With talks set to formally begin in a few weeks on a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, the possibility exists to finally fix some of the very serious problems with the deal.
This is the first such opportunity since the deal came into effect in 1994, and we are not likely to get another for many years.
It is imperative, then, that we get this right. The release of the Trump administration’s list of priorities for the talks raises many concerns about what the renegotiation could mean for workers – not only in Canada, but in the U.S. and Mexico, as well.
Despite his bold promises, Trump proposes little to help workers get a better deal.
Trump rode a wave of working class resentment to the White House last year by exploiting fears and bitterness about trade deals, and the devastating impact they’ve had on good jobs across the U.S., especially in manufacturing.
He callously played into every xenophobic obsession in the darker corners of his country to build his own brand as a defender of working people and good jobs. He promised to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he did, and to renegotiate or tear up NAFTA – calling both deals job killers.
The strategy worked. He tapped into a simmering unease about trade, whipped into a flame and won the election.
We need to be clear, however. Donald Trump is no working class hero, and his administration’s proposals for NAFTA make it clear that his election rhetoric was little more than bluster.
Trump’s corporatist agenda for the NAFTA talks would strengthen the power of big companies. There’s vague talk about moving labour and environmental provisions into the main deal, but no detail about what this means. There are similarly vague references to “stakeholder participation.”
There is no mention of killing Chapter 11, which gives corporations the right to sue governments if a law or regulations impedes their profits. Big US companies tend to win such suits, most often to the detriment of Canadians.
Also concerning, Trump has taken a page from the TPP he so publicly abandoned to target our supply management system, call for expanded patent rights that could drive up the price of medications Canadians pay, and to go after foreign ownership rules in telecommunications.
It’s as if he tore up the big and odious TPP, only to try replacing it with smaller, but equally objectionable version.
We cannot let that stand.
For decades, progressive groups including unions and non-governmental organizations have pointed out the many failings of NAFTA. That message has coalesced in the last few months into specific proposals from labour groups and others calling for an overhaul of NAFTA and a new way of thinking about trade deals that puts workers and the environment first.
These proposals must form the basis of the Canadian government’s agenda as it enters into these negotiations, set to begin August 16-20 in Washington.
Ottawa has said it wants to pursue a progressive trade agenda going forward. Doing that means such measures as strong and enforceable labour and environmental rules that actually raise standards, abolishing Chapter 11, an overhaul of the rules for auto trade across borders, no supply management changes, protection for cultural industries and no weakening of foreign ownership rules in telecommunications, keeping public services out of NAFTA and developing a fair and equitable model for governments to direct procurement contracts to domestic suppliers. We must also get rid of the current requirement that Canada send oil and gas to the U.S., even if there’s a shortage here.
By ensuring the rights of workers will be protected under NAFTA – such as by making any trade liberalization contingent on strict adherence to the labour provisions of the deal – any blunt instrument such as tariffs could be avoided.
Since NAFTA was implemented, and Canada has signed other free trade pacts, we’ve seen manufacturing trade fall from a surplus of $12 billion to a deficit of near $120 billion. It is clear that we need a new approach to trade, starting with NAFTA, one that advances the needs of workers and their communities.
Let’s not kid ourselves.
The anger at lost jobs and diminished opportunities for our young people is real and justified. The desire for change is strong, and progressive groups need to work together to ensure that leads to positive change – and not more of the same from the likes of Trump.