Canada Demands End to "Right-to-Work Laws" as Part of NAFTA Talks

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Prodded by the president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union – which includes its auto workers – Canada is formally demanding, in talks on a “new NAFTA,” that any such pact force the U.S. to eliminate so-called “right to work” laws.

Not only that, adds Jerry Dias, the Unifor president, but our neighbors to the North also want any new “trade pact” between the U.S., Canada and Mexico to force all three countries to sign and enforce all eight International Labour Organization conventions specifying workers’ rights worldwide.

Canada has signed eight, Mexico has signed seven, and the U.S. has signed two, he said. The convention on the rights of woman workers is not one of them, Dias noted.

Dias outlined Unifor’s position on the “new NAFTA” talks, and top Canadian officials’ agreement with it, in a Sept. 12 telephone interview with Press Associates Union News Service. He raised RTW and other worker rights issues late in August at the second round of the talks, in Mexico City.

Both Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and its chief trade negotiator, Steve Verheul, agree with the union’s stand, he said. They’ve “formally put that position in the talks” on a new NAFTA.

During the 2016 U.S. campaign, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump labeled NAFTA “the worst trade pact ever signed” and vowed to dump it. That promise helped him gain a 50-50 split among unionists and their families in key Great Lakes industrial states – home to many Auto Workers. By narrowly carrying Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump wound up in the White House.

But once there, he decided to renegotiate, not dump, NAFTA, with what he says is the objective to help U.S. workers. The current NAFTA hasn’t. U.S. unions say Trump has adopted only a few pro-worker NAFTA negotiating goals, out of a 47-page detailed list they presented during pre-talks hearings.

Trump also said he’ll walk away from the NAFTA talks if the U.S. doesn’t get what it wants. “That’s OK,” Dias commented.

But if Trump doesn’t walk, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix the worst deal, for Canadian and U.S. workers, that has ever been signed,” said Dias, who got his union start with the Canadian Auto Workers. “I don’t know why they signed a deal that cost half a million manufacturing jobs in Canada and even more in the U.S.”

Economic Policy Institute calculations put U.S. factory job losses alone to Mexico due to NAFTA at between 770,000 and 1 million since the so-called “free trade” pact took effect 23 years ago. Thousands more have been lost in other industries, such as call centers.

And Canada and the U.S. are still shedding jobs to south of the border, Dias added, due to the combination of low Mexican wages and company-sponsored and company-controlled unions there, or no unions at all.

In one example, “We’re bargaining for the workers right now at the GM Cami plant” in Ingersoll, Ontario “which is the most productive plant in the world. Yet they’ve laid off 600 workers because GM is moving production of the Terrain (an SUV) to Mexico, where they’re paying people $2 an hour.”  The current NAFTA allows that “so Canadian workers got screwed and American workers got screwed.”

And in another case, BMW is building a plant in Mexico to manufacture $60,000 vehicles. The plant will open in 2019, but the firm has already signed a contract with what Dias calls “a yellow union” to pay the workers $1.10 hourly. The Mexican minimum wage is 65 cents hourly, and current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto “wants to keep people in poverty,” Dias said. Mexico’s official poverty rate is 51 percent, virtually identical to its rate when NAFTA was signed.

Dias made clear in talks with Freeland, Verheul and their labor negotiating team, and repeated in the interview, that Canada should walk away if it doesn’t get changes in labor laws in both Mexico and the U.S. The U.S. changes would include scrapping the RTW section of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a GOP-passed labor law that trashed workers’ rights.

“This is 70 years later!” he exclaims. “The U.S. has to get out the Stone Age in its labor laws. We’ve got a race to the bottom,” which cuts U.S. workers’ wages, makes their jobs more unsafe, denies them the right to organize and more. Statistics show the U.S. private sector is 6.4 percent unionized, one-fifth of Canada’s union density (31.8 percent).

But it’s not just U.S. Republicans who are at fault for U.S. labor laws and right-to-work statutes. “Even when a Democrat defeats a Republican” for a governorship “he doesn’t have the guts to repeal right to work,” Dias said.

Though Dias did not say so, Democratic President Barack Obama did not include RTW repeal in his calls for U.S. labor law reform – and he didn’t push reform in his first two years in office, when he had Democratic congressional majorities. That upset U.S. union leaders.

Because of weak U.S. labor laws in general and RTW, Canada finds itself at the new NAFTA bargaining table battling both the U.S. and Mexico over worker rights, Dias added. “I wouldn’t mind if we walked away,” he commented, adding that would also let both nations impose higher tariffs on Mexican-made cars.

Canada is also pushing hard for changes in Mexican labor laws, again under a “new NAFTA” to ensure unions there are truly independent and not tools of the government and its corporate allies. That also led Dias to bring up the case of Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, president of Los Mineros, the union of miners and metal workers. It’s one of Mexico’s few independent unions.

Several years ago, the Mexican government, allied with big business, tried to oust Gomez Urrutia on trumped-up financial fraud charges, so that it could install a puppet union president. Gomez Urrutia was forced to flee and seek asylum in Vancouver, British Columbia. The United Steelworkers have protected Gomez Urrutia and paid his expenses. “We’re calling on Mexico” to drop all charges “and let him back in,” Dias says.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Labor Wins

From the AFL-CIO

On Tuesday, the labor movement drove historic wins for pro-worker candidates like Governor-Elect Andy Beshear in Kentucky and new legislative majorities in Virginia. Not only did union members come out to vote in droves, 270 union member candidates were elected to public office last night and counting. This adds to the total of more than 900 union members elected up and down the ballot in last year’s midterms, a product of the Union Member Candidate Program launched by the AFL-CIO just two years ago. The share of union members who won in the 2018 midterms is two-thirds. The program will continue through 2020 and beyond, electing even more union members to public office. 

“Our efforts recruiting, training and supporting labor candidates have led to the passage of pro-worker legislation from coast to coast and everywhere in between,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

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