AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Labor Roundtable with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai:
Hello, everyone. Welcome, fellow trade union leaders. Thank you, Shoya Yoshida, I’m honored to co-host this discussion with you and the ITUC. Thank you to our esteemed guest and steadfast champion for working people, United States Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai.
This discussion, ahead of her meeting with counterparts at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is important. But, first, we are all still grieving Richard Trumka’s unexpected passing on August 5th. Thank you for the outpouring of support, for sharing memories and tributes. We received messages all over the world, from the global trade union movement. We will be planning a public memorial service in the coming months, and because of the pandemic, we also never had the chance to honor the late John Sweeney. So we are in consultation with both of their families to honor them in the most thoughtful way. You cannot talk about Rich Trumka’s legacy without talking about trade. He was relentless in pursuit of a fairer model. And there was no one on this continent more central to the USMCA than Rich. He always said global trade policy was at the heart of building an economy that works for all. And now, we have a template for global trade that puts workers first. So every deal we negotiate from here forward will be on a foundation that Rich helped build. Please join me now in a moment of silence for Rich Trumka.
[A moment of silence is observed.]
As the newly-elected president of the AFL-CIO, I want to say that I believe the global labor movement is the single most powerful force in the world for progress, toward a fairer economic model that prioritizes gender equity, racial justice, the environment and working people. This is a moment for us to lead, to leverage our power, build an equitable future and put workers’ rights at the center of our global economy, policies and trade because everyone deserves to have a decent, sustainable job.
And as part of that vision, global trade union leaders belong at every table where policy is made. Our voices belong in every step of the decision-making process. That’s how we create worker-centered trade policies. For decades, we’ve been excluded—or included only as an afterthought. Trade deals have prioritized the interests of global capital and large corporations. And as a result it has devastated working families, the environment and social stability worldwide.
But with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the U.S. has begun the shift to a trade model with workers at the center. Less than a year after it went into effect, with Ambassador Tai’s leadership, the U.S. is already using the USMCA’s labor enforcement tools.
In May, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative directed Mexico to investigate if workers at a GM facility in Silao were denied their rights during a contract ratification. This was the first time the U.S. government used the new rapid response tool and it was the first time in history that the U.S. proactively initiated labor enforcement in a trade agreement.
And just last week we got results—those GM workers voted to reject the exploitative company-friendly contract, a major step forward for North American auto workers. The USMCA also contains strong labor and environmental commitments that are enforceable against both governments and corporations. And USMCA requires all three countries to implement an effective ban on importing goods made with forced labor. We want to scale similar models and progress everywhere in the world.
That’s why we’re working with Sharan [Burrow] and the ITUC to bring enforceable labor standards into the World Trade Organization. No more race to the bottom—we want to create a social floor, a new foundation for the global economy that lifts up all working people. That’s the point of our discussion today: ASEAN’s approach to trade policy is outdated, it’s stuck in the 1990s.
ASEAN has never had a formal mechanism to include voices and perspectives from trade unions in its member states. It has a mechanism to hear from 15 separate business organizations but zero from organized labor. We belong at the table. Without us ASEAN’s latest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), has no commitments to internationally recognized labor rights and environmental standards. At this critical moment to move forward on trade policy RCEP is driving in the wrong direction, in the race to the bottom. And by doubling down on the failed neoliberal trade model, it’s fueling economic inequality.
There is a lot of work ahead of us to help APEC reverse course and into alignment with our vision of a “worker-centered” trade policy. But I know what the leaders on this call are capable of and together, we will rise to meet this moment. Ambassador Tai recently spoke directly to working people. She said, “really listening and working with workers, the labor movement and a broad range of stakeholders—leads to more pro-worker, more meaningful and more popular policy.”
That is worker-centered leadership in action. It’s the vision we need and it’s how we’re going to drive progress toward worker-centered trade policy, together.
I’ll stop here so we can hear from Shoya Yoshida and then Ambassador Katherine Tai.