Unions hope US-EU trade talks can be lever to change labor laws

Unions want to use negotiations on a U.S.-European Union (EU) trade deal as leverage to win stronger labor laws here in the United States.

Germany and other European nations have stronger union protections than does the U.S., and labor believes the trade talks could pressure U.S. officials into strengthening U.S. laws. 

“People in labor see this as an opportunity, not as a threat,” said George Kohl, a senior director at the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

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Business groups support the U.S.-EU negotiations, which could create a $5 trillion free-trade area, but worry that labor will try to use the talks to alter U.S. union laws.

“It would be inappropriate to try to alter U.S. labor law through the back door,” said John Murphy, vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Unions have opposed most trade agreements negotiated by Republican and Democratic administrations, and have often blamed poor labor standards in U.S. trading partners for their opposition.

In lobbying against a U.S.-Colombia trade deal, for example, unions argued labor organizers were often the victims of violence in that country and that authorities were doing little to bring perpetrators to justice.

That’s not the case in the European Union, where unions in France have won the right to a 35-hour work week. 

In Germany, a country U.S. labor officials frequently point to, union representatives sit on company supervisory boards, giving labor a say in how the company is run. 

European trade union representatives will be lobbying EU negotiators to pressure the U.S. to strengthen its labor laws in the context of the trade talks, said Owen Herrnstadt, director of trade and globalization for the International Association of Machinists. And with a labor-friendly White House, unions would have a president predisposed to helping them improve labor standards working on their side.

Herrnstadt said he “fully expect[ed] that the European trade unions will voice their position with EU negotiators.” 

“Now we get to benchmark against a more progressive economy and raise up labor engagement here in the United States,” said Kohl. “We would hope that the U.S.-EU trade discussions would make improvements to how corporations treat their workers here.”

The labor support could also make it easier to get a trade deal through Congress, where Democrats in the House have been divided on trade deals.

Several union officials say it’s too early to take a formal position on a trade deal with Europe that’s still being negotiated, but the talks have been welcomed by many.

“The similarity in our economic development level and economic systems could help reduce the downward pressure on wages and working conditions,” said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, in a statement. “An agreement, properly designed and implemented, could be a force for progress.” 

Unions have provided support for past trade deals.

While several unions opposed the U.S.-South Korea deal, the United Auto Workers (UAW) supported the Korea trade agreement after the Obama administration negotiated for U.S. tariffs on Korean-made cars to be phased out over five years instead of immediately.

“[A U.S.-EU trade deal] could potentially become a mechanism for strengthening labor standards here,” said a UAW official. “People have an easier time having a say, having representation [in Europe.]”

Still, Gerard said whether the deal is good could depend on negotiators breaking from the model they have used for other deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation with several Latin American and Asian nations, which unions have compared unfavorably with the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Herrnstadt hailed the EU’s “sophisticated labor laws,” which he said are often stronger than those in the U.S.

“So we are looking for harmonization upward,” Herrnstadt said. “This is really a golden opportunity to negotiate a labor chapter that we have never seen before.” 

Murphy expects the Obama administration won’t propose to rewrite labor law and will “stick with the tried and true and what they have done in existing FTAs.” 

He pointed to a 2007 bipartisan agreement set up for talks with Colombia and Panama, calling it a “very strong” set of policies that provide a roadmap for dealing with labor issues in trade deals, which include the right to collective bargaining and the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor.

Plus, the United States and EU already have “high standards and we feel comfortable with them,” Murphy said. The Chamber will “strongly be urging the administration to stick to this approach.”

Gerard said the agreement should include strong workplace safety regulations and protections against toxic chemicals, among other items, while Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, said labor will be following closely negotiations on several of the trade deal’s chapters — including services, investment and regulation, as well as labor.

“We are not concerned that the European Union is going to undermine worker rights in competition with the United States,” Lee said.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, argues that corporate interests in both the U.S. and EU that are pushing for a deal will also push for a weak labor chapter. 

Despite rhetoric from trade officials that a final deal would set a higher global standard, Wallach expects that corporations will continue to “try to kill the better policy” when it comes to a broad range of regulations, from food labeling to worker safety and consumer privacy, “in the name of cutting costs for their production but at what cost for public health.” 

“Maybe it still can be a higher-level agreement but I’m not very optimistic,” Wallach said. 

Ed Gerwin, a trade expert with Third Way, said he is most interested in seeing how labor and other groups “who have traditionally been against broader U.S. trade engagement will react now that we’re negotiating with a partner that arguably has higher standards in these areas.”

“My sense is that this will divide those who sincerely want to make trade work for workers and the environment from those who are just reflexively anti-trade,” Gerwin said.