U.S. and Canadian labor groups said the U.S. should reject a so-called “skinny” North American Free Trade Agreement and remain at the negotiating table to finalize a complete overhaul of the 25-year-old trade pact.
The presidents of the United Steelworkers, which represents workers in the U.S. and Canada, Teamsters, Teamsters Canada and the AFL-CIO all released statements condemning a “skinny NAFTA” and saying that the U.S. should remain committed to a complete overhaul of the NAFTA framework. According to the groups, a full renegotiation would mean including provisions central to the labor movement’s interests — provisions that a pared-down deal would not include.
“In Washington, business leaders are talking about approving portions of the NAFTA renegotiations, while leaving the most important provisions for possible later action,” USW President Leo Gerard said in a May 22 statement. “The special interest lobbyists have called this a ‘skinny deal’ containing limited provisions. There can be no mistake that they are trying to grab more benefits while continuing to oppose actions that would help workers. These include advancing labor rights, improving rules of origin, eliminating the investor state dispute settlement and adopting a sunset review. It is classic Washington bait and switch that is unacceptable.”
Similarly, Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa outlined provisions his organization must see in a new NAFTA to support it.
“We’ve waited nearly a quarter century to get out of the flawed and failed NAFTA deal,” he said in a May 22 statement. “The premise of these talks all along has been that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing all the way. Ambassador Lighthizer and the NAFTA team at the USTR have worked hard to rebalance the old trade pact in several ways that we could support in a ratification vote in Congress, as long as the new deal represents real reform around key Teamster priority issues like labor, cross-border trucking and the elimination of the old ‘investor-to-state’ mechanism in the investment chapter. We feel strongly that they should not give up now.”
Teamsters Canada President François Laporte, meanwhile, called a lesser NAFTA “a terrible idea.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Tuesday said discussions on a skinny NAFTA were an attempt to undermine the negotiations.
“Fat cat CEOs who have been profiting from #NAFTA for 24 years are trying to short circuit negotiations to ensure they continue to enrich themselves at the expense of North America’s workers,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t fall for ‘skinny’ NAFTA.”
Talks of a pared-down deal have increased in recent days. Canada’s deputy ambassador to the U.S. last week said Canada would be amenable to that approach, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) — a member of the Senate’s Republican leadership — this week endorsed the approach because it would mean Congress would not have to vote on a deal.
Barrasso told Inside U.S. Trade on Tuesday that he didn’t want NAFTA to be subject to a congressional vote because he was unsure whether it would pass. “A major reworking of NAFTA I think is not something that we can get passed through the Congress,” he said. “I just don’t think the votes are going to be there.”
One labor stakeholder disagreed with Barrasso’s logic, contending that a comprehensively renegotiated NAFTA would attract more Democrats than it would lose Republicans. For instance, labor groups could get behind a NAFTA 2.0 if their issues were adequately addressed. Labor leaders listed several of those issues in their statements on Tuesday.
But NAFTA provisions, including a new labor chapter, would have to be enforceable for the labor community to back a deal, the source said. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has proposed that the state-state dispute settlement mechanism in NAFTA 2.0 be non-binding.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), another member of the Republican leadership, told Inside U.S. Trade on Tuesday that the only way the administration could successfully get a NAFTA deal through the current session of Congress is if it drops proposals such as an opt-out for the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism and an automatic sunset clause, which are supported by some in the labor community. The administration has to avoid “going down a path that’s going to lose Republican votes,” Thune said.
“I think, my assumption is in order to pass any kind of a trade deal you’re going to have to pass it primarily with Republicans so it’s going to be important for the administration I think to have listened to, consulted with, and vetted some of these ideas with Senate Republicans,” he said.
Asked if he was referring to the administration’s ISDS and sunset proposals, Thune said, “Yeah, stuff like that.”
“Sunset is very, as you know, an issue that’s important to a lot of our members and some of these other issues we’ve weighed in — people [who] have concerns about where the administration is getting have articulated that and hopefully the administration is listening,” he continued.
Thune said he has not sensed that the administration was willing to back off its proposals. “But it’s hard to say because we just haven’t seen … what a final framework would look like. So I’m hoping they’ve been listening.”
For the current session of Congress to be able to vote on a retooled NAFTA, the administration would have to submit a notice of its intent to sign the deal in the coming weeks. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had initially said Congress would need to receive a notice by May 17, but later suggested some wiggle room.
Some sources speculate that once NAFTA parties can reach an agreement on auto rules of origin, the remaining outstanding issues will quickly come together. Lighthizer, however, last week downplayed the chances of that by saying the NAFTA parties were “nowhere near close” to a deal.
On Wednesday, President Trump suggested a deal on autos could be struck “very soon,” while criticizing Canada and Mexico for being “very difficult to deal with.”
“I think your autoworkers and your auto companies in this country are going to be very happy with what’s going to happen,” Trump said when asked about an earlier tweet promising help for the industry. “You’ll be seeing very soon what I’m talking about. NAFTA is very difficult. Mexico has been very difficult to deal with. Canada has been very difficult to deal with. They have been taking advantage of the United States for a long time. I am not happy with their requests. But I will tell you, in the end, we win. We will win, and we’ll win big. We’ll get along with Mexico; we’ll get along with Canada. But I will tell you, they have been very difficult to deal with. They’re very spoiled — because nobody has done this. But I will tell you that what they ask for is not fair.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump tweeted that “There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers. After many decades of losing your jobs to other countries, you have waited long enough!”
The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that the administration was considering launching a Section 232 investigation into the national security implications of auto imports. — Brett Fortnam (firstname.lastname@example.org)