We keep hearing that surveys show that Americans think the North American Free Trade Agreement is good for the United States, but if that is so, why did so many voters in states hard hit by ill-considered trade policies (such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) vote for the candidate who promised to fix bad trade policies in the past election?
The AFL-CIO decided to survey our activists to find out. Although a non-random sample, the results provide some insight into the opinions of active union members.
When asked whether NAFTA has been good or bad for working people in the United States, our respondents said NAFTA was bad, 65% to 35%. This is important because the framing of the question matters. Talking heads from the business and foreign policy community are on TV and in newspaper opinion pages every day, extolling the virtues of NAFTA "for the United States." But the United States isn’t a single entity—it is made up of individuals, families and businesses. Union activists know that while what’s good for Wall Street might be portrayed as "good for America," it’s not necessarily true for ordinary families.
Accordingly, our respondents also predicted the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have been bad for working people by a whopping 72% to 28%. They also chose jobs (42%) and wages (25%) as the two greatest threats of the TPP. Any 2018 candidate planning to run on "saving NAFTA" and "reviving the TPP" might want to think twice. That might work with Wall Street voters, but not with working families.
Nor were our activists persuaded by all the talk that the TPP was a "progressive" deal—86% of them correctly identified "big banks and Wall Street" as supporters of the TPP.
Union activists understand the threat posed by bad trade and globalization policies. Eighty-seven percent identified China as the highest U.S. trade priority and 45% identified trade agreements as a 7 out of 7 in terms of its importance as a policy issue. Perhaps that’s why an overwhelming majority—88%—disapprove of the job the president is doing.
The president made some big promises on trade policy. He promised to stop outsourcing, create jobs, raise wages and deal with China. While the jury is still out on the NAFTA negotiations, more trade work needs to be done, particularly on China, currency, overseas labor abuses and rigorous enforcement. No matter what happens with the NAFTA renegotiations or the 232 steel case, we can be sure that union voters are paying attention and will hold the president accountable.