By MARK GRUENBERG
PAI Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (PAI) — Interrupting a parade of corporate witnesses and lobbyists, union representatives outlined tough and enforceable pro-worker standards for a “new NAFTA” before a special trade panel studying the issue.
AFL-CIO representative Thea Lee, Machinists Chief of Staff Owen Hernstadt and Teamsters Legislative Representative Mike Dolan told the International Trade Commission that, as Lee put it, the current NAFTA “has provided tremendous benefits to CEOs and wealthy corporations, but has not benefited working people.”
“Too much emphasis has been given to theoretically small net gains” from the current NAFTA, “and too little to the disruptions” to workers and communities from the controversial, jobs-losing U.S.-Mexico-Canada “free trade” pact, said Lee, a trade and economics specialist who will soon formally retire from a top AFL-CIO job.
Lee, Hernstadt, and Dolan spoke on June 28, the second of three days of the “new NAFTA” hearings. Two other unionists, from the Auto Workers and the Communications Workers, were scheduled to speak later. The panel is gathering data for negotiators to use in talks with Mexico and Canada on a new pact to replace the 23-year-old agreement.
Those talks, unlike negotiations that produced the current NAFTA, must be open and aboveboard, said Lee. Plus, each NAFTA country must “demonstrate it adopted and enforced international labor law standards before an agreement goes into place,” added Hernstadt.
The AFL-CIO submitted a 47-page detailed proposal to the commission for comprehensive and enforceable worker rights in a new NAFTA two weeks before the panel session. Both Hernstadt and Dolan endorsed it, but also elaborated on several specific points.
Hernstadt advocated increased domestic content requirements, while Dolan urged the ITC to undo the damage to truckers, highway safety and the environment by the current NAFTA’s provision that lets unsafe Mexican trucks and pooped or ill-trained drivers roll over all U.S. roads. The Teamsters and safety groups have been fighting that provision for 20 years.
Among other points the three made:
• NAFTA’s secret pro-business trade court, the Investor State Dispute System, must be scrapped. ISDS, staffed by judges who are actually pro-business trade lawyers, can override federal, state and local labor, job safety and environmental laws, Lee testified. ISDS “amounts to crony capitalism and benefits firms who outsource,” Lee said. That includes Buy American laws, Dolan said. Conservatives should view the ISDS as “an affront to our sovereignty,” as it lets corporations evade or override U.S. laws and courts.
• NAFTA’s current “side agreements” on workers’ rights must be replaced with text within a new NAFTA that is both stronger and enforceable. A June 26 ruling against the U.S., in a well-documented labor rights violations complaint the AFL-CIO brought against Guatemala nine years ago – under CAFTA, a NAFTA-like pact – shows the lack of teeth in the current system, all three said. CAFTA is slightly stronger on the issue than NAFTA, “but even CAFTA couldn’t protect workers from abuse, assassinations and firings,” Lee said.
• Upgrade the rules of origin for products. Hernstadt elaborated on that point, saying it affects not just steel and cars – bones of contention between the U.S. and Mexico in the past – but aerospace products, too. IAM represents tens of thousands of aerospace workers. The current NAFTA rules of origin let parts made in China be passed through Mexico, the fed’s brief said. And the percentage that makes a car “American-made” is too low, it adds.
• The new NAFTA should require wage standards, to be enforced by a new Labor Secretariat. The prime impact would be in Mexico, where U.S. firms have decamped to take advantage of low wages, weak labor laws, company unions and lax enforcement. Lee told panelist Carlos Romero of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office that “there are a lot of models out there, most of them on how to meet the costs of living,” in setting wage floors.
• Currency manipulation should be a trade pact violation, an idea labor has been pushing for years. The AFL-CIO put manipulation in its brief. Dolan said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa “would start with enforceable discipline against currency manipulation.”
• Negotiators for a new NAFTA should restrict Mexican trucks to within 20 miles north of the U.S. border.That’s due to the lack of data about the safety of Mexican trucks and truckers, Dolan said. After the first 20 miles, cargoes should be transferred to U.S. trucks and truckers that meet federal safety, drug testing, hours of service and other standards. “We’d urge the administration to revisit this controversial provision,” he said. The union is still fighting that battle, he noted, before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. It’s arguing that NAFTA’s “original negotiators did not have the authority” from Congress “to negotiate exceptions to U.S. highway safety and driving rules.”
• “Eliminate obstacles to filing cases” about worker rights violations, Hernstadt said. NAFTA, and other subsequent trade pacts, now bar filing such cases unless the violations “impact trade and investment” and are “sustained and recurring.” Those that don’t directly affect trade, or those that are one-time but huge, are barred, Hernstadt testified.
• Be prepared to leave the talks. “If all these things are not met, our negotiators have to be willing to walk away” from bargaining over a new NAFTA, Hernstadt said.
Lee said afterward that unionists should not expect an outcome for years. “They (the administration) know what we want, and now it’s up to them to go out and accomplish it. Just saying you’re going to renegotiate NAFTA,” as GOP President Donald Trump has, “doesn’t mean you’ll renegotiate it the right way.”