A NAFTA renegotiation game-changer, until the Trump administration squanders it



Josh Bivens

Washington, October 16, 2017 – Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as being a bad deal for working Americans. He promised that if he was elected, he would renegotiate NAFTA and secure a “much better deal for all Americans.”So it’s not surprising that earlier this week, the leader of a prosperous country engaged in NAFTA renegotiations demanded changes to increase workers’ leverage, provide a bulwark against downward wage pressure, and prevent his country’s manufacturing sector from being undercut by weak labor standards. But was this leader Donald Trump? Nope. It was Justin Trudeau of Canada.

Even more striking, the reported change that Trudeau’s government has requested to stem downward pressure on Canadian wages is one that beefs up American labor standards. Yes, the low-wage, low-standard country that Trudeau’s government is correctly concerned about as they renegotiate NAFTA is the United States.

The requested change is ambitious: Trudeau’s government wants an end to so-called “right to work” (RTW) laws in American states. This would clearly be good for American workers. In a nutshell, “right to work” laws have nothing to do with helping people find work—instead they simply ban contracts requiring that workers benefiting from labor union representation pay their fair share for this representation. This ban makes it extraordinarily difficult for workers to join together and form unions in RTW states. As a result, these states have substantially fewer union members and less collective bargaining. The economic evidence shows that RTW laws do not boost employment or economic growth, but do suppress wages.

Why does Canada care about laws in American states that suppress American wages? Most generally, in a global (or even regional) labor market, if your neighbors’ wages are being pulled down, you can be sure that yours will be soon. More specifically, Canada has a large automotive production sector, and auto producers often choose between the United States, Canada, and Mexico in regards to where to open new facilities. In recent years many of these facilities have been opened in RTW states in the American south. From the perspective of a profit-maximizing company looking to keep labor costs as low as possible, the wage suppression resulting from RTW laws may provide an inducement to open new factories in RTW U.S. states rather than Canada.

So Canada has a legitimate stake in requesting this change, and indeed just the request itself is extraordinarily useful. Besides being both ambitious and good for both Canadian and American workers, the Canadian request is clarifying about two vital issues: (1) the historical use of trade agreements to further rig the rules of the economy against workers (in all countries), and (2) Donald Trump’s commitment (or lack thereof) to un-rigging those rules.

Some casual observers of these policy debates might think that it’s odd that any country would ask for a change in a trading partner’s domestic labor law during negotiations about international trade. But NAFTA already does require each country to undertake a host of changes to domestic policies, in ways that tilt in the direction of increasing protection for corporations’ profits. For example, NAFTA extends more-stringent protection of intellectual property claims of software and pharmaceutical firms to all three countries. And NAFTA provides a private forum to entertain and adjudicate claims from private corporations that they should be compensated for government policy changes that harm their profits. So at the same time that NAFTA exposes workers in all three countries to fierce competition with each other in a common labor market, it provides greater protection for the incomes of owners and managers of multinational corporations. All in all, the rules of trade treaties are some of the most blatant rule-rigging that exists in economic policy.

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Economic Policy Institute

Josh Bivens is the Director of Research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). His areas of research include macroeconomics, fiscal and monetary policy, the economics of globalization, social insurance, and public investment. He frequently appears as an economics expert on news shows, including the Public Broadcasting Service’s “NewsHour,” the “Melissa Harris-Perry” show on MSNBC, WAMU’s “The Diane Rehm Show,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and programs of the BBC.

As a leading policy analyst, Bivens regularly testifies before the U.S. Congress on fiscal and monetary policy, the economic impact of regulations, and other issues.  He has also provided analyses for the annual meeting of Project LINK of the United Nations and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


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