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United States What will new Nafta talks mean for Canadian and US workers?

IN A trade merry-go-round, US and Canadian workers and unions are opposing their governments’ positions in US-Canada-Mexico talks on a “new Nafta.”

They are leery of Canada’s contrasting labour stands between the new Trans-Pacific Partnership pact — weak — and the new Nafta. There, Canada’s stand is, or has been, strong.

As a result, the AFL-CIO is monitoring the new Nafta talks, now occurring in Montreal, for Trump administration backsliding.

And the Canadian Labour Congress is steaming over Canada’s advocacy for weak labour standards in the new 11-nation TPP, which includes Mexico, but not the US.

The outcome of “new Nafta” trade pact talks is important for workers in both nations. The 24-year-old Nafta has cost between 600,000 and one million US factory jobs and more than 60,000 Canadian factory jobs, all of them shifted by firms, especially the Detroit Three car companies, to low-wage, no labour and environmental standards Mexico.

Workers in both nations say more high-paying jobs in factories and services could be lost with a new Nafta. The Communications Workers Union, for example, cites call centre jobs going to Mexico.

And the same goes for Canada in a new TPP, Mark Rowlinson, executive assistant to the Canadian Steelworkers president, said in a telephone interview.

Canadians believe they’ll lose auto and auto parts jobs, especially to Korea, under the new TPP. He is also sceptical about what the so-called investor protection provisions in the new TPP would mean.

Canadian workers, however, are blunt in where they stand on any new Nafta, the controversial US-Canada-Mexico “free trade” pact that would replace the current 24-year-old treaty. They’re against it.

Thousands of them took to the streets of central Montreal, brandishing anti-Nafta signs on January 23.

The contrast in labour positions in the two trade pacts doesn’t perplex AFL-CIO trade specialist Celeste Drake, who’s monitoring the new Nafta talks while keeping an eye on the TPP fight too. The fed is leery of the GOP Trump administration’s positions in new Nafta talks.

“Any real solutions for creating a ‘new Nafta’ must include strong, clear and effective provisions that protect worker rights and freedoms in Mexico,” Drake said in a detailed statement from Montreal, site of the new talks.

“The enemy of American workers is not Mexican workers. It is a broken system of trade that rewards corporate greed at our expense by allowing manufacturers who operate in Mexico to exploit workers and pay poverty wages.

“To help raise wages and improve working conditions, Nafta must ensure all workers can exercise fundamental labour rights … including the bedrock right to join unions and negotiate with employers.

“Nafta must embed strong labour obligations in the text and establish innovative monitoring and enforcement tools and penalties to overcome entrenched indifference to worker rights,” Drake added.

Mexico’s record under the current Nafta is so bad that the United Farm Workers and AFL-CIO, accompanied by Mexican unions, filed virtually simultaneous, but separate, complaints with the US Labour Department on January 25.

Both said Mexico has broken its own already weak labour laws during the current treaty’s 24 years and both demand investigations and rulings for arbitration and negotiations.

“A new Nafta that includes anything less than a strong, clear, and effective labour chapter, with swift and certain enforcement, will be new in name only and it will fail to address the trade deficit, create good jobs or raise US wages as a result,” Drake said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau laid a tough pro-worker position on the bargaining table in the last “new Nafta” round of talks in Mexico City.

It included not just requiring higher labour standards and free — not company or government-controlled — unions in Mexico but tougher enforcement in the US and repeal of so-called “right to work” laws.

Like the US, Trudeau also wrote worker rights into Nafta’s text, not as a side pact. Mexico opposed both the US and Canada.
Canada’s flip-flop on worker rights between the TPP and the “new Nafta” doesn’t surprise Drake.

It also prompts the steelworkers’ Rowlinson to predict Trudeau will backtrack on Canada’s strong pro-worker Nafta stand.

“By the time Canada entered the TPP negotiations, they were shut out from proposing their own labour text and had to live with what the US had put down” in the TPP, Drake explains.

That text was written before labour and its allies successfully lobbied Congress to defeat the TPP if Democratic President Barack Obama submitted it and before successor GOP President Donald Trump formally pulled the US out.

Trudeau enthusiastically announced the new TPP in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 24.

“Our concern is our government is a pro ‘free-trade’ government,” regardless of who’s Prime Minister, Rowlinson said in a telephone interview.

“Whatever we agreed to at the TPP, it would be difficult to go to Nafta and demand something more.” Both Canada and Mexico are in the TPP as well as Nafta.

“We’re still in the same place” as Canadian unions were when Nafta was first negotiated, added Rowlinson.

“Here in Canada, we think it” — the new Nafta — “is a mistake,” especially because of the labour standards conflict.  

“One has to be concerned for Canada’s stand for stronger labour standards” in both nations south of its border “while they (the Trudeau administration) are negotiating a TPP with nations like Vietnam that have very low labour standards.”

There may be one bright spot, however, the AFL-CIO’s Drake says.

“Now, without Vietnam and Malaysia at the table opposing strict and enforceable standards” in a trade pact, as they were in the TPP, “and with a new US lead negotiator, the dynamics are different.  We’ll see if the new negotiating situation can create a better economic frame for working families,” she said.

This piece appeared on People’s World.

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