President Donald Trump’s commitment to “renegotiate or cancel” the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has caused panic in the Mexican business/political leadership and among US transnationals, but for unions it could be a long-awaited opportunity.
Last week, union representatives from the progressive coalition “Change to Win” and the Communication Workers’ of America (CWA) met with their Mexican counterparts to discuss risks and opportunities. On the Mexican side, representatives of the telephone workers, flight attendants, and the union of the National Autonomous University of Mexico participated, among others grouped in te National Workers Union (UNT).
“Under NAFTA writen by corporations, workers and our rights and protections were an afterthought–another tool in their pursuit of greater and greater profits. Now is our time to reverse that,” said Shane Larson of the CWA.
Could workers get a better deal in the context of Trump’s renegotiation? For the union leaders, opening the debate, making their own proposals and joining together at a regional level to raise common demands is in itself an important achievement.
For the United States, the renegotiation discussions are revealing what many already knew–that the new president is not the champion of working class interests he claimed to be during the campaign. Joe Geevarghese of Change to Win explained, “Donald Trump is a fraud. He ran as an economic populist, but the truth is his cabinet and the Republican Party are focused principally on privatization and plunder of the U.S. government to benefit corporate elites. And that war on workers, which has been underway for the past 40 years, is going to accelerate under Donald Trump.”
A far greater percentage than expected of U.S. workers supported Trump based on his often racist-infused rhetoric that manipulated insecurities in the country with promises of “America First”, opposition to NAFTA, and supposed defense of workers aandoned y Washington and Wall Street. Now that Trump has filled his cabinet with white, billionaire men with pro-corporate policies, his pro-worker facade is beginning to crumble.
The lesson for U.S. unions is to organize in the streets. During the past government, they launched a “Fight for 15” campaign (to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour) that has achieved increases at state and municipal levels in many parts of the country. After attempting the same and failing in negotiations with the White House, the unions launched strikes of tens of thousands of workers. “With Obama we realized that the Democratic Party wasn’t our ally and we had to take the fight to the streets,” Geevarghese said.
Negotiating improvements for workers will e an uphill battle. Unionization in the two countries is at all-time lows. In the United States, it fell to the lowest level in history the last year of the Obama administration. José Luis Téllez of the Telephone Workers’ union reported that in Mexico 10% of workers are unionized, and of these only 10% are real unions, meaning that only about 1% have a real contractual wage. He added that, “structural reforms have been a disguised labor reform” that seeks to eliminate unions.
In the face of the crisis, opening up NAFTA offers the opportunity to build a North American platform that rejects both Trump’s demagoguery and Peña Nieto’s anti-worker offensive. The conclusions of the Mexico City meeting are now circulating within the unions to build consensus that will lead to a shared stance in the negotiations. The goal is also to include Canadian unions.
One of the main agreements is to raise the minimum wage in all three countries to guarantee a living wage for all people. When I asked what impact Mexican wage improvement would have for workers in the United States, Larson of CWA responded, “It would be a huge benefit for folks in the U.S. to raise Mexican wages. With a global economy, the floor pulls all of us down so if we can lift up that wage floor it benefits everybody.”
Another point that emerged was the need to integrate the issue of the rights of migrant workers into the regional integration agreement. The lack of a NAFTA chapter to guarantee labor mobility has promoted the criminalization of migrant workers and the constant violation of their rights. After years of seeing them as the enemy at home, U.S. unions increasingly recognize the need to defend the rights of migrant workers in their home country and the United States in order to defend labor rights as a whole and expand the power of collective bargaining. The unions propose mechanisms to permit crossborder negotiating and union affiliation of employees of the same company in different countries. They also agreed on he importance of having a gender perspective that not only addresses the needs of women workers, but also recognizes their leadership capacity and the specific threats they face.
While the union representatives met in Mexico City, in Washington Trump signed two executive orders on trade. One requires a report on deficits in trade relations that seeks to identify unfair practices and the other orders the application of anti-dumping sanctions. Actually, there is nothing new in either.
A draft memorandum on the renegotiation of NAFTA, written by U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) that includes the prospect of taxes on imports and mechanisms to protect sectors of the U.S. economy in certain circumstances. It also calls for compliance with internationally recognized rights and the application of national laor laws. Faced with criticism that the draft does not reflect the anti-NAFTA position of the campaign, the spokesman of the White House enied that has delineated its content.
What follows is that in a few days the Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will notify Congress of the intention to renegotiate the agreement and opens a period of 90 days of analysis of proposals. The unions are preparing.
“Trump always says that in NAFTA, Mexico has won at the expense of the United States and is a big lie. The reality is that employers have gained at the expense of workers on both sides of the border, “says Dan Mauer of CWA. Is there a real possibility to change this equation? It’s unclear, but for now, the re-opening is serving to revitalize trade union movements and weave cross-border alliances and that alone is a gain.
This article was first posted in spanish on Desinformémonos