February 19, 2009 / 3:55 AM / 9 years ago

U.S., Canada labor groups press NAFTA reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Canadian labor unions called for changes in agriculture, energy, investment and other provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the eve of a meeting on Thursday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We need to address the worsening economic crisis in a coordinated manner, reopen and fix the flaws with the North American Free Trade Agreement and move on a range of complementary policies dealing with energy, climate change and green jobs, industrial policy, migration and development," the AFL-CIO labor federation and the Canadian Labour Congress said in a joint letter to the two leaders.

Obama, who is making his first foreign trip as president to Canada, promised last year to "fix" NAFTA by adding enforceable labor and environmental provisions to the core of the pact and by changing an investment measure that critics say gives business too much power to challenge government regulations.

Three-way trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada has tripled to nearly $1 trillion since NAFTA went into force in 1994, and together Canada and Mexico buy more than one-third of U.S. exports.

But the agreement is often blamed for U.S. job losses, especially in big Midwestern manufacturing states.

NAFTA critics do not expect Obama to return from his a trip with a completed blueprint to renegotiate the pact.

But they do hope for action later this year after Obama has consulted with key members of Congress on goals for reshaping the 15-year-old trade deal.

"You can't campaign ... repeatedly about how you are going to fix NAFTA and otherwise reform U.S. trade and globalization policy and then not do it," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. "Everyone's going to be watching to see that he delivers on those promises."

TALKS WITH CONGRESS FIRST

NAFTA is on the agenda for Obama's visit, but the short sessions with Harper and Canadian lawmakers on the one-day trip will allow little time for detailed discussion, Wallach said.

Obama is expected to consult extensively with Congress before embarking on any NAFTA renegotiation. Many Democratic lawmakers feel their concerns about trade were routinely ignored by Republican President George W. Bush and look forward to a better relationship with the new White House.

With former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk still awaiting Senate approval to be Obama's chief trade negotiator, that conversation has not really begun. However, business groups are hopeful Kirk could be confirmed by early March.

Although NAFTA does have labor and environmental provisions, those are contained in separate "side" agreements rather in the core text of the pact.

Obama repeated this week that he wants enforceable labor and environment provisions inside the actual pact.

That should include adherence to the International Labor Organization's core conventions, such as the right to collective bargaining and an obligation for NAFTA partners to effectively enforce their domestic labor laws, the U.S. and Canadian labor groups said in their letter.

The mechanism for resolving labor and environmental disputes should be overhauled so violations "are resolved fully, fairly and expeditiously, with the same remedies as other trade-related disputes," they said.

The labor groups also called for changes in NAFTA's energy provisions, which they said have imposed "serious constraints on the establishment of a secure energy future for North America," and in the pact's agriculture provisions, which they said have forced one to two million Mexican farmers from their land.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Eric Beech and Todd Eastham

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