WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new North American trade deal addresses most concerns of U.S. labor unions, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO union federation, said on Thursday, but even so he expects it could take more than a decade to reverse job losses resulting from the original 25-year-old trade pact.
Trumka, the head of the largest federation of U.S. unions, told Reuters he remained skeptical that Mexico - a low-wage country compared with the United States - would implement the labor reforms it has promised.
But he praised the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that was passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives earlier on Thursday as a major improvement over the original pact signed by President Donald Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Canada last year. The pact, which must be ratified by lawmakers in all three countries, still needs to be voted on by the Republican-majority U.S. Senate, where easy passage is expected.
House Democrats had insisted on changes to the original USMCA pact, as labor unions pressed for changes that they said were needed to protect jobs.
Trumka played a make-or-break role in getting the deal passed and locking in the support of Democratic lawmakers. It is the first major trade deal backed by the AFL-CIO, a federation of 55 unions representing 12.5 million workers, since 2000. Trumka calls it just a first step for undoing the damage of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that went into effect in 1994 under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
“This isn’t a perfect agreement; it still has room for improvement. But it is well on its way to getting there,” Trumka said in an interview. “It’s going to take a few years to begin to reverse the bad and the evil that was done by NAFTA, the harm that was done to our economy and to the manufacturing sector.”
He said it could take eight to 12 years to reverse the loss of manufacturing jobs triggered by the original free trade deal.
Automotive jobs were a linchpin issue of the deal.
The AFL-CIO estimates the United States has lost 851,700 jobs to Mexico because of NAFTA. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Mexico was $80.7 billion in 2018, compared with a $1.7 billion surplus in 1993, thanks in part to U.S. companies moving manufacturing operations south of the border.
Pushback from unions and Democrats over the trade deal agreed by the Trump administration, Mexico and Canada in September 2018 resulted in a revamp that included beefed-up labor and environment provisions, new enforcement mechanisms, and reduced patent protections that some feared would drive up drug prices.
Trumka, a third-generation coal miner, said it was imperative that unions and others hold the Mexican government accountable for workers’ rights.
“It will take work. If we don’t keep on our toes and enforce the agreement and use the agreement till its utmost, it will not have the effect that it should have,” Trumka said.
The final piece of the deal came together on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Trumka said, while he was on a family trip hunting deer in Pennsylvania. Mexico agreed to allow any worker or union to trigger an investigation if they believe Mexican workers’ rights, including pay and safety standards, are being violated.
“When we’re successful, we can stop their product from coming into the United States, it stops at the border,” Trumka said.
Mexican auto workers earn average hourly wages of less than $6 excluding benefits, compared with about $28 in the United States, the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reported here in 2017. Under the USMCA, 40% to 45% of vehicle content must come from areas paying more than $16 an hour.
Trumka noted that Trump may take credit for the USMCA’s gains for workers.
Trump, who won the 2016 election with victories in states like Michigan that had long been a union stronghold, had made a renegotiation of NAFTA a key policy issue, and like labor unions blamed NAFTA for a loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
But according to Trumka, American workers were running out of patience with the president, given widening gaps between rich and poor, and a raft of Trump’s “anti-worker” actions, including rollbacks on safety regulations and moves to weaken the National Labor Relations Board.
“When you balance the scale out,(Trump) comes up on the short end,” Trumka said.
He said the AFL-CIO would push for significant changes to Trump’s tax law that slashed corporate taxes, and a reversal of Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that he said had given corporations more rights than people, corrupting the political process.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler