The second round of negotiations on changes to the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) convened on September 2 in Mexico City, and some unexpected news came out of the first session.
Canada demanded that any changes to NAFTA must include an agreement by the US to roll back anti-union right-to-work laws.
Canadian negotiators said that the so-called right-to-work laws, which have been enacted in 28 states, lower labor standards by making it more difficult for workers to form and maintain unions.
The Canadians also said that lower labor standards in the US and Mexico are costing Canada good-paying jobs and driving down living standards for Canadian workers.
The Canadians said that one of the things that the US could do to raise labor standards is to pass a federal law nullifying state right-to-work laws.
Doing so would increase unionization and give workers more bargaining power with their employers.
The Canadians also urged Mexico to discontinue government support for yellow unions, those unions more concerned with protecting employers’ interests than the interest of their members.
“I’m very pleased with the position the Canadian government is taking on labor standards,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada’s largest labor union.” Canada’s got two problems: The low wage rates in Mexico and the right-to-work states in the United States.”
When round two of NAFTA negotiations began, Dias was in Mexico City to speak at a rally of workers and farmers opposed to NAFTA.
At the rally, Dias said that Mexican workers need a big pay raise and criticized the Mexican NAFTA negotiators for ignoring the concerns of Mexican workers.
“I don’t buy the argument that the Mexican negotiators are making that somehow we have to keep our citizens living in poverty in order to get jobs,” said Dias. “That’s a nonsense argument.”
Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is leading Canada’s delegation at the NAFTA negotiations, said that a new NAFTA had to be a fair NAFTA that benefits workers of all countries as well as business.
“All of us want to come out of this negotiation being able to say to workers in our countries, ‘We have achieved a deal that will improve your standard of living’,” said Freeland. “That is an essential foundation for going forward.”
Prior to the beginning of the negotiations on a new NAFTA, the Canadian government created a NAFTA Advisory Council to help the government shape its agenda for the negotiations.
One of the members of the advisory council is Hasan Yussuf, president of the Canadian Labor Congress, Canada’s national labor confederation.
Prior to the commencement of the NAFTA negotiations, he and other labor leaders met with representatives of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss a new NAFTA.
They told the prime minister that a new NAFTA should boost the living standards for workers in all of the countries affected.
In addition to ending so-called right-to-work laws in the US and yellow unions in Mexico, Dias said that a new NAFTA must contain a commitment by all countries involved to honor eight core conventions laid out by the International Labor Organization:
- the freedom to join labor unions
- the right to bargain collectively
- freedom from forced labor
- abolition of slavery
- a minimum wage
- abolition of the worst forms of child labor
- equal pay for equal work
- abolition of discrimination on the job
Speaking to reporters, Dias said that wages of Mexican auto workers were so low that many of them can’t afford to buy the cars they make.
Raising those wages would improve living standards for Mexican auto workers and make it more difficult for Canadian and US auto makers to move work to Mexico, which would improve living standards for US and Canadian workers.
In the US, labor activist were encouraged by the position taken by the Canadian government, especially its stance on right-to-work laws.
In Ohio which is shaping up to be the next battleground state for right-to-work legislation, Richard Dalton, business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18 was pleased to hear that Canadian negotiators wanted the new NAFTA to ban right-to-work laws.
“Canada is taking a bold step to do what’s right,” said Dalton. “Right-to-work is not only bad for American business, it’s bad for international businesses as well.”
Dias said that the Canadian government is serious about raising labor standards and ending anti-union laws like the US’ so-called right-to-work laws.
Dias told Bloomberg Politics that without improved labor standards for all workers, Canada will walk away from the negotiations.
“It’s a red line,” said Dias.