On June 10, 2021, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) hosted Ambassador USTR Katherine Tai and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for a discussion of what a worker-centric trade policy would look like.
AFL-CIO Town Hall Featuring:
Richard L. Trumka, President AFL-CIO
Ambassador Katherine Tai, United States Trade Representative
Thank you President Trumka for that very kind introduction. You have been a fearless champion for working people throughout your life, and I am grateful for your leadership.
I also want to recognize AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler, another fierce advocate for workers, and the other union leaders and members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council who are here today in the room and via zoom.
Also, I want to thank the union members who have joined us as well. This speech is for you.
The past 15 months have been hard for all of us, but especially hard for frontline workers. Nearly 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, including union members who paid the ultimate price for showing up to work.
Ending the pandemic is President Biden’s top priority, and thanks to his leadership, we are making progress. The majority of American adults have received at least one shot, and we are pushing to get more Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible. The pandemic isn’t over for any of us until it’s over for all of us.
That’s why we will share 80 million vaccine doses with other countries by the end of this month and yesterday the United States announced it will purchase and donate 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses to help the rest of the world with its vaccination efforts. And in May, we declared our support for a waiver of intellectual property protections under the TRIPS Agreement for COVID-19 vaccines.
President Biden understands that our economy cannot fully recover until we defeat the virus, but there are signs of improvement. We are on track for the fastest economic growth in 40 years, and in our first five months, the Biden-Harris Administration oversaw the creation of a record two million jobs – that’s more than any other Administration, ever. Real wages are finally going up, the unemployment rate is coming down, and the number of initial weekly jobless claims has been cut in half.
But there is more to do.
Build Back Better starts by growing the economy from the bottom up and the middle out and putting workers at the center of our economic plans.
Workers and worker power are fundamental to those ideas, and that’s why the Protecting the Right to Organize Act – the PRO Act – needs to become law. We can’t rebuild an economy that works for everyone without empowering workers and giving them a voice to secure the better wages, benefits, and working conditions they deserve.
This is particularly true for workers of color, who have the dual burden of fighting for workers’ rights and for racial justice. They need the support of organized labor, and the Senate needs to send that bill to the President’s desk so he can sign it into law.
We also need to enact President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan to invest in our future.
The President has been clear that trade policy will play a critical role in carrying out his vision for an economy where, as he puts it, “everyone is cut in on the deal.” And that is why I’m here today: to talk about your important role in the Biden-Harris Administration’s pursuit of a worker-centered trade policy.
We know that trade is essential to a functioning global economy. It is clear, however, that the past promises made to workers on trade were not met. Certain sectors of the economy have done well. But far too many communities and workers were left behind. The consequences for families when factories closed and jobs were sent overseas were real. And they were real for the workers who lost their jobs to unfairly traded imports, too. This created a trust gap with the public about free trade.
This wasn’t because of trade agreements alone. Recent tax policy favored corporations over workers. Tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations never trickled down. President Biden knows this, which is why he wants them to pay their fair share.
In the United States, real wages have stagnated for decades, and the wealth gap – particularly between Black and white workers – has widened significantly. CEOs now make on average 320 times more than their employees. And the percent of workers in unions – a good indicator of higher wages and job stability – is half of what it was 40 years ago.
This inequality isn’t fair or sustainable. It didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a long pursuit of tax, trade, labor, and other policies that encouraged a race to the bottom.
President Biden is leading us on a new path. He wants an economic policy, including a trade policy, that delivers shared prosperity for all Americans, not just profits for corporations.
We want to make trade a force for good that encourages a race to the top.
The first step to achieving this goal is creating a more inclusive process. In order to understand how trade affects workers, we want to come meet with, listen to, and learn from them.
By bringing workers from all backgrounds and experiences to the table, we will create inclusive trade policy that advances economic security and racial and gender equity. We want to lift up women, communities of color, and rural America – people that have been systematically excluded or overlooked.
Last week I joined Senator Sherrod Brown and some of his constituents in Ohio for a virtual roundtable. We talked about their priorities and the changes we can make to trade policy that will help their businesses and towns. I hope to have many more conversations like this in the weeks and months to come.
Our goal is to improve worker representation in trade policy in the United States and in multilateral organizations. The WTO, for example, doesn’t adequately hear from workers, and we want to change that. We’ll keep asking for this in other international organizations, such as APEC and the OECD, too.
We know that when workers have a seat at the table in their workplace, wages go up, retirement benefits go up, workplaces are safer, and discrimination and harassment get addressed. We want trade to deliver the same results.
