Labor Voices: New NAFTA for working families

Dennis Williams

The UAW has always been about a greater calling. We are more than just contracts and bargaining; we are also about lifting up our communities and fighting for fairness for all working men and women. The concerns of the UAW and the labor movement aren’t limited to those who carry a union card.

After Walter Reuther was elected UAW president in 1946, he said, “we are a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fight for the welfare of the public at large.” This statement reflects our core values. The UAW is and has been about working to improve the lives of all. This is why the UAW was against the North American Free Trade Agreement and has repeatedly called for a renegotiation of this bad trade deal.

We knew it was a bad agreement then and unfortunately we were right. The North American Free Trade Agreement was terrible for working families in the United States, as well as our allies to the north and south — Canada and Mexico. The terrible deal triggered job losses, closed auto factories, depressed wages and gave more power to corporations in all three countries.

Renegotiate NAFTA? Great, but let’s make it better for working families and not just corporations this time. Fixing NAFTA will take more than just “tweaks” or “modernization” and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) labor standards cannot be used as a model for NAFTA renegotiations. In order for anyone to declare a “win” when it comes to renegotiating NAFTA, the new NAFTA needs to be transformed into an agreement that makes lives better for all in North America by raising wages, creating good, safe jobs and investing in our workers and infrastructure. Any good trade deal for American workers will create jobs in the United States and reverse our outrageous trade deficit.

We have to address workers’ rights when it comes to renegotiating NAFTA. The labor side agreement to NAFTA, called the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) was supposed to protect workers, but it has failed miserably, particularly for Mexican workers. Any good trade agreement should not erode a worker’s right to form a union, bargain collectively, and strike. Mexico must, at a minimum, require independent and democratic unions that represent Mexican workers without intimidation and violence. Taking into account the decades-long suppression of labor rights in Mexico, labor violations should be subject to punitive duties and Mexico should be required to establish a Mexican manufacturing minimum wage.

Negotiators must remove NAFTA’s corporate privileges. This includes eliminating the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions. ISDS gives corporations and investors the right to sue governments in a special NAFTA ISDS tribunal when a country passes laws that affect profits. This undermines the whole idea of democracy because corporations are given special powers that put them in the driver’s seat above laws and regulations passed by democratically elected lawmakers.

Before anyone can high-five each other over a renegotiated NAFTA we must see proof that labor and environmental protections aren’t just words on paper. We have seen the problems caused by NAFTA and must not repeat it. A truly good trade agreement should provide workers in all three countries the ability to provide for their families. NAFTA only provided the framework for companies to reap more profits at the expense of working people.

Dennis Williams is president of the UAW.


Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.