OTTAWA – The U.S. should join Canada in pushing for higher labour standards in Mexico in the new North American Free Trade Agreement, said a Democratic lawmaker, or else risk a rough ride getting the deal through Congress.
“I think here the Canadian point of view is very clear and I hope the U.S. point of view will be exactly the same,” U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, Democrat from Michigan, said Tuesday in an interview from Washington, D.C.
The Liberal government is calling for progressive and enforceable labour standards in the rewritten NAFTA, including an end to corporate unions dominated or otherwise influenced by employers, which keep wages low by essentially dictating the terms in a collective agreement.
The lawmaker suggested dealing with this issue is central to getting the support of his party.
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“In fact, if we don’t have something like that – that gets at this issue of an industrial policy based on the backs of workers – I don’t think there would be very many Democrats who would vote for a NAFTA renegotiated, whatever else was in,” said Levin, who is on the House ways and means committee.
“It is one of the keys,” he said. “It is absolutely essential.”
One of the biggest concerns of both Canada and the U.S. is the exodus of quality jobs and investment to Mexico, particularly in the automotive sector.
NAFTA currently includes an unenforceable side deal on labour which essentially commits each NAFTA partner to the aspirational goal of improving working conditions and enforcing its own labour standards.
The labour chapter that Canada has put on the table does not suggest any specific minimum wage should be set, but addresses the principles of improved working conditions, fair compensation, gender equality and the right to collective bargaining.
The text the U.S. is championing, according to labour leaders, is modeled after the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among a dozen countries, including Canada, Mexico and the U.S. – until President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal when he got to the White House.
Having criticized the labour provisions in that deal as weak, unions do not want the U.S. to repeat history.
Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said union leaders below the border are now urging the U.S. to support the Canadian idea.
“It’s really not about Canada is right and the U.S. is wrong,” said Drake.
“What Canada seems to be putting on the table seems to be closer to addressing real-world problems.”
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Mexico is not the only target of the Canadian proposal, which also calls for an end to union-busting right-to-work laws in the U.S.
Dan Ujczo, an international trade lawyer specializing in Canada-U.S. matters, said that by wading into such an explosive issue below the border, the Liberal government risks alienating NAFTA supporters in Congress and in the American business community.
“I understand that right-to work fits in with a progressive trade agenda,” said Ujczo, who is with the cross-border firm Dickinson Wright, in Columbus, Ohio.
“Should this provision gain any steam, I think it has the very real potential to start eroding support at the sub-national, state levels, particularly with longtime allies of the government of Canada,” said Ujczo.
Eight of the 28 states with right-to-work laws, which make paying union dues voluntary, have it embedded within their constitutions, Ujczo noted, meaning there is little NAFTA could do about them anyway.
On Tuesday, representatives from Teamsters Canada and Unifor accused the U.S. of being dismissive of the Canadian proposal.
“The U.S. continues to qualify the Canadian labour proposal as non-substantive, not serious,” said Christopher Monette, spokesman for Teamsters Canada.
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“I don’t think the Canadian team is thrilled with it (the American text) because it falls short,” said Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor.
Trade consultant Eric Miller, president of the Rideau Potomac Strategy Group in Washington, D.C., agreed that Canada would need to tread carefully when it comes to right-to-work legislation, but said they might otherwise find some common ground on labour standards.
“There is a strange alignment in some quarters of the Trump administration and in some quarters of the Canadian government on that particular front,” said Miller.
“If I were writing this for a Twitter audience, I would just simply say: `Watch this space.”‘
Juan Gallardo, a member of the Mexican business roundtable who was involved in the original NAFTA negotiations, said Mexico would likely prefer what was in the TPP – and to manage its own affairs.
“We are more than willing to look at whatever other suggestions may apply, with the understanding that each country, obviously, has the right and the obligation to set its own working standards and its own systems of relationship with unions and so on,” he said.
Still, Drake said that including right-to-work laws in the U.S. – as well as addressing other areas where Canada is not perfect – could help bring Mexico on side with raising labour standards.
“It’s probably pretty nice, I would think, for the Mexican negotiators to hear it’s not just the other two countries ganging up on Mexico,” she said.
– With files from Mike Blanchfield