Representatives of organized labor told a House subcommittee on Tuesday that the U.S., Canada and Mexico should get back to the negotiation table.
Labor representatives called for U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) labor provisions to be strengthened during a House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
“We’ve got to get back to the table to get a meaningful enforcement mechanism in place,” Communications Workers of America Director of Legislation, Politics and International Affairs Shane Larson said. “I know that administration’s been saying, ‘We can’t do that, we can’t do that.’ But … we’ve heard that from past administrations on past trade agreements where, once they realized the votes weren’t here on [Capitol] Hill, they went back and renegotiated.”
AFL-CIO recommends creation of a politically independent labor secretariat, which could allow interested parties to play a role in advancing labor cases, according to written testimony by Celeste Drake, the union’s trade and globalization policy specialist.
“Right now, governments to trade agreements can choose not to enforce the deal,” Drake told American Shipper on Wednesday. “What we’re talking about is putting bounds on that discretion so that you could, as an interested citizen, go to a federal court and say, ‘This is an abuse of discretion, because the government is not acting [pursuant to obligations in a specific case].’”
Per the AFL-CIO’s secretariat proposal, adjudication wouldn’t determine whether the accused government was violating the trade agreement, but could yield binding decisions such as, “This is serious enough that enforcement should be happening, and … the government needs to do something rather than just sit and let that happen,” Drake said.
Scott Sinclair, director of the Trade and Investment Research Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote in November on Inequality.org that it would be possible for the U.S., Mexico and Canada to create such an independent secretariat to investigate and prosecute complaints without reopening the USMCA text.
“The new body’s procedures could include clear, nondiscretionary deadlines requiring authorities to investigate and adjudicate complaints from workers and their representatives, while committing all three governments to enforce rulings and impose meaningful penalties for noncompliance,” Sinclair wrote.
John Nassar, legislative director of the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, in written testimony said that it would be “shortsighted” to “categorically rule out” using tariffs and other enforcement mechanisms to level the trade playing field.
“Labor unions in all three countries should have standing authority to bring charges of labor abuses — regardless of whether the union represents the workers,” Nassar wrote. “We must create a new trade model that puts workers in the driver’s seat, not corporations seeking to outsource to maximize profits. We need to get back to the negotiating table.”
More work needs to be done on USMCA’s labor chapter, which isn’t enforceable, said Holly Hart, assistant to the international president of United Steelworkers.
USMCA pulls NAFTA’s labor text into the core of the agreement, making those provisions enforceable on paper, but some observers have raised concerns regarding whether those provisions can be enforced in practice.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has proposed using Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 to enforce USMCA labor provisions. That statute provides for the imposition of trade remedies such as tariffs if the U.S. determines unfair commercial practices by another country.
During the hearing, GOP Reps. Tom Rice of South Carolina and Jodey Arrington of Texas said USMCA’s labor provisions are a big improvement over NAFTA’s.
“NAFTA 2.0 is a great improvement for the American middle class over the original NAFTA,” Rice said, mentioning the USMCA’s minimum wage requirement for autoworkers, stricter rules of origin for automobiles and improved agricultural standards.
Arrington said the Trump administration went “way beyond” Trade Promotion Authority objectives mandated for free trade agreements on issues such as collective bargaining rights, the right for workers to strike, violence against workers, forced and migrant labor, and worker safety.