Union Leaders Largely Echo Donald Trump on Nafta

By Eric Morath Features Dow Jones Newswires

ST. LOUIS -- Labor unions gathering here for the annual meeting of the AFL-CIO find themselves aligned with President Donald Trump on key aspects of the hot-button trade issue of the day: renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Labor leaders have echoed the White House in saying the trade deal between the U.S., Canada and Mexico has been a job killer for more than two decades -- but that terminating the pact isn't their first choice.

The White House and labor unions agree on several administration proposals for trying to revisit the deal. Those includes a requirement that products sold in the U.S. under the agreement have at least minimum levels of U.S.-produced content, a demand that investor arbitration panels be scaled back and a rule that the trade agreement be revisited every five years. Bigger picture, the administration and unions have both indicated they would rather kill the pact than continue the status quo.

"There are some good things that have been put forth already," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said of the administration's proposals. "We're hopeful, but we're not overly confident....No deal is better than a bad deal."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other big business groups have been pushing over the past two weeks to save Nafta. On Thursday, more than 100 business lobbyists blitzed Senate offices trying to make the case for the benefits of the pact, two weeks after waging a similar effort in the House.

Mr. Trumka said he has been in "constant contact" with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer -- holding more talks with him than with predecessors appointed by Barack Obama, who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Unions opposed that deal, and Mr. Trump withdrew from it earlier this year.

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Agreement on Nafta isn't universal. The AFL-CIO was disappointed in the administration's proposal on labor standards, saying they wouldn't do enough to improve wages and conditions for Mexican workers. The labor federation backs language proposed by Canada, which is critical of what it calls antiunion laws in several U.S. states.

And while there is some overlap on trade, Mr. Trump has been criticized at the AFL-CIO convention for policies outside the realm of trade, including taxes, health care and immigration.

Unions have traditionally allied with Democrats. That could make it difficult to bring union members around to support a trade deal negotiated by Mr. Trump, a Republican.

"This is not an administration that most working people say, 'I trust everything they do,' " said Celeste Drake, the AFL-CIO's trade and globalization policy specialist. If a new Nafta brought better conditions for workers, "you'll see unions support it," she said. "That's a big if -- a really, really big if."

The U.S. has shed more than four million manufacturing jobs since Nafta went into effect in 1994, according to Labor Department data. But that isn't all due to jobs moving to Mexico. Automation and jobs moving to lower-wage countries in Asia are also factors.

"Nafta has resulted in a huge trade deficit for the United States and has cost us tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs," Mr. Lighthizer said in a statement this month. "The agreement has become very lopsided and needs to be rebalanced."

Union officials here repeatedly pointed to Nafta as at least part of the cause for their thinned ranks. "Manufacturing jobs have been hollowed out and international trade deals are partially responsible," said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

Ohio has lost about 300,000 manufacturing jobs since 1994 -- but it also is one of the largest exporters among states of automotive and aerospace equipment. And many of those products are made by union workers.

"We've always been supportive of trade, but it has to be fair trade," Mr. Burga said. "Going into a bunker -- retreating from the world -- it's not an appropriate action to take."

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 25, 2017 09:26 ET (13:26 GMT)