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Story highlights

Elizabeth Warren: Even Canada can see that "right to work" laws in the US undercut American workers

NAFTA renegotiations need to add a repeal to the provision that allows states to enact them at the expense of workers' wages, health care and pensions, she writes

Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is the senior senator from Massachusetts. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump, a loud and persistent critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), recently began renegotiating this trade deal with Canada and Mexico. The President promised to secure a fair deal for American workers. That sounds great. After all, we don’t think Americans should be forced to compete with poorly paid workers from Mexico or elsewhere, and we can demand that companies that want to trade with us lift wages, benefits, and health and safety standards for their foreign workers.

So it probably came as a shock that one of Canada’s main goals in this renegotiation is to get the United States to treat our own workers better. Canada doesn’t want its workers competing with poorly-treated laborers – including workers in the United States. And they have a specific target in mind.

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren
PHOTO: U.S. Senate

According to Canada’s major newspaper The Globe and Mail, Canadian negotiators are urging the United States to roll back so-called state “right to work” laws that undercut worker power in the US. I’m glad we’re renegotiating NAFTA because it has been a raw deal for American workers. But the Canadians are giving America a wake-up call. As negotiations continue, the United States should take a close look at how our own broken labor policies are hurting American workers – and fix them.

The Canadians focused on so-called “right-to-work” laws, the state regulations that make union dues optional even when unions bargain and represent all the workers. These state laws are a powerful weapon in the war against working people. Twenty-eight states have passed these laws, whose main purpose is to make it harder for workers to have the resources they need to stand up for themselves. Because of these laws starving unions of resources, union leaders face an uphill battle when they try to help workers join together to advocate for higher wages and benefits. And the completely predictable consequences for workers in these states have been devastating.

Strong unions lift wages for all workers – even those workers who aren’t union members. Union membership is sharply lower in “right-to-work” states – after all, that was the whole point of these laws. And the impact is clear: In “right-to-work” states, wages are lower and employees are less likely to have access to employer-provided health care and pensions – and that’s true for union and nonunion employees.

The decline in unionization over the last 30 years has hollowed out America’s middle class. For the more than 40 million nonunion people in America’s private workforce, the lost wages add up to about $109 billion every year.

Unemployment has declined and corporate profits have gone up, but workers don’t have the kind of bargaining power that unions once created.

Instead of strengthening the rights of working people, the Trump administration has pushed in the opposite direction. Since taking office, President Trump has signed several laws that directly undermine the wages, benefits, health and safety of American workers. The President and the Republican Congress have rolled back rules designed to make sure federal contractors don’t cheat their workers out of hard-earned wages. They’ve delayed safety standards that keep workers from being exposed to lethal carcinogenic materials. They’ve given shady financial advisers a few extra months to cheat hardworking Americans out of billions in retirement savings. The list goes on.

The assault on America’s workers didn’t start with President Trump. For decades, armies of lawyers and lobbyists who represent a handful of giant corporations have pressed our federal and state governments to pursue policies that maximize corporate profits at the expense of the health, safety, and financial security of their workers. Over time, those laws have taken their toll. And now, instead of looking to America for the example of workers who enjoy the best pay, best benefits, and best working conditions in the world, our trading partners are complaining about working conditions in America that are falling below their own standards.

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A nation that cares about its workers shouldn’t need foreign negotiators to sound the alarm. It’s a national embarrassment – and it should spur us to action.

That’s why earlier last week I introduced a bill repealing the provision in the National Labor Relations Act that allows states to implement “right-to-work” laws. Giant companies that have become accustomed to squeezing every last dime of profit out of their workers in “right-to-work” states will fight any effort to improve workers’ rights. But let’s be clear: we don’t allow these corporations to exploit their workers when we negotiate trade deals with countries like Colombia or Panama. As we renegotiate NAFTA, we shouldn’t allow them to exploit workers in Canada and Mexico, either. And above all, we must not let them exploit our own workers here at home.