better than the previous?

TRUMKA: Well, that provision is more illusory. On the $16 wages, the part that you left out is that the $16 is an average wage so that if, in fact, you have a Detroit auto worker making $30, and you have a Mexican worker making $3, it still meets the $16 average. So it does very little to help. It's more illusory than it is anything else. In addition to that, it is not pegged to inflation, so that $16 will stay in place forever and become less and less meaningful with each year.

MARTIN: What in this agreement makes it better in your perspective? Because you did say that there was something in it that was, so tell me one thing.

TRUMKA: There are. The labor chapter itself is better. However, if you can't enforce the labor chapter, it is meaningless. And so we're trying to get the enforcement on three different levels that I outlined earlier.

MARTIN: So what's your message to Democrats here? I mean, the issue is, so far, the administration has been trying to work with the Democrats. I mean, the trade chief, for example, the U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, has been working with Democrats to hear their concerns about it. I mean, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has appointed nine House Democrats to committees to negotiate these sort of - these changes.

But there is this some sense that, you know, the administration - others in the administration would like to fast-track it. There is a mechanism for doing that. I mean, do you have a specific message to Democrats? Because, as you know, with such a large - particularly with such a large presidential field, you've got all kinds of different opinions about international trade in that group. Do you know what I mean? So do you have a specific message to them about how to - you would like to see them proceed?

TRUMKA: Yeah, we do. Look. NAFTA isn't broken. It's done exactly what it was meant to. It exploited workers in Mexico. It disrupted lives here. It's taken money out of our pockets, and it's put it in the hands of a few billionaires. So the solution just isn't a new NAFTA. It can't be rebranded or a sliver of change. The only answer is a strong enforceable mechanism for raising wages and protecting the rights of working people. This agreement is not yet there. It's no. And if they insist on trying to jam through this inferior, ineffective trade agreement that is nothing more right now than a-little-bit-better-NAFTA, then we would have to oppose it. And I think that we would have enough votes on both sides of the aisle to prevent it from becoming the law of the land.

MARTIN: That's Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Mr. Trumka, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

TRUMKA: Thanks for having me on, I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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