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Jan Lee headshot

Canada's NAFTA Upgrade Calls for Improved Worker Rights in U.S. and Mexico

By Jan Lee

The old maxim, "be careful what you wish for" may well apply to the Trump administration's experience with NAFTA these days. For months, the U.S. has been calling for a renegotiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement, saying that the terms of the three-party contract don't meet U.S. needs and require an update.

So-called right-to-work 

Well, President Trump is getting his wish. In August, Canada presented its top 10 list, which offer a laudable, and in some cases, hard-to-imagine wish list for the bargaining table. This month it added one more: Scrapping "right-to-work laws" in the U.S. and Mexico.

Canada says that labor standards need to be on the table, and that includes the U.S.' contentious "opt-out" laws when it comes to union membership. In some states, workers can opt-out of paying union dues, even though they benefit from union representation in negotiations and agreements. These laws are a sneaky way to erode worker rights by starving the unions financially.

And workers' rights and pay in Mexico should be on par with U.S. and Canada expectations, says Canada. Mexican workers hired by U.S. and Canadian companies under the current NAFTA agreement don't have to be paid the same rate or receive the same protection as those in the U.S. and Canada working for the same companies.

Some researchers draw a parallel between the emerging right-to-work laws of today and the labor standards that were eventually countered in the U.S. South (Jim Crow laws), where right-to-work laws helped to diminish access to jobs for African American and Jewish workers by giving more strength to the employer and fewer rights to the would-be worker.

But today, they are considered a legitimate right in states where right-to-work laws have been passed to give workers more choice over membership and access to jobs. They are also considered a threat to the union model, which survives on the idea of collective pay and representation.

Jerry Dias, who represents Canada's largest private-sector union, Unifor, said Canada is also calling for labor standards in Mexico to be a part of the discussions at the NAFTA table, including paid family leave provisions. Mexico is among a shrinking number of countries that don't provide paid leave options for workers due to medical and family needs.

According to Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Canada wants a "progressive" agreement with the U.S. and Mexico, which does more than stake out benefits. Its key issues include, but aren't limited to: improving environmental standards with recognition of climate change issues, better indigenous protections, gender rights, across-the-board labor standards (that are applied in Mexico as well), more cross-border access for professional people and the big bugaboo: an end to the "buy American" rule.

The U.S. of course has a long wish list as well. Toward the top is the desire to have access to Canada's lucrative and exclusive dairy market. For years, Canada has kept tight controls on it and its poultry sector, limiting U.S. access to free trade.

Auto manufacturing

The U.S. rules of origin for auto parts and auto manufacturing are another area that will likely drag out negotiations. Changes to rules that determine the percentage of free-trade auto content that can cross borders is a sticking point that the Trump administration wants addressed.

Mexico, which is often portrayed in the media an embattled target of the Trump administration, has its own wish list as well, which includes having its open-energy market as part of the NAFTA agreements. Under President Pena Nieto's guidance, Mexico's energy sector has been changing and is now accepting some private foreign investment. The country is seeking  "mechanisms that allow us to integrate ourselves in a positive way in the energy sector," explained Mexico's chief negotiator, Kenneth Smith Ramos, as those steps would help "reflect the reform Mexico established."

And Mexico's agricultural sector wants changes as well, with protections that assure that smaller fruit and vegetable growers aren't put out of business by large US- and Canada-owned companies and protections for its auto manufacturing industry.

It's a fair bet there will be a lot of give and take at the table in the coming months and that none of the participants will likely get all that it wants. Threats and counter-threats to walk away from negotiations have also made these NAFTA talks a more personal and publicized issue at home in each country.

Whether Canada truly expects the U.S. federal system to overwrite years of state laws in favor of right-to-work is doubtful, just as it is unlikely that the U.S. negotiators expect that the Canada would bend to a loosening of dairy import laws.

But in this day and age of contentious borders and trade boundaries, discussing a cross-border agreement that actually puts labor rights, corporate investment, gender rights, indigenous recognition, environmental protections, open energy expansion on the table is a major start. To that end, NAFTA 2017 may already have won some remarkable concessions.

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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