The primary purpose of free trade agreements is to break down barriers to the free flow of goods across borders so consumers have access to the most affordable effective products available. Trade deals frequently stray from this objective. Unrelated policy tends to creep into these trade deals, such as the new United States Mexico Canada Agreement, which includes a demand by Democrats and unions that Mexico enact labor law reform that stands vehemently opposed by Democrats and unions here at home.
Caving to American pressure, Mexican President Andres Manual Lopez Obrador already signed into law a significant labor reform bill. The new law would, among other reforms, ensure Mexican workers the right to vote by secret ballot on labor unions and establish democratic processes to elect union leaders through a secret ballot. It would also provide detailed information to employees about union finances and require the support of a majority of workers before ratifying a collective bargaining agreement.
The text of USMCA also requires Mexican union representation challenges be decided by secret ballot, the election of union leaders by secret ballot, and for a majority of workers covered by a union contract to support it with a secret ballot vote. Democrats made clear during negotiations that without labor law reform in Mexico they would not back the deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier this year, “One of the things that the Mexican government has to do before we can even consider it is to pass legislation about worker rights in Mexico.” Reinforcing this message, a group of House Democrats told Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in a letter that including a provision in the USMCA that would grant Mexican workers secret ballot protections amounted to “paramount importance.”
For the past 15 years, Republicans have introduced the Secret Ballot Protection Act that guarantees workers a secret ballot during union elections, but no Democrat has ever cosponsored the bill. Rather than demand secret ballot union elections in the United States, Democrats prefer an alternative known as card check. In this method, union officials confront workers and can pressure them face to face to sign a card in favor of unionization. A bill that Democrats in Congress have supported, the Protect the Right to Organize Act, would result in more workplaces being organized through card check. At the start of the union election process, the legislation would compel employers to hand over private worker information to union organizers without the choice to opt out.
Democrats advocate lessening union financial disclosure in the United States instead of requiring it as they seek with Mexico. During the Obama administration, the Labor Department rolled back federal regulations that increased union financial transparency. One regulation that was rescinded required labor unions to divulge how they spend money in union trusts for worker training and strike funds. Had this transparency remained in place, the corruption scandal plaguing the United Auto Workers, where millions of dollars intended to train members were spent on lavish items like travel and steak dinners, may have been avoided or at least sniffed out sooner.
Now in Mexico, all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement, whether they are union members or not, must approve it by secret ballot before it is ratified. In the United States, unions are less democratic and are not required to allow their members participate in negotiations or ratify contracts. Workers who are not members have even fewer rights to influence the contracts they must work under. Labor unions instead use this lack of rights for workers who are not members to encourage them to join. Why do Democrats want these labor law reforms for Mexican workers but not for American workers? American workers should demand answers.
Trey Kovacs is a labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.