Administration right to revisit NAFTA, must ensure better labor, environmental protections
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Donald Trump’s presidency has in many ways been a disaster for working people.

Critical programs and policies that protect people’s financial security, health care, education and quality of life are under assault from President TrumpDonald TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report MORE and congressional Republicans, all in order to fund a massive giveaway to corporations and the ultra-rich through the recently signed tax law. Trump’s Education Department seeks to make it easier for lenders to gouge people with outstanding student loan debt, while his Labor Department understaffs agencies responsible for workplace safety inspections. That cannot be brushed aside.


At the same time, President Trump is forcing a long overdue reconsideration of American trade policy.

For decades, the consensus in Washington has led to trade policy decisions that have harmed working Americans. Every trade agreement is affixed with the word “free,” a cheery label that downplays the very real problems these deals have created in cities and towns across the country.

NAFTA is a prime example. In exchange for more so-called global value chains for corporations and cheap consumer products on the shelves of big box stores, we have seen close to a million American jobs lost since we entered NAFTA—most of them in manufacturing. Meanwhile in Mexico, where many of the lost U.S. jobs were relocated, poverty has increased since NAFTA as corporations exploit the labor force. My home state of Connecticut lost 100,000 such jobs between 1994 and 2016, which I do not consider a coincidence.

In the years since, NAFTA’s defenders have spent little time advocating for significant trade adjustment assistance that would have helped displaced workers find new jobs. Led by Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama, our country instead opted for more of the same, an alphabet’s soup of bad ideas that have not put American workers first—among them KORUS with South Korea, CAFTA with Central American countries, and most egregiously the granting of permanent normalized trade relations (PNTR) to the People’s Republic of China.

With the wealth that deal created, the Chinese government spent the next 17 years building the world’s largest mercantilist police state. The results have been similarly predictable for once middle-class American workers, whose concerns were predictably brushed off by investors and multinational corporations who were now free to relocate their production to the places with the laxest labor standards. There have been literally millions of jobs lost to opened trade with China since 2000, and significant swaths of the country are still feeling the effect of “China shock”—depressed wages, greater job churn, and reduced lifetime income among workers made to compete with Chinese imports.

I have never been afraid to stand against my own party’s past presidents, whether they were partnering with Republicans to force China PNTR through Congress or spending significant political energy to sell a Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have undercut American workers. I have spent my career calling for fundamental changes to our trade policy, which is why I continue to support a complete re-do America’s trade deals today.

But my support is conditional—our trade deals must benefit American workers. Renegotiations of trade agreements should make labor protection and an end to outsourcing top priorities.

The administration is right to increase tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in order to bring relief to workers in important domestic industries that have been forced to compete with state-sponsored competition from around the world. We should raise tariffs on certain imports from China; many of the targeted Chinese industries were built on intellectual property stolen from American companies, a serious problem that has gone on for far too long.

While the president’s own justifications for a NAFTA overhaul are often disturbingly nativist, that does not change the fact that this deal should be revisited. Nevertheless, we must work to ensure the right fixes are applied, such as heightened environmental standards and stringent Mexican labor rules—and they must be enforced this time around so that we no longer allow companies to play one pool of underpaid workers off another.

It is not at all clear President Trump will follow this path. But it is absolutely incumbent upon progressives to make the case for why he should. The goal of our trade deals should always be to expand the American middle class, so we must seize this opportunity.

This administration has thrown the trade debate wide open. Our country has a chance to reconsider its trade positions. This time, the concerns of working people must be front and center.

DeLauro represents Connecticut's 3rd District. She is ranking member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee,