Speech | Trade

Trumka: New NAFTA Not Good Enough

Vancouver, British Columbia
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addresses USW Canada National Policy Conference.
USW Canada

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka today delivered the following remarks at the United Steelworkers Canadian National Policy Conference: 

Thank you, Brother Ken (Neumann) for your kind words. Thank you for your leadership across Canada.

Brother Leo (Gerard), you epitomize a strong leader. The labor movement is fortunate to count you as one of our greatest fighters, and personally, I’m honored to call you a brother and friend.

I also want to give a quick shoutout to Brother Clément [CLAY-mont] (Masse) and the more than 1,000 members of Steelworkers Local 9700 who have been locked out at A-B-I for the past 14 months. The entire labor movement has your back, and we’re hoping you can return to work soon.

Brothers and sisters, I’m honored to be with you in Canada today to talk about trade policy, and what it means for workers in the U.S., Canada and around the world.

For the better part of a generation, our global trading system has been rigged to enrich corporations at our expense. And no deal has done more damage to working people than NAFTA. The beneficiaries of the current trade model want to pit us against each other in their never ending quest to leave us poor, divided and weak.

But we know better. We know our enemy is not American, Canadian or Mexican workers. Workers are never the enemy.

Trade itself is also not the enemy. We support trade. For too long, if you opposed a trade agreement for any reason, you were belittled as a protectionist...a dinosaur...as not understanding the complex reality of a global economy. Even some of our friends told us we were fighting yesterday’s war.

But our movement is trying to shape globalization, not stop it. We are working to change the debate by focusing on trade rules, the structures that, for too long, have killed jobs and lowered wages.

This isn’t a matter of whether or not to trade. Of course, we should open up new markets for our products and do business with people all over the world.

The real challenge is to advance trade policy that creates shared prosperity and makes the world stronger and safer. Bring us a deal like that, and we’ll support it.

That deal has not yet come.

Many of us here today, we’ve been at this awhile. Leo, Ken and I were sounding the alarm about NAFTA from the very start. My hair was darker then.

It’s hard to believe, but 2019 marks 25 years since that agreement went into force. Back in 1994, we predicted it would be devastating for working families. I wish we were wrong, brothers and sisters. But we were right. Our continent and our world would be better off today if our leaders had simply listened to us.

That’s because NAFTA worked exactly as it was designed to...as a windfall for corporations. For North American workers, it has been nothing short of catastrophic. NAFTA put big business in charge of economic strategy with the goal of moving production to places where labor is cheap and workers are exploited. And look what happened: Millions of American and Canadian jobs were lost to Mexico and other low-wage countries. Entire communities were decimated...and many are still struggling to recover today. Some will never recover.

And, look at Mexico. Workers at tire plants report making $1.87 per hour. That’s one American dollar, brothers and sisters. Not pesos. These workers don’t even make enough to buy the cars they’re producing. No wonder more than 40% of Mexicans live in poverty.

NAFTA made systemic worker suppression North America’s prevailing economic model. And, it has become the template for other anti-worker trade agreements...perpetuating this vicious cycle of multinationals outsourcing jobs to low-wage, low-standard regions, destroying our livelihoods in the process. Want to know why we have a global inequality crisis? Take a look at our trade deals.

A quarter century later, NAFTA is still keeping wages low, and it’s still subverting the rule of law…the law that guarantees all workers the freedom to bargain collectively with our employers.  

We remember when Caterpillar workers in Ontario tried to exercise that right. The company shut the factory down. Walmart workers in Quebec voted union yes. And what did the retail giant do? They cut and run.

When Volkswagen workers in Tennessee tried to organize, they were threatened and told a new V-W assembly line would go to Mexico if they formed a union.

And, of course, there was the tragedy when Los Mineros members went on strike and violence erupted, killing three workers. I know the United Steelworkers have been neck-deep in this struggle for fairness and justice in Mexico alongside Los Mineros, and God bless you for it!

Every single one of these examples should have been a gross violation under any fair, functional and fully-enforced North American free trade agreement. Instead, not only is this type of lawlessness allowed...it is encouraged...it is incentivized...it is rewarded.

No more! After a quarter-century of this race to the bottom, workers in all three NAFTA countries are fed up. We’re fired up. And, we’re not gonna take it anymore!

Brothers and sisters, we reject those who tell us the NAFTA model is “inevitable.” We reject a world of obscene inequality and choose a world of broadly shared prosperity.

We were right in 1994, and we’re still right today.

So I have a message for every worker across this great continent: We deserve better. We demand better. We’re fighting for better. And we’re going to win better!

The labor movement is committed to ensuring trade deals benefit working people…and that means three basic principles:

First, trade deals should raise the standard of living and improve the lives of working people.

Second, trade deals should benefit each country’s interests without burdening other trading partners.

Finally, trade deals should prioritize people, not corporations.

In its current form, the new NAFTA does not meet these straightforward standards.

For one, there is nothing in the proposal to address outsourcing. It’s a repeat of the old NAFTA and fails to stop the hemorrhaging of U.S and Canadian jobs to Mexico. It doesn’t prevent corporations like General Motors from closing down plants and hurting workers and communities up and down the supply chain from Ohio to Ontario and beyond.