The USMCA agreement is a good example of what can happen when labor is at the table. It’s not perfect, but because we collaborated closely with President Trumka and many of the union leaders here today, we negotiated a better deal for American workers.
Because of our partnership, the USMCA now includes:
– The strongest labor and environmental standards in any agreement ever;
– A new rapid response mechanism that allows us to quickly take action at a specific factory where workers are being denied their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining; and
– Critical changes to the intellectual property provisions designed to increase access to affordable medicine for regular people.
Unlike previous trade agreements, USMCA passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support. It is proof that consulting – really listening and working with workers, the labor movement, and a broad range of stakeholders – leads to more pro-worker, more meaningful, and more popular policy.
Less than a year after USMCA went into effect, we’re already using its labor enforcement tools. Last month, we asked Mexico to investigate whether workers at a GM facility in Silao were denied their rights during a contract ratification.
This was the first time that the new rapid response tool was used by the U.S. government. It was also the first time in history that the United States proactively initiated labor enforcement in a trade agreement.
The AFL-CIO recently filed a Rapid Response petition alleging workers’ rights had been violated at an auto parts manufacturer. Yesterday, we asked Mexico to review the allegations – the second time we’ve taken this step in the last month.
Under previous agreements, labor petitions could – and did – languish for years without a response from the Administration. But we have acted quickly.
These enforcement actions matter. The Rapid Response Mechanism will help to protect the rights of workers, particularly those in low-wage industries who are vulnerable to exploitation. Because when we fight for workers overseas, we are fighting for workers here at home.
And we’ll do that across the board. Enforcing all of our trade rules is a priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. Those who work hard and play by the rules, you deserve to have the government on your side when faced with illegal and unfair trade practices.
We must apply the same principles at the WTO. Despite a preamble that says “trade…should be done with a commitment to raising living standards and ensuring full employment,” the WTO’s rules actually don’t include any labor standards, and workers are often an afterthought. This needs to change.
The United States recently submitted a proposal to ensure that fighting forced labor is included in any agreement the WTO reaches to prohibit harmful fisheries subsidies. We know that forced labor is a serious problem in the fisheries sector, particularly on distant water fishing vessels. I hope WTO Members will commit to a high-standards, meaningful agreement that includes our common-sense provision and that will contribute to tackling this problem.
This is not just an economic issue. This is a moral imperative, and I ask all of you to help us to build support for our effort. The WTO must show in these negotiations that it can improve the lives of regular people and that it is capable of responding to crises and tackling difficult matters, particularly when it comes to worker abuse.
If the WTO is to be relevant and a force for good, it must be revitalized and modernized. We must take bold steps to fix its negotiating function, commit to greater transparency, and reform the dispute settlement process.
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, we will bring dignity of work – and the empowerment of workers – to the WTO.
I am excited to work with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new Director General. With her leadership, and if WTO Members choose to meet this moment, the commitments of that preamble may finally come true.
Whether we’re negotiating issues at the WTO, or in other settings, we will be more successful if we partner with our allies.
The President promised that he would focus on rebuilding the American economy and the American middle class before he enters into any new trade deals, and that’s exactly what he is doing. But he also knows that the world won’t wait.
That’s why we will also reengage with our friends, trading partners, and multilateral institutions to promote democracy, labor rights, and economic security. We know in the past other goals – including important national security and foreign policy concerns – have sometimes drowned out workers’ voices in trade discussions and weakened our focus on serving American workers’ best interests.
This time we’re putting foreign policy and trade to work for the middle class. That means working with allies on a shared agenda that will lift up workers, increase economic security, and strengthen democracy around the world.
And we’re already seeing results. We are close to an agreement on a global minimum tax, thanks to recent progress with G7 and G20 partners. And just last month, the G7 Trade Ministers made a historic commitment to work together to protect individuals from forced labor, including mitigating the risks of forced labor in global supply chains.
We’re also working with allies to make our supply chains less vulnerable and more resilient. We need to diversify our international suppliers and reduce geographic concentration risk. For too long, the United States has taken certain features of global markets as inevitable – especially the fear that companies and capital will flee to wherever wages, taxes and regulations are lowest. The pandemic laid bare the challenge of this approach. And we need to fix it.
And crucially, by working with allied democracies on trade enforcement, we will more effectively respond to the policies of autocratic, non-market economies that hurt our ability to compete. We will increase our leverage so that we can achieve more for American workers. That’s why I am leading a Trade Task Force as part of the President’s Supply Chain Resilience effort: to propose unilateral and multilateral enforcement actions against unfair foreign trade practices that have eroded critical supply chains.
Next week, I will join the President on his trip to Brussels and meet with my European counterparts. We’ll participate in intense negotiations to resolve the 16-year old Boeing/Airbus disputes and to find a path forward on products like steel and aluminum. These talks will give us a chance, first and foremost, to champion the rights and interests of our workers in those industries, while also creating new standards to combat the harmful industrial policies of China and other countries that undermine our ability to compete.
From my conversations so far, I am optimistic that we will be successful.
Finally, a worker-centered trade policy means addressing the damage that U.S. workers and industries have sustained from competing with trading partners that do not allow workers to exercise their internationally recognized labor rights.
This includes standing up against worker abuse and promoting and supporting those rights that move us toward dignified work and shared prosperity: the right to organize and to collectively bargain. USTR will utilize the full range of trade tools and work with our allies to protect labor rights, including the elimination of forced labor and the worst forms of child labor, especially forced child labor. We must also achieve greater accountability from those in the business community that profit from this exploitation.
We will be more effective if our trading partners also commit to promoting, protecting, and enforcing internationally recognized workers’ rights as part of their trade policies. And we will lead the way on this issue as a core American value.
Together with our allies, we must create high-standard trade agreements that empower workers and prevent other countries from violating labor rights to gain an unfair advantage in the global market. And we must aggressively enforce them.
We know we can’t do this work alone. In addition to bringing workers to the table and partnering with our allies, we need to consult closely with the business community.
American companies have the know-how and expertise that we will need to identify market access opportunities, respond to unfair trade practices, and build strategic and resilient supply chains, all at the same time.
We want to partner with U.S. companies to send products stamped with Made in America to all corners of the world and to invest in American workers and communities. This is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s pledge to Build Back Better.
A worker-centered trade policy seeks to expand opportunities for businesses by expanding economic security for workers here at home. I hope American companies of all sizes will join us in this effort. We need their ideas, experience, energy, and partnership.
At the beginning, I said this speech was for the workers who took the time out of their busy day to listen in.
You are the sweat, the muscle, and the brains behind American ingenuity, perseverance, and competitiveness. You are the backbone of our economy and our democracy. You are the guiding light of trade policy for the Biden-Harris Administration.
When I go to Europe next week, it will be to encourage other allied democracies to pursue a worker-centered trade policy, too.
To work with us to set a high standard alternative to state-directed economies that do not promote the rights of workers and to combat forced labor, the worst illustration of the race to the bottom.
I’ll be asking them to join me in making global trade policy a force for good that raises wages and increases economic security.
The more we invest in our workers at home and abroad, the stronger democracy will be worldwide. And by partnering with our allied democracies, we will more effectively respond to the threats of autocratic, non-market countries whose policies undercut our workers.
We’ve shown in our first few months – through USMCA enforcement, our WTO forced labor proposal, and many other actions – that we can craft a worker-centered trade policy if we partner with you.
It is still early days, and we have far more to do. But I have confidence that we will build off of these early efforts. By working together, we will achieve a trade policy that prioritizes the dignity of work and workers, that promotes shared prosperity and racially inclusive, equitable economic growth here at home and abroad.
Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold elected officials and employers accountable to working families.
Ambassador Katherine Tai was sworn in as the 19th United States Trade Representative on March 18, 2021. As a member of the President’s Cabinet, Ambassador Tai is the principal trade advisor, negotiator, and spokesperson on U.S. trade policy.
Prior to her unanimous Senate confirmation, Ambassador Tai spent most of her career in public service focusing on international economic diplomacy, monitoring, and enforcement. She previously served as Chief Trade Counsel and Trade Subcommittee Staff Director for the House Ways and Means Committee in the United States Congress. In this capacity, Ambassador Tai played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. trade law, negotiations strategies, and bilateral and multilateral agreements, including the recently re-negotiated United-States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Ambassador Tai is an experienced World Trade Organization (WTO) litigator. She previously developed and tried cases for the Office of the United States Trade Representative, eventually becoming the Chief Counsel for China Trade Enforcement. Before transitioning to federal service, she practiced law in the private sector, clerked for district judges, and taught English in Guangzhou, China.
Ambassador Tai earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Yale University and a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School. She is fluent in Mandarin.
To watch the full town hall from the AFL-CIO, please click here.
To read the full remarks from USTR Ambassador Tai, please click here.