- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
For AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to declare victory on the North American trade agreement reached this week, Mexico had to lose.
The point of contention was whether the AFL-CIO could send American inspectors into Mexican factories where workers weren’t being given their full union rights. Mexico hated that idea, saying it would violate Mexican sovereignty. But in the end, Mexico agreed to a small tweak: multinational three-person inspection teams that would include Mexican and American independent labor experts.
“I cannot say it was 'a pleasure' because you are TOUGH my friend,” Mexican Undersecretary for North America Jesús Seade tweeted in response to Trumka’s announcement that the labor federation will support USMCA.
Trumka presented the USMCA by phone Monday to an AFL-CIO executive council that was likely surprised by his recommended endorsement; the trade federation hadn’t endorsed a trade agreement since 2001’s U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement.
Reading from a prepared sheet obtained by POLITICO, Trumka agreed that a previous version of the USMCA, signed by President Donald Trump last year, “had no effective enforcement mechanisms.” But last-minute concessions by Mexico, he said, would allow the U.S. to penalize Mexican factories that don't grant workers full union rights. In a subsequent statement, Trumka said that “for the first time, there truly will be enforceable labor standards,” including “inspections of factories and facilities that are not living up to their obligations.”
By “enforceable” Trumka meant that higher labor standards in Mexico would be enforced, in part, by Americans.
Neither Trumka nor anyone else explained initially the magnitude of Mexico’s concession — that it would include inspections that included Americans — for fear, perhaps, that it might disrupt Mexico’s signing the deal Tuesday afternoon. Mexico, for its part, vehemently denies that the revised USMCA includes any kind of inspection process.
“If you want to call that inspectors, then call them what you wish,” Seade told POLITICO. “But it is not the inspectors that were first being talked about that do not have rules specifically designed.”
The trade deal’s enforcement mechanism works like this. The U.S. can file a complaint to Mexico if it suspects that a factory is denying its workers their union rights. If Mexico agrees that there is a problem at the factory, the Mexican government has 45 days to solve the problem.
But if Mexico doesn’t solve the problem, the U.S. can demand creation of a panel made up of three independent labor experts, one of them American, to investigate. The experts will be permitted to visit the facility in question, and to request documents and any other evidence it deems necessary to deliberate. (Mexico will be similarly free to investigate and inspect American factories that violate the accord.)
One big victory for Democrats and labor is that the U.S. can impose stiff penalties on Mexican factories if they fail to uphold union rights. If a factory has recurring violations, the U.S. can block the goods made there from entering the country.
To Seade, the crucial point is that the arbiters will be “a balanced international panel … in a way that’s respectful of the sovereignty of each country.”
Initial silence on these details from the U.S. government and the AFL-CIO may help explain why some of the AFL-CIO’s member unions and other labor-friendly groups were reluctant to match Trumka’s endorsement. Some worry that the deal falls short in delivering for American workers.
Trumka himself acknowledged in his endorsement that the USMCA is “far from perfect. It alone is not a solution for outsourcing, inequality or climate change.” But Trumka said the deal represented a significant improvement to the original NAFTA, which labor has vehemently opposed for the past 25 years.
The United Steelworkers, which would benefit more from the USMCA than almost any other labor union, endorsed the deal, but the the International Association of Machinists said it opposed it because it “fall[s] short of our repeated recommendations” to prevent the outsourcing of aerospace jobs to Mexico. The Communications Workers of America declined to take a position because it hadn’t had a chance to review the text.
In a Tuesday blog post, Thea Lee, former AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff and president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and Robert E. Scott, a senior EPI economist, dismissed the new changes to USMCA as mere “Band-Aids on a fundamentally flawed agreement and process.”
Robert Kuttner, labor-friendly co-editor of the American Prospect, wrote on that magazine’s website that “Trumka found himself in the position of the dog who chases cars and finally catches one.”
For Trumka, the son of a mineworker who himself worked in the mines as a teenager before rising to staff attorney of the United Mine Workers and later serving 13 years as UMW president, the USMCA endorsement may be a last hurrah. Trumka is not thought likely in 2021 to run for a fourth four-year term as AFL-CIO president.
By endorsing a trade deal crafted under Trump, Trumka risks giving the president political cover in midwestern battleground states in the 2020 election. That's a prospect Trumka can't possibly relish; he's made little effort over the years to hide his loathing for Trump.
"He says it's OK to treat people differently just because of their religion," Trumka said in an AFL-CIO Facebook video posted before the 2016 election, "and to beat up protesters at his rallies. I've been around awhile, and I've heard that kind of thing before. ... Every time we listen to that kind of talk, in a coal mine, or an office, or a factory or in a voting booth, we end up weaker and poorer."
Trumka worked closely on the trade deal with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lightizer, and occasionally with Trump, but he strongly opposed Trump's other labor policies, and never passed up an opportunity to say so. In 2018 he enraged Trump by saying, in a Fox News appearance pegged to Labor Day, that "workers really aren’t doing that well" under Trump.
The president replied with a virtual declaration of war.
"Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, represented his union poorly on television this weekend," Trump tweeted. "Some of the things he said were so against the working men and women of our country, and the success of the U.S. itself, that it is easy to see why unions are doing so poorly. A Dem!"
Since then, Trump has returned repeatedly to the theme that labor leaders in general, and Trumka in particular, are corrupt bosses who sell out the rank and file. "NAFTA is the worst Trade Deal ever made," the president tweeted on Sept. 2. "Terrible for labor - and Richard let it stand. No wonder unions are losing so much. The workers ... should stop paying exorbitant $Dues, not worth it!"
For all that, Trumka expressed little concern, during internal discussions in recent months, about the political ramifications of striking a deal with Trump, a person familiar with the discussions said. “I don’t want to say it was an unpopular opinion,” this person said, “but he was certainly in the minority, at least at the beginning.”
Mexico isn't eager to acknowledge its concession on inspections, but neither does its leftist government wish to get tagged as hostile to labor unions. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has long positioned itself as worker-friendly and determined to improve quality of life for working class Mexicans. The U.S. labor movement was pleasantly surprised when Mexico passed this year passed a landmark labor reform — and put millions of dollars towards its implementation.
“You’re never 100 percent happy with the result,” a Mexican person close to the talks said. “At the end, it was a compromise. We really got some elements that gave us comfort.”