The first step to address outsourcing is for Mexico to eradicate protection contracts for good. It must thoroughly reform its labor laws NOW…not promise to do so later...and, it must effectively enforce those laws and dedicate the necessary resources to ensure compliance. The Mexican people are hungry for this type of change. Now it’s time for their newly elected leaders to make it happen.

The new NAFTA also has no effective way to enforce its rules. It literally allows a party accused of violations to stop a settlement panel. It’d be like giving an accused thief the right to shut down his own trial.  

This is crazy. If a trade deal can’t be enforced, then it’s not a deal at all.

Finally, the new NAFTA will keep prescription drug prices sky high by handing Big Pharma a guaranteed, international monopoly period over and above its patent rights.

This provision will hurt workers in all three countries, and it will have a particularly harmful impact here in Canada as you seek to add a prescription drug benefit to your national health care system. Under the proposed new NAFTA, Prime Minister (Justin) Trudeau will have to change Canada’s drug monopoly period from 8 years to 10 years. That’s a massive giveaway to Big Pharma.

So let me be absolutely clear: If the Trump administration insists on a premature vote on the new NAFTA before these issues are fixed, we will have no choice but to oppose it. Isn’t that right, Leo?

Workers across North America deserve a NAFTA that works for all of us. And, that means workers must stick together as we demand a rewrite of this bad deal!

We’ve got each other’s backs, and you proved that in earlier NAFTA negotiations. You made sure your government did everything it could to get the U.S. to roll back so-called right to work. Thank you for that! Getting rid of right to work would benefit workers in both of our countries. And while the agreement before us leaves right to work in place, we aren’t sitting back. Just last summer, workers in Missouri repealed right to work with more than 67 percent of the vote. And we’re just getting started.

American workers have had your backs, too, especially when it comes to tariffs. We support steel and aluminum tariffs on China and other trade cheats. Not on Canada! That’s just wrong! And I’ve let President Trump know this time and time again. We must be tough when it comes to trade. But we also must be fair and smart. Mr. President, remove the Section 232 tariffs on Canada at once!

Brothers and sisters, make no mistake, the coming days are a major test for the Trump administration. They must either step up for working people and produce labor rules and trade pacts that work...or prepare to face the full fighting force of the North American labor movement...with the United Steelworkers leading the way!

Close is not good enough. Not when millions of jobs are at stake. Not when lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. Not after 25 years of devastation and destruction.

Bring us a deal that works, and we’ll fight for it. Bring us a deal that works, and we’ll march for it. But until that deal is secured, get back to the negotiating table and finish the job!

Look, President Trump gets some credit for putting NAFTA back on the table. George W. Bush didn’t do that. Barack Obama didn’t do that. And let’s be candid: Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have done that. Donald Trump recognized early on...whether through political expediency or actual conviction...that our trade regime needed to be massively overhauled. And we’ve been meeting with his administration nonstop to let them know exactly where we stand.

Unfortunately, the deal before us today tries to serve two masters...the corporate interests who have driven trade policy for decades...and the workers, largely in industrial manufacturing, who have been clobbered by those policies. But here’s the thing: You can’t serve both. Corporations have proven completely unwilling to sacrifice a single dollar for the common good. They won’t give an inch…embracing a business model that is built on the destruction of unions and good-paying jobs.

So, until the new NAFTA is unequivocally better than the current draft, we must keep fighting to fix it.

This process hasn’t been easy. Some of my friends have questioned my decision to engage with President Trump at all. After all, this is a president that has made our lives infinitely harder. He denied paychecks to 40 percent of the American federal workforce when he locked workers out of the United States government for 35 days. He jammed through a corporate tax cut on the backs of working people that encourages further outsourcing and automation. He took overtime pay away from more than two million people. He’s made our jobs more dangerous, slashing safety regulations and gutting the rule requiring employers to submit detailed reports on workplace injuries. And he’s been far too quick to give cover to racism, misogyny and xenophobia.

Yet I believe I owe it to every single worker...in my country and yours...to find a way forward on NAFTA. If we get this deal right, we can start to change the global rules of trade, and with it...the course of history.

Brothers and sisters, I’ve been in this movement for 50 years. And I have never been more optimistic. Working people are coming together in droves. Momentum is on our side. Politicians are coming to us, moved by a groundswell of support for good jobs, fair trade and raising pay.

Unions on both sides of the border...we’re proving to the world that we are here to STAY. We’re on the move in every city, state and province. Black and white. Young and old. Urban and rural. Gay, straight and trans.

Throughout our history, we have fought for every victory. We bled to secure the right to stand together and bargain collectively. We marched and sacrificed to end child labor. We faced down the rich and powerful to win a minimum wage. In the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition, we steadily built a fairer economy and a more just society...because we had one advantage on our side: Solidarity.

The pundits claim NAFTA is too steep of a hill. They say the corporate traders will always prevail. Well, let’s prove them wrong. Let’s take to the streets...in every corner of our continent…and demand the deal we deserve.

Our enemies want a fight? I say, bring it on!

We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. We’re rising in solidarity. And we’re going to win.

Because we make America work. We make Canada work. We make Mexico work.

We roll the steel. We make the tires. We build the roads and stoke the fires. We’ll stand strong. We’ll never run and hide.


Thank you, Canada! Thank you, United Steelworkers! God bless you!

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