Speech | Trade

Trumka Hails Tai's Worker-Centered Trade Appoach

Washington, D.C.

The AFL-CIO hosted a union member town hall at its Washington, D.C., headquarters, featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (UMWA) and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. President Trumka delivered the following opening remarks:

Hello, everyone. I’m Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

On behalf of our 56 affiliated unions and 12.5 million members, I want to welcome you to the House of Labor. 

And I want to thank Ambassador Katherine Tai.

This is a historic first for working people.

Ambassador Tai is the first USTR to come to the House of Labor to discuss the importance of workers’ rights in trade policy.

For years, working people have pleaded for a seat at the table during trade negotiations. Time and time again, the door was slammed shut in our face. And that happened during Republican and Democratic administrations.

Today marks the start of a new era. 

Ambassador Tai values workers’ voices and believes in workers’ rights. 

The labor movement knows that trade is a vital part of a modern global economy. But the global economy must work for working people.  

Our choice is not whether trade and economic globalization are inherently “good” or “bad.”

The choice is this: Are U.S. trade policies ensuring workers share in the prosperity we generate? Or, are we making the same decisions that have created a race to the bottom?
Over the past 40 years, Republican and Democratic administrations have pushed a harmful neo-liberal “free trade” agenda.

An agenda based on the myth that lowering tariffs and expanding trade would somehow make us all better off. It did not. Workers became poorer and weaker. 

On the global level, the World Trade Organization promoted trade rules that catered to—and were created by—big corporations. 

Meanwhile, workers’ rights and environmental protection were cast aside and branded as “non-trade” issues. 

The result has been a race to the bottom on wages and standards, environmental destruction, and runaway inequality. 

And make no mistake: skyrocketing inequality is the reason for the growing backlash to globalization. 

Inequality breeds distrust, division and the destabilization of democratic institutions. 

These are consequences of failed trade policies. We can’t repeat the mistakes of our past.

It’s time for a new model that promotes good jobs, high wages and sustainable economic growth.

A model that protects our environment and respects human dignity around the world.

The labor movement is ready to work with Ambassador Tai and the Biden-Harris administration.

Because to guarantee shared prosperity, working people must be a part of the process. 

We must be included in the initial conversations. We must be in the room to shape the final decisions.

I believe this is possible. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement is proof it’s possible.

When the Trump administration delivered an unenforceable, business-as-usual agreement, the labor movement mobilized our allies in Congress.

We made it clear: make significant changes with us or count on us to block this.  

Katherine Tai did more than work with us, she was by our side in the political trenches.

She gave us her word that USMCA would not be NAFTA 2.0.

Together, we rewrote USMCA and got a deal done.  

So when Ambassador Tai says USTR is committed to advancing a “worker-centered” trade policy, I know she means it.  
Without getting ahead of the ambassador, I believe there are three essential elements of any worker-centered policy.

First, the process matters. 

Agreements should be negotiated through a transparent, democratic and inclusive process.

Trade agreements are too important and too impactful to be negotiated in secret by a select few. 

Every proposal should be subject to rigorous review by the public. Congress must debate every deal and not be allowed to simply “fast-track” it. 

Second, our trade deals must contain clear, strong, and enforceable labor standards. 

That means upholding fundamental labor rights agreed upon by businesses, workers and governments at the International Labor Organization. 

Major issues of non-compliance must be addressed upfront before any agreement is signed. 

Third, our trade deals should be crafted carefully to prevent the offshoring of more good-paying, union jobs. 

For decades, our jobs have been shipped over oceans and sent over the border. We think it’s time for the era of offshoring to be over.  

We can do that by adopting strong rules of origin to encourage domestic production and employment. 

And we must address currency manipulation, China’s massive industrial subsidies, and other forms of trade cheating that played such a big role in hollowing out our industrial base. 

The benefits of trade should flow to the countries who assume the obligations of the agreement, not third parties who seek to gain market access without playing by the rules. 

Of course, the labor movement has more recommendations. But as I said earlier, today is just the beginning.

During her confirmation, Ambassador Tai said something I never heard from a United States Trade Representative. 

The ambassador said the U.S. has: “overlooked the effect of our trade policies on workers, who are human beings, living in a community trying to survive and thrive.”

That core belief is needed to achieve a worker-centered trade policy.

It’s my privilege to introduce Ambassador Katherine Tai. 

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