Progressive lawmakers and some labor unions are facing internal divisions over whether to support President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE's proposed update to a North American trade agreement.
House Democratic leaders this past week announced a deal to pass Trump's revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) after six months of intense, secretive negotiations.
Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) and other Democrats touted victories in securing tougher labor law enforcement procedures in Mexico, tightening environmental restrictions and eliminating legal protections for certain drugs in defiance of the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.
Those concessions were enough to secure the support of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation and a fierce critic of the original NAFTA.
When AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka hailed “an agreement that working people can proudly support,” he cleared the way for Democrats to back Trump’s deal known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
But that doesn’t mean all Democrats and unions are going along happily.
“We haven't spent enough time putting together the apparatus of how you enforce this and who's responsible for enforcing it,” said Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellDemocrats brace for toughest stretch yet with Biden agenda LIVE COVERAGE: Tax hikes take center stage in Ways and Means markup Democrats draw red lines in spending fight MORE (D-N.J.), a fierce critic of trade deals. “I don't trust what’s been written.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroAmerican workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world Democrats press Biden to step up fight against domestic hunger A permanent Child Tax Credit expansion will yield dividends to taxpayers MORE (D-Conn.), a trade skeptic and member of the Democratic USMCA negotiating team, said the caucus’s chief objective was “to staunch the outsourcing,” citing the vast industrial job losses in her district. Despite the new changes to the trade deal, she remains undecided on supporting the USMCA.
DeLauro’s concerns are resonating among progressives who seem powerless to stop the deal at this point, especially given the level of Republican support in the House for the measure.
Pascrell said he was hesitant to move forward with the deal after Mexico rejected allowing American inspectors into domestic factories to ensure compliance with a new minimum wage hike, unionization protections and other labor laws.
“There are improvements in labor standards. But again, it comes down to how are you going to enforce it,” Pascrell said. “The fact that did they dismissed American monitors so quickly tells me where they're coming from.”
The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on the USMCA, and it’s expected to pass with strong bipartisan support. Even some of NAFTA’s original opponents are open to supporting the new agreement.
“The question before the House is not ‘NAFTA or no NAFTA.’ It’s ‘NAFTA or new NAFTA.’ And if I think it's a substantial or even a significant improvement over the old NAFTA, I'll support it,” said Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanOvernight Defense & National Security — Congress begins Afghanistan grilling US says about 1,500 citizens remain in Afghanistan How Congress can advance peace with North Korea MORE (D-Calif.), who voted against the 1994 pact.
Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign that he would rewrite NAFTA, a pledge that proved crucial to delivering electoral victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — three states that had reliably supported Democratic presidential candidates since 1992.
Pelosi voiced early interest in revising NAFTA with Trump and fostered a strong relationship with U.S Trade Representative Robert LighthizerBob LighthizerBiden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Whiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE, the top White House trade negotiator. Even as Pelosi condemned Trump’s conduct as president, she insisted that Democrats would remain on a “path to yes” as long as the White House negotiated in good faith.
“There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA,” Pelosi said Tuesday, shortly after the AFL-CIO voiced its approval. “In terms of our work here, it is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration.”
Striking a deal with Trump on a signature issue was seen as a way for Pelosi to give political cover to vulnerable centrist Democrats worried about an impeachment backlash in 2020. But much of her caucus was reluctant to move forward if it meant spurning organized labor, a pillar of the Democratic base.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a moderate who strongly supports the USMCA, said the Democratic caucus broke into four basic groups: those ready to support the deal from the get-go, those who hinged their support on Pelosi, those who needed labor’s blessing and those who “even if they wrote the bill, they would vote no.”
The AFL-CIO endorsement proved to be the final hurdle to cementing Democratic support for the trade deal in the House. The United Steelworkers also called for the deal’s passage, while the United Automobile Workers and the Communications Workers of America praised the changes without taking a formal position.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers opposed the agreement over concerns it would do little to stop the flow of factory jobs to Mexico.
Outside trade critics have offered measured support.
“The revised-revised NAFTA is not a template for working people and planet-first agreement, but it does have changes that could counter some of NAFTA's ongoing serious damage,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
Even so, Wallach said, the vast industrial job losses driven by NAFTA “makes a deal that is less than a transformational, progressive pro-worker deal worth considering.”
Support from organized labor helped bring some of the most ardent Democratic trade hawks around to the USMCA, including Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees Wyden releases new tax proposals as Democrats work on .5T bill MORE (Ohio) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWant a clean energy future? Look to the tax code Democrats brace for toughest stretch yet with Biden agenda Lawmakers lay out arguments for boosting clean energy through infrastructure MORE (Ore.), who endorsed the deal Friday.
Brown has never voted for a trade deal during his 26 years in Congress and had long criticized Trump’s trade policy. Yet the Ohio Democrat said Friday that after fighting “tooth and nail” against Trump, pro-labor Democrats and unions were able to secure “the strongest-ever labor enforcement in a U.S. trade deal.”
There is rarely daylight between Brown and industrial unions, and the senator ceded Friday that USMCA was “not a perfect agreement.”
Jessica Wasserman, a former Commerce Department official who’s now a partner at the law firm Greenspoon Marder LLP, said the importance of the trade deal’s endorsement by the AFL-CIO cannot be overstated.
“In the past, it's been that the AFL-CIO would be the toughest one to get through, so to speak,” she said. “Without the clear labor support, in the end there may have been a lot of division about the agreement and it perhaps would have become more of an issue in the election.”