Labor, environment shape USMCA debate
Thursday, June 13, 2019
U.S.-Mexico relations currently revolve around two distinct discourses.
One discourse emphasizes separation and punishment, as President Trump seeks support for his border wall while Mexico strengthens border control. The other discourse emphasizes economic cooperation and trade relations, which we witness as tariff threats fade and renewed talk of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) passing in Congress heats up.
Some would suggest that these combined discourses reflect the same old colonial relation between the United States and Mexico. This may be the case, but changing political standards, based on past mistakes and new awareness, could leave more wiggle room during renegotiated trade deals.
With a looming August recess deadline, Trump’s stated goal is a new continental trade agreement that presumably improves upon NAFTA, but doesn’t tackle any of the established criticisms of the trade agreement.
With threatened tariffs off the table for now, what are some of the sticking points likely to hold up bipartisan support for the new agreement, or even support from the Democratic-led House of Representatives?
You won’t be surprised that just as the Green New Deal is being debated along partisan lines, even splitting the Democratic Party into distinct factions, issues like strengthened labor and environmental standards, are holding up USMCA’s passage.
When USMCA was signed by leaders of all three represented countries late last November, there were controversial measures that still needed clarification. For one, higher minimum wages for Mexican laborers should be guaranteed, but labor leaders have expressed concern that current language or implementation plans aren’t strong enough.
Mexican wages were said to stagnate under earlier NAFTA. Also, the U.S. lost significant jobs in the auto sector, which infamously moved much of its operations across the border. This development compromised NAFTA’s reputation among U.S. workers and union leaders.
To be fair, USMCA carries notable auto labor provisions. Former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke writes, “To qualify for tariff-free treatment, the USMCA requires 40 to 45% of a vehicle’s parts to be manufactured by North American workers earning at least $16 an hour. This provision would help deter auto companies from shutting down U.S. and Canadian factories and outsourcing production to Mexico, where auto workers make just $3.14 an hour on average.”
Changing from $3.14 to $16/hour is a huge improvement that would alter some migration dynamics and job outsourcing: a few of Trump’s key concerns, right?
Even as stronger labor standards are encouraged, the issue remains enforcement. What mechanisms will be in place to ensure employers provide the wages and work conditions ratified by USMCA as improvements upon NAFTA’s own notorious labor troubles?
That will be part of congressional debate on the agreement.
While labor provisions might appease Trump’s Rust Belt voter outreach plans and meet union led improvements, environmental issues keep his administration squarely in the dark ages and beg for continued clarification.
Generally, trade agreements are not known for their ecological contributions. Instead, they are major climate change drivers that favor Big Oil and proverbial industrial standards. Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy writes, “Through legally-binding rules, these deals have favored high greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting and extractive industries, like energy and agriculture, over environmental protection. The Trump administration’s rebranded NAFTA… repeats past mistakes by ignoring climate change, disregarding the pact’s impact on GHG emissions and failing to consider how climate change will affect the three countries into the future.”
Imagine the complications here, as Canada and Mexico have signed the Paris Climate Agreement, while the U.S. predictably fails to support the Paris Agreement’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees.
How do three countries ratify a trade agreement that includes environmental regulations when they do not all agree to the same international environmental standards and carbon reduction goals? Is such an agreement scenario even possible?
Democrats are holding out for tougher labor and environmental standards in a renewed trade agreement that could, theoretically, be an improvement upon the old one. But the party is split on climate change, as evidenced by the fact that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wants to suppress the ongoing climate discussion, even forbidding an official climate-focused debate.
A range of factors impede progress, including Democratic party disagreements on climate change; U.S. isolation from the world community on climate; and the ongoing border war with Mexico that is a continued crisis until workers see improved conditions. Women and migrant workers in Mexico may receive additional protections as well.
Now that NAFTA can be relegated to history’s dustbin, it’s a good time to take stock of trade relations, employment conditions — including pro-unionization measures — and ongoing climate concerns.
Whether or not this “taking stock” will result in USMCA’s passage has yet to be decided.
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