Opinion: Strive for a better trade deal

Richard Trumka and Ron Bieber
In this April 9, 2019, file photo, trucks wait to cross the border with the U.S. in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  In a surprise announcement that could compromise a major trade deal, President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is slapping a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports to pressure the country to do more to crack down on the surge of Central American migrants trying to cross the U.S. border.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been nothing short of a disaster for working people. For a quarter-century, Michiganians have watched as corporations shuttered plants, raided pensions and steadily eroded communities that had come to embody the promise of the American Dream.

NAFTA is a disaster. But it was no accident. Politicians and corporate executives saw trade as a way to further tilt the economy in their favor. They sold out jobs and livelihoods here at home and sacrificed workers' rights abroad. Nothing was off limits so long as they could sniff out fatter profit margins.

President Trump was right to recognize that something needs to change. Working people in Michigan responded to that message, but the president’s proposal falls far short of what he promised.

NAFTA can't be tinkered with around the edges — it needs to be ripped out by the roots and replaced with something dramatically different. The current proposal, which U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield has rightly referred to as “NAFTA 1.5,” is simply not good enough.

Michigan families aren’t interested in trade policies that enrich corporations first, then seek to mitigate the devastating economic fallout second. A truly pro-worker trade agreement won’t prioritize the demands of CEOs and multinational conglomerates. Instead, it will use the United States' leverage to strengthen workers' rights across borders, while raising wages and creating good jobs here.

The administration’s proposed new NAFTA is a huge missed opportunity, leaving some of the original agreement’s worst pieces in place and even granting new monopoly rights to Big Pharma at a time when the prices of prescription drugs are going through the roof. It’s not too late to move aggressively toward a new era in American trade policy, but it’s going to require significant improvements to this proposal.

First, the new NAFTA needs dramatically stronger enforcement tools to ensure that the rules we agree to in theory are actually followed. As it stands, the administration’s deal would let a corporation shut down investigations into its own trade violations, a loophole that had been rightly abandoned in recent trade agreements. To turn back now makes absolutely no sense. Without a way to hold everyone accountable, this deal isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Second, the administration needs to loosen Big Pharma’s death grip on prescription drug prices. The current deal would give pharmaceutical corporations the power to charge whatever they like, without competition, across North America for at least a decade. That’s not trade. It’s greed.

Third, Mexican workers must be guaranteed the right to organize, negotiate higher wages and win acceptable working conditions. While the Mexican government has taken steps in the right direction, this proposal has no way of ensuring that they continue following through on their promises. This deal needs to mandate transparent reporting and strong, guaranteed consequences for violations. The new NAFTA has no mechanism for ensuring any meaningful change. To move forward without the necessary enforcement tools would sacrifice any leverage we have to save jobs in Michigan and strengthen workers’ rights on both sides of the border.

These are the most egregious issues, but there is a range of other problems with the current proposal that also need to be addressed, from allowing corporations to hide the origins of our food to leaving high-wage jobs vulnerable to continued outsourcing.

If the Trump administration returns to the negotiating table and secures a truly fair deal, our movement will mobilize nationwide to win its passage in Congress.

But, if the president insists on ramming through the current proposal, as the recent decision to formally start the approval process indicates, we will use our unmatched grassroots power to ensure that it never sees the light of day.

Despite the White House’s hurry, an effort of this magnitude can’t be rushed or sloppily thrown together. This is a conversation that will continue in the coming months, led first and foremost by the voices of working people. That’s why we are looking forward to hosting a workers’ town hall in Detroit on June 19, where we will be listening to the stories, questions and demands of working Michiganians who have suffered under NAFTA for far too long.

If the president and his team hope to pass any type of North American trade deal, we suggest they tune in as well.

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices 

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.