House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a problem. If she holds a vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the trade agreement President Trump negotiated to replace NAFTA, passage could appear as a victory for the president in the midst of highly partisan impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, if she fails to hold a vote, she could face blame for leading a do nothing Congress. Given the trade pacts benefits for American workers, that failure could cost Democrats the House in 2020.
According to the United States International Trade Commission, the USMCA would increase GDP by $68.2 billion and employment by 176,000 jobs. It would “likely have a positive impact on U.S. trade, both with USMCA partners and with the rest of the world” benefiting “all broad industry sectors within the U.S. economy.” The largest “gains in output, exports, wages, and employment” would be in the manufacturing sector. That matters in those industrial swing states. No wonder it likely would pass with overwhelming bipartisan support, if Pelosi simply called it up for a vote.
So why is the speaker delaying a vote? President Trump has a theory. Speaking to reporters last week, he said “[e]verybody knows it is a great deal. She knows it is a great deal, she's said it. She hasn't wanted to do it because, I understand, a couple of the unions, the AFL-CIO, they are asking her to hold it for a while because it'll make Trump look bad."
On Nov. 7, the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council sent a letter signed by 12 union leaders warning House members that they would oppose passage of the USMCA in its current form. Despite the positive impact the USMCA would have for American workers, big labor claims that it fails to sufficiently protect workers -- in Mexico.
The USMCA stands as stark evidence that President Trump has lived up to his campaign promise to fight for American workers. Its passage would stand as a victory for President Trump, a Congress unable to accomplish much else and, most importantly, for American workers.
The unions are insisting that trade pact require the Mexican government to implement a program of labor inspections that “will free Mexican workers to challenge protection contracts.” Their purported concern is that “[t]he situation of workers can only be improved when they have the right to join together freely for collective action.” The theory is that if Mexico fails to protect its workers, Mexican labor will be cheaper and out-compete American labor on price.
Fair enough. That’s certainly what happened under NAFTA. So, what protections does the USMCA actually provide?
Well, among other things, it requires that the parties implement reforms to their labor laws that provide for the “effective right to collectively bargain” and guarantee their workers’ “freedom of association” including the “right to strike.” It prohibits “all forms of forced and compulsory labor.” It requires that the parties adopt and maintain labor standards as recognized by the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Rights at Work and that the parties not “waive or otherwise derogate” from their labor laws. It also includes first of its kind language requiring that the parties address violence against workers who exercise their labor rights.
There is an appendix covering “Worker Representation In Collective Bargaining in Mexico” which specifies extensive actions Mexico must take to assure workers’ rights. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently sent a letter to congressional Democrats stating that Mexico has met its USMCA commitments on labor issues and has allocated additional funds to implement USMCA required changes in its labor laws. To further assuage the unions' concerns with enforcement, Mexico’s undersecretary of foreign relations for North America has stated that Mexico is open to adding labor-dispute panels.
Can union leaders really enhance their status as defenders of American workers by opposing a trade deal that so obviously benefits those workers?
The USMCA’s labor protections are comprehensive. The unions’ demands are superfluous, but perhaps not surprising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 union membership hit a historic low of 10.5 percent. Membership in both private (6.4 percent) and public sector (33.9 percent) unions hit historic lows.
The reality is that union leaders are desperately seeking relevance. They must claim at least some meaningful input into this trade deal – negotiated by a president whose election they opposed. Otherwise, passage could exacerbate their growing irrelevance. But can union leaders really enhance their status as defenders of American workers by opposing a trade deal that so obviously benefits those workers?
Labor leaders would be well served to recall that ignoring the appeal of a candidate who promised to fight for fairer trade deals didn’t work out so well in the last election. Despite claims by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in 2016 that union members armed with “the facts” would “tumble down” candidate Trump’s “house of cards,” 42 percent of union households voted for President Trump, helping propel him into the White House. It was the strongest union support for any Republican president since Ronald Reagan.
The USMCA stands as stark evidence that President Trump has lived up to his campaign promise to fight for American workers. Its passage would stand as a victory for President Trump, a Congress unable to accomplish much else and, most importantly, for American workers. If the unions can’t get on board with that, so be it.
Speaker Pelosi, it’s time to hold that vote and bring the deal home